The forgotten people of the Nuba Mountains

By Sam Bright

An old woman lives in a cave to escape the Antonovs that regularly drop their deadly payload over her village. She knows that she shares the cave with any number of lethally poisonous snakes. Between a bomb and a serpent: she’s made her choice. Perhaps to escape the fate of one of her neighbours, an 11 year old boy who took shelter behind a tree when he heard the approaching drone of the aircraft. He lost both arms.

Welcome to the Nuba Mountains. The inhabitants of this region, bordering Sudan and the newly independent state of South Sudan, can trace their culture and their way of life back many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, with links to the historic Nubian civilisations that once stretched all the way to Egypt. Having survived for so long, this existence may have finally reached a deadly conclusion.

For a good 20 years, the various conflicts in Sudan have featured in our Western headlines. Two conflicts in particular have at times been at the centre of international intrigue. Perhaps most infamous is the apparent genocide in Darfur, where the UNDP claims (conservatively) that ‘more than 200,000 are estimated to have died and at least 2 million people have been displaced from their homes – almost one third of the 6 million strong population of Darfur before the conflict’. It was due to his supervision of the crimes committed in this arid region, roughly the size of Spain, that President Omar al Bashir was made subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court in 2009.

The other, longer-running conflict to have merited global attention was the civil war between the North and South. To quote once more the UNDP, ‘as a result of the 22 years of civil war an estimated 2 million people have died and 4 million others been displaced’. It is this conflict that was meant to be resolved by the signing, in 2005, of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by the rebel SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) and the Khartoum government. In line with the CPA, South Sudan was permitted to vote for independence in 2011, becoming an independent state on 9 July 2011.

President Kiir of South Sudan

However, the peace established by that agreement is far from comprehensive. A number of increasingly volatile flashpoints remain. First among these is the oil-rich region of Heiglig. Situated in disputed territory between the two states, it has been used as a military base by Khartoum for its continuing skirmishes with Southern forces – and according to many observers, as the staging post for repeated attacks on Southern settlements. President Kiir, based in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, recently ordered his forces to enter Heiglig to prevent further such attacks. The North expelled the Southern troops, and has retaliated with numerous raids on towns across the border, seemingly indiscriminate in its willingness to target civilians. The international press generally portrays these actions as ‘tit for tat’ retaliation: the South invaded Heiglig, which is claimed by the North; in response to this supposed act of aggression, the North launched a counter-attack in self-defence. Both sides, it is said, need to control themselves and respect the de facto border, drawn to the South of Heiglig.

Yet Baroness Cox, CEO of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust – a quite extraordinary organisation, that has for many years now been organising and supporting the delivery of aid to regions such as the Nuba Mountains, from where all international aid agencies are banned – argues that the portrayal of these acts as exhibiting ‘moral equivalence’ is both misguided and dangerous. It is misguided in that the North harbours openly racist, genocidal ambitions. President Al Bashir has repeatedly expressed his desire to create a homogeneously Arab and Islamic state of Sudan – and to this end, has expelled innumerable black Africans, christians, and animists to the South. It is dangerous, in that this presentation draws the sting from international criticism and lends legitimacy to Khartoum’s false claims that it is acting in self-defence.

Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan

After Darfur, the clearest presentation of Al Bashir’s genocidal intent can be found in the Nuba Mountains. Their inhabitants demonstrate a somewhat improbable religious tolerance. Christians, Muslims and animists have lived side by side with very little tension and a great degree of unity: as an example, they were united in their opposition to the attempted imposition of Sharia’a law by Khartoum. But now, their spirits and livelihoods are being systematically broken.

The Popular Defence Force, a state militia, has been armed and equipped by the North and apparently tasked with the destruction of the peoples of the Nuba Mountains. Supported by Sudanese aircraft, dropping bombs from converted Antonov cargo planes up to twice a day on villages clearly without the means to defend themselves, they have so far caused 250,000 to flee to the South. Up to half a million might be living in caves, braving the snakes to escape death from the sky.

The exact rationale behind this genocidal campaign is disputed, even by those living in the area. Some believe it is an attempt to grab land for investors, others that it is pure (if confused) ethnic or religious hatred. Either way, the effect is lethal. The continuous attacks have been stepped up during the seeding season when farmers need to be out on their land. The result: starvation. It is predicted that only 15% of the region’s normal agricultural production will be brought in this year. With the North prohibiting access to aid agencies, the only possible conclusion to this madness is the steady eradication of an entire population.

The Nuba Mountains are only one example of Khartoum’s despicable behaviour. Similar events, albeit on a lesser scale (so far), can be seen in the East, amongst the animist Beja people. The conflict in Darfur has never really gone away. Also, near the southern border, the Blue Nile state is experiencing similar atrocities to those in the Nuba Mountains.

And where in all this, you may ask, is the international community? The answer, unfortunately, is nowhere. The UK, the former colonial power which bears much responsibility for the present situation through its divide and rule tactics, was quick to congratulate the South’s independence, but equally quick to see this as a job done. The job, indeed, is not done – and reprehensibly, the UK is refusing to throw its support behind the fledgling South. Indeed, it appears bizarrely to be supporting the North.

In response to the South’s ceasing oil production after a dispute over revenue-sharing with Khartoum, DfID announced it would hold back on funding education for girls while Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for International Development, pressed the US and Norway (the other two states most heavily involved) to curtail development aid to the South until the oil flows again.

Such a position is unjustifiable. Similarly distasteful is the position of major NGOs, which have accepted an inability to get aid to locations such as the Nuba Mountains as the price to be paid for operating elsewhere in Sudan. This is, sadly, a tacit acceptance of genocide, and is entirely unacceptable.

The international community must wake up to its responsibilities. It cannot allow so many people to continue suffering at the hands of such a horrific regime. At the risk of saying something controversial: if these hundreds of thousands of victims of genocide were white Europeans, would we be sitting by as idly as we are now? I would guess not.

The solution is evidently far from simple. Iraq-style regime change is probably a bad idea. But a much stronger approach must be taken. Dr Mukesh Kapila, former head of the UN mission in Sudan, has proposed that Sudanese exiles in the West launch class action cases against the UK (amongst others) for the breach of their international treaty obligations. Baroness Cox has encouraged the imposition of far greater sanctions on those officials from Khartoum who like to do their shopping in Harrods. Other possibilities, such as pursuing members of the regime via Western courts using international criminal law’s ‘universal jurisdiction’ procedure and thereby obtaining arrest warrants, present themselves. There should be support for indigenous aid agencies, which are not banned in Sudan and which, from bases in Kenya and the South, continue to try to reach the victims in the Nuba Mountains.

As Baroness Cox recently stated in the House of Lords: “It grieves me beyond words that for two decades I’ve been challenging the British government, who say that they are talking to Khartoum, but that two decades later we’re still talking whilst Sudan continues killing its own peoples”. The time for patience has long since run its course.

–  For more on the need for moral clarity and the dangers of moral equivalence, please see this article by the Director of Waging Peace UK

–  For more on the Yida refugee camp, please see this piece by Andrew Harding, the BBC’s Africa correspondent


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