The woes of the displaced Nuba people
Sudan Church Information Office
August 15, 1998
Elmulfa Mirra is not exactly sure of his age. However, he recalls vividly the events of the fateful Wednesday morning last year that saw him and all his village-mates reduced to either captives or refugees in their own country.
"A helicopter arrived and bombarded our village at Nocta, Nuba Mountains, Southern Kordofan (about 600 kilometres south of Khartoum), sending people scampering in every direction for dear life,'' he recalls. "We ran to the hills from where some of us watched helplessly as the government soldiers fired shots indiscriminately, ransacked the entire village, looting and setting ablaze whatever they could not carry with them.
"After about two hours, they were through with their operations and our village was no more," remembers the Muslim father of 12, who believes he is in his sixties. "We returned to the village hoping to salvage a few things to keep us going but all we found were corpses and ashes."
Mirra now lives on the hills of Merewi as a displaced person. Also exiled at Merawi is former chief of Nocta Hussain Amdaballa.
Those not lucky enough were captured or killed. One of the captives, James Karama, 57, has since found his way out of the infamous peace camps. Though the torture he underwent cost him his left arm, Karama is full of determination to fight on.
"Though life is difficult here because of poverty, I am happier than my days in the peace camps where I was denied all basic rights," Karama says.
"The exact number of the displaced people here is not known as there are no designated locations for refugees," says Amar Amoun, the Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Society (NRRDS) programme manager. "However," he adds, "they are quite many since the raids in the villages in the valleys and the areas close to the government's strongholds are commonplace."
For the Nuba, like their counterparts in southern Sudan, raids by government soldiers is the norm rather than the exception. During the raids, those not killed are captured and sent to the government-controlled peace camps.
For displaced people, movement is made harder by fighting. Distances are huge and by the time a displaced person manages to walk to a relief centre, if any, he is well on the way to becoming one of the stick people now a common feature on television screens the world over.
"When we arrived here, we were welcomed and shown where to cultivate," says the former chief, who adds that life has never been the same again. "Our main problem is that having come from the valleys, we are not used to cultivating the hilly terrain here, thus we are now victims of famine."
"Soon after we were displaced, we would sneak into our former village at night to harvest wild fruits. However, word soon reached the enemy forces who have now laid all manner of traps including mining the village roots."
In April, recalls the chief, at least five people were killed when they attempted to get food from Nocta.
According to a recent Southern Kordofan Emergency Assessment report, conducted by members of USAID and Concern (an Irish NGO), at least 20,000 Nuba people were considered under the threat of a 70-80 per cent food deficit between the months of April and August this year. The report appealed for urgent external intervention to keep the people alive and productive in their present homes.
Ever since the Nuba took up arms to fight against the Khartoum government alongside the southerners, the government has used the tactic of cultural re-orientation as a means to denying the Sudanese People's Liberation Army their (Nuba) contribution.
To this end, thousands of the Nuba have been rounded up and re-located to peace camps (read concentration camps), where Arabic has become their lingua franca and Islam their religion. They are a pool of cheap/free labour, women and young girls are turned into sex slaves and young men forcibly conscripted into the government army.
Alternatively, near impossible conditions for their survival have been created in several parts of their homeland, claiming the lives of thousands and forcing many more to surrender themselves to the peace camps in desperation. These have included mining villages, raiding and setting ablaze houses, farms and food stores and driving away livestock.
In the face of all these, the Khartoum government has for the last one decade authorised no flights to the Nuba Mountain areas under the control of the rebels. Reason...Nuba mountains is geographically not part of southern Sudan which is bearing the brunt of the internecine civil strife, now in its 15th year.
However, observers have dismissed the argument as hollow insisting that since the combatants in the south are the same ones in the Nuba Mountains, the UN should seek to gain access to the war-affected people of the Nuba Mountains on both sides in order to meet urgent humanitarian needs.
Early last May, the Khartoum government announced its intentions to allow relief operations in the Nuba Mountains but most Nuba were sceptical about this change of heart. They feared that the government could easily frustrate attempts to bring them aid.
Three months down the line and it is like the fears have become a reality. A UN team that was supposed to move into the Nuba Mountains to assess the situation on the ground, is yet to make the trip. "The rural people of Southern Kordofan (Nuba Mountains) have suffered greatly over the past 10 years as a result of the combined effects of war, drought, dwindling trade opportunities and lack of access to humanitarian assistance,'' points out the assessment report.
"Ten years of continuous insecurity, causing migration and death, reduced the rural population from an estimated 1 million to between 350,00-400,00 people," it adds.
The Nuba are a collection of about 50 tribes with over 10 distinct language groups. Their home is geographically in central part of Africa's most expansive state.
They are both crop and livestock farmers. However, much of the livestock in Nuba Mountains is not kept as a food source but for trade option for grain, for marriage or as a status symbol. There is a great tradition of generosity among the Nuba, which takes many forms. It is common, for instance, for people to share up to 10 per cent of their harvest with needy relatives and friends.
In all parts of Nuba Mountains, dura (sorghum) is the backbone of the food economy. It is invaluable as an assortment of meals, madida, asida, kisira and marissa, and it is preferred to all other cereal crops.
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