“How Genocides End” (1)
This is the first of three postings on the topic “˜How Genocides End,’ a topic which has interested me for ten years. This first posting explains my personal interest in the subject, sparked by work in the Nuba Mountains in 1995. The next posting will raise general issues and the third will focus upon Darfur.
My interest in the war in the Nuba Mountains dates back to my first human rights assignments in Sudan in 1988 and 1989, and especially my concern””having just come from living in Darfur””that the conflicts in the marginalized areas of northern Sudan should not be overlooked with the focus of international interest in the South. In 1991, my colleague at Africa Watch, Rakiya Omaar suggested that the newly-coined term “˜ethnic cleansing’ could be applied to some conflicts in Africa, and I wrote a report on the Nuba Mountains using the term. It was based entirely on secondary sources and a couple of interviews. A year later I wrote a second report, based mostly on details obtained from letters received by Nuba exiles, especially Suleiman Rahhal, and reports from the residents of towns in northern Kordofan who had truckloads of starving and naked Nuba dumped on their doorstep””and who were then prevented from bringing food, water and shelter to these desperate people by young militant cadres of the ruling party.
On leaving Africa Watch in December 1992, I promised my Nuba friends not to forget their plight. Having set up African Rights that same month, I asked Yoanes Ajawin to join us and we began work on an operation that would take us to the Nuba Mountains, supporting Nuba relief and advocacy organizations as well as documenting the abuses. We knew we would have to fly from the South, and thought that we probably would have just one shot at it, as the government would then close air access. Resolved to make it the best possible shot, I asked Julie Flint if she could persuade the BBC to make a documentary film (she succeeded). After 18 months of very careful preparation we flew in March 1995, for a month’s research and film-making.
It was an astonishing trip. No outsiders had been to the heart of the Nuba Mountains and gathered such information since the war began ten years earlier. We documented the 1992 jihad campaign which involved an effort to forcibly relocate the entire Nuba population outside the mountains, and months of day and night military offensives, one of the largest onslaughts of the war. We documented ongoing military operations that burned villages and killed men and boys, the abduction and rape of women and girls, and the dire situation of hunger and disease. We documented the burning of mosques and churches by government forces. (Part of the legitimation of the jihad was the claim that Nuba who had joined the rebellion were apostates.)
Fired by rage, I wrote a 300 page report in thirty days, so that it could be published the same weekend that Julie’s film, Sudan’s Secret War, was screened by the BBC.
This was a success. We caught the government entirely by surprise. The combination of film footage and documentary evidence was compelling. Fearing that we had just a short window before our airbridge was closed, we flew in a second mission that included Roger Winter, then with the US Committee for Refugees””an investment that paid off some years later when Roger, in his new role at USAID in 2001, pressed for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains as one of the U.S. government’s four tests for Khartoum’s seriousness in wanting to seek peace. Our fears about ongoing access did not materialize: the airstrips we cleared and the radio contact we established led to an ongoing humanitarian airbridge that brought the first relief to the SPLA-held areas. (It was something of a mixed blessing in that some of the NGOs were militant Christians who introduced religious divisiveness to the otherwise very harmonious inter-faith relations in the SPLA-held areas.) Our report of widespread rape was denied by the government””but our human rights monitors reported that it had a rapid effect in reducing sexual violence by government soldiers. By intercepting radio communications we set up an effective early-warning system for army operations, which allowed villagers to evacuate ahead of government columns, and while it didn’t stop the burning, did hugely reduce the level of fatalities. We were proud of this achievement.
I called the 1995 report Facing Genocide. I was ambivalent about using the term, barely a year after the Rwanda genocide, which Rakiya Omaar, with my assistance, had also documented in great detail and with some rapidity, less than a year earlier. Clearly it wasn’t comparable. But the 1992 jihad campaign did seem to fit the terms of the Genocide Convention, and it did appear that if the war of attrition continued indefinitely then Nuba society with its unique culture would be consigned to oblivion. The title also implied facing down genocide””referring to the resilience of the Nuba in fighting off government assaults and the extraordinary spirit of cultural renaissance nurtured by the Nuba leader, Yousif Kuwa Mekki. Before joining the SPLA, Yousif Kuwa had been a schoolteacher and cultural activist, and he was devoted to fostering Nuba music, dancing and body-art, as well as a religious tolerance that extended to traditional shamans and rainmakers.
However terrible the situation in the Nuba Mountains in 1995, it was clear to us that the worst had passed. The low-level counterinsurgency we observed was a minor affair compared to the onslaught of 1992. I interviewed Alternate Commander Mohamed Juma Nayel, who had commanded a force of 970 SPLA fighters in Jebel Tullishi, who fought day and night to repulse three months of continuous attacks on the mountain. Hiding in caves, his fighters were awoken by the shouts of “˜Allahu Akbar’ as the mujahidiin prepared to storm his stronghold (they were grateful for the warnings). Often government helicopters would drop flares so the attackers could fight at night. Meanwhile well over 150,000 civilians were rounded up and trucked to “˜peace camps’ on the fringes of the mountains or outside it. Then in the middle of the year, the government declared victory and withdrew. It abandoned the relocation policy.
In short: we had come too late to stop the genocide that we had feared. It had been halted three years earlier. The question that plagued me was, how?
Over the next few years I often inquired into this subject. And clearly there were comparable experiences elsewhere””certain military campaigns in Ethiopia and Somalia sprang to mind. I asked Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum if she could canvass some expert opinion on the topic, and we scheduled a seminar for January 2004 under the title “˜Stepping Back from the Brink.’ (Some of the papers were later published online at an SSRC webforum.)
I wrote up the Nuba study for the seminar (the online version is slightly revised, to make references to Darfur). I found two main reasons for the ending of the jihad campaign. One was Nuba armed resistance, notably the astonishing resistance by Mohamed Juma’s force in Tullishi Mountain. The second was that the government couldn’t agree on the policy. Some of the civilian ideologues in the NIF were determined on a total social transformation of the Nuba, including relocation and conversion to Islam. But others, including most of the soldiers (with important exceptions), had the more modest aim of defeating the SPLA insurrection. Even while the military campaign was ongoing and the relocation effort was at its height, the two sides were manoevering against each other. The military pragmatists beat the ideologues. Hassan al Turabi, leader of the radicals, shrewdly decided to absent himself at the height of the debate by traveling to Britain and Canada (where he was incapacitated for some months after being floored by a Sudanese karate expert, Hashim Badr el Din).
A third, lesser reason, was that the citizens of northern Kordofan were so outraged at what they learned that they protested. They didn’t organize public protests or write to the newspapers (both of which were impossible) but passed their expressions of dismay through family and social networks, where they reached the top.
International outrage and pressure played no part because there was none. A demarche by the U.S. embassy and a complaint by Jan Eliasson, then UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, were honorable exceptions which hardly perturbed Khartoum.
The genocidal campaign against the Nuba did not have an ideal ending. There was no peace, no justice, no relief and no democracy. The war, hunger and abuses continued. But it was an ending of sorts: the threat to the existence of the Nuba community passed, and any genocidal intent among the regime’s ideologues either passed or became irrelevant. There was of course no guarantee that this was anything more than a respite. While the activist is entitled to assume the worst, the scholar of violence must become skilled in making such distinctions, however disagreeable the exercise.