The Nuba: Living on the Brink

by Julie Flint
23 July 1995 (The Independent)

THERE WAS little conversation on the plane. Khartoum had warned that anyone running its blockade of the Nuba mountains would "face the consequences", and the pilot, a European, was nervous, not at all reassured by the fact that each box of ammunition was camouflaged, in a thoughtful but ultimately meaningless gesture, in sacks marked "Sorghum". As the landing-strip appeared in the distance, defined only by an absence of goats, Yousif Kuwa Mekki, the man for whose benefit the flight was being made, had tears in his eyes. Two years is a long time to be away from the ones you love - especially when they are facing annihilation and you are kicking your heels in a city you hate, vainly trying to raise the alarm. But that was what Yousif Kuwa had been doing. A big, meditative man, formerly a teacher, he has been military and political leader of Sudan's Nuba rebels for 11 years, but since 1993 he had been in Nairobi, trying to drum up support - and waiting for an opportunity to return.

The Nuba mountains of central Sudan rise from some of the most fertile land in the country, black clay plains broken by granite crags and well- watered hills. Yet the people gathered to greet us were dressed in rags. Few had shoes, and many of the children were naked. For six years, the mountains have been sealed off from the outside world by government forces, and the isolation has taken its toll. Yousif Kuwa made liberal use of his handkerchief as he moved among the people, wordlessly embracing his officers. Even the pilot was moved. But these poor people were elated beyond measure that day in May, a day most of them had thought would never come. "We thank God for keeping Commander Kuwa safe. He has given us hope," an old man said as soldiers and civilians danced to an accompaniment of whistles, horns and drums and* women stamped their feet and sang: "Come, young men: push forward into the heart of the enemy!"

It was almost two years to the day since Kuwa had left the mountains, on foot, to attend peace talks in Nigeria between the Sudan People's Liberation Army and the Sudanese government. The talks failed. So too did Kuwa's attempts to alert the international community to the destruction of the Nuba peoples. The world has found the Nuba fascinating enough when they have been presented as cultural icons, through the photographs and films of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl; as victims requiring support and assistance they are merely an irritant, their cries for help almost entirely ignored by humanitarian agencies whose presence in Sudan is dependent on the good will of the government, on not pushing Khartoum to the brink.

The Nuba are already on the brink - an amalgam of African tribes located not in the tribal south of Sudan but in the Islamic north, just above the great fault line that divides both continent and country. As black Africans, the Nuba have suffered for decades at the hands of greedy northern elites who have monopolised power and seized much of their land; as a result, in 1985 they threw in their lot with the southern rebels of the SPLA, fellow black Africans who have been fighting the government since 1983. The Nuba rebellion, however, poses a more fundamental challenge to the government than the rebellion in the south. Not only are the Nuba part of the north, and so an example for other northerners, but they also have a tradition of religious tolerance that threatens Khartoum's ambition of establishing an Islamic state. And so they now face, alone, a genocidal war in which the international community, silent and submissive, is complicit.

AT FIRST encounter, the Nuba mountains are a place of pure enchantment. Hills covered with acacia woods and ancient baobabs rise from the plains like islands in a long-forgotten archipelago. Dawns break in a shimmer of light through which barefooted boys drive velvet herds. In the heart of the mountains, in a glade where clouds of green and white butterflies settled on the ground like snowflakes, young girls who had never seen a white woman before stroked my skin - "so beautiful!" - touched my hair - "so soft!" - and exclaimed in horror at the little scratches made by thorn bushes - "ayee!"

A collection of more than 50 tribes with different traditions, customs and languages, the Nuba live peacefully among themselves and know no discrimination of class or religion. Christianity, Islam and older, animist religions are all accepted and often found within a single family. Kuwa is Moslem, his wife Christian; their children will decide for themselves. "Inter-marriage between Moslems and Christians is permitted and anyone who preaches or agitates against it shall be disciplined," Nuba religious leaders declared last December at the end of a four-day religious dialogue conference held in the mountains after reports that some preachers had been making "divisive" noises. The conference also asserted that "all people have the freedom to practice games and leisure, including dancing and the consumption of alcohol, without undermining community values." To the fundamentalists in Khartoum, such a doctrine is anathema, but the Nuba are proud of their tolerance.

"We want to show the world that the Islam in the Nuba mountains is the true Islam," Kuwa told a cheering crowd after paying his respects to Christian leaders on the Moslem feast of Eid al-Adha. "God created us all. We are fighting for the freedom of every man, for every man to be free to worship as he chooses." Later, over a meal of roast pork and locally-brewed beer - merissa - that illustrated the Nuba's attachment to the spirit rather than the letter of Islam, he said: "I like the way our people have taken Islam, marrying it with local beliefs. The Arabs say if you drink you will get drunk and commit all the sins. But killing and stealing are not part of our culture, even though our social life is built on merissa."

