Sudan's Nuba society fractured by bombs and war

By Fiona O'Brien

Dec 5 (Reuters)

The dancers gather at dawn, a crowd of hundreds in a wide circle high in Sudan's Nuba mountains, joining their voices in a high-pitched traditional song. The mass moves in a simple but rhythmic dance. On the fringes, people wave sticks and stamp their feet.

Women's ululations rise higher and higher, climaxing as a plane swoops low over the hills, dropping white parcels from the sky. The Nuba people are happy to see the first food drop of the day. Isolated in their hostile hills for years, trapped by a war between Sudan's northern government and southern rebels, they rarely have reason to celebrate.

"This kind of a celebration cannot usually take place," says Mubarak Kodila, who made the eight-hour trek to the drop zone the day before, sleeping near rocks overnight to keep warm. "We are doing this because we are gathered in one place where no one can abduct us or shoot us."

Sudan's 18-year civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian or animist south has fractured Nuba society, north of the front line but allied with the southern rebels. Once numbering an estimated 1.5 million, the population has shrivelled to 400,000. Many of those have been forced to leave their homes, harvests and histories in the fertile plains for a life in the mountains above.

For years, neither government nor rebels would allow in aid workers to feed the people struggling to survive in the barren hills, but after years of negotiations the United Nations managed to secure a four-week ceasefire. Since mid-November, United Nations pilots have made a daily journey from El Obeid in the north, delivering tonnes of cereals, beans and protein in hefty white bags that descend on Nuba's dusty terrain.


The food is welcome and should help avert a crisis triggered by displacement, poor rains and repeated attacks by the government of Sudan that has dropped bombs, looted stores and burnt houses since declaring a holy war on Nuba in 1992. But the solution is short term. Food aside, Nuba culture, revered for its colourful traditions, its wrestling, dancing and singing, has been scattered along with its people.

"People don't stay in one place any more," said Musa Kafi Tala, taking a break from a dance that began in moonlight and resumed immediately after dawn. "Children aren't learning the traditions."

Many people bear traditional scars, intricate criss-cross patterns on their cheeks and legs, a front tooth pulled out in the habit of generations. But traditions, banned by Khartoum and complicated by a life on the move, are hard to maintain. After the ritual scarring, a person needs to remain indoors for a month to let the wounds heal but, in war-time, there is no guaranteed respite from the bombs and fighting that could force a family to flee their home at any time.

"People don't keep the traditions since the war, because there's no happiness," said Kuwa Jabar Kuku, an old man who had left his children in his village a day's journey away, promising to return with food.


In the school compound in the village of Karkar -- a circle of mud-brick huts with wide thatched roofs -- the children of Nuba sit diligently at their lessons. Until last year, this was a bush school, gathering pupils from far and wide to learn their lessons under the welcome shade of the mountain's trees.

"The spirit of unity", a class of 50 crammed into the small dark classroom, sings in unison as a group of aid workers and journalists walks in to take a look. "We are very well thank you, how are you," they chant in one breath. On the blackboard, the day's lesson is the letter "F". "Fisherman, Finger, Figure" it reads, words that may mean little when the daily struggle is more about Food, Fear and Famine.

Funded by an indigenous relief organisation, the school is attended by about 325 boys and 50 girls studying English, mathematics, science and sport for eight hours a day, six days a week. There are only seven of these so-called model schools in Nuba and a further 89 bush schools. Most girls stay at home, keeping the house and caring for their younger siblings.

There is a shortage of teachers, exercise books and pens. But years of isolation have taught these children to be resourceful. Once the U.N. food aid is finished, the strong bags it came in will be used to make satchels, curtains and even flimsy doors to offer shade from the burning sun. The planks of plywood that fall from the planes -- part of the roll-out mechanism on food drops -- will become blackboards, tables and hospital beds, every scrap enlisted in the relentless battle to survive.


The U.N. estimates that by spring, food stores will be empty once more. The temporary ceasefire is widely talked about as a breakthrough, but future aid operations will depend on the will of both government and rebels. When the planes stop coming, the Nuba people will be cut off from the outside world once more, hemmed into the mountains by the government garrisons that have staked their claim on the plains that once provided food and water.

The temporary invasion of aid workers is surreal. Outside the compound where project workers are staying, children peer through the fence to catch a glimpse of their rare visitors. In a large orange cooler, the white people have brought ice, a luxury in Nuba's dusty heat. One of the workers plucks out a handful and takes it to the children outside, placing a frozen block in the palm of their hands. There are shrieks, amazement and wonder. The taste of cold water brings them running back for more, until either they or their strange playmates get tired of the new game.

"They have never seen this before," says one of the aid workers. "I guess I will always be the man who brought ice to Nuba."