My Trek with the Rebels of Sudan

By Dan Connell
January 6, 2000 (The Progressive)

I was lucky. I was supposed to fly from northeastern Kenya to guerrilla-held areas of central Sudan on February 8, but the flight was delayed for forty-eight hours because the relief supplies we were going to take with us did not arrive in time. That morning, government planes bombed a school in the very village I was planning to visit. Fourteen children were killed instantly; along with their teacher. A dozen more were injured. Two required amputations.

Now I am jammed into an aging, twin-engine British Andover with nineteen seated passengers and five tons of ramshackle cargo, none of which is tied down. Eight unarmed rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement are perched atop the jumble of bales and crates. They ding to metal joints in the plane's unlined shell as we jounce along the rutted runway to start our journey.

This is the first clandestine relief trip to the Nuba Mountains in more than a month. And it's the first ever to a newly constructed airstrip in Kawda. Sudan's Islamist military regime does its best to destroy each rebel landing site once it is discovered.

I'm traveling with a freelance charter company that ferries supplies for the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Organization--a shoestring operation run by local volunteers--and for a handful of European agencies that smuggle aid to the war victims over the government's strenuous objections.

The flight lasts two-and-a-half hours as we zigzag past a string of besieged government garrisons, staying just beyond or below their radar until we reach the steep ridges and serpentine valleys of the Nuba Mountains. Kawda looks deserted when the pilot circles to gauge the condition of the airstrip. That morning, rebel soldiers combed it for land mines and swept it clean of windblown debris.

Huge clouds of gritty brown dust billow around us as we touch down. Minutes later, we are surrounded by hundreds of people who materialize out of the desert scrub to greet us. Some have come to carry items of cargo to remote villages and rebel outposts in exchange for a bar of soap or an article of used clothing.

The austere economy in rebel-held areas operates on a barter system. When food runs out, people eat bark and wild plants. When clothing wears out, they go naked.

There are plenty of guns in Nuba. What there is precious little of is salt, clothing, medicine, and other basic commodities. This is what we carry.

The government's strategy is to force the Nubans out of their self-governing mountain redoubt and into "peace camps"--strategic hamlets where religious, cultural, and political reeducation are the price of relief. Since fighting began in this area fifteen years ago, nearly half of Nuba's estimated one million people have fled, many during a war-induced famine in the early 1990s. This led the London-based human rights group Justice Africa (formerly known as African Rights) to charge the Khartoum regime with genocide.

Nuba is only one front in an increasingly complex civil war that has raged intermittently since the former British colony's independence in 1956. What started as a conflict between the Arabized, Islamic north and the non-Muslim, African south has become a contest between a fundamentalist Islamic movement that now controls the country's center and a diverse alliance of peoples and political groups that challenge it from all directions. Estimates of the number who have died from war- and famine-related causes since fighting resumed in 1983 run as high as two million.

What is at stake is the country's identity--whether it is to be strictly Arab-Islamic or loosely multicultural and secular, and whether it can exist as one or the other within a single national boundary. The steadily escalating conflict has drawn in many of Sudan's neighbors--in the fighting and in efforts to promote peace--while involving the United States in an increasingly hostile confrontation with the current regime. However, the erratic character of U.S. policy has done little to promote a durable resolution.

This is my fifth visit to guerrilla-held areas of Sudan in the last three years. I come here to explore the single most costly civil war in the world today. In no other place has the death toll mounted so grotesquely--not in Bosnia, not in Kosovo, not in East Timor, not in Rwanda, not in the Congo, not in Colombia, not in Turkey, not in Sierra Leone, not in Sri Lanka.

After the plane drops us off, I move out of the valley with more than fifty people, mostly young women, who carry their heavy loads atop their heads, posture-perfect, African-style. Even with their burdens, they glide up the trail, darting in and out of narrow ravines and scampering over rock-strewn ridges. I struggle to keep up in the scorching mid-afternoon heat.

Two hours on, we reach the site of the bombing. Four thatched-roof adobe school buildings line the spacious clearing. Opposite them stands a tall tree under whose canopy are three rows of gnarled branches that served as benches for the youngest children. They were studying in the open air due to overcrowding in the four classrooms. A few yards away is a yawning crater where the nearest bomb landed. Three more craters mark a straight line that slices through the empty village. Residents have been hiding in the hills through the daylight hours ever since the attack.

