Interview with Neroun Philip Aju Kuku

by Nanne op 't Ende
Lueri, Sudan
April 1, 2006

Neroun Philip joined the SPLM in 1989. After five years of fighting he became head of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO). He is one of the most remarkable men I've met in the Nuba Mountains and probably the most honest. He was never such a public figure like Yousif Kuwa or Daniel Kodi, but his story covers large parts of the Nuba struggle. The interview is very long; it covers his youth and education; Komolo, the SPLM coming to the Nuba Mountains, the first meeting with Yousif Kuwa; the attempt to bring the war to Darfur in 1991, the NRRDO years, the political difficulties in the Nuba Mountains, the cease fire and the peace agreement.

Neroun Philip Aju Kuku

My names are Neroun Philip Aju Kuku. I was born in the Nuba Mountains somewhere in May 1963. I come from the Laro tribe, which is one of two sections of the Leira. It's a big tribe.

I'm the second born, so [traditionally] I'm called Kodi. The order of birth is important in the Nuba Mountains. Whether you're first born or second born, already people know how you will behave. The second born from our tribe are wise, while the first born take a very long time, because they are spoiled; they don't wean them very early. The second one has to be clever and responsible - so maybe I was lucky.

I went to Abri Primary School. It was far from the village but my father thought that it was doing better than the Heiban Primary School, so he sent me to Abri. Originally the idea was that I would go to boarding school. But when I was registered, the headmaster found that I was very small; I was only six or seven years old. He said that I wouldn't be able to stay in a boarding school alone, so my father introduced me to another family.

My father was a pastor in the Sudanese Church of Christ, he was also a preacher. He had a friend from the same church, so he thought he would let me stay with him until I would grow up a bit. Maybe after two or three years I could go to the boarding school. But his friend said I'd better first finish primary education and then I could go to the boarding for secondary school.

Primary education was basically in Arabic, which I didn't like at that time. We were coming from the village, we didn't speak Arabic; only our mother tongue. But we were forced to learn Arabic; within the compound of the school you were not allowed to speak your vernacular or your mother tongue. To prevent it they gave one of the pupils a coin, just in the morning. They would tell him to go around, to look for anyone who is speaking in his mother tongue, and when he found someone, he should be given the coin. Then that pupil had to go around, to look for someone else who was speaking in his mother tongue. It created this sense of suspicion. When the pupils were sitting and talking, they were scared; they had to make sure there is nobody coming around, finding them speaking their mother tongue. The last person whom would be given the coin for that day, had to report it in the morning parade. He would be lashed in front of the pupils; a proper lash. Sometimes they would bring two huge men to lift him up from his hands and his legs, and he would be lashed that way. It was very sadistic and… so I didn't like it in primary school.

Did they teach you properly though? Late Yousif Kuwa told me that his teacher didn't even care to teach the Nuba boys anything at all.

Well, education was basically in Arabic, and the curriculum wasn't good. It was a pro-Arab curriculum anyway, but at that time we wouldn't know that it was bad. We were just learning whatever [they told us]. But also I was a Christian - I'm still a committed Christian I would say - and even as a Christian, you had to get Islamic education. I didn't like that.

What they were trying to do… The first year in the primary I started learning the Koran and I was very brilliant. The head master, who was giving us the lessons, was very happy and encouraging. He was telling me: "you're a brilliant pupil; why don't you become a Muslim?" But I was brought up in a Christian family; that was my environment, my upbringing, and it wouldn't go out of my mind. So I didn't like it, the way they were persuading pupils, trying…

Usually they persuaded pupils who had names in their mother tongue, like Kuku; they would write it and then they would try to convince them: "no, this is not a good name; you should better be given an Arabic name." That's why you will find that most of the Nuba in the Nuba Mountains have Arabic names, even though they also have their local names. Even most of the Christians will still have Arabic names.

I remained a Christian, and during my time in school they changed the policy. The government of Nimeiri was socialist orientated. It was a military government but at least in the early days it had nothing to do with religion. Everybody was free to believe what they would believe. So at that time, during Islam class, the Christian pupils would go out and get their Christian education under a tree, from a Christian teacher. Of course towards the end of Nimeiri's regime, it became a different story, when he turned into an Islamic hardliner.

After finishing primary school I went to Delamy Secundary School, which was the nearest secondary school. We had to compete of course. To go to Delamy, the pupils of many primary schools - like the one in Abri - had to sit for exams, and then they would choose the best. Education was free, but there were few secondary schools and each school would only accept a limited number of pupils: fifty; one hundred maybe. In our area, Heiban had one secondary school, and then you would have to go as far as Delamy to find another one, and then maybe to Um Dorein for the next. We had a number of children who were bright enough to make it through secondary, but they lost out on their chances just because there were no schools, and they couldn't compete with the best.

What kind of curriculum did you have in Delamy?

They started teaching English from class one, from the ABC, but of course it wasn't very good. The English teachers were Arabs, they didn't teach us proper English, but I still liked it; I was very interested in learning the language. Then there was mathematics, all the sciences: geography… it was in line with the Sudan curriculum for secondary education. At that time we had one of the best curriculums though. It was inherited from the British. The English grammar teacher and the literature teacher were Oxford bachelors.

When the curriculum was Sudanized, it was just a mess. I was lucky to get some of the old education. The system was 6-3-3-4: six years in primary, three years in intermediate secondary, three in higher secondary and then the university, which was four, five or six years, depending on the faculty. Engineering was five years; medicine was six.

Again we had to compete for higher secondary school. At that time we had only two public higher secondary schools in the whole state of South Kordofan. And then there was 'al Mutazr' in Dilling, which was run as a private school: you had to pay; it wasn't a government school. So basically we had two: one in Kadugli and one in Abu Gibeiha - and we had to compete.

The posting of the students was done by the government and then the teachers used to announce the results on the Omdurman Radio. You would just get it from the radio whether you were selected and to which school, and then you went. Maybe I wasn't around... Anyway, I missed the announcement, and I had to walk to Kadugli to see the result. I found that I was posted to Abu Gibeiha Higher Secundary School. So I came back and then I joined Abu Gibeiha.

Abu Gibeiha was somewhat different. Most areas in South Kordofan are dominated by the Nuba. You might find some Arab merchants, they may own some stalls, but they would just come for trade; they were not residents. In Abu Gibeiha you would find other tribes, like the Kinana and the Fallata who would dominate the area, and the Arabs there were residents.

Did that make it more difficult for you; were you discriminated against as a Nuba?

Not really. Discrimination was basically an issue in the centre, and personally I may not have experienced it directly. But I didn't like the situation in which most of the Nuba were living. In my childhood, in 1977 or so, my father was sent to Nigeria to study theology for four years; he came back around 1981 I think. From that time on we were living in Khartoum. I studied here in South Kordofan, but I used to go Khartoum during the holidays. We also had a house here.

What I didn't like… Most of our people were not educated, but there was that migration of youth from the village to Khartoum. The young men would go to work there, and when they came back to the village, they would bring these things like torches and shorts and nice shirts and all that. And when their peers saw them, they also wanted to go to get these things that were better than anything in the village. But they didn't know how these guys got them.

When they went there, they wouldn't find jobs. Some of them did manual work, like laying bricks, or working at the schemes outside the city, but most of them used to work in the houses of the Arabs, as servants. Of course our people here wouldn't like their youth to be working in the houses of the Arabs. So when they came to the village, they wouldn't say that they were washing cloths or doing dishes.

Some of the tribes even… You know, long ago in Khartoum there were no latrines. People used buckets, and then it was taken away by the Public Health Service. And then we realized that in different towns most of the people in the Public Health Service were either from Nuba or from Blue Nile or Darfur. But the majority, I would say, were from certain Nuba tribes. So we didn't like that.

People would still call us Abid (slave); usually, when there was a clash between Arabs and Nuba, you would hear it. But during Nimeiri's time, the discrimination wasn't that bad. It was a military government, there were more communalities, and the consciousness was much better than under previous governments. But the problem of course was still there. Not only because we didn't have opportunities for education: the North was dominating everything. In the economy, they were the merchants. In the Government, they were the bureaucrats. The Arabs were dominating everything, and of course we didn't like that.

You often say 'we', but the Nuba were not very well organized at that time…

We were not very organized, but there was that political consciousness. When we were brought up, especially in the time when I was in secondary school, we heard of the war in the South, we knew why they were fighting: they wanted separation from the North. The Arabs were dominating everything and they were discriminating people. And we also knew that Philip Abbas Ghabush, or Father Philip, was fighting for us. We knew he was in exile, we knew he had formed the General Union of Nuba (GUN) that was struggling to liberate the Nuba people.