Unfortunately, for the past decade killing has been increasingly hard for the Nuba to avoid. War first came to the mountains in 1985, two years after the SPLA uprising began; then, in 1992, the fundamentalist generals in Khartoum declared a jihad against the Nuba, and the fighting intensified. Today, cut off both from the rest of the country and from international aid, this tolerant, long-suffering region has been reduced to a shell. Many Nuba have fled, for survival, to the various garrison towns that government forces have set up in the region, drawn by the availability of international aid there. Others have been burned out of the mountains and driven at gun-point into "peace camps". Today, fewer than a quarter of an estimated 1.5 million Nuba remain in the rebel-controlled mountains, stubbornly defending their heterogeneous, non-Arab culture against a regime determined to remake Sudan in its own conformist, extremist, image.

Khalid Saleh, formerly a senior government security official in the Nuba mountains, sought asylum in Europe two years ago as a result of the atrocities he witnessed. Today he says: "The government has a policy of emptying the area and destroying the tribes so it can take over the land and the wealth of the mountains. The order given to the troops is to kill anything that is alive - to destroy the area and implement a scorched earth policy so that nothing living can exist there. The policy of the Islamic Front government in the Nuba mountains is the annihilation of the people, the annihilation of the tribes of the Nuba mountains without distinguishing who belongs to the SPLA and who is just an ordinary citizen. The 'peace camps' are like military camps: no one is allowed to go outside and men and women are separated. When there are children there is a Nuba tribe - and the government's policy is to finish the name of the Nuba."

ALREADY, much of the Nuba's past is irretrievably lost. Once there were giraffe, elephant and zebra (and, some said, the occasional winged devil) in the mountains. Today they are only shadows in the memories of old men and women. Once there was flourishing trade - and a degree of inter-marriage - with the indigenous Arabs, the Baggara. Today the few Baggara who still attempt to trade, bartering cattle for grain, risk death at the hand of government militias. Nuba markets have little to offer except dried okra, sorghum and prohibitively priced salt sold in minuscule quantities.

Once the Nuba farmed "far farms" on the plains. Today, Arab militias and merchant farmers have pushed them back to the thin soil of "near farms" in the mountains - and even these are under threat from government troops who are systematically burning villages that they cannot control. Destitute villagers who refuse to go quietly are then rounded up - "liberated", in government parlance - and taken to garrison towns and camps where privation, torture and rape are routine. Men are forced into government militias, women used as slave labour on farms.

The story of Ismael Abdullah Tutu, Hussein Haroun and Abdul Rahman Musa is typical of the Nuba's plight. The three men were captured in a dawn raid that burned their village, Kalkada, to the ground, and taken to the nearest garrison town, Mendi, where their life-threatening wounds were left untreated. Musa died after two days and Haroun after nine; although both were Moslems, they were buried without ceremony. Tutu, a father of three in his mid-thirties who is now back in the mountains, had had his left foot blown off and his right foot mutilated by a rocket-propelled grenade, but he was beaten when he asked for medicine. He succeeded in escaping on the 40th day, crawling for 36 hours with his knees covered in strips of bark.

What finally persuaded him to flee, he says, was not his own suffering, but the rape of his wife, who is still in Mendi. "They dragged her off, and when she came back she wept and said she had been raped. You ask me if I would take her back as my wife? Why not? Rape has become normal for us."

On Friday, African Rights, a human rights group, published a 350-page report on the Nuba's plight (Facing Genocide: the Nuba of Sudan). This claims that the rape of women is "a matter of policy" by the government, an instrument of genocide to transform the identity of the Nuba peoples. Fawzia Jibreel, a 17-year-old who recently escaped from Mendi, supports this view. She was captured along with 15 other members of her family and held in the town for three months. "After dark the soldiers came and took the girls to their rooms and raped them. I was taken and raped, but I refused to be 'married' to any of them. . . When you have been taken, the soldier who has taken you will do what he wants. Then he will go out of the room, you will stay and another one will come. . . Some lady, if she is raped by four or five soldiers, she will cry from pain. Then, if the soldiers are good, they will leave her. But others will beat her to keep her quiet, and they will carry on. It was impossible to count the men who raped me."

Ten-year-old Rashid Osman tells a similar story. He was abducted while herding goats, one of thousands of Nuba civilians seized while going about their daily business: collecting water, gathering fruit, going to market. After refusing to join a government militia he was made to work in soldiers' homes where Nuba girls were brought for sex. "The girls cried and shouted," he says, "until their voices died away."

Not only people are being violated in this "holy war" fought in the name of Islam. Places of worship are being desecrated. "At the beginning of the war they burned the churches, saying that only the Christians were against the government," says Bernaba Angelo, a Christian priest. "But now they burn both churches and mosques because they have discovered that Moslems sympathise with Christians in the Nuba mountains." Imam Adam Tutu Atrun, meanwhile, is compiling a list of Nuba mosques attacked by government troops: Kalkada, destroyed in February 1994; Kumu, burned and looted in February 1995; Um Derdu, burned in February and again in March; Toror, looted and desecrated in February. . . "This," he says, "is not permitted by Islam."