The raid is widely seen as a reprisal against the population for harboring the Sudanese guerrillas, who carried out a successful attack of their own elsewhere in Nuba the week before. However, the school is sponsored not by the rebels but by the local Catholic parish. Many of the students are Muslims or Christians from other denominations. This is typical of this region, where some fifty tribal groups appear to live in harmony with one another, despite the storm of religious and ethnic conflict raging around them.

"The religious issue does not affect us," says sixty-four-year-old Kuku Arad, a Muslim and the secretary of the bombed school's eight-member parents' council. "Our children get lessons on Islam and Christianity at school, and both are on their examinations. In one family, you may find Muslims and Christians. This is not a problem for us. Religion is for God, not for the government. What matters to us is that our children are educated."

Arad is also the leader of his forty-two-member payam (district) council, elected two years earlier to administer the area and to assess local development needs. In the ten days I trek back and forth across the county, I meet representatives from numerous councils, as well as members of popular women's and youth organizations, church and mosque elders, and the acting governor. The local groups have organized farming cooperatives to feed widows and orphans, constructed a soap-making workshop, and developed an oilseed-pressing operation.

"The Nuba people joined the Movement because this was a closed area that was prevented from development," says rebel army commander Mohamed Juma, who walks twelve hours from his headquarters to reach Kawda. "During these sixteen years, we have gotten more freedoms--to say what we think, to develop our land for ourselves, to educate our children in our local languages for the first time. We try to take up tools as we take up arms, but our forces are always on standby. Our hope is for peace--a just peace and a new government--but we are prepared to maintain our positions and defend ourselves."

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with borders that touch Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya. It straddles the Nile and abuts the Red Sea, a location that made it the target of revolving-door superpower intervention throughout much of the Cold War. The United States alone provided more than $2 billion in arms--ostensibly to counter Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia, though most of the weaponry ended up being used in the civil war.

As corrupt civilian regimes alternated with both Soviet- and U.S.-supported military coups, the country slid into economic and social crisis. Then, in June 1989, days before a truce was to be signed that would have suspended the controversial application of Islamic law, General Omar al-Bashir seized power on behalf of the extremist National Islamic Front. The new regime quickly banned all political parties, trade unions, and other "nonreligious institutions." It imposed tight controls on the press and strict dress and behavior codes on women as it moved to restructure the entire society in its image.

More than 78,000 people were purged from the army, police, and civil administration, thoroughly reshaping the state apparatus, while dissidents were routinely detained in torture centers. Conscription of child soldiers became widespread, and forms of slavery reappeared when the government allowed its allied militias to raid rebel-held areas for booty, taking captured civilians with them. The National Islamic Front merged religious indoctrination and conversion with education, social services, economic development, and political mobilization. It used the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces to enforce Arabization and Islamization along narrowly sectarian lines. This provoked many Muslims to join the opposition, which gelled in the mid-1990s into a multi-ethnic and explicitly secular coalition, the National Democratic Alliance.

But it was not the regime's internal policies that triggered the break with the United States. Only after Sudan supported Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 and after it began to harbor international Islamist guerrillas did Washington respond. The Clinton Administration prohibited U.S. economic investment, increased antiSudan moves in the United Nations and other international forums, and isolated Sudan as a "rogue" state.

In November 1996, the Clinton Administration pledged $20 million in nonlethal military aid to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to counter Sudan's border intrusions. But the eruption of a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998 wrecked the front-line alliance, and half-hearted U.S. mediation has so far failed to achieve a lasting truce there. Meanwhile, the United States has opted for punitive actions aimed directly at the regime--such as the August 1998 bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum--because the United States suspected the Sudanese government of harboring terrorists associated with the renegade Saudi financier Osama Bin Laden.

At a highly publicized meeting with rebel leaders in Kampala, Uganda, last year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the opposition privately that military help would be forthcoming, but opposition members say they have heard (and seen) nothing since. A recent U.S. offer to provide food aid directly to the rebels has so far gone unfilled.

These gestures do little to weaken the Islamist government, but they lend credibility to its claims that it is battling not just indigenous opposition but also imperial American power.

Tucked away in a narrow canyon another hour's walk from my base camp is a hidden hospital run by volunteers from the only foreign aid agency operating in Nuba--the German Emergency Doctors, here since 1997. This is where the wounded children from the school bombing were carried. There are only three Europeans at the facility, which has more than a dozen Sudanese nurses, technicians, and midwives on staff, many of whom are in training. Most of what they treat is malaria, dysentery, and respiratory diseases.

