Sudan's future lies in Nuba mountains

By W.F. Deedes, The Washington Times

Nov. 20, 2003

To feel the reality of Sudan's 20-year war and weigh the chances of a lasting peace on which so many are counting, these mountains are the place to go. Here you learn of the terrible things people do to each other in a civil war, and you breathe the air of mistrust, which is the final impediment to peace. So many have died in the Nuba Mountain region, roughly the size of Austria. So many have been torn from their homes and tortured. So many ghosts walk here.

All this in a land of startling beauty. From a de-mining compound, one glances across the craggy hills in the evening light as the sun sets. They look like the stuff dreams are made of, not the nightmares so many have experienced. Yet now, unmistakably, change is sweeping this tormented land.

"Everything in this country is normally from the top down," said Col. George McGarr, the British chief of staff to the Joint Military Commission in Kadugli, which monitors the regional cease-fire between government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels, which has held for almost two years.

"Now it is surging up from down to the top. Even among the hard-liners in Khartoum, there are signs of change, perhaps because they realize they are now up against the will of the world," he said.

If the cease-fire agreement in the Nuba Mountains does turn to lasting peace, much will be owed to Friends of the Nuba Mountains, which maintains in the region a small but effective Joint Military Mission costing about $1 million a month. The Friends comprise Britain, the United States, Canada and six Western European countries.

The mission keeps a watchful eye on the cease-fire, deals with violations, grievances and complaints, and holds a weekly meeting with the militaries of both sides. Government forces occupy 70 percent of the Nuba Mountain region. The SPLA holds the remnants with probably not more than 2,000 to 3,000 men.

"This is a martial society," Col. McGarr said.

Indeed it is. In every village I enter to discuss future needs, I encounter the military.

"No," they say at one village I approach, "you cannot speak to the people. Your papers are not quite in order."

In the village of Katcha from which I write, all is sweetness and light. I spent 20 minutes discussing with soldiers matters such as military needs, disposal of land mines, water and getting children back to school. Then I spent 20 minutes with a village elder or two whose wishes are almost exactly the same.

This war has caused a huge displacement of population, not least in the Nuba Mountains. Now they are pouring back. About 150,000 have returned to this region. When peace comes, that figure will multiply. Then they will face the deadly obstacle of land mines that litter much of this land.

Most of the antitank mines on the so-called roads were laid by the SPLA. Government forces laid most of the antipersonnel mines. Landmine Action, my hosts in Sudan, are doing heroic work to clear the roads with teams of locally trained de-miners. But it is slow and hard work in the fierce heat of the day and in miners' protective clothing. Traveling over Sudan's infrastructure, it takes time to move to and from the minefields. Land mines are a particularly sensitive issue for the military in the peace process. Notwithstanding government assurances, they are reluctant to permit the removal of antipersonnel mines, which have been laid defensively around villages.

In every village, security and freedom of movement head the citizens' list of priorities. What else would they seek after being in a war zone for up to 20 years? Then come the humanitarian needs - water and sanitation, starter packs of seeds and so on - and, of course, education. Every school in this region has been laid to waste. Some classes are held under the trees, but in the rainy season from May until October that is out of the question. There are teachers, but many of them are inevitably ill-trained. So virtually a generation of young Sudanese have had little or no schooling.

Ask the local farmers their priority, and they will talk about ridding themselves of the nomads. War has destroyed the nomads' natural routes. So they prey on farmers, and cattle go missing. Nomads, incidentally, have been creating problems in Sudan for 400 years or more.

No matter what priority the military or the farmer chooses, little will be accomplished in this vast land until the rutted tracks that pass for roads are made fit for anything other than a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle. When peace comes, this will take time and a lot of money before Sudan is in working order again. Yet Europe and the United States, which will be asked to meet some of the cost, can take heart: They are dealing with a resilient and self-reliant nation.

Sudan is not holding out a begging bowl to the world. "We don't want food relief," a meeting of village chiefs, representing tens of thousands, told me. "Our farmers will till their own soil, but they will need some tools and seed."

The bearing of the women tells you something. They walk straight-backed and serene, carrying enormous weights on their heads. As one British officer put it to me: "You can greet the children and expect them to return your greeting in a style now almost unthinkable in the U.K."

It is in the Nuba Mountains that some of the worst atrocities occurred during this war. There you discover what a forgiving people these are.

"The past is the past," some of the elders say.

The wisest among them put it differently: "We won't forget, but remember - and learn."