Caught in the crossfire

by Arthur Howes
new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

Arthur Howes tells how a peaceful people in the Nuba Mountains have found themselves at the front line of Sudan’s bitter civil war.

I once lived in Sudan for two years working as an English teacher in the Nuba Mountains. It was a time of peace and prosperity. I worked in Kadugli, a market town that marks the end of Islamic and Arab Sudan, and the beginning of the diverse lifestyles, languages and African cultures of southern Sudan.

Geographically right in the middle of the country, the Nuba Mountains are inhabited by hill communities of at least a million people spread over an area roughly the size of Scotland. The difficulty of getting to these mountains has kept the Nuba people isolated within Sudan. Neither the Islam of the North or the Christianity of the South has been successful in capturing their imagination. The Nuba have been peripheral to the main currents of Sudanese life and politics, considering themselves to be neither northerners or southerners, and have been practically forgotten by the administration in Khartoum.

During the first civil war between north and south - it went on for 17 years after independence from Britain in 1955 - the inaccessibility of the mountains left the Nuba unscathed. The rainfall is plentiful here and the good soil ensures sufficient food throughout the year. The men break the ground for cultivation, look after the cattle and build houses while the women sow the seed, make pots and grind millet. Nuba society is co-operative, democratic and egalitarian, with an emphasis on traditional cultural events and a strong belief in the natural goodness of things.

I was a good friend of Gedia. I remember the first conversation I had with him, when he asked to see my gun. He said he had lived in Khartoum and had been to the cinema several times and every single white person he’d ever seen had a gun. Gedia was a popular wrestler and many songs had been composed in his honour. We spent most of the dry season walking to different festivities and wrestling games in neighbouring villages. I took photographs and with the occasional electricity we had in Kadugli developed and exhibited them in the mountains as a way of returning them to the people.

Six years later I returned to Sudan to work as a camera operator for a Sudanese film director. The film was to highlight the abuse and misuse of the Islamic or Sharia Laws. The director thought that the work would be too dangerous for a local crew and that with a foreign camera operator it would be easier to get away if the filming got rough. The political situation had changed drastically in Sudan. After ten years of peace there was war again in the south. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA, were fighting against the policies of Arabization and the Islamic Laws implemented in 1983 by the now deposed president Gaafar al-Nimeiry. These laws included stoning to death for adultery, amputations for theft and death for apostasy - the crime of renouncing Islam.

In December 1983 3,000 people in Khartoum witnessed a public amputation: two soldiers dressed in surgical theatre aprons chopped off the hands of two young men with sterilized knives. The chopped hands were raised for a cheering and applauding public to see.

Many Muslims opposed these laws. In a country with over 300 ethnic groups and a 40-per-cent non-Muslim population, the laws caused massive unrest. When we started filming there were more than 200 Islamic-law amputees and 700 on the waiting list. The majority of these men were non-Muslims, southerners and Christians.

Our guide throughout the filming was John Luke. He was an articulate student, a Catholic from the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan. At 23 he was one of the first Sharia amputees, wrongly accused of stealing a piece of balsa wood from Khartoum University. Weeks after the amputation it was discovered he was innocent.

Eventually the filming had to be stopped. John Luke had been threatened and our director had fallen ill with hepatitis. The exposed film was left in a fridge in Khartoum. That same evening we decided to escape the politics and paranoia of the city and travel south to the Nuba Mountains. We travelled with a group of Nuba friends who had been working in the city as servants but were homesick and desperate to return to the mountains.

One travels by negotiating rides on the back of merchant lorries, sometimes balancing on a pyramid of cargo, sometimes surrounded by sheep. When we reached Kadugli I visited the house of a man who had taught English with me six years before: he was no longer at home, having given up teaching and joined the SPLA. We heard that the SPLA had now declared the Nuba Mountains to be War Zone Two. They were gaining ground and in control of the area south of Torogi. There were rumours of SPLA attacks, of burning lorries, of looting, of government-funded militia bandits, and of Dinka boys castrated for refusing to become Muslim.