"If they survive their first two or three years, their chances are usually good," says Tina Wolff, the lead doctor, who is nearing the end of her six-month rotation. "We put our main efforts into vaccinating the children and educating the mothers."

This scene contrasts sharply with other Sudanese rebel areas I have visited, where foreign aid workers are ubiquitous, relief is distributed freely, and most residents think "development" is a gift from others. Northeastern Kenya is the staging area for a massive, mostly legal, and generously funded relief effort in the southern territory held by the rebels. The bulk of this airlift comes under the U.N.-run Operation Lifeline Sudan, which coordinates flights in and out of the war zone with the government. More than forty private Western aid agencies operate under the Operation Lifeline banner, many of them evangelical Christian organizations drawn to Sudan by the religious dimension of the conflict. Among them are several that engage in highly publicized slave buy-back schemes.

Slavery was formally abolished in Sudan by British authorities in 1924 but remnants persisted as Arab tribes in central Sudan raided cattle-herding southern communities. This practice was revived in the 1980s when then-prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi armed militias in a bid to undercut the rising revolt in the south. It gained momentum under the National Islamic Front regime, which invested heavily in the expansion of these militias. I spoke with one young southerner who was taken prisoner in the mid-1980s and was traded to a farmer for three cows. He was released when relatives found him and took the farmer to court.

The advent of "slave redemption" schemes by evangelical Christian organizations--led by the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International--has tended to heighten religious tensions, while at the same time encouraging the practice by making it far more profitable for the captors. For this reason, U.N. organizations, non-church aid agencies, and human rights groups have strongly criticized these "buy-backs" as doing more harm than good in the long run.

Only the disarming of the militias and the negotiation of durable peace agreements among the conflicting communities will solve this problem, these critics say.

U.S. policy needs to be recast to deal with Sudan's intricate ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. And it needs to be tailored to the complex, shifting reality on the ground, not the public relations needs of politicians in Washington. None of this would be easy under normal conditions. It is made even more difficult in an election year. Yet anything less will only exacerbate the crisis.

The most urgent need is to end the senseless border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both countries are rebuilding relations with the Sudanese government in an effort to protect their flanks. Ethiopia has even sealed its border against the Sudanese rebels in a bid to curry favor with Khartoum. A comprehensive Organization of African Unity peace plan is on the table. Eritrea has accepted it. Ethiopia is balking, apparently believing that an extended confrontation plays to its advantage. The United States, which bungled an earlier mediation effort, has the leverage to bring Addis Ababa to the bargaining table. So far, only the political will to exercise it has been lacking. The time for strong, sustained pressure is now.

With regard to Sudan, the current sanctions that punish the population for the sins of the regime are having the opposite of the intended effect. As in Iraq, they magnify the suffering of ordinary people, while providing the government with a rallying cry to mobilize the nation against foreign intervention. Highly visible actions like the cruise missile attack on Khartoum two years ago do the same.

"I really don't see a U.S. policy here," says Yousif Kuwa, the former governor of rebel-held Nuba and now the rebels' top-ranking official in charge of social services. "They have identified Sudan as a `terrorist state,' there is an embargo, and so on, but is that enough? What the Americans do not understand is that this is an ideological regime. These people think they are coming to change the whole world. They have a message from God to do this. You cannot change such people--you have to replace them."

A viable alternative to the National Islamic Front is emerging within the National Democratic Alliance, though it will take time for it to mature. The United States should nurture it, without trying to control it and without interfering in its internal affairs, particularly not singling out any of its members for preferential treatment.

Support for an international arms embargo would focus U.S. policy on the core of the problem--war and repression. It would shift the political terrain from the defense of the nation to its character and future course, leaving it to the Sudanese people to decide the answers.

A sudden, large input of arms could destabilize the alliance and short-circuit the popular mobilization now under way. Similarly, the provision of large stores of food could displace promising efforts at rebel food production and undermine economic self-reliance.

What is needed are carefully targeted but modest efforts to strengthen the opposition without preempting it. For example, rather than provide food relief, the West should be providing seeds and hoes, as well as trucks to transport crops.

"Whenever there is need for relief, we ask for capacity-building help, not ready-made items," says Kuwa. "It is better you ask me what do I need, instead of assuming you know, and then helping me to do it myself."



The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
You can contact me here.