Who shall hear the cry of the Nuba?

by Charles Omondi

July 1996 (Africa Watch) In spite of Sudan government's insistence that there is no war in the Nuba Mountains, the local people continue to suffer. Everyone looks forward to a day that they shall cast away fear of unceasing bombing and heavy shelling from government forces. There is enough evidence of the systematic genocide perpetrated by the government of Sudan on the Nuba people. Unless their cries are heard, the Nuba people will be silently wiped out.

When a comprehensive documentation of the struggles of the Nuba people against the minority Khartoum government is finally done, one name that is certain to feature prominently is Fr. Kizito Renato Sesana. A staff member of the Nairobi-based Sudanese Catholic Information Office (SCIO) operating under the direction of Msgr. Caesar Mazzolari, Apostolic Administrator of Rumbek, Fr. Kizito has devoted so much of his time and energy to these oppressed people that he has become part and parcel of their lives and their struggle.

However, his crusade almost came to an abrupt end last June when he visited the Nuba Mountains in the company of four church workers and Mr Jean Helene, a French journalist based in Nairobi. A bomb by Sudanese government soldiers missed their plane by a whisker after the tense atmosphere and sickness forced him to cut short his intended one month stay.

True to his never-say-die spirit, Fr. Kizito had by then visited on foot the areas of Kauda and Lubi, about 70 km from the Teberi airstrip where the entourage had landed. "People there had not seen a priest and a white person for the last 15 years and Christians of all churches as well as Muslims gave me an extraordinarily warm welcome," he recalls.
Indications were, however, rife that all was not well. On June 30, Fr. Kizito says, there was shelling from the government garrison of Aggab towards Teberi, 30 km away. It was all too clear that the news about their presence had reached the ears of the Khartoum government.

"The following day a heavily armed military party of about 25 vehicles and 1, 000 soldiers moved out of Aggab with the evident intention of going to Teberi," says the Catholic priest.

War Takes Toll With a series of ambushes, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers, forced the government forces to divert to Debi, about 12 km from the airstrip, he says. "On July 5, the government soldiers were under siege in Debi."

The SPLA which controls most of the southern Sudan, has for the last 13 years fought the Khartoum Government, seeking a say in the running of the affairs of Africa's most expansive state. The war has, to date, claimed more than one million lives, maimed hundreds of thousands of others and displaced an equally large number of people.

Ironically, on July 4, the government-controlled Radio Omdurman was at 3.00 pm heard by members of Fr. Kizito's team as hailing "the Nuba people for living in peace and co-operating with the government". He said that they had to keep the volume of the radio very high to hear anything against the backdrop of the thunderous noises made by the heavy shelling.

Fr. Kizito was then a sick man in the jungle-like environment where the presence of a medic is virtually unheard of. He suffered from severe food poisoning, and was unable to eat for five days. But the struggle had to continue and by July 6, all but the French journalist were at Teberi airstrip ready for a flight back to Nairobi. Jean Helene, a reporter with long association with Africa's troubled spots, had ventured into other distant areas within the Nuba Mountains.

As if the government was monitoring his every movement with a resolve to ensure that that was his last journey to the war-ravaged African state, shelling of Teberi resumed from Debi when they had assembled at the airstrip. "The first shell missed the aircraft by less than 100 metres," says Fr. Kizito who confesses that every member of the team was shaken.

"Even our vastly experienced pilot could not utter a word till after several minutes in the air when he said; 'that was a close shave'," he says with a chuckle.

By July 7, Fr. Kizito and his team were back in Nairobi where he has continued to hear the same old story of fighting in the Nuba Mountains. For instance, on July 10, an Antonov bomber reportedly flew over Regifi, Lugi and Teberi, dropping 12 bombs which, fortunately, missed their targets.

Fr. Kizito flew back to the Sudan on July 17 to pick up Mr Jean Helene in a provisional airstrip some 50 km from Teberi.

The priest whose contributions to the Nuba people are almost innumerable, maintains that the situation in the Nuba Mountains is dramatic, with a genocide in the making and appeals to all people of good will to intervene. The Khartoum government, however, insists that there is neither war nor the presence of the SPLA in the Nuba Mountains.

As to whether his works in form of video clips, print literature and information on the internet and the electronic mail have elicited the desired response from the rest of the world, he says: "It is not easy to give a precise assessment but indications are that there is some light at the end of the tunnel."

Petition to the UN

He gives the example of a recent petition by several international humanitarian organisations to the United Nations Organisation Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Yasushi Akashi, to address the plight of the oppressed Nuba, as a fairly successful initiative so far.
The appeal, to which SCIO is a signatory, was presented to the international press in Rome on July 9. Other press conferences will be held soon by the promoters of the appeal.

Among other things, the appeal points out how, for the past one decade, the Nuba people have faced a systematic genocide perpetrated by the Islamic government in Khartoum. "Innocent women and children have continually been captured by government forces, tortured, raped, enslaved and even killed in a bid to Islamize the Nuba people and erase any trace of their rich culture."

The appeal further expresses deep concern "that access by Nuba civilian populations to humanitarian assistance has been impeded, although the joint statement of September 15 between the UN and the Sudanese Government affirms the critical importance of access to all people in need of humanitarian assistance wherever they may be". (G.A., res 48/147).

It concludes by requesting the United Nations Security Council "to exercise, given the inaction of the Sudanese Government (G. A. res. 43/131), its right to intervene in the domestic affairs of Sudan for humanitarian reasons and, as needed, to use the instruments provided by the Chapter VII of the Charter (S. C. res. 688) to ensure the right to life to the Nuba people (art. 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1966; art. 12, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, art. 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)

Other signatories to the document are Campaign for Peace in Sudan (Italy), MISSIO (Germany), AFRICAN RIGHTS (UK), Africa Faith and Justice Network (USA), Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (South Africa) and KOINONIA (Kenya).

"The first official reaction to the appeal," Fr. Kizito points out, "came from Ms Emma Bonino, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid on June 26." Ms Bonino wrote: "The European Commission is fully aware of the serious humanitarian crisis in various areas of Sudan. Recently I saw in person the difficulties met by the international humanitarian action because of the obstacles of delivering relief to the people in some of the most affected areas. For this reason I express together with you the wish that the international community would find as soon as possible the modalities to open up, in all areas where there are emergency situations, corridors and areas where relief workers would act freely, protected by any kind of violence, intimidation or political conditioning.