Revisiting the Nuba Mountains
After working on Darfur since 2002, it was sobering to revisit the Nuba Mountains in April. My last visit, for the arba’iin of Commander Yousif Kuwa in May 2001, was cut short when eight government columns attacked the village where the mourning ceremony was being held. Yousif Kuwa’s successor, Abdel Aziz al Hilu, succeeded in organizing the SPLA forces to hold off the government attacks. Eight months later, American interest in Sudan helped broker a ceasefire in the mountains, negotiated in the Swiss resort of Burgenstock in January 2002. But that commitment didn’t seem to go beyond delivering food aid and making the Nuba truce a test case for Khartoum’s commitment to a peace process. The Nuba were marginalized in the Naivasha talks and only earned a separate and weak protocol in the CPA three years later.
The Burgenstock ceasefire has held. But six years of peace have brought the Nuba virtually no development. There are still no roads, few schools or medical services. (The first friend I met from the old days lost two children last year; the second had buried his youngest on the morning I arrived.) Under the CPA, the governorship rotates between SPLM and NCP, and last year the NCP’s Omar Suleiman took over from the SPLM’s Ismail Khamis Jallab. But Suleiman played a key role in the jihad against the Nuba and for this and other reasons relations between the state government in Kadugli and people in the former SPLA-controlled areas are deteriorating steadily. Most recently, the withdrawal from the mountains of the SPLA’s “˜mother force’ to South Sudan, in line with the CPA’s redeployment provisions, has revived Nuba resentment over the CPA, increased feelings of insecurity and neglect, and deepened concern over evidence that regime hardliners are mobilizing ethnic militias in advance of elections scheduled for 2009.
Few believe the current peace is sustainable. “˜There is nothing from the CPA,’ one of the most senior Nuba commanders told me, “˜Not one borehole from the government. The only solution is elections. But the government wants to destroy the elections. There is a government policy to destroy the Nuba because no-one is talking about the Nuba.’
For me, that was a chilling reminder of what happened last time the Nuba were forgotten.
Every war has its defining moment””something that makes it unique, and fixes it in the heart in a way that no body count or cliché can. My Nuba Mountains moment came before I ever went there, in a dimly-lit hotel bar in Nairobi in 1992. A US aid official just back from the region was describing the night she had spent in one of the Sudan government’s “˜peace camps’. Hearing Nuba women driven out of the mountains singing about how they longed to go home was, she said, the saddest thing she had heard in her life.
Amidst Sudan’s decades of wars, the attack on the Nuba stands alone. The aim was not just to defeat the Nuba rebels, who took up arms alongside the SPLA following government attacks on Nuba villages suspected of having joined the uprising in the South. It was to clear the mountains of Nuba people””and then, in the words of the security chief in the mountains, Khaled Abdel Karim Saleh, “˜to eliminate the Nuba identity’.
I tracked Khaled down in 1995 while filming Sudan’s Secret War for the BBC. He had defected from the government and been given asylum in Switzerland but, jumpy and often tearful, said he was still tormented by what he had seen as a result of the government order “˜to kill anything that is alive… to destroy everything, to burn the area, so that nothing can exist there.’ The Nuba “˜peace camps’ he described were open-air prisons accessible only to hard-line Islamist agencies. Anyone attempting to leave was shot. It was government “˜policy’, Khaled said, to separate men and women to prevent them “˜marrying’. Only Arabs were allowed to’ marry’ Nuba””we would call it rape”””˜to eliminate the Nuba identity’.
The war against the Nuba was the clearest, perhaps the only, case of the Sudan government systematically trying to destroy entire communities. It failed. Nuba tenacity was stronger than government firepower, even at the height of the war in 1992 when Nuba fighters were eating their shoes and defending their mountain strongholds with stones. The failure became irreversible in 1995 when a handful of activists working with minimal resources established a secret humanitarian airbridge and exposed the genocidal nature of the jihad in the mountains, contrasting it with the extraordinary democracy and tolerance of the Nuba under fire.