And not only that: when I entered the secondary school, we were in the underground cells of the Komolo, which were being organized, by that time, by Yousif Kuwa. He was a teacher at Tilu, the other secondary school, in Kadugli. The Nuba were commonly conscious as Nuba. If anybody said there would be a Nuba meeting, then you would go. We wouldn't suspect that any of us could not be committed to the whole issue. If there was a meeting, all the Nuba went.

We held our meetings in secret places where we knew that no security person, or anybody else who wasn't one of us, could be listening. In Abu Gibeiha for example there were a lot of mango gardens, so one of the Nuba would say: "you just go to my garden"; it would be private, and nobody would enter. We had our meetings there, and [the leaders of Komolo] would brief us: "this is what we want; our objectives are so and so. One day we have to liberate our people; it's already happening all over the South."

Meanwhile you were studying…

In higher secondary school I chose for sciences, rather than for arts. I wanted to take biology as my major. Not because I wanted to be a doctor; that was just my interest: to study sciences. Arts, for me, was too general, and I didn't like the teacher.

From primary four up to university I was leading my class. I used to take the advice of my teachers. But something happened. We had a strike in the schools. Services were not good and what, what. We left the school, and that was the last year before sitting for the Sudan Certificate Exam. We left, it was around May, and we were not supposed to come back before October. Then we would go to school up to February and then we would sit for the exam in 1981, so in 1980 we had the strike.

During the strike… when we left we agreed that nobody would come back to school alone. And then it happened that some students did come back, and they continued. I was in Khartoum and then, when I asked, I was told: "aah, Neroun, in fact the schools opened; they are up and running." Normally they were closed from June to October, so I was supposed to be there in October.

I was lucky. I had a teacher, a Northerner, who really liked me because I used to be first of my class every year. He convinced the head master that I should go, even though I was late; that I would catch up and I would still be sitting for the exam. But when we went through the options of which major to chose, they said: "you, because of that strike, you have to repeat if you want to take the sciences. It's a competition all over the country; you have to be prepared for it or otherwise you may lose. But if you want to sit, then you should better take arts; you can push yourself and you will make it." And of course I didn't want to repeat. I sat for arts and I succeeded.

Initially, I wanted to do law in Khartoum University, and my second choice was economics. As second university I put Gazira University, and then there was third option, which was Juba University. According to my score in the competition I could go to Gazira to study economics. I told my father: "I don't want to go to Gazira; I have to study at Khartoum University. I want to repeat and sit again." But he just said: "since you've been accepted, you just start your study now and once you've entered, you can still adjust your program." So I went for it, until I completed economics. But before completing, the last year in university, I came back to the Nuba Mountains in 1987, and something bad happened.

I came to the Nuba, because we had people who had joined the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 1986. Yousif had already joined in '84 or '85, but others, like Abdelaziz [Adam al Hilu], went in 1986. The first two years they were trained and the idea was to send some Nuba people to the Mountains to do the recruitment. They called it political mobilization: political commissars came to mobilize the people and to form the internal cells. They were already in the Nuba Mountains in 1987 and when I came, of course I met them. I talked to them and I told them I would join the Movement, but not immediately. "This is my last year in university, so I go and finish the university and then I will join." While I was still there, there was a bad incident, which I really didn't like. I had never seen something like that…

The [Sudan Armed Forces] in Heiban had bought a bull in the market. Someone from the garrison just bought a bull and then that bull ran away. It went to our area; it was brought from there. And the garrison sent a soldier and a butcher to go together; in case the bull wanted to run away again, the soldier would shoot it and the guy would slaughter it there and bring it back to the garrison. When they came to our village it was late, and the people in the village told them: "the bull is here; it came back, but you just sleep now and return the second day." The only problem was that they went and reported to the SPLM mobilizers.

They were up the hill, and of course they were armed. They were informed that there is a soldier and someone else coming to take back their bull; that they already took them in, only so they could return tomorrow and all that. And these guys, instead of… They didn't see what would be the implications if they would do anything wrong. They decided to kill the soldier. And the other guy ran away. He ran and reported to the commander of the garrison that the soldier was killed and so on. The SPLM commissars had exposed themselves.

The commander sent a very large force; they burned all the villages. They came to the house where the soldier had spent the night and they tortured the people who were there. They were threatened and… They were not the ones who had killed the soldier, but they had taken the body to burry it. They thought it was a normal thing to burry a person who has died. Of course it was those guys of the SPLM who had killed him. That was one of the mistakes. They wouldn't have done it if they had known what would be the implications.

The soldiers burned all the villages, they tortured those people until they showed them the grave where they had buried the soldier, and then those who were tortured - they killed thirteen of them. They were tortured to death: thirteen of them. I knew them all, and I knew at least two of them were supposed to go back and sit for the exams. And they were killed.

I've always sensed an ambiguity in your relationship to the SPLM in general; is this where it originates? There is a certain ambiguity…


Politically you are very committed to the struggle, but you also seem to disagree at times.

Yes, of course. A wrong thing cannot be made right. A wrong action cannot be justified. For me those people were just victims of the SPLM mistakes. At that time, they wouldn't have lost thirteen people if they had acted wisely. So I knew that of course, and I wasn't happy. But I went back, and I graduated.

At that time my father came back from Nigeria. When I graduated, he was already in one of the theological colleges of the church. So they told me: "instead of just waiting for your certificate, you can just be part-time teaching at the college." I was doing that for a month, or two months, and then, when I got my certificate, I applied to get a job with the government.

You were already committed to the SPLM; were you trying to get a government job to be of use to the Movement from within?

I just wanted to see how things would work. We heard that people were not getting jobs. We didn't have many [Nuba graduates to begin with], and then it was also difficult to get a job. But in stead of taking for granted that I wouldn't get a job, and just go to join the Movement, I wanted to try and see how it worked. And it was very scary, because you would find more than 10.000 applicants for government jobs. It was a very big list, and some of the applicants had already tried five times without getting anything. Not only the blacks; even the Arabs among themselves were not getting jobs. You know, unless someone was your relative or…

The issue of being a member of a political party was not really that strong; even though there was a brief democratic period. It was a sectarian division: either you were from Umma, or the DUP, or you were a communist. Usually someone who was associated with one of the parties had better job opportunities. They would know people working in the ministries; they would have people in… But for me: I didn't have that. We didn't have a Nuba association in the university; we were too few to form our own association, so we were part of the African National Front (NAF), with the Southerners. The NAF was all the blacks, and basically they raised the issues of discrimination, of religion and all that; the African struggle anyway.

Even together we were not many; I think we were two committed Nuba, and seven Southerners. But we had links with other universities; in Juba, they were there; in Khartoum. When it came down to the unions of the university, we would join the communists, because ideologically they were closer to us. At least they were for equality; they were not Islamic orientated and they were not Arab nationalists. We were not typical communists; but socialists for sure. We voted with them against the Islamic Front, that was taking over the university unions.

Anyway, I didn't have a whasta - that's how they call someone who might mediate for you. During the interview they would usually ask: "do you have a whasta somewhere who is able to facilitate or to assure you a job?" And if you said: "I don't have a whasta, I don't have anybody who's working in the government"… hahahaha; they would just laugh and go away. They knew that this guy would not get anything. Only if you knew a high-ranking officer in the army, or a minister or something, you might be accepted.

But once I sat for the interview, things just worked my way. The interview was very tough, and I was also very tough. People who had whastas would only be given a few easy questions, even in the committees. But I was given fifteen questions, and very tough ones. "Name the IMF conditions," for example, or "define devaluation and describe its effect on the country's economy". They would ask about the UN, what it's supposed to do and all that. But I passed the interview and I was taken to the National Ministry of Finance for training.

Before taking the job I had three months of training, more like a general introduction to the Ministry: the sections, the different administrations, the procedures through the system. After the training I was taken to the World Bank Section, just for a very short time, then to the Hotels and Tourism Management, for a week. I was taken to the Marketing Department, doing bidding and all this, and finally I ended up in the Government Investments Section. This is where the Government manages its foreign investments; where they handle their own shares and shares in other companies. We followed that.

That was the time when Sudan was starting to exploit its oil reserves… wasn't it Chevron?

Yes, that was the time. But we already had some contracts with other companies, like miners for the gold in Eastern Sudan, and joint ventures like the Khartoum Dairy. That was what we were doing. But it was very difficult, because there was no hard currency. It was also the time when the NIF government came to power. I was accepted for the job around May 1989, and I joined the Investment Section in August. But the NIF took power in June 1989. I stayed there in the Ministry until January 1990.

The NIF Government was exploiting the country's resources mainly to the benefit of a small elite. You spent five, six months in the office that would be directly involved: was there already a system to allow a small group of people to control most of the contracts?

