War in the mountains

Africa Confidential, Vol. 40 N°7, 2 April 1999

The National Islamic Front fears the Nuba revolt will derail its partition plan
The ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) has started a major new offensive against the Sudan People' Liberation Army in the Nuba mountains. Apparently alarmed at the success of opposition fighters in the Nuba mountains, President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir told a passing out parade this month for the People's Defence Force militias that the government intended to crush the rebellions in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile

NIF forces have recently attacked the rebels umbilical cord - the bush airstrips through which the SPLA brings in weapons, a minimum of humanitarian supplies and visitors to publicise their cause to the outside world. The SPLA's air-lifted supplies, at some US$ 10.000 a charter plane, are tenuous and expensive ; it currently gers only marginal external support, mainly from Uganda. Indeed one SPLA official told Africa Confidential they planned to raise funds by exporting agricultural commodities grown in specially designated farms.

Prisoners taken by the SPLA say government troops have been ordered to crush the Nuba rebellion within three months. Ismael Khamis Commander of the SPLA4S 5th Division in the Nuba mountains, says : "Their intention is to cut us off from the world so that the Nuba are not on the agenda at the coming Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) talks, and they just talk about the problem of southern Sudan."

Backing the south
Nuba leaders believe Khartoum wants to divide the SPLA by agreeing to self-determination for southern Sudan, but not for the 48.000 square kilometres of the Nuba mountains, which are defined as within northern Sudan. Many Nuba are Muslim, and the government is thought to fear that concessions to them would encourage rebellion among the north's other marginalized peoples in Darfur, the Red Sea Hills and Blue Nile province. Yussef Kuwa, the Nuba rebel leader, believes that SPLA leader Colonel John Garang de Mabior is committed to Nuba self-determination. But many Nuba fear they would be left out of an eventual peace agreement. Kuwa thinks that possible, but argues that a separate southern state would at least give the Nuba a sympathetic regime on their southern border.

Both the Khartoum government and its northern Sudanese opponents are determined not to let the Nuba secede. The opposition vehemently re-asserted its opposition to Nuba self-determination in February, when the Inter-Africa Group organised a conference in Kampala, Uganda, on Human Rights in Sudan in the Transitional Period. One delegate suggested that the Nuba should be offered self-rule only if it was also offered to the Baggara Arabs who live in and around the Nuba mountains.

The NIF started attacking the Nuba bush airstrips in November, three months ahead of its usual dry-season offensive. From 28 November to 23 December, a government force estimated by the SPLA at 700 men tried to take the busiest and most central of the three strips, Zulu 2, near Koya village. The attack was driven back after three days of fighting, 5 km short of the airstrip; but that was close enough to let the government artillery move up within range, to Tebari village, and Zulu 2 was closed in February. Alternate Commander Youssef Karrar claims the government attackers left behind three mass graves, several artillery pieces and a 122 mm howitzer, while the SPLA lost only seven men from a total force of 280. The rebels also claim the commander of the government's 10th Brigade, Brig. Abdul Halim was killed by one of their mines on the el-Obeid-Koya road, outside the garrison town of Um Sirdiba.

Government troops had taken Um Sirdiba in 1994 ; in January the rebels failed to recapture it but claimed to have killed 25 government soldiers and taken 25 prisoners, several rifles, a machine-gun, a rocket-launcher and a light mortar. The SPLA adds that, in January, it lost three men when repulsing an attack on another airstrip near Tajjura ; a captured government flag flies high in the nearby SPLA garrison of Gidel to encourage young recruits. A third airstrip is so far safe from attack, and the rebels hope to find a location for a fourth. On 16 January, arguing that 'attack is the best means of defence', they tried to pin down the NIF forces by attacking their garrison at Buram.

The government has tried to take Tima, birthplace of Commander Khamis and backbone of the rebel movement in the west. The SPLA claims that it killed 50 NIF troops in three attacks there, two in November and the third on 14 January. "Government morale is very, very low because we have managed to contain the offensive this year", said Khamis. He claims that NIF soldiers are deserting, and that the local Arab ethnic groups are no longer keen to join the government side; "Now, if we have prisoners, we don't kill them. We treat them well and give them the choice of joining us or going back. Up to now, no Nuba have said they want to go back. We have one Arab who wants to return to his family, and we will be releasing him shortly.

The United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan is not allowed to operate in the Nuba areas controlled by the SPLA, but some small civilian relief agencies defy the ban and try to help the 300.000 Nuba thought to have remained there. Last May the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was assured by the Khartoum government that OLS would be allowed to send an assessment mission to the mountains, but it has still not arrived. Commander Khamis thinks that Khartoum's early offensive had a secondary motive of keeping the UN out. 'Khartoum's promise to allow the UN to come was a delaying tactic. The government is using food as a weapon here. Although the rainy season was good, some people affected by last year's famine were weak and unable to cultivate. Some areas have been burned by government troops. They are fighting an economic war.

The SPLA estimates that 5.000 people left the mountains last year in hope of finding food on the government side. Nira Suleiman Bashir, women's Coordinator of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society, said some have risked their lives to return. 'They said the government gave them only one small container of sorghum and some sugar on the first day. After that, they had to work to get food. You wash clothes for them, you clean he houses for them. Sometimes, the enemy uses them for sex.

The rebel area's only hospital is small, run by the German Emergency Doctors at a secret location in the eastern jebels. It was evacuated from Kauda in November, when NIF troops advanced on the town but failed to capture it; Earlier, two people were killed outside the hospital, and its water system was destroyed, by what are thought to have been 500-pounds bombs dropped by Antonov aircraft. Dr. Sebastian Dietrich of GED claims the hospital was deliberately targeted. He bitterly criticises the UN's failure to challenge Khartoum's veto on relief to the Nuba, accusing it of complicity in the war. He says the UN children's Fund refused a request for vaccines 'because the Nuba mountains are out of the OLS area. I think it is a scandal'

At a recent meeting with OLS officials in Nairobi, the rebel leader Kuwa warned the SPLA 'could not permit' the UN to continue supplying government-held areas but not rebel-held areas, 'It would be agreeing to commit suicide', he told African Confidential 'They should help both, or help neither'. He did not spell out what action he would take, but hinted that SPLA guns could move up within range of the government-held capital of South Kordofan. Kadugli, where Nuba civilians who have moved out of SPLA areas are given UN food aid in 'peace camps', before being transported outside the mountain region.