Hiding in the mountains, Sudan's Nubians fight to survive

by Michel Sailhan

Nuba Mountains, Sudan
Nov 28 (AFP)

Jelila Omar, a 35-year-old Nubian peasant woman, displayed her deformed arm, despoiled two years ago, fleeing from the Sudanese army to hide in the mountains, fracturing her wrist and several ribs in the process.

Following a day working in the bean fields on the mountainside despite her disability, drops of sweat ran down her face onto her dress, the colours blurred by dust and earth.

"This place is no good," she said, pointing to football-sized rocks among the crops of beans and sorghum. "It was much better down in the plain."

Jelila is one of the hundreds of thousands of Nubians who fled the fighting between Sudanese government forces and the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), abandoning the fertile plains for the harsh mountains of this almost mythical region of central Sudan.

"It's better now, but in July and August we were eating pumpkin leaves and the animals were starving to death," Jamal Addar, 37, recalled, as he set out a rope bed for his guests in front of the two huts he shares in the village of Jadder with his two wives and 10 children.

The traditionally animist Nubians, made famous by the photographs of former German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, took up arms against the Sudanese government in the late 1980s to defend themselves and against raids by neighboring Muslim militias.

A few years later they joined forces with the SPLA.

From a population of one million in the past, they now number less than half that number, and according to the United Nations World Food Programme, more than 158,000 have been displaced or left homeless by the latest fighting in the 18-year civil war in Sudan.

"There are certainly more Nubians now living around Khartoum than in the Nuba mountains" 600 kilometers (460 miles) from the capital, said Christian Delmet of the French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS).

A Western diplomat in Khartoum said they had been preyed upon by the Sudanese army, its allied militia and the Muslim Baggara, who are accused of kidnapping and slavery of non-Arab peoples like the Nubians.

The young especially are press-ganged into the army, claimed local SPLA commander Abdel Aziz Adam Al Hilu.

"They are taken to so-called Peace Camps and forced to change their names and adopt the Muslim religion," he charged.

Traditionally animist, the Nubians are gradually losing their faiths and the multiplicity of their spoken languages to Islam or Christianity, Arabic or the English used by SPLA officers.

"Seventeen teachers provided by the SPLA are working in the Nuba Mountains, " one of them said.

After years of neglect at the centre of a hidden war the Nubians are now returning to the public eye, with the United States calling for a ceasefire in their region as a first step towards ending the war.

But Sudan has voiced reservations to US special envoy John Danforth about his proposal, President Omar al-Beshir was quoted by the media as saying Tuesday.

Beshir said the ceasefire must also include neighbouring areas through which a government oil pipeline passes.

Beshir also implicitly dismissed "the American concern with rumours of ethnic cleansing and bombing of civilians in the Nuba Mountains."