Toror, a predominantly Moslem village, was attacked in Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting. Some 250 villagers were kidnapped, from a population of only 1,950. In addition, according to the village leader, Sheikh Mohammed Zein, 12 villagers were killed in cold blood. By Khartoum's rules, this is not only acceptable behaviour, it is holy behaviour, a religious duty proclaimed in a fatwa issued in 1992: "An insurgent who was previously a Moslem is now an apostate. A non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam. And Islam has granted the freedom of killing both. . ."

THE Nuba have responded to this onslaught with a renewed spirit of co- operation among themselves. Since 1990, Kuwa has been developing a civilian administration whose achievements include an embryonic Nuba parliament, courts and scores of schools. Now, touring the mountains like a politician on the stump, fatigues exchanged for a suit and straw hat, Kuwa drove home his message of self-sufficiency in meeting after meeting with community leaders. "You must grow cassava! It needs a little rain. It can survive in the ground for two years, so is a good store if your villages are burned. And its roots can be used as chalk!"

This unity in adversity is the silver lining to the Nuba's ordeal. Until recently, the Nuba were united only by the name given them by Arabs - Nuba, or "blacks" - and by their common experience of exploitation at the hands of slavers, herders and, later, farmers who invaded the fertile plains of south Kordofan in search of animal, vegetable and human booty.

"At school we were taught the history of the Arabs, and when we were taught about ourselves, it was as slaves," Kuwa says. "In the Ottoman period there was a celebrated man called Zubeir Pasha Rahma. We were taught that he was a hero. In reality he was a big slave merchant. He kept people in thorn enclosures and sold them as slaves. Before the war, our people tried to deny being Nuba because it had a sense of backwardness, of being slaves and doing all the bad jobs. My own tribe, the Miri, always think the rest are Nuba and they are not Nuba. Until I reached higher secondary school I was told I was an Arab, and I believed it. If you told me otherwise I would have hit you!"

More than 30 years later, Kuwa is a passionate defender of John Garang's leadership of the Dinka-dominated SPLA and the equality that, he says, the Nuba enjoy within it. And yet it has taken him two years to get from the SPLA the weaponry without which he could not have returned to the mountains, and a suspicion remains, strengthened by the increasingly separatist agenda of some southern leaders, that the Nuba are not quite equal with the others. If the south ever does succeed in breaking away from the rest of Sudan, the Nuba will be left high and dry: an African enclave in an Arab state.

The consensus among civilians seems to be that "without the SPLA, Omar Bashir {Sudan's president} would have slaughtered us all"; but Kuwa acknowledges that the rebellion he has led has brought terrible suffering. In September 1992, after thousands had died of starvation and disease as a result of the government's scorched-earth policy, he formed an Advisory Council of 200 religious, community and military leaders and put the future in their hands. "We discussed for four days whether we should continue fighting or stop the war. I told them: the past is my responsibility, but from now on we will all be responsible. Do we continue, or do we stop? The people voted that war should continue."

The SPLA made many mistakes in its early years in the Nuba mountains, forcibly recruiting young men, looting and killing. Kuwa acknowledges these abuses, and has tried to stop them. He now insists that every soldier in the SPLA, himself included, cultivates his own land (helped by "taxes" paid, sometimes reluctantly, by civilians). Small abuses appear to be tolerated - the "liberation" of donkeys for use as pack animals, demands for merissa while on the march - but civilians are encouraged to report undisciplined soldiers and to expect action to be taken against them. We do not want the troops to force anyone, or impose anything on you, because they have guns," Kuwa told a group of civilians soon after his return. "If you come to know of any of our forces doing so, let us know. We will know what measures to take against them."

These are not empty words. Since entering the mountains in 1989 with his first troops, the New Kush division, Kuwa has paid as much attention to civilian as to military issues. In 1990, he summoned one of the few qualified nurses in the mountains - there are no doctors - to establish a clinic. Today there are 13 clinics, two health centres and a nurses' training school that has turned out 456 "graduates" without the benefit of textbooks. None of the clinics has equipment, few have medicines and amputations are often performed without anaesthetics. But Kuwa is philosophical: "In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king."

Twenty years ago in Khartoum, Kuwa was horrified to hear a Nuba friend's child tell her sister: "You are good singer. But unfortunately you are black!" Such a comment would be inconceivable in the Nuba mountains today. Here, despite all the hardship, there is a new pride in being Nuba: traditional religions are enjoying a revival and children are being renamed with Nuba names. In the areas I visited, Kuwa is loved.

"The Nuba are regaining their self-confidence and dignity," he says. "They are asking: 'Why should we be Arabs? We are Nuba. Why shouldn't we be Nuba?' I reject assimilation. I am going to rebuild my civilisation, and then I will forgive anyone who insulted me before."

The immediate future, however, offers only more war - geed up by a few tons of ammunition that are unlikely to turn the tide of battle, however great the will to win. The genocide in the Nuba mountains is not the instant genocide of mass murder, like the genocide in Rwanda: it is less visible, more protracted. But there is only one likely outcome if the international community continues to avert its eyes: the destruction of Nuba civilisation and the death of a tolerant society. the Nuba continue to take pride both in their identity as black Africans and in their tradition of tolerance.