Actually that happened later on, when the government was in full control. At that time, basically they were doing the security; threatening people. It was one of the reasons I left, even when I had it in mind to join the Movement. As soon as the NIF came to power, they started to lay off all those who were known to be communists. All of them were taken their posts, 'for public interest' - that's what they called it. salih al ahm: public interest. You were removed because you were a 'threat to the public'.

I wasn't known as a communist, but surely as one of the NAF. All of us [at the Section] were not really working. We had the feeling that if we were not sent away with the communists, then we should be on a blacklist. We would be next. Everyone had to report to the office very early; we had to sign against our name, and when we were leaving we had to sign again, to a security person from the office of the president. We didn't like that and we were doing things around it. We just sent one person very early to sign all the forms by all our signatures, and then we sent it to the office of the president. Hahahaha. This was no way to monitor the performance of the employees! And if our performance had to be monitored, we wouldn't like it to be done by security personal from the president's office. So we fooled them.

The general feeling was like: "let's wait for the list and see who's off this morning." I remember the lady who was the most senior in our office. She was pregnant and she had trouble coming down the stairs and she said: "ooh, I hope I'm not one of them this morning". And then someone who got his hands on the list said: "Well, this is your name… you're off." She said: "fuck!" Hahaha. And then she went. And definitely, since we were from her office, we knew we were now waiting for our turn. But I was going anyway, so…

We were not paid much; we couldn't rent a house, we couldn't do anything. They would take the new graduates and put them in scale Q, and then you work for four years in that scale before you can move up. And it takes many more years before you reach the higher scales; it takes a lot of politics, you need your whasta to get promoted. I was aware of these problems. I was staying with my family of course, in Khartoum; my father was still taking care of me, and I didn't like it. So I decided it was time to join the Movement.

I went to the office to make some copies of my certificates. I didn't write a letter of resignation of course, because then they would ask why I resigned. I took my papers and left. I told my father that I was going to join the Movement; I didn't tell my mother, because I knew she wouldn't help it. I just sneaked out and left.

Did you go to the Nuba Mountains or did you go straight to Ethiopia?

I wanted to go through Ethiopia, but when I asked, the people we had at the border said the security was becoming tight. We had a number of people who were taken back and put in prison, because they were suspected. It was already known that people were going to Ethiopia to join. Usually these routes were blocked. Around that time there was a route between Dilling and Heiban; I knew people from the rebels used to take it.

But it was late 1989; in July or August the SPLM had already entered the Nuba Mountains with a main force: the Kush division. The first force for recruitment, Volcano, had entered in 1987, and with the recruits from that mission, Kush was organized as a force to enter and take positions. It was headed by Yousif Kuwa; Abdelaziz was second in command. Abdelaziz went in first; Yousif was behind in Fariang.

So that was the time when I was also coming out. They were already fighting: the forces entered from [Lake] al Abiad, and then they were going to the southern areas of Kurungu. Abdelaziz had his head quarters there. The Volcanos already knew the area and they occupied a lot of places.

But after a while they retreated from Kurungu…

It was a big force; they didn't want it to stay together in one place. So to avoid casualties there was a retreat to Moro, but Abdelaziz stayed in Kurungu with his battalion. Usually they would take a place and leave a battalion and go to another place; liberate it, then leave one battalion and go on.

I had to find a way to join them, but by that time any truck leaving from Dilling to anywhere else would be stopped at the military garrison. The soldiers would screen the passangers: those they suspected [of having contacts with the SPLA], they just would take them to the bush and kill them. They had already killed all the Southerners; just taken them off the lorries. They went and killed all those they suspected, and if they had some problem with anybody, they would kill them also.

I had met the cells in Khartoum and they said I had to go to someone in Dilling - let's call him Mohamed. They informed him that I wanted to join. I had to go to his house and then we would make arrangements for me to be sent to the SPLM areas. We were two actually. We came to his house and we greeted him, and then Mohamed informed one of the government soldiers, a sympathizer of the SPLM, that he had to help us. Of course we had supporters in all places; we even had people in the government.

So Mohamed told the soldier: "we have some people who are going to join, and I need you to accompany them." He took all of our luggage, and he went with that truck, that we were traveling in, to the military base. They checked whatever and all that and Mohamed was handling our baggage. Then we were told to take a diversion, walking to a place outside the city where the truck would stop and pick us up. So we waited for the truck. It got us; it stopped. That soldier knew of course that we were waiting, and we were picked up.

Usually the trucks came to one of the markets, because the traders would also be there. They wanted money from the SPLM. There was scarcity, there were no commodities: no soap, no salt; there was nothing. Some of the traders were with the government, but they wanted to use the situation to get money. People used to bring their cows and their agricultural products just to get some commodities. Everything was expensive and things were boiling. We used that situation to sneak in.

So the traders have been doing that since the beginning of the war?

Yes. Just like some of the officers in the army. Because the SPLM was here, they were not supposed to let anybody cross into these areas, but if they wanted money, they could agree with some traders. They can drive across, they even know the rebels, and they sell their things and give some money to the officers. It was working for them, and this is how they were doing it.

So we were dropped off in the market while they were boarding whatever, and I went to my home village. Our house was already burnt. We had a house just down the river in Nyakma; it was burnt and they had looted everything. But in the other village I had my relatives, my uncle and others, so I went there, but they were not in their houses. They were afraid to stay in their huts; they were hiding somewhere in the bush in stead. It was a liberated area but the SPLA force that was in charge of this area was based here in Lueri, and we were living down there in the valleys. You never knew, because there were Shanabla around and others; people could come at night and attack the village and the wouldn't be protected. So I was living with my uncles for while, in rakubas (shelters) in the bush, and then I came to report to the commander here in Lueri.

Who was the commander?

At the time it was called al Lehimer Batallion, and it was commanded by a Southerner; I forgot his name. Most of the soldiers were Nuba but we didn't have many high ranking officers. Yousif was the commander; Abdelaziz was in Kurungu; then there was Ismael Khamis, he was in Moro at that time. There was Yunis Absoddor of course, he was in charge of a battalion, like Ouwad Abdelkarim, Telephone Kuku and Yousif Karra. They were captains - low ranks; they were in charge of task forces. Although they called them battalions, they were like 400 men or something.

I reported here in Lueri early May, it was just before the celebration of the 16th of May (the anniversary of the Movement). The commander here informed commander Yousif, who had his head quarters in Tabanya at that time. He told me I should be there before the celebrations, because even though each battalion has a party, the main celebration would be near the head quarters, in a place called Angola. So I was to attend the celebration for the 16th of May and then Yousif would see me off to the South.

Was that the first time you would meet him?

In fact it was. I had heard of Yousif of course, because of the meetings we had in higher secondary school. And I nearly met him at the time when he was competing for the regional assembly, together with Daniel Kodi. I was in Kadugli at the time, maybe to check the results of my exam. I was staying with Carter by the way, who's now at the health directory. In the end I didn't meet him, because I had nothing that important. I was still like a kid; I was too small and I was not of that importance to see someone… But I was impressed by the way our people were trying to take them to the regional assembly and the national assembly.

But anyway: Yousif called me and they gave me a force from here, some soldiers who went with us. I was the only person who went from here, but in Tabanya, there were some people from Darfur who wanted to join. They would be the connection how I went to West Sudan later. Ramadan Hassan was also there; he had recently joined. He is now in the State's Council. And there were some people with Abdelaziz who would also be going to the South.

So I went to Tabanya, and Telephone Kuku was the first Nuba commander I met. He briefed me about the Movement, and it was a very good briefing. Maybe because of the background of my education, I just got it straight away. The Movement is not against Arabs, we're not against anyone, but we need communalities: we need a New Sudan, where we have democracy, where we have equal rights. The approach and the strategy of the Movement is that we have to mobilize people from the grassroots to the centre. And this is how we were doing it: we mobilized the grassroots from the rural areas and then we moved towards the centre, until we would reach it.

Telephone said it was going to be a protracted war; it's not a coup, it's not a revolution, it's not something that happens overnight. So it's going to take a very long road: it's a process, a Movement. And since it's a movement, we have to make sure that we have changed everybody; that everybody is on board.

Funny that of all people, Telephone would give you this briefing… [Telephone Kuku later wanted to give up the struggle and was charged with treason]

Well, the briefing was good, but he never proved his faith. He had some very good ideas about the movement, but the way he put them to practice was…

The next day I had to be briefed by Yousif Kuwa. I was anxious to meet him, even though I didn't like the military environment. I was not used to it, and I wouldn't like it, because it was rough, it was… normally you wouldn't like it. Even if you're important, if you think you're important, nobody will see you're important and all that. Hahahaha.

