Visiting the Nubas
The Mountains People Time forgot

by David Orr
Observer via RBB, 21 Aug 1994

...Photographer Jack Picone and I had both travelled before in southern Sudan, covering the rebels' struggle for survival against government forces. But we had repeatedly failed to find a way into the Nuba Mountains, which lie deep within the war-torn interior of one of the world's most inaccessible regions.

For more than a decade, only a few outsiders have been allowed into the mountains by Khartoum, and those visits have been on its terms only. The only access now is across rebel territory but, with the government in control of the South's main towns, security cannot be guaranteed...

This summer we eventually secured a promise from Youssef Kuwa, the SPLA commander for the Nuba Mountains. There are no safe airstrips in the mountains but if we could find our way to the lowland hamlet of Periang, 500 miles northwest of the Kenyan border, an SPLA escort would try to take us in on foot...

With the advent of each new dry season, government troops and locally recruited tribal militias advance into the countryside, burning villages. Whole communities are displaced and crops abandoned. No one knows how many hundreds of thousands have died from fighting, famine and disease.

The conflict spread to the Nuba Mountains with the infiltration of the region by the SPLA in 1985 and the establishment in 1987 of a Nuba SPLA battalion. Khartoum's increasing control of the Nuba was intensified in 1989.

The Nuba Mountains - 30,000 square miles of emerald hills, craggy massifs and fertile valleys - are home to more than a million people who practise a mixture of Christianity, Islam and traditional beliefs, and speak more than 50 dialects from 10 language groups. Little is known about the origins of these farmers and herders except that they are indigenous to Sudan and migrated here many centuries ago with the onset of Arab expansion into the interior.

The echo of automatic gunfire and the explosion of mortar rounds became familiar accompaniments during the latter stages of our 100-mile route into the mountains.

The Nuba village where we spent our first night was attacked soon after our visit. In a makeshift clinic we were shown a middle-aged man who had been shot through both legs while trying to protect his cattle. His thigh bone was shattered and he seemed to be in great pain, but there were no drugs for his treatment. His leg would be set by the local witch doctor.

We saw countless villages which had been razed by marauding government soldiers and Arab militias earlier in the year.

The family of Zacharia Kuku had suffered an all-too-typical fate when their homestead was attacked early one March morning. Two of six children had been captured; a third, an unsmiling little boy, was permanently disabled after a vicious beating by soldiers who had left him for dead. They had lost their cattle and were having a hard time scratching a living from their stone-walled plot of land.

This is harvest time in the Nuba Mountains and the people did not want for food. What they desperately lack, however, are medicines and clothing: they go naked or in rags. The UN says no aid agency has been here in more than a decade. There are no hospitals and no doctors...

Physically unable to retrace our steps through the mountains and swamps, we solicited rebel help to carve an airstrip out of a piece of flat bushland in the hills. We sent a coded message by hand-cranked radio to northern Kenya and SPLA security clearance was eventually secured. We lit fires to show our position and an aircraft flew in to take us out.

It was, said the Canadian former fighter pilot, 'the hairiest landing' he had ever made. Perhaps some enterprising aid agency can use this airstrip to deliver the medicines so urgently needed by the Nuba.