Khartoum’s jihad against the Nuba was facilitated by the government’s success in silencing all news from the region. The mountains are geographically within northern Sudan, physically closer to the heart of the Islamist regime than the war in the South, and the government feared the rebellion would set an example for other northerners. So it sealed off the entire province, expelled foreigners, declared a scorched-earth war and began a campaign of forcible relocations. The Nuba faced annihilation alone.
To publicize the catastrophe, Yousif Kuwa, the teacher and cultural activist who led the Nuba SPLA, came to Europe in 1993. Kuwa dreamed of international pressure to stop the war, solar power for generators and dams to store rainwater; he thought he might get, at the very least, medicines for children. He was disappointed on both counts. European governments offered words of encouragement, but no help. “˜We are like a drowning man,’ he said, “˜and they are standing on the bank shouting encouragement.’
Two years later, in March 1995, Alex and I accompanied Kuwa back to the Nuba Mountains. Just getting there was a huge endeavor: Khartoum’s radio codes had to be broken to help us avoid its warplanes; an airstrip (of sorts) built; a plane of our own found with a pilot willing to run the blockade; and human rights monitors trained to sustain the impact of our advocacy. On arrival, it was immediately obvious that the Nuba were not the “˜human shields’ Khartoum claimed they were. At every village, every water hole, every farm, we were surrounded by villagers who danced ecstatically around Kuwa. He danced right back, beaming. What we discovered in the next few weeks was remarkable: a rudimentary representative democracy in which civilians outnumbered soldiers, with the decision on war or surrender put to a vote (the Nuba voted to resist); a religious tolerance conference that had sanctioned marriage between Moslems and Christians; a genuine concern for human rights. And no fear of the Nuba rebels””who, despite the number and diversity of their tribes, were united behind a clear vision.
Thirteen years later, the Nuba are again in danger of drowning. This time, however, no-one is standing on the bank””far less shouting. The Nuba have been betrayed: by their own leaders, including in the now-divided Nuba SPLA, and by ours.
The first betrayal was the CPA. Kuwa died of bone cancer in 2001 and when the peace negotiations between the SPLA and the government began in earnest a year later, the Nuba were not on the agenda at all. It was hard to escape the feeling that the international community regarded them as an inconvenience in the effort to settle what was regarded as a north-south war. The Nuba’s late and half-hearted protocol ruled out self-determination and provided only an ill-defined “˜popular consultation’ on whether South Kordofan State should have special autonomous status within the North. The second betrayal began right after the CPA when the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) replaced the Joint Military Commission (JMC), a small ad hoc group set up to monitor the 2002 ceasefire.
Under its energetic head, Brigadier Jan-Erik Wilhemson, the JMC oversaw three years of steadily improving security in the Nuba Mountains. Its few score unarmed monitors were pro-active, visible and highly committed. They patrolled, disarmed and promoted dialogue between farmers and Arab pastoralists returning to the mountains after the horrors of the war years. During the handover ceremony to UNMIS, the UN’s special representative, Jan Pronk, pledged that UNMIS would protect the legacy of the JMC. “˜That’s what the people in Nuba Mountains expect and that’s what we promise to deliver,’ he said. It is impossible to exaggerate how hollow those words sound today. Thousands of SPLA troops have moved to the South, as the CPA demands. But government troops and armed police are moving into””not out of””the mountains. The militia has been reorganized on an ethnic basis and expanded to include Arab nomadic groups. The new Joint Integrated Units meant to provide security in the mountains are neither joint nor integrated, and will turn their guns on each other if war erupts (as they did in Abyei). UN observers on the ground are under-resourced, unsupported by their leadership locally, frustrated and pessimistic.
“˜Civilians tell us everything,’ said one officer. “˜We document it. Nothing happens.’
As the CPA falters””most dramatically, in April, in Abyei to the west of the mountains””security in the Nuba region is deteriorating. When I was there, there was a growing consensus not only that peace would not last””but that the coming war would be ethnic war. The ICC’s attempt to indict President Bashir has opened a Pandora’s box of uncertainties in Sudan. In May, many Nuba believed the government was seeking conflict in order to avoid elections. “˜They want to provoke us to go back to war again,’ an SPLA monitor with UNMIS said. “˜But we will not do this because we know their plan. The international community will do what is right. We are waiting for the international community like people who are waiting for God.’
That at least will not have changed.