The frst impression I got of Yousif was… No, of course he had that… Even though he was in the bush, living in a grass hut… But he was very simple and… And also he is [full of] attention… But he also wanted to see me, because at that time I would think that he realized that we never had any of the educated people who joined the Movement. And then he learned that I was a graduate; in fact we were the only two who were graduated.

We didn't know each other before, but his is what Yousif told me later, that he was saying [to himself]: we actually need our educated people, because most of the soldiers we have are not educated. They are enthusiastic about the Movement and all that, but for uneducated people the vision is not easy [to understand], and the commitment will be difficult. So we need to have some educated people: ones they know the vision, they will commit to it. They will have to taste it, to know that it's a true thing, and not just something that comes from emotions. . Because most of the people were just emotional: they were angry, frustrated…

At the same time Yousif knew that I had started working in a government job and he thought maybe I was becoming an effendi - a teacher; someone who wants a soft life, someone who wants to sit on chairs. As he realized that I was wearing my nice shoes and socks, he wanted me to understand that this is a life in the bush, and that I had to forget about that. So he told me basically that I should consider wearing those tire sandals instead.

And then of course he explained the vision of the Movement: why we are fighting, especially in the Nuba Mountains. Of course it was very clear: he showed the vision that thre is a need for equality; there's a need for a secular Sudan, where there is no discrimination, where there is democracy and all that.

Did you discuss the need to overcome tribal divisions? Yousif told me there was a time when the Miri would say: "we are not Nuba, we are Miri; those behind the hills are the Nuba."

There were very few tribes who had such a perception. The Nyimang for example would say that they were first class while they might consider others al ahm. But this was just among intellectuals. These are the people… we say that to have some education, is worse than to have no education at all. People with some education can start to boast and say bad things about others. But Yousif ignored this, because it was out of ignorance. And from the very beginning, when the Movement started, people came rushing from different tribes; they were working together as Nuba and this awareness broke the division between the tribes.

Now that Yousif is no longer here, people discuss his legacy. One of the things they disagree upon is whether he was fighting just for the Nuba, or for a united Sudan.

Of course we discussed this issue. Yousif, Abdelaziz, Dr. John, they shared the vision that the issue of Sudan could not be resolved as long as it was seen as problems of different parts of the country. It was tried in the South for seventeen years, and nothing happened. They thought that was a failure, and they shouldn't repeat the same mistake. From the very beginning, in the first war, people would talk about discrimination, they would say the Arabs are doing this and this; there was devide and rule and whatever - but basically they just wanted positions; they wanted things for their tribes. And they were talking about separation, but it wasn't possible.

So people need to rally the whole country, in stead of trying to solve the issue on a racial basis: blacks and Arabs. They should focus on the fact that we are one nation, on breaking down the barriers that prevent the people from believing in unity. These barriers are Islamism; Arab nationalism; the issue of identities; the issue of cultures. You see: the diversity is actually a good thing; not a bad thing that separates people. Once you have that idea, that communality, then there is no need for everybody to -

Say separation begins with the South; then it can go up to the tribes within the South, and even within the tribes. [Racial identity] is something relative, it shouldn't be the basis of solving a problem. But Dr. John was also giving the example of the iron: if it is too rusted, you can't really clean it any more. Or, if a system is too much deformed, it can't be reformed anymore, and there is nothing you can do… You will try. If they change, that is fine. If they don't, then there is no other option: you go your own way.

They believed that change is possible. It's true: the Arab politicians are stuck with their ideologies of Islamism and Arab nationalism. But if the correct policies are made, and if there is an agreement on the basic things, then it is possible for all these things to change. It happened in South Africa, it happened elsewhere. But that is the basis of any nation building. Tribes and tribalism are everywhere, and a nation cannot be build around tribes.

In the first place they were using Islam of course just to come to power, so Islam is a completely ifferent thing again: it doesn't teach what they are saying.

That's a sensitive issue: they used Islam as an instrument of power

As an ideology to rally people

And it's very effective…

It worked. It's unfortunate but true; it shouldn't…

These are some of the things Yousif and I discussed at that meeting. That this is our vision; again he repeated the same thing: that we are starting from the grassroots, the rural areas, to educate the people about the Movement. That it's a Movement and that the armed struggle is just a means to an end. In the end these are ideas about development: we believe in transformation. Development is not the same thing as growth. In the South, with the oil, you can get a lot of money and you can do things just like that. But when you're talking about development, you don't have something like the wealth you can get from oil. If you want real development, it has to be a transformation of all the sectors. You cannot do it with illiterate people, with rural areas where there are no services at all. It wouldn't work; everything would stay the same.

After the briefing, the next day actually, we went together to the celebration of the 16th of May. The celebration was very nice. When we arrived all the people from the villages were coming from different directions, they were marching, carrying pots of marissa (sorghum beer). You know, these big crowds, thousands of people that were just drinking full out! Marissa was just everywhere; cows were slaughtered, meat was just everywhere…

Then, after the celebration, we took off to Ethiopia. It wasn't difficult. The first recruits for Kush, they had to fight their way to Ethiopia, but we went straight, it was 27 days - a very fast walk. We went to Bilfam, which were the first head quarters of the Movement. We registered, they gave us some rest - two days; there wasn't any briefing there - and then to the refugee camp in Itang. This is where we spent some time. We registered as refugees also, and for some time we just sat there, talking to people, until we were taken to Bonga. That was the military [training camp].

For us, when we went there, it was with a mission for Darfur in mind. There was an arrangement to open bases in Chad, and there was an agreement between Mangistu and Habri for two plains to pick up some people to those bases. The plans were there, and as I told you we had some guys from Darfur. So we went together and we had to be given a special training; we were only eleven.

The training in Ethiopia was very tough; in 'the Politics of Liberation in South Sudan', Peter Nyaba mentioned thousands of Nuba recruits dying because there was no food…

The issue wasn't food. They meant the training to be very harsh, because they knew the situation in Sudan would be very hard - and it's part of the training anyway. The only problem was: they shouldn't allow lives to be lost in this training to make them good soldiers. And then you lose them, yani. You put in 100% and then you lose 20% for example and then

Is that an example or is it close to reality?

It is just an example, but actually we lost many people. Like the Nuba: when they lost many of [the recruits], people didn't believe why they wouldn't… Some of them were not used to the hardship of the training. Some of them were grown up people, old people already. The youth were better of, but the old people couldn't keep up. The environment there was also different. People were used to staying here, they didn't go outside really, and then just to go abruptly and to stay there… Some people were frustrated - a number of issues combined were behind [the loss of lives]. But definitely it wasn't something that wasn't…


No, no; what I wanted to say: there was already a problem in Ethiopia. To us it was like a second Sudan: you would just go there with your guns and nobody would ask, just like your country. But the population didn't like the government of Mengistu. There was fierce fighting: the Eritreans and the present government. So they were also suspicious of the forces, even among their own ranks. You never knew if those who were training [the SPLA recruits], were really committed to the revolution in Ethiopia at that time. They tried their level best to bring people who were committed; the socialist-communist oriented people, but we thought maybe some of them were not committed; they were doing it purposely.

Anyway, the high ranking officers were not happy about it. They had a list of people that went for training, and when [the officers] came to the training centers they found that after graduation only this number remained. Sometimes they just threw away the list of graduates, saying to the training officers: "we need the list that you gave us when these people came here: where are those people?"

They were dead…

It was a very big difference between the lists. The issue wasn't really food though. You would find beans and rice and all other things. But you know, there are some things they are not giving the soldiers intentionally, just to build their… Like salt for example. They wouldn't give you salt, and the beans would really be no good without salt and all that - because that is the hardship of the military training that you have to go through.

I didn't go through that training. It usually was for all the soldiers, but we arrived at a time when the recruits were already graduating. We were briefed by Edward Lino, who was in the head quarters of the Commander in Chief, and then we had to be briefed by Dr. John himself. It basically was the same briefing we got from Yousif and others, about the vision of the movement. But it was also very special because we had some people from Darfur and it was the first time for them to join the Movement. So he gave us that briefing. And usually he spoke for a long time. That guy talked a lot!

After the briefing there was a graduation of the recruits of Intisar Division; they had 10.000 or 11.000 graduates. Dr. John actually called us and we greeted those 11.000 people. From here to that hill over there, there were soldiers sitting, ready to move to Sudan. When you saw those 11.000, you would say that Sudan would be liberated the same day those people arrived. And that was nothing: there were four or five times this number who were already graduated, and who were already [in Sudan]. The message Dr. John wanted to give was that people would continue coming: these are people from Darfur and they are also going to join us. That was the message.

