War thrusts village back in time
Government crackdown on Sudan's rebels strips Nuba tribes of means to survive

by David Aquila Lawrence
The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 9, 2001


The women dig into the sand of the dry riverbed until, slowly, water begins to seep into the hole. They scoop the precious liquid into gourds, then place the cargo on their heads and climb back up the hill. Under a blistering sun, the villagers of Mirawi look as if they have lived this way for centuries, with the drawing of water, the milling of grain and the pressing of seeds into oil all done by hand.

Only a few years ago, however, there was a diesel-powered grist mill here, a motorized oil press, and women pumped water from a deep drilled well, saving hours of hard work. The long-running civil war in Sudan has pushed this village in the Nuba Mountains, a remote northern region, back in time.

"People went back to the Stone Age," said Daniel Kodi, a Nuba and founding member of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

"People started surviving from the resources they used hundreds of years ago."

For more than 17 years, war has raged in Sudan, with an estimated two million casualties, the deadliest continuing conflict in the world. The war is marked by constant allegations against the government and the rebels of crimes including rape, slavery, bombing of civilians and the use of child soldiers.

The fighting is partly about religion. The Arab-dominated Islamic fundamentalist government in Sudan's north has declared a jihad (holy war) against the south, which is dominated by black Africans who practise traditional religions and Christianity.

In the Nuba Mountains, the war shows its ethnic face. The enclave is a pocket of black African culture that stands out in the Arab-dominated north. Although many Nuba are Muslim, religious tolerance is the norm. But the Nuba say that because they are black, and not Arab, they have never been accepted by the rest of the north or the government.

In 1985, the many tribes of the Nuba threw their support to the SPLA; since then, the government has enforced a strict blockade against the mountain region, refusing to allow aid flights for the past 15 years. The United Nations warned in January that the Nuba region is threatened by famine because of drought, and Khartoum will not allow emergency aid into the rebel area.

In Mirawi, that means things such as salt, sugar and even clothing are rare commodities. Running water is unheard of; metal of any kind is scarce. Malnutrition is widespread. The women, who do most of the physical labour in Sudan, are hit the hardest.

"You cannot even find agriculture tools," said Mr. Kodi of the SPLA, adding that people who survive bombardments have to salvage bits of iron from shells to make knives or axes. His words are borne out by a group of rebel soldiers passing through the village. Their Kalashnikov rifles are the only modern machinery seen in the mountains these days; the crude axes they carry are fashioned from used metal. Their clothing is ragged, whatever scraps they can find. As with everyone else in the mountains, their only means of transportation is walking. Sometimes they cover 80 kilometres a day.

These soldiers are walking to a clandestine runway about a 10-hour march from Mirawi. As they pass, many villagers rush to join the convoy for the protection it offers, because walking in the fertile plains between mountain ranges is particularly dangerous.

"Most of the people were living in the flat fertile lands. After the government offensives, they were forced to go up to the hills, which they are not used to," said Jacob Yusef, who works with the Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organization, the political wing of the SPLA in the region.

Now the flatlands are a war zone, belonging to neither side. The rebels burn back the brush near their trails so government troops can't hide in ambush.

The government controls settlements in the parts of the Nuba hills that it calls "peace camps." It is to these camps that desperate Nuba civilians go for work and food - some of it provided by the UN.

"The government is using food as a weapon," Mr. Sadiq charged.

Three MPs are quietly leaving Canada today for a trip to Sudan that will include a visit to the controversial government. The MPs - the Canadian Alliance's Keith Martin and Roger Galloway and Colleen Beaumier of the governing Liberals - are scheduled to meet with the Sudanese government, but are also scheduled to see representatives of some Western embassies and others who may not support Khartoum's policies.

Roger Winter, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington, said that between the war, the camps, the lack of food and the flight of Nuba to other parts of Sudan, there are now fewer than 500,000 Nuba in the mountains - where more than one million lived in 1985.

"This is a culture that the government of Sudan is trying to liquidate," Mr. Winter said. "I would argue that there's a genocide going on."

Sudanese government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

The combination of hardships has galvanized the many tribes of the Nuba Mountains. Though dozens of different dialects are spoken across the region, it suffers none of the infighting that plagues the rebels of southern Sudan.

"For us, in Nuba, we feel that we are one people regardless of our tribe, regardless of our religion," said Ismail Khamese, acting commander of the SPLA in the Nuba Mountains. In November, he presided over a meeting of representatives who walked from the far reaches of the mountains, a territory about the size of New Brunswick. After three days of talks, they voted, as they have every year, to keep fighting.

Mr. Khamese said the Nuba want to determine their own future. "Otherwise, there will be no Nuba. If you are not free to determine - it is better to die than to live as a slave in your own country."