As we drove into War Zone Two, the giant baobab trees indicated the proximity of the mountains. Four weeks after we’d left Khartoum we arrived in Torogi. There it was reassuring and peaceful. Children waved as the lorry approached and men and women were busy threshing the millet. That year’s harvest had been good and people wanted to celebrate as if there was no war. But their songs told of their fears:

Last year there was no war in the world
This year there is hard war
All the world has governments
Before in the south there was no government
At dawn the youth are taken to war
The woman is at home
The bomb from far away kills the woman
People die like flies
The birds descend to eat the people.

Throughout that dry season war moved slowly closer. An army garrison arrived and with the SPLA advancing it became apparent that the next phase of the war was going to be fought on our doorstep. The Nuba people, though disassociated from the conflict, were now unwillingly in the front line. The mountains seemed vulnerable and no longer strong enough to resist the disruption. On many nights we could hear from Torogi the gunfire between the Army and the SPLA. I recorded the Nuba elders singing this song:

And you ask me
What are these out-of-season rains?
These are not the rains but the spears of the Anyanya
The world becomes bad
There is one man who does not want to go to war
If you want me to fight
You must take me by a rope around my neck and pull me there.
I will not go...

We made a film called Kafi’s Story - an account of a young Nuba man from Torogi who travelled to Khartoum to earn money to buy a wedding dress for his second wife. Kafi, the main protagonist, took the cassette recorder and talked and talked. It is this intimate monologue that serves as the film’s narration. Though the fighting was close, people in Torogi attempted to go about their lives. Kafi’s concerns were for his domestic arrangements - the infidelity of his first wife and his love for his two wives. People were forcing themselves to believe that they could carry on as usual, that one morning they would wake and find the army garrison and the SPLA gone.

I left at the start of the rainy season, but promised I would return the following year. I would bring a projector and generator, and we would have the first screening of the film in the mountains. Since then I have not been allowed to return to Sudan.

On 30 June 1989 I heard the news that an Islamic fundamentalist junta led by General Omar al-Bashir had seized power in Sudan. Since then all political parties and trade unions have been declared illegal, press freedom has disappeared and thousands have been rounded up. The war has intensified and Sudan has suffered nearly twice as many casualties as died at Hiroshima.

I reapplied for a visa but was refused again. The Nuba Mountains had been sealed off and the ruthless Baggara militia given a free hand to steal cattle and burn Nuba villages - the Baggara are Muslims of Arab descent and considered racially acceptable to the regime. Within a year 60,000 Nuba people had been driven away from their homes. In 1991 famine hit the Nuba Mountains. No aid and no food relief was allowed. A letter smuggled out of Kadugli in September 1991 reported that ‘the relief programme in Khartoum was informed that the Nuba people in Southern Kordofan did not require relief aid - having plentiful supplies of food. As a result there are severe food shortages. The population is now starving to death and is reduced to eating the baobab trees.’

The Nuba believe they will be driven out and their land turned into grazing pasture for the Baggara. But there may be more at stake than grazing pasture. Such a population shift would put the abundant oil fields just south of the Nuba mountains and the rich mineral wealth of the mountains in Baggara territory. In the nineteenth century the North coveted the South for its ivory and slaves - today it is oil, uranium and other mineral wealth which draws its eyes.

Despite a government information blackout, news from the Nuba Mountains still leaks out. In March and June this year, over 5,000 Nuba were forcibly trucked out of the mountains, half ending up in the desert in northern Kordofan. In April the Nuba Mountains Organization Abroad estimated that over 10,000 Nuba children have been kidnapped by the militia and are being held in Shikan camp in the north where they are undergoing military training and being indoctrinated in Islamic fundamentalist principles. Some fear that these boy soldiers could ultimately be ordered to kill their own people.

In the last few years Kafi’s Story has been seen by TV viewers in Zimbabwe, Holland, Germany and Britain. I have no way of contacting Kafi and know nothing of what happened to him or his family. But I often think of the last words of his monologue: ‘If anyone by the grace of God hears these words in London they will know they are the words of Kafi. I have been filmed a lot. The tape is full up of Kafi. Kafi at last goes. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. It is difficult. Later you will say - where is Kafi?’

Arthur Howes is a London-based film-maker.