We went for the training, as I told you it was a special training, meant for the commandos. Climbing mountains, crossing rivers, we learned how to survive under the most difficult conditions, we learned all about communication, about camouflage and other things. We received a very nice treatment, the nicest food; they were cooking for us and all that. We were only a small group and they wanted a quick training because we were supposed to be on a mission very soon. Still it took nearly one year or something. It should have been six or seven months but the mission was delayed, so we had to wait.

Of course they didn't tell us that the mission to Darfur was delayed; we were just told: "you guys, you are on a mission, you will be briefed." We also had to be commissioned, and Dr. John was not around at that time. It was early 1991, January. We had already finished the training and we were just waiting to be commissioned. Then it coincided that some people came from Chad; they met Mengistu in Ethiopia and they talked with Dr. John in Sudan. They were coming to Gambela, which is not very far from Bonga, and we understood the mission was organized by now.

We were told to be on standby, and we moved from Bonga to Gambela, where we linked up with the people who were coming from Sudan. We also understood that Abdelaziz was called from the Nuba Mountains to be there too. We moved with two trucks full of arms and equipment. We went to Jima and came down to Kapoeta, those areas around Eastern Equatoria. Near Kapoeta we picked up Abdelaziz; then we moved together. We still had to be briefed by Dr. John, in Torit. When you were commissioned as an officer, you had to be interviewed again by Dr. John himself.

And he would look at you very inquisitively?

Yes. Ask a number of questions; see your capabilities; even physical endurance tests… After the commissioning we had to move to Western Equatoria. There were already eleven companies; a company is like 150 men. Others were being called still from different forces, especially non-commissioned officers like corporals and sergeants. You had those who were specially trained for this mission, but they would need some people to be in charge of the soldiers; people who knew how to fight.

The last briefing was near Tambura; two hours driving outside the town. This is where the force was positioned, to wait for the green light to go ahead. But it just happened that there was a big force of three divisions; 3.000 men from the Sudanese army, coming to liberate Western Equatoria. We had eleven battalions, again they were actually large taskforces of the SPLA commandos, formed from the remnants of the Bright Star campaign. These were the best fighting forces of the SPLM, and they were sent to fight the incoming government convoy.

So the mission had to be delayed. We had arrived there around May, and we were supposed to move immediately, with the start of the rains, but that government offensive delayed the mission. It was fought for three months, at a distance of maybe two or three hours driving [from where we were stationed]. You know this force came out of Wau, it wanted to come to Western Equatoria and their main force was in a place called Bau. The fighting took from May to September, and the forces that were supposed to go [to Darfur], were a reserve force, just in case if the convoy would break through. The SPLM force wasn't that big, nearly 2000, not all of them fighting. But they were special forces, ready to make ambushes and all that. I didn't fight; Abdelaziz was there, he was commanding the reserve forces and I stayed behind in the headquarters, with the second in command Dowd Walladi. Later on the Government of Sudan caught him in that fighting and then he was killed.

Now the question was whether we should still go or not. We had wanted to be in Darfur before the end of the rainy season; that had been the plan, and now the mission was late. But that was not the only thing that had changed. Many things about the situation did not remain the same. In May Mengistu was taken off. There had been a breakthrough, people were around Addis Abeba and in a very short Mengistu fled the country. And before that Hussein Habri was also chased from power. Idris Débi attacked from Darfuf; he managed to go to the capital N'Djamena and Habri fled. So the whole plan was ruined. The coordination was gone; the basis in Chad we had been talking about…

For the SPLA the events of 1991 had very negative effects: all the bases in Ethiopia were suddenly closed…

Not only that: in 1991 there was that coup of Riek Machar and others. It was just a very confused situation. Nuba was a different story now. It became very difficult to go to the South - it was very closed.

Weren't there people in the Nuba Mountains who wanted to join Riek Machar?

There were already voices among the leadership that they thought they should join the - Like Yunis Abd Sadder for example, Ouwad al Karim and some others. It became another issue later on. When that coup was announced, there was already some division among the leadership in the Nuba Mountains, but the prominent people were Yunis, Ouwad and some officers who were with them. I don't know what they wanted to do but Yousif could see that something was going on. Later on, when he found out, they were arrested. Since the SPLM is one Movement, they had to be sent to the South, to go for the High Court Marshal.

You know; if there is anything wrong in the Movement, they usually don't act. The court for example: the judgments are not done immediately. What they do: they just keep people in prison, waiting for them to change their minds. They just keep them there and over time they ask them whether they still don't think what they did was wrong. But usually they don't act immediately - like executing people: they don't do it usually, except when there is a coup from within. Still the leaders usually won't execute members of the Movement, because it can devide the Movement again. In some very few cases they actually did a firing squad for people. Of course for soldiers and non commissioned officers they did it sometimes to set an example.

But for that mission… was it over or not? The situation was very confused, so some people thought that it may not be the right time to go ahead. The coup, the split; it was a very serious situation. Finally they decided that we should go. It's a very long story, but the conclusion, basically:

We were briefed; some people said that Darfur was an isolated area, and a new area [for the SPLM]. We were not sure of anything that would happen there. As for any mobilization, [the Darfurians] were not aware of the SPLM vision and there were large differences: most of them were Muslims, and they were not part of the South. Yes, we had other areas like that - Nuba and Blue Nile - who had joined the Movement, but that wasn't the same. [The people in Darfur] didn't think the black would one day rule the country; they didn't even consider themselves to be Africans. But Dr. John was convinced. He said: "there's a situation in Darfur, and this situation will explode sooner or later. So we better do it sooner than later." It didn't succeed of course.

In the end it exploded, and it's a horrible situation. How does the present situation in Darfur compare to the war in the Nuba Mountains?

Well, it isn't very different from what happened in the Nuba Mountains. It is only that in Darfur things were being planned for a very long time. They were prepared: the militias, the Janjawid. But it's the same thing: the Public Defence Force (PDF) and all that: it's the same. The difference is that in the Nuba Mountains the SPLA was strong enough to push the Government army and the PDF outside the confines of the Mountains.

The Darfurians have to do without mountains?

No, Darfur is all mountains - you wouldn't believe it: completely mountainous.

I thought it was flat… so the rebellion could have worked there as well?

It's working actually, but there are divisions within the fighting parties; that's the only problem.

[In 1991] it didn't work. We left in September and we had to come back in April. Six, seven months… and all of it was walking. Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic… Anyway: I came back. We came to the same basis from where we had left; the remnants of the force had to be organized and given to a different commander. We were to defend that area for some time; that was 1992, 1993, 1994.

Some of the things I was doing: I was commanding one of the liberated areas at the border with Zaire; I had to command some forces in Tambura County. Sometimes I was a logistician for the county, sometimes a Civil Military Administrator (CMA). Finance Officer at times, and all that. I was then called back to the Nuba Mountains as a commissioner, after the Chukudum Convention of 1994.

Chukudum was a landmark for the Movement. People from the Nuba Mountains walked all the way to the South to attend the convention. And it was a turning point for the way the Movement was structured. It had been a 100% militarized movement at first, and then by the time we had the convention, military and civilian structures were joint or mixed together. The civil administration in the liberated areas would be headed by a military person, but he would be working together with civilians. You wouldn't be 100% - that's why you had the CMA's. The SPLA also started to release some old officers and those who used to be administrators.

Dr. John was a philosopher you see. From time to time he took things… The Movement has its stages. It can not be stagnant; it has to change with the situation, with the experiences we gain as the Movement goes on. It shouldn't stop at any moment.

To stop is to be moving backward?

Yes. He believed there should be continuous movement, whatever happened; changes should be an input to the movement to make it move forward, and not backward. That was his idea. At some time the ideology was strictly communist, and when at some point it became more socialist oriented, Dr. John clashed with the progressive communist officers, who were put to prison and all that. Actually he was against the fundamental communists.

He didn't like the way countries like Russia had been run?

Yes; he basically was moving towards African Socialism.

Inspired by Nyerere?

Yes. And of course we had extensive socialist orientation in political school in Bonga. It was far better [then now].

You never went to Cuba, like Yousif?

Cuba was for the high ranking officers; actually the High Command at that time - like Yousif, like Lam Akol and others.

So in 1994, after the Chukudum Convention, they devided the military and the civil wings of the Movement. Yousif had done this in the Nuba Mountains in 1992, after the split in the Movement in 1991. When those officers (Yunis Abu Sudur and Auwad Karim Kuku, NotE) tried to defy the Movement in the Nuba Mountains, he called for something like a convention, I would say. At the end of the day, when all those people had come, it was agreed that this would be the Advisory Council - like a parliament.

The split and the isolation were issues that came up unexpectedly, and they needed the consensus of the people. That's why Yousif called for that council - and then it continued to be an annual event. The council was discussing all other issues of war; the services, the structure and the administration of the liberated areas in the Nuba Mountains.

