Sudan's Nuba Mountains in limbo as peace talks near conclusion

by Anthony Morland

Sudan, Nov 30 (AFP)

As leaders of Sudan's Islamic government and southern rebellion thrash out the details of ending more than 20 years of civil war, the beleaguered people of the central Nuba Mountains region are wondering what fate awaits them.

Some, like the scores of men and half a dozen women an AFP corespondent saw training to the beat of pro-Nuba chants at a rebel camp, are preparing for the worst.

For now, the region, which is roughly the size of Austria, is somewhere between peace and war: a humanitarian ceasefire brokered in January 2002 has left some areas under the control of government forces, while others are in the hands of the southern rebellion its people rallied to during the wider conflict that flared up in 1983: the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Its geographically central location and cultural and religious diversity upsets the common simplification of Sudan's war as a north/south, Muslim/Christian conflict.

The hardline Islamic and Arab government in Khartoum has repeatedly bombed the Nuba Mountains, starved and forcibly displaced its black African people, burned their homes, took much of their land, imposed Sharia law and denied the region a role in central government.

It is widely accepted that any failure to address the Nubans' grievances will harm chances of delivering a lasting peace to Sudan.

"If you want to have a sustainable peace accord it makes sense to include all areas involved in the conflict," David Mozersky of the International Crisis Group think-tank told AFP from Nairobi.

"If buffer areas such as Nuba Mountains are neglected in discussions and war continues there, it's just a matter of time before it spills over," he warned.

"For us, this is mainly a cultural war. We have been fighting for the last 500 years against domination of Arab culture," Nuba Mountains governor Abulaziz Adam Alhilu told a group of visiting journalists in his headquarters in the hamlet of Luwere.

"We constitute the frontline between Arab culture on the one side and African on the other," he said, accusing Khartoum of conducting a policy of "genocide" in this region.

There is no question as to which side of the line the inhabitants of Nuba Mountains, whose numbers have swollen with more than 120,000 returnees since the ceasefire, feel they belong.

"You could ask all these people here," a limping old man, tipsy on the local brew, told AFP as he pointed to dozens of people gathered at a marketplace, "and not one of them would say they want to join the north."

"I myself have been wounded. How can I join the north?" he added, irate at the very suggestion.

"We are not going to be controlled by the north a second time," vowed Habib, 28, a trainee teacher at a nearby primary school.

"I am ready to fight to protect my parents and children," he said.

At the school, like all others in SPLM/A-held Nuba, steps have already been taken to reverse years of forced cultural assimilation: English has replaced Arabic as the language of instruction.

One of the thorniest issue in the peace talks is the location of both sides' forces once a comprehensive peace deal is signed in Kenya.

Under a preliminary deal, the SPLA will only be allowed to keep 3,000 troops in Nuba Mountains, in units integrated with a similar number of government forces.

Abdulaziz declined to specify exactly how many SPLA troops were currently in Nuba Mountains, but said the 3,000 "would absorb very few" of them.

"The forces in excess, the majority, will relocate south" of a 1956 border "that is not understandable to us, but since the international community has accepted, they are the donors, let it be," he said.

The governor lamented that the "agreement is silent" about government forces in Nuba in excess of the 3,000 in the integrated units.

"We believe that if these forces remain in the Nuba, there will be no peace, because I will not be able to convince my forces to withdraw and leave the enemy inside the house" he said.

As to the region's future political dispensation, the governor said: "We want self-determination, a referendum to take place... to choose between unity with the north in a confederal arrangement, unity with the south and independence."

"We want people to pay attention to one thing, that is justice, we just want justice so we put an end to war. Otherwise people will go back to war," he said.

"There's more potential for conflict (here) than most people think," warned Jake Hamm, a UN advisor on Nuban affairs.

"If the Nuba do not get their rights, we will continue," vowed Mujahid Hamid, 33, as the rebel soldiers he joined a day earlier went through their basic training.