Window closes on safe aid deliveries to Sudan's beleaguered Nuba Mountains

By MATTHEW J. ROSENBERG, Associated Press Writer
LUMON, Sudan
Jan 03, 2002 (AP)

Army garrisons dot the grassy plains among the Nuba Mountains, and burned-out villages scar their slopes - reminders of Sudan's civil war that has isolated the Nuba people, unfortunate bit players in the 18-year conflict.

The war has been calamitous for the Nuba, who are squeezed between the Muslim government dominated by Arab northerners, their traditional rivals, and black southern rebels, allies of convenience with whom they have little in common.

Like the majority of southern Sudanese, the Nuba people are black Africans. They speak a variety of distinct languages, and Arabic is the region's lingua franca. Religious beliefs range from traditional animist practices to Christianity and Islam.

From an estimated pre-war high of 1.5 million, the population in the Nuba region has dropped by two-thirds as army attacks on civilians and war-induced food shortages have forced many to flee.

A brief "period of tranquility" brokered in November by former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, ended Dec. 9 and a new round of fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and rebels. Both sides claimed the other fired first.

A new cease-fire was negotiated within a week, however, and for now an uneasy truce appears to be holding. Still, the Nuba people are fearful of attack from the army, trapped in the rebel-held mountains where they can't grow enough food in the thin, rocky soil.

The first 24-day period of tranquility provided a window that allowed the U.N. World Food Program to air drop 2,000 metric tons (2,200 tons) of food in the region 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of the capital, Khartoum.

Before the agreement, fighting kept relief workers out because neither side was willing to guarantee their safety.

Residents complain that the army regularly targets civilians in the mountains. In one well-documented incident, a government plane bombed a primary school, killing 13 students.

But many don't like the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army either. The main rebel force is hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south, limiting its ability to fight in the Nuba high plains. And the rebel leadership is drawn largely from southern Dinkas, an ethnic group with which the Nuba have little in common.

"The rebels do not send soldiers to fight for the plains, they just sit in the hills," says Elijah Omar, a 58-year-old farmer. "We need our farms" on the plains.

The roots of the conflict stretch back to the 19th century when Egyptians and later Sudanese Arabs penetrated southern Sudan and attempted to subdue the Africans there.

Moving south from Egypt, the British succeeded in imposing a semblance of order on Sudan between 1898 and independence in 1956. Since then, Africa's largest country has known only 11 years of peace.

"The Arabs have constantly battled the Nuba for the fertile and easily cultivated land in the plains," said Robert Collins, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"When the Arabs have been strong, they've pushed the Nuba into the mountains," he said. "Right now, the Arabs are strong."

And the Nuba are struggling to get enough to eat.

"They used to get two or three years worth of food in a single harvest ... it's been a 10-fold decrease with people being pushed into the hills." said Jason Matus, a consultant with U.S. Agency for International Development who is helping coordinate the World Food Program food drops.

"If these people were on the plains, we'd be buying food from them."

Instead, the WFP is supplying staples like sorghum to help fill the gap between the yearly autumn harvest for nearly 100,000 people - about two-thirds of those displaced or left destitute by the conflict.

The aching need for food was apparent recently, during the period of tranquilty, when thousands of women and children trekked long distances to a village where the WFP distributed sorghum. They streamed toward the massive pile of white sacks, and most carried the 25-kilogram (55-pound) bags home on their shoulders.

Along with destroying farming on the Nuba plain, Sudan's long civil war has taken a toll on tribal traditions like wrestling, which used to furnish the heroes in Nuba culture.

In Lumon, a collection of thatched mud-brick houses, many older men have the decorative scars of wrestlers: three horizontal lines on each cheek and foreheads marked with dots.

The scars show "who is a good wrestler," says Kua Jabar Kuku, a middle-aged farmer.

Young men's faces bear no marks.

"We are afraid to gather in one place" for competitions where young men could earn their scars, he said. "We may be shelled, bombed, attacked."