Yousif separated the civil administration from the military, and this was replicated at the National Convention of the Movement. That's why he was chairing the convention; he wouldn't say of course that the Movement took from his model to use it, but actually it was very successful. Dr. John was very impressed. He never visited the Nuba Mountains until the All Nuba Conference in 2002, after the signing of the cease fire. So he was impressed that, even though he wasn't with them, the Nuba people continued to believe in the Movement and that the vision as successful and all that. It was an example for everybody.

After the convention [the leaders of the Movement] said they would separate the military from the civil service. They actually designed the structure of the Civil Authority of New Sudan (CANS), and then they appointed the commissioners, governors, liberation councils at all levels, congresses. That was the structure. (There were five regions, that were subdivided into counties; payams and bomas, NotE)

But Yousif Kuwa was still both Governor of South Kordofan and a commander…

In fact the governors of the regions were civil servants who maintained their position in the military. A governor still had his position of commander, but he would have a Front Commander appointed next to him who would be in charge of the military. [For that purpose] the military was divided into six fronts, each with a Front Commander, who would be in charge of the forces. In the Nuba Mountains that was Ismael [Khamis Jelab].

From that time, since we went together to the other part in 1991, Abdelaziz didn't come back [to the Nuba Mountains]. The attack failed; we didn't make it, and from 1992 Abdelaziz was like a logistician for the Movement. And when the idea of the New Sudan Brigade came up, he was to command the forces at the Eastern Front.

After the convention they had to form the civil administration, and Yousif's idea was that the educated people should be released from fighting to come and manage the liberated areas; to be administrators and everything. He was the Governor [of South Kordofan] and then he appointed commissioners for the counties. It actually didn't work, because the fighting was still going on, and the administration - you know, there was no infrastructure, there were no offices: there was nothing. It was just not possible to do the work.

So in 1994 I came to the Nuba Mountains, and it was almost January, as a commissioner. But there really wasn't much to do. We were just called to the headquarters from time to time for meetings with the officials. In the early days it didn't work very well. I was supposed to go to Lagowa County; and the main idea was to give the people the idea that the administrator shouldn't necessarily be from the region, and that it shouldn't matter whether he was Christian or Muslim: it shouldn't be an issue. That was the main idea of commander Yousif at that time.

You are a Christian and Lagowa is Muslim…

Il'd say the County is 100% Muslim.

It didn't work?

No; I didn't go. It was just difficult. Most of the commissioners didn't go [to their areas] actually. Like Suleiman Adam Bakheit: he was in Cairo at the time, but he was also appointed as a commissioner. He didn't come. The first time he came to the Nuba Mountains was in 1997; he was a commissioner in exile. Yousif realized that these things were not working very well; he thought maybe it would need people from the area [after all], typical civilians who can deal with the small issues.

By that time, between 1994 and '95, I was chairing the NRRDS committee (Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society, NotE), which was formed by the Advisory in Debbi, early 1995. The Council had formed a technical committee, which elected the members of the organization, the board of directors. I was chairman for one year, then Mohamed Haroun Kafi, who had recently joined the Movement, was the director. Mary James (Daniel Kodi's wife, NotE) was there as part of the NRRDS staff in Nairobi - so Mohamed Haroun; Mary James; Ouwad Fatum; his wife; Mohamed Haroun's wife and then we had Rifat Rahmatallah, he died some time back, and Mojo, who is now in Australia.

NRRDS was a member of the Network for East African Relief (NEAR), a consortium of international organizations. Norwegian People's Aid (NPA); New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC); Christian Aid; African rights - those of Alex de Waal and Yohanis; Nasir Community Development Agency and others. NRRDS was an indigenous organization in this consortium and I was the chairman. We were basically involved in the issue of bringing people from outside to the Nuba Mountains. The first plane came in 1994, that of this Hugo [D'aybaury]; the first person who came to the area of Brham. He landed and…

Wasn't that the film maker who demanded that no one else should come to film in the Nuba Mountains, so he could make a lot of money off his exclusive footage?

Yes, that was the story. We actually don't know what became of that film…

You can buy it. It is called "The Right to be Nuba" and you can order it from the internet.

He never sent anything back to us, but it would be important to have it, because it was the first documentation. Mohamed Haroun helped him to come. I was on my way to the Mountains at that time; I came walking from the South. We started in Tabari: we were opening airstrips and all that, and we started talking to whoever was able to come in. You know, it was a clandestine operation at that time; we only had a very small plane of 700 Kg. [It was just big enough] to bring personal for an assessment by NEAR we were involved in, before they could do their program.

They got the funding and the implementation for on year: 1995 to 1996. Even though it was in its early stages, NSCC also came in. We talked to them; they brought some medicine. They were distributing drugs like relief. Of course everybody needs it… if you are sick or not. All of them were sick; years without treatment. So whatever tablets they were handing out, everybody would take them. Hahahaha. Anyway, later it was organized, because Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Holland was also a member of the consortium. It was a very clandestine operation; they wouldn't say that they were operating here.

I came across a document on the internet that showed how MSF was receiving money from the Dutch Government to operate in the Nuba Mountains.

Yes, that's true. When I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I knew MSF was getting money from the Dutch Government. MSF Belgian and MSF Holland were working together in one office, but MSF Holland was working here in the Nuba Mountains. They were getting money from the government; Novib (a Dutch NGO, also known as Oxfam Netherlands, NotE) was behind the whole thing of course.

It was an emergency situation. People were in a very bad shape. Many of them were naked. There was no salt, there was nothing, there was nothing, there was nothing. We were just desperate for anything. At the same time, when we wanted anything, we didn't want to be humiliated, and we didn't want to be used. But the consortium used the situation, and they wouldn't do things the way we wanted. Actually the point of disagreement was that the coordinator of the Network wanted to use this 700 Kg. plane for everything, while there was a lot of money - millions of money. The program had a big budget; it included money for agriculture, education, communication, human rights and all that.

Who secured the funding? Did you personally talk to governments and organizations or was it through NEAR?

No, those were very strong organizations. NPA was a non-OLS (Operation Lifeline Sudan) organization at that time, and it believed in operating in areas where the United Nations (UN) wasn't. That was part of their objective. But the mandate of the consortium was also: why should the UN operate in the South, and not in the North - even where there is a war, like in the Nuba Mountains? Even Blue Nile: up to very recently the UN never went there. So the argument was: what is the difference?

If relief [to the civilian population in a war affected area] is a human right, then the people of the Nuba Montains have the right for the UN to help them - regardless whether there is an agreement [with the Government of Sudan] or not. Of course there should be an agreement to secure the safety of the operation, but if the government refuses to make an agreement for the Nuba, then this is against the Human Rights Charter. There are people in a war situation who are denied the right to this service.

It has been an issue with the UN for years. The UN needs legality to work somewhere, but of course people in that situation already have the legal right to get that service. So that was the legal mandate why [the members of NEAR] operated in the Nuba Mountains. We also had the backup of the NSCC, the backup of the churches; we had the backup of the confirmed human rights violations: especially 'The Secret War', the documentary by Julie Flint, and 'Facing Genocide' by African Rights had a lot of impact.

All this made a generous funding available?

Yes. It was part of the advocacy campaign we did. But also of course we had…

Anyway, what happened by the end of 1996 was a very simple thing. That small plane happened to bring secondhand clothes and then [the people receiving them] realized that some of the secondhand clothes were underwear that had like blood on it. It wasn't even washed. This disturbed a lot of people and it created a lot of protest. The issue went to Yousif Kuwa, and he said: "yes, we are in need, but we want things in dignity, and whoever is supporting us should respect our dignity. We cannot give these things to anybody; they will no be accepted, even if the people are naked." So this issue blew up the whole consortium. Hahahaha.

So there was a meeting in Nairobi. Actually I didn't go, but Yousif was there and he said: "thank you very much for everything. We very much appreciate what you have done, but we wouldn't like to close our eyes and continue to send just anything. We will make a transition, for you to hand over to the new organization: Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Developmet Organization (NRRDO)."

The good thing was that, even though there was no consortium anymore, the previous members all became partners of the NRRDO. It had been only the coordinator, Mell Middleton, messing things up. He wanted to enrich himself so he didn't do things in a transparent manner. He was very close to someone in MSF Holland, a director who later on had that small plane. He wanted to use that small plane for everything; get all the money back to him. And we didn't like that idea. We told him: "we know the security issue is a problem, but we can go around it: we can take a bigger plane, at least 2.5 tons, instead of those 700 Kg's. It didn't work because just 700 Kg's of relief could do nothing.

The people in the Nuba Mountains must have wondered: 'NRRDS gets a lot of money from the consortium; why don't we receive any relief?'

