War clouds gather in South Kordofan

High in the Nuba mountain region of central Sudan a few months ago, an old Nuba woman who experienced the jihad of the 1990s declared by the Khartoum government explained to me why she believed a return to war was inevitable, and most probably necessary, no matter how high the price.

Almost a decade after a ceasefire ended the last Nuba war, there was no hospital, no medicines, no nurse or doctor in the formerly rebel-controlled mountain range where we met. Teachers still had no salaries. Boreholes were broken. Government-supported militias were re-organizing, hiding light artillery in the forests.

“I am not comfortable,” the old woman said. “I am just the way I was before” – before the 2002 cease-fire in the Nuba mountains, the precursor of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the wider North-South civil war. “If I don’t get my rights, there’s the old language: a return to arms. We didn’t fight all those years for just a few roads.”

The Nuba people of South Kordofan state, black Africans long regarded as “primitive” second-class citizens by Sudan’s northern elites, live on the southern edge of the country’s Arabized north. Many fought alongside the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in the North-South civil war. They did so in the hope that the “New Sudan” promised by the SPLA would end their marginalization and win space and respect for indigenous Nuba languages, religious observances and culture – most spectacularly, the wrestling and body art immortalized in the photographs of Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger.

The Nuba rebellion was not a footnote to the North-South war, a sideshow that had little significance in the bigger scheme of things. It was a civil war in its own right, and a horrific one. Today the failure of the international community to understand that the Nuba conflict has powerful dynamics of its own threatens to bring the entire edifice of peace in Sudan crashing down – including, in a worst-case scenario, the non-violent birth of a separate southern state on July 9.

The jihad in South Kordofan in January 1992 was one of the bloodiest and most brutal episodes of Sudan’s recent history. A decade before conflict erupted in Darfur, the aim of this campaign was to destroy life in the rural Nuba mountains and resettle the entire population of insurgent areas in camps where Nuba identity would be crushed by force and bred out by rape. In the early 1990s, regular Sudanese army troops and paramilitary Popular Defense Forces killed 60,000-70,000 Nuba in just seven months. The mountains were blockaded and villages burned. Humanitarian access was denied, livestock raided, food stocks looted and burned. Community leaders, educated people and intellectuals were murdered.

When peace talks began in Kenya, under international auspices, Nuba in rebel-controlled areas mandated the SPLA/M to negotiate on their behalf on condition that self-determination and equal distribution of power and wealth were assured. The CPA gave southerners a referendum on self-determination but denied it to the Nuba. Instead, the Nuba got an ill-defined and confusing “popular consultation” – a process for addressing outstanding grievances offering no guarantees on the implementation or even the completion of its outcomes.

Almost as soon as the CPA was signed, the Nuba were forgotten as first Darfur, then Abyei, and finally the South’s referendum monopolized international attention, effort and resources. Insufficient attention was paid to exerting pressure on Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) to effect the changes needed to transform a cease-fire into a sustainable peace. Not surprisingly, most Nuba saw state elections in May of this year as their last chance to “get their rights” through a political process. They were absolutely confident they would win, notwithstanding the gross irregularities that had decided other recent ballots.

They were wrong. Despite vote-rigging and vote-buying by the NCP, despite the ruling party’s complete control of the electoral commission, and despite the shameful inadequacy of international monitoring, the SPLM won an overall majority of votes – but only 10 seats to the NCP’s 22. No Nuba believes that the SPLM’s candidate for governor, Abdel Aziz Adam al-Hilu, lost fairly to the NCP candidate Ahmad Haroun, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court on 20 counts of crimes against humanity and 22 counts of war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur.

Any residual faith in the political process died in the blink of an eye. On June 5, as Khartoum prepared to “control” the Nuba Mountains by “controlling” (in other words disarming) the Nuba SPLA forces, the language of war replaced that of peace.

Colossal protection and humanitarian crises are already apparent. The United Nations peacekeeping force, UNMIS, admits privately that it can do very little, both because of its own weaknesses and the intimidation and obstruction it is increasingly facing – especially from government forces and militias. Reports from field officers say “the ethnic/racial dynamic cannot be overstated”: Nuba are being targeted because they are Nuba – and “the nature of the conflict indicates that human rights abuses are commonplace and part of the strategy.”

Meeting with African Union mediators on June 16, Abdel Aziz offered an immediate one-month cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian access – on the sole condition that talks begin to settle long-term political and security issues. Khartoum must take up this offer. If it does not, the international community must not once again turn its back on the Nuba people.

Julie Flint first visited the Nuba Mountains in 1992. Her most recent report, published by Pax Christi in January 2011, is “The Nuba Mountains: Central to Sudan’s Stability” ( She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2011, on page 7.




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