Nuba face destruction

Julie Flint makes a terrifying 150-mile trek through Sudan's front line where troops are raping and killing an ancient tribe and destroying their crops. Here, hunger is now a weapon of war and scorched earth tactics an engine of annihilation.

by Julie Flint
The Observer
Sunday May 7, 2000

In a few weeks, barring miracles, the children will begin to die - if not from hunger, then from disease. The skin on their upper arms is already falling into folds as hunger kicks in and the pounds begin to melt away.

Most families are living in the open, without clothes, blankets or clean water. The mud hut that calls itself a hospital contains nothing but flies. The young man in charge, a farmer turned health worker, says 200 children and 50 old people are already in urgent need of medical care. He is treating them with tree leaves and bark, but he needs anti-malarials and antibiotics.

He shrugs. 'I am doing my best. But I know it's nothing.'

Less than a year after international pressure forced Sudan's Islamist government to allow United Nations relief into the Nuba mountains for the first time in more than a decade, Khartoum is attempting to put the Nuba beyond the reach of relief by cutting off all access to the mountains and starving civilians out of areas controlled by the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

In the past two months, moving in whenever UN teams move out, government forces have captured two of the three rough airstrips that make relief operations possible and have mounted a surprise assault on some of the Nuba's most productive land around the village of Tabanya.

The UN's silence has been almost as shocking to the Nuba as the attack on Tabanya that displaced 15,000 people and propelled them towards Kadoro - a mountain village of 150 families that has shared its own meagre supplies for more than a month and now has nothing more to offer.

'The UN's own first mission to the mountains was heavily shelled - but it has never said a word of criticism of the government,' said Walid Hamed, assistant to rebel commander Yusuf Kuwa.

'When it comes to the government, the UN is on its knees. All we are asking is equal treatment so people can decide freely whether they stay in SPLA areas or go to the government. But the government has the upper hand and the UN system is keeping silent.'

The Nuba are now in their thirteenth year of struggle for a democratic, secular state in which the country's African south would be the equal of its Arab north. Since the fundamentalist generals of the National Islamic Front came to power in 1989, an attempt to defeat the Nuba rebellion has grown into a scorched-earth holy war of annihilation against a people whose tradition of political and religious tolerance threatens the Front's whole project of a conformist Islamic extremism.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Nuba starved out of the mountains are imprisoned in 'peace villages' where men are armed and compelled to fight against fellow Nuba; where children are separated from their parents and conscripted into Islamic militias; where women are raped to dilute Nuba ethnicity. Nuba who refuse to leave SPLA-controlled areas are being driven off the fertile plains and into the mountains where survival is a daily struggle. Even the UN acknowledges that women venturing down to the government-controlled plains to fetch water and mangoes are subjected to rape 'often of the most horrendous kind'.

As evidence of human rights abuses piles up, the government promises relief but fights with the oldest, and cruellest, weapon in its arsenal - hunger.

Rahila Kuku, a mother of five, was put to work gathering in the sorghum that was thick in the fields surrounding Tabanyaat the time of the attack on the village on 17 March. She says hundreds of prisoners, working at gunpoint, stripped the sorghum fields bare and loaded every grain on to trucks bound for government garrisons in other parts of the mountains.

Rahila escaped to Kadoro after being raped repeatedly over a month, but at the hospital has found only words of comfort - not the painkillers she wants. She says her body still hurts from the beatings she received and her breasts are sore. She suspects she is pregnant. If she is, she says, she will not harm the child. 'It's not his fault.'

Phoebe Tutu fled to Kadoro with nine children and a jerrycan when the first government troops attacked Tabanya at 4am. Forced off Kadoro mountain by hunger a little more than a week ago, she joined a group of 30 women foraging for food on the edge of government-controlled areas a four-hour walk away. The women were ambushed and four died. Phoebe was shot and wounded. Reduced to one small plate of sorghum a day, all her children are suffering from diarrhoea.

The government's capture of Toro airstrip near Tabanya has put the displaced almost beyond the reach of help. The nearest airstrip is now 75miles away - a three-day trek up granite mountains and down valleys where water holes are drying up and government troops lay ambushes for defenceless civilians. On Easter Sunday, as the UN continued to turn a blind eye to the disaster unfolding around Tabanya five weeks after its fall, the first planeload of 4.3 tons of relief organised by the British charity Christian Aid touched down at an airstrip in the east of the mountains. It was the start of a 10-day round trip that required five camels, 250 porters and an armed guard of almost 100 men to be brought to a successful conclusion.

'At one stroke, the attack on Tabanya has cut people off from their harvest and also from easy access from outside,' said Christian Aid's Paul Savage. 'It now takes a huge logistical effort across insecure and dangerous areas to bring the smallest amount of help to the displaced. This is a planned and purposeful undermining of the Nuba's resilience and capacity to cope and exist.'

The toughest and most dangerous, part of the journey was the first leg - a 10-hour, all-night walk across a valley disputed by the government and the SPLA. Scouts preceded us and flanked us and in the middle of the night ordered a sudden change of route. Without warning, we left the rough track we had been following and took to the bush - looping northwards between thorn bushes and sweet-smelling acacia trees until we encountered a second, parallel track shortly before dawn.

Back in the safety of the mountains by the time the sun rose, we learnt that one of our radio messages had been intercepted and an ambush prepared for us by soldiers who the previous week had captured, and raped, two Nuba women.

The same soldiers climbed that same mountain the following week, under cover of darkness, and killed a Nuba farmer as he slept - the twenty-fourth civilian killed in random hit-and-run raids in the past month, according to Daoud Siddiq, head of a Nuba human rights team working in SPLA-controlled areas.

The second leg of our journey skirted the foothills of the Achiron mountains where government soldiers had kidnapped and then killed the headmaster of a local school a few weeks earlier. Shortly before reaching Dabker, the largest market in the region, our path was obliterated by a chain of bomb craters. The local SPLA commander, Ibrahim Mulfa, said government bombers went into action on 15 April exactly two hours after a UN team flew out of the mountains at the end of a campaign of polio vaccinations.

'No one was hurt,' he said, 'but a pig went down into one of the craters and died. We believe the government is using chemical weapons.

' SPLA officials have been obsessed with the idea of chemical weapons ever since President Clinton ordered the bombing of the al-Shifa factory in Khartoum in 1998, claiming it was part of a government chemical weapons programme. Nuba civilians know better. It is they who are being attacked, not the SPLA.

Zakariah Suleiman, an elderly farmer, was among those captured in the Tabanya offensive. For three days he was forced to work for the government forces.

'They burned all the far sorghum and collected all the near sorghum,' he said. 'They sent us out every day in large groups protected by soldiers. This is their weapon against us: hunger. They have taken everything from Tabanya - sorghum, beans, cowpeas and maize. Nothing is left.'

Like Rahila Kuku, Suleiman succeeded in escaping from Tabanya and fled to Kadoro - fully aware that he was running from hunger to hunger.

'I'm happy to be here whether I find food or not,' he said. 'I have left everything behind, but I don't care if I'm naked or clothed. Here I can go wherever I want to without asking for permission. It's not like over there, in Tabanya, where you are kept under guard and have to ask for permission even to urinate. I may die of hunger here, but I'll die free - not penned in like an animal.'