Yes. Just 700 Kg.: that was the main reason. So there was a transition from NRRDS to NRRDO, and Yousif thought that I should go to Nairobi as the new director, to manage the operation from there, because it wasn't easy and all that. I had to establish the office - there was no office, there was no system. The previous directors hadn't been there for long. Mohamed Haroun was director in 1994: during the establishment of the organization, he had been writing the constitution. But they had problems: they would be given money, and then they wouldn't report it and all this.

In 1995 Haroun was followed by Yunis, but he was the same. He took money from Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), and he didn't account for it. He used to take - I don't know… the receipts were not proper. Ismael Khamis was chairing an investigation committee, and of course they found that the money was not there and that the receipts were not correct. So Yunis fled and he joined the Government. Both of them did.

Was it because they messed up in NRRDO that Mohamed and Yunis went to the Government?

Yes. Mohamed Haroun was one of the leaders. He had political problems with Commander Yousif because he wanted leadership, he wanted positions, but there was no way he would take that leadership anyway. He's not really a person to be here in the field, to command forces. He is someone who likes himself, who wants to be in a town - he wasn't the right person to do anything, hahahaha. Leadership demands certain qualities which he doesn't have. To be a leader you have to be a man of the people; when you're not with the people…. it's simple. And at the same time he wanted money, but in a guerilla war there is no money.

So he wanted all these things but he didn't have the qualities. That was the difference [with Yousif], and Mohamed continued working against him, until he finally decided to join the Government. He founded the Nuba section what, what, what… Nuba SPLA section - but these are rubbish things anyway.

And then Yunis: the same thing. He messed up in the organization. He was not able to account for the money, and finally the donors just pushed that he couldn't continue to mess up with the finances, because we needed the money for the people in the Nuba Mountains. And he had to join also, because there was nowhere else to go. We said "we understand the situation, but there is no excuse for messing up. If you want to have the job you have to do things the right way." They were given options; fighting was there, but he chose to go to the Government.

When I first landed in the Nuba Mountains in 1997, I was shocked by the poverty.

Yes, it was a real problem. People were naked, basic commodities were not there. But it was good that the communities were very supportive. They would take relief from here to there on their heads and all that. So the situation was bad but we basically managed to make it better, to sustain the situation until the signing of the cease fire.

People always complained that NRRDO wasn't doing enough.

That was there. They wanted everything to come at once. But we were only one organization, operating in an isolated region like this, only accessible through air - the costs of transporting these items [were enormous]. At the same time our staff was not skilled to keep the correct records and systems. There were no offices, and we were operating from another country. Those were the challenges and it wasn't easy to do everything 100% correct. Of course I heard the criticism, but I know that people don't evaluate events in their real terms.

The real success for us was to advocate for the Nuba Mountains, to advocate for the problems in the Nuba Mountains, and at least to keep access from the outside world to this region, up to the signing of the peace agreement. This is the actual success we had. If it comes to… We couldn't serve all these half a million people; all their needs to be brought by air, this was just impossible.

I've always wondered about the actual number of people in the SPLM controlled area of the Nuba Mountains.

It fluctuated during the war, depending on how the war went: the SPLA would liberate some areas, then they would be lost again. It fluctuated between two hundred thousand and half a million. I would even say at some point it dropped down to a hundred thousand. Later is has gone up to eight hundred thousand, when people started to return

In 2000, after the loss of large areas to the Government, my impression was that one or two more years of war would have finished the SPLM in the Nuba Mountains. There was so much frustration.

The Movement wouldn't have ended, for sure. The frustration was basically because of the prolonged war. But not only that: what depressed people in the Nuba Mountains, was that the military support from within the Movement didn't compare to the support to other areas. They received much more equipment and all that. Like Blue Nile for example: for the first time in 1987, a number of tanks was sent there to liberate that area. And later for the second time, when it was opened to the South. We didn't see a single tank coming to the Nuba Mountains.

The heaviest artillery we ever had was a couple of BM's - and they came very late. So there was the issue of support. The frustration was also caused by the prolonged period of fighting. These were people in need of support. In 2000 the situation worsened and the commanders were not really in charge as they should be. That was towards the time when Yousif was about to die. (He had cancer, and the illness was no longer controllable by that time, NotE) He was sick and he wasn't really around to do the mobilization. In 2000 he came with that senator, Bill Frist; we came together actually. Yousif could hardly move; he couldn't stand the bumping of the airplane.

Of course when Abdelaziz came, people had new hope that things would be alright. And it happened. There was more support; he brought back security, and then came the cease fire.

You remained director of NRRDO: were there many changes through the years?

Only the roles. The funding didn't change that much. In spite of some difficulties of course, with partners, with donors, we never had less than one million dollar for the Nuba since 1996. We never lost any partners, we never lost any money. In the early days, when we had relief and we had the intense, aggressive delivery, the budget went up to three million dollars. It was always large amounts, never less than one million.

But we were of course concerned about the capacity of the operation. The operation wasn't 100% the way we wanted. Of course it was understandable that we wouldn't operate in the same way as the large international organizations. They had their focus on the specific thing they wanted to do. But we had a big number of issues: NRRDO was about the only organization for the whole region. We were supporting the administration, we were supporting the military, we were supporting a number of… we were being pulled from different directions.

The roles changed: when we started, we registered as an indigenous organization; we were not a humanitarian wing of the Movement. We were performing two tasks: we did the implementation of the operation, but we were also authorized by the South Sudan Relief Agency (SSRA) to coordinate the operations. So the organizations [we were working with] were quite confused: we were an NGO (Non Governmental Organization), acting as a government body, coordinating like the SSRA. We kept telling them: it's just because of the situation.

Then I told Commander Yousif that the situation was too confusing and that we wanted to operate as an NGO only, as a regular charity - even though we had many people in the organization who were soldiers in the Movement.

We had a meeting in 1999: we brought all the administrators, and I gave this presentation: "look: an NGO is supposed to do this, and a coordinating body, a humanitarian wing of the Movement, is this and this and this." And Yousif told them: "you chose: do you want the NRRDO to be the SSRA for the Nuba Mountains, or do you want it to be an indigenous NGO?" They decided for themselves that they wanted to be an NGO.

From that time Yousif decided that he would create the Governor's Office, like the SSRA, to take over the coordinating things we did: issuing permits and all that.

How was your working relationship with Commander Yousif?

Yousif was very friendly throughout; we never had any problem with him. Even though he was not really directly involved, he was part of the discussions. Later on there were issues we didn't discuss with him, when things didn't go the way we planned. Especially the issue of money - Salih and all that. (Neroun is referring to a cash injection project in 2000 that went all wrong, NotE) It was very unfortunate, because Yousif was very sick at that time, very sick. People used that situation and we were isolated from taking decisions. The whole thing messed up the organization, it would have blown up.

What I understood is that Salih got the money, and instead of changing it from Dollars to Sudanese Pounds, he printed his own money - and then the real money was lost.

He printed fake money, but the real money wasn't lost. Still we don't know where that money is. Okay, what happened is this: there was a committee [to handle the money for the cash injection], basically formed by Yousif. Some of the members were from NRRDO, like Ali, Mohamed Omar, Arnu, and then you had Salih and others. I myself, I released the dollars, but I was not part of the exchange and the distribution.

The committee brought the boxes with money - it was about 80,000 dollars equivalent - up to here, in the Nuba Mountains. They had already distributed some of it, and the civilians found out that it was fake, it wasn't real money. When we came and opened the other boxes, the committee just said they didn't know it was fake. So we opened this case and we followed it to Salih and the man he was working with: Abdel Rahman El Amin.

I told the committee that this was a very serious issue, because El Amin could have bluntly said: "you, committee, have received this money; you should have said this is not the correct money and then I would have taken the responsibility. But you people, you received the money, and you signed against it."

We actually convinced El Amin to accept that he did it. And when he accepted, I told him we needed to recover that money. Salih said he had used part of the money for the Gorvernor's Office (Salih would be heading relief coordination at the Governor's Office, NotE); it came up to around 10,000 dollar. We said: "no problem; the donors accepted that, since the money was used and there were receipts for it - so let them just recover the balance." We agreed on how much El Amin was going to pay back, and how much Salih was going to pay. They would pay back in three stages.

The first amount we would get was about fifty million Sudanese Pounds. And this guy, he faked this fifty million. And he brought it. His condition was that I would handle it myself, only with Dr. Ahmed: we would count the money, receive it and sign against it. So we started. Dr. Ahmed started counting, counting all the notes, just looking at it, and then I realized that there was a difference between one of the notes and another one. When I checked, I checked, I found that it was fake.

What he had done: he had made bundles of fifty thousand, then he would put two real notes on the outside and one in the middle - and the rest was fake. So I called him: "Abdel Rahman, you cannot cheat us a second time! You already fooled us the first time, but now you're caught red handed. We're going to call the police right now, and you will carry this fake money on your head to the cells." First he wanted to deny: "no, no, this money is not fake!" but in the end he admitted it. Actually he did it in a very clever way, it was really very good, I still have that copy. It looked very nice, you would not differentiate it from the real currency.

At the end of the day we recovered like thirty million Pounds, which was sent to the Nuba Mountains and distributed to people here. But it didn't finish there, because the idea was that Abdel Rahman would recover this much, and then Salih would recover that much - and then Salih fled to Holland, and we wouldn't get the money.

Salih was the person who got me to the Nuba Mountains in the first place…

You know, we had visits to Holland with Commander Yousif in 1997, '98 and '99, to convince the donors and others about [the seriousness of] the situation. Salih was the first person we talked to, asking him to join [the SPLM], and to be a part of the operation that we had in Europe. And he did join, but then he turned out to be selfish.

How about you: what was your role in the cease fire?

Well, of course we went [to Switzerland] and negotiated the cease fire. It wasn't really a long negotiation; in fact it was very short, something like eight hours. The situation needed action, and Dr. John already had the idea of a comprehensive peace. He had already started thinking in this direction, that the war just took too long. He thought we should try if peace was possible in the Nuba Mountains.

I was one of the five negotiators. Apart from myself there were Abdelaziz, Daniel Kodi and two Southerners. We had Justin Yaac [Arop]; he used to be the head of the SPLM office in Nairobi - like the ambassador in Kenya. And there was George [Bureng Nyombe]; George is a minister now for international trade or something. So we were five in the negotiations.

Of course the cease fire was not a peace agreement: it was just cease fire to allow humanitarian intervention, to allow the UN to operate in the area and so on. And that objective was achieved. It just happened that the international community wanted to link the cease fire with an overall, comprehensive peace agreement. So it continued: there were not really any serious violations during that period of one and a half, two years. And then the negotiations for a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) were started.

The negotiations were based on a Declaration of Principles, that had been agreed upon earlier. They had been around in Abuja. It was a set of principles of how to address the conflict in Sudan. Later on in Machakos they agreed on the main protocols: the protocols for the resolution of the conflict. And then of course they got into the nitty-gritty, the details of the agreement: this is where we linked up.

Of course there was the negotiating body, where Abdelaziz and Daniel Kodi were in the process of negotiating. But when it came to the two areas (Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, NotE), we formed committees [for the different issues]. I was on the Aid Committee. In that negotiation, it didn't work; it didn't go far, simply because there was disagreement from the early days of negotiations in Karen [in Kenya, 2003].

At Karen the Government wanted to exclude [Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile] from the negotiations. Originally the protocol was limited to the border [between North and South Sudan] of 1956. So they wanted to resolve the issue of these areas separately - which was rejected. Dr. John said: "no, these areas are SPLM controlled areas and as the agreement should be comprehensive, so these areas have to be included in the negotiations. So we started from there, but it didn't get very far.

There was disagreement on the main cause of the problem. Some of them thought it was a matter of development and all that. We kept saying" "this is not really just an issue of development. The issue of development is all over the country: even in the North there is no development. This is about political issues that need to be in line with the principles: the issues of wealth sharing, power sharing; the issues of religion and freedom, the main issues of the protocols: security…"

What was the main issue for the Nuba Mountains?

Power sharing, wealth sharing, and definitely the issue of religion. In the discussion they would always say in these areas, the majority of the people are Muslims. But the issue is not about being a majority or a minority, but whether the people, even if they are Muslims, want Shari'a Laws to be applied, or not. In Nigeria, the majority of the people are Muslims, but they don't want to apply the Sahri'a. So that was the main issue.

Of course the agreement was not one hundred percent acceptable. [It would have been better] if the terms of the cease fire had been implemented also in the peace agreement: the same region of the Nuba Mountains. But the implementation changed the boundaries and the Nuba Mountains proper as we had agreed in the cease fire agreement was expanded to West Kordofan State. This complicated things.

The issue behind it is, that the Government didn't think in terms of regions per se - which in a way is correct. But because the situation had already exploded, it needed some time to rest. For these communities to live in harmony… they have to be accommodated in a way. It is not the same Sudan it used to be when there was no fighting and violence. That's why we wanted the region to be just within the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba and other groups had already accepted to be part of that region, and not to be joined with another state. Those are completely different communities, although there are some of them in the Nuba Mountains.

But anyway: the changes to the boundaries were part of the agreement; this is how it was negotiated. It was give and take: those were the concessions - in stead of giving parts of the Nuba Mountains to other regions.

It's not a final agreement.

Really, we are not counting on this agreement to be final or not, because there are other things that will happen in the interim period, which may sort out some of the issues. Like the issue of the Shari'a, like proper decentralization, and then the power to the centre… all these issues could be resolved. But this depends on whether the SPLM is strong enough, and in a position to change things.

We wanted a New Sudan; we would change everything: the government, human rights, al other things: we wanted change. And this - to have the vision of the Movement become reality - would only happen if the Movement would be able in one way or another to take over the government. This has not happened of course. And the model that Dr. John had in case it wouldn't happen, is that we should join them and to work within the government to make those changes.

That's how it is now: working together and influence that situation, and change it to be in favor of the New Sudan vision. A large part of the New Sudan vision is replicated in the peace agreement. Not 100%, but 85%, or 80%. The principles of power sharing, equal rights, even the issue of religion is worked out - at least for the South. If the people in the North want Shari'a for them, then that's quite al right. And if the people of the South don't like it, there is no point.

And actually we wanted this also to apply to us: if the Nuba want it, let's go for it, and if they don't want it - well… But we still have that opportunity, with the elections. If the people living in the SPLM areas believe in this vision, whether they are Christians or Muslims, they will vote for the SPLM and then we will say no, and the Shari'a will not be there.

The SPLM will make religious tolerance one of its spear points towards the national elections?

Yes. That is the strategy we are using, and of course to change the policy of the country. All this will depend on whether the people of Sudan accept the Movement to make these changes. The Government was not good, and so we want to be part of governance if we feel that we are able to change the situation. If it doesn't happen, of course it will be very hard.

How about the security issue?

The situation is a combination of different events, starting with the death of Dr. John; the formation of the structures of the new governments, and the frustration in the implementation of the agreement. The population wants this dividend: they want to see something that could make them say: "oh, this is the result of peace". If it isn't there, they will be frustrated. But there will always be those scars of war; they are still there, and some people would like to reopen them.

Peace actually has its recessions: it's not going to be smooth. It has recessions and people have work towards it. If the people who signed peace, actually believe in peace, then definitely they will work towards it, and it will happen. But if they don't believe in it, and they have a different agenda, then it will not happen

The two parties in South Kordofan don't seem to be ready to bridge their differences: rather than solving their problems here, they take them to the Presidency. I feel the process will get stuck this way.

The agreement [for the Nuba Mountains] had gaps; there were gaps that were very clear. If the mechanisms for the implementation of the agreement had been very detailed, and if all the issues of the agreement had been detailed, the implementation would have been easier. But of course there are gaps. They were very clear from the beginning.

There was no way to negotiate them out?

It would have prolonged the negotiations of course, but in fact we would have wanted the agreement to be detailed enough not to leave room for any maneuvers.

Then why the impatience? You had been fighting for 18 years…

Well, this was the nature of how this peace was concluded. Everybody was waiting for the comprehensive peace to be concluded, so the nitty-gritty of the agreement was not really worked out.

There was a lot of pressure.

Pressure! And people were waiting for peace to happen. It happened, but without details. So on the ground, the two parties have to sit down together, to see how these gaps can be breached. So far this didn't happen, and it isn't helping the situation.

You're appointed as the minister of Rural development and Water Resources in South Kordofan State. Are you happy with the appointment?

For me personally… I wasn't looking for a [government] job. Others may need the money but for me that wasn't a problem. For quite some time I've been paid; I've been visiting all these countries… It's not really a matter of going for a post, unless you can make things better. If there is no room to make any changes, then it's just… But you can't just take it for granted that change will not happen. I don't want to do that, so I'll try. Yes, I will try it, and if it doesn't work - that's it.

You are working on your post doctoral studies: how do you see your future?

We want to achieve the objectives of the Movement, the New Sudan vision, and I want to be involved in that. Not necessarily by being in the government; when I was working in NRRDO I was making sure that I could contribute to it. That will be the direction, whether in the government or anywhere else. Even in a possible academic career I would make sure that I would be working towards the objectives I believe in.

Interviewed in Lueri, on April 1, 2006.


The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
You can contact me here.