The Battle for South Kordofan

Will total war in Sudan ever cease?

by James Verini

Nuba Mountains
January 22, 2013 (Foreign Policy)

When Gen. Jagod Mukwar joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), soon after it formed, in the mid 1980s, he was a young man, and Sudan's civil war was already many years older than he was. Factions from the north and south of the country had been fighting since before Sudan won its independence, in 1956. Still, the SPLA's cause -- independence for the south -- remained internationally obscure. Sudan had not yet become a pariah state, while a famine in Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa used up the world's limited bandwidth for African tragedy. Mukwar's cause-within-a-cause -- the plight of the people of the Nuba Mountains, his home, in Sudan's South Kordofan province -- was unheard of.

Today, nearly 30 years after Mukwar took up arms, the bloodshed continues. Though the Second Sudanese Civil War (as it's now called), the longest official conflict in modern African history, came to an end on paper in 2005, when Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the SPLA signed a peace treaty, the fighting never ceased. And the creation of the Republic of South Sudan in 2011 didn't much improve matters, ironically. It merely turned a civil war into a border war. South Kordofan -- a region on the central border between the two countries, populated by an assortment of African tribes and Arab settlers, farmers and pastoralists, Muslims, Christians, and animists -- has borne the brunt of this grim transition. When I met Mukwar, I asked him where the front line is these days in South Kordofan. "The front line is everywhere," he said.

Mukwar at least has the benefit of world attention now. With the conflict in Darfur out of the headlines (though by no means over), South Kordofan and the border state of Blue Nile have become the new focus of international condemnation of Bashir. They are a matter of growing concern to lawmakers in Europe, Washington, and the United Nations Security Council, which in May passed a resolution calling on Sudan and South Sudan to end hostilities. The conflict has achieved celebrity status: George Clooney regularly travels to the Nuba Mountains and has testified about what he's seen there before Congress. Meanwhile, Bashir -- indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide -- is losing power in Khartoum, thanks to a plummeting economy and growing dissatisfaction after 23 years in power. As he does, he seems increasingly eager to tear apart South Kordofan.

Now roughly 50 (he wouldn't say exactly), Mukwar commands what is known as the SPLA-North, an army of 80,000 men and women that does battle with Bashir's Sudanese Armed Forces along the border. The SPLA-N split off from the South Sudanese Army (which is still called the SPLA, confusingly enough) in September. The South Sudanese government denies any connection to the SPLA-N, but Bashir routinely accuses his foes in Juba, the new nation's capital, of backing it, and it's easy to see why: While there are tensions between the SPLA-N and Juba, the SPLA-N still has extensive support among South Sudanese officials, some of whom made their names fighting with Mukwar in the Nuba Mountains. (Bashir is not alone in this charge. In October, Anne Richard, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, claimed the SPLA-N recruits child soldiers from the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. I saw no evidence of this, either in Yida or Sudan.)

Mukwar's headquarters moves frequently. At the moment he's installed in a small compound of mud-brick and thatch huts in Jegeba, a mostly abandoned village at the foot of a crescent of hills. I arrived there in late December, after a six-hour ride on dirt roads in the back of a pick-up truck through the Nuba Mountains, a semi-arid region that resembles the American Southwest. Two roosters were pecking around a pair of Eurostar satellite dishes, and in a nearby creek a family that lives in a cave in the hills was washing clothing. I was greeted by a group of soldiers sitting quietly outside the compound, Kalashnikovs resting on their legs. On the shoulders of their uniforms was the flag of South Sudan, which began life as the flag of the SPLA. Below that, on some of the uniforms, were loose yellow threads where GOSS, for Government of South Sudan, used to be embroidered. After the split they were ordered to unstitch it.

I was shown into a hut that appeared tiny from the outside, but which turned out to hold a kind of conference room, with two tables and a lot of the plastic lawn chairs one typically finds in African rebel compounds. At the head of one table was an office swivel chair, which in this context looked like a Louis XVI chaise longue. When Mukwar, a man of moderate height and respectable paunch, ducked into the hut a moment later, he was wearing suit pants, a dress shirt open at the collar, and flip-flops. He offered the desk chair to me. I declined. After placing a bulky satellite phone on a table, he eased into the fake leather.

"Thank you for coming here to see us," he said. "Thank you for describing what is happening here. Because of people like you, the world knows what is happening to the people in the Nuba Mountains." They didn't want to secede and join South Sudan. "We are northern," Mukwar said. "How can we become southerners?" All they wanted, he said, was for Bashir to stop the attacks and treat them fairly.

War has given to Mukwar -- he exudes purpose and pride -- and taken away. In a battle some years ago in the village of Tolushi, while manning a machine gun nest, most of the ring finger of his left hand disappeared. There is disagreement as to how it happened. The official line is that the finger was shot off by enemy fire. But some of his troops believe Mukwar's more self-deprecating story: He was never much of a gunner, he claims, and during the battle he was shooting so off-target he thought his gun must be loaded with blanks. So, in his frustration he put his left hand in front of the muzzle and pulled the trigger with his right. The bullets were real enough. "I shot it off myself!" Mukwar said with a peel of laughter, holding up the nub.

In 2011, the SPLA and rebels from Darfur attacked the Sudanese Armed Forces along the new border, and Sudan responded with a campaign of bombings and killings that continues to this day. Last year, Bashir began moving thousands of troops into South Kordofan. Today, they've taken control of most of Nuba's larger towns, including Kadugli, the capital.

Khartoum has superior firepower, Mukwar told me, but its men are untrained and weak. His comparatively ill-equipped but more committed SPLA-N troops have been fighting back, slowly. They'd been shelling Sudanese positions in Kadugli, and, the week before I arrived, had won a two-day battle in nearby Deldoko, capturing a dozen Sudanese tanks and armored vehicles. "We are not dead. We have not surrendered. We are still strong," Mukwar said. Knowing I was American, and apparently wanting to impress or rattle me, or both, he said, "If they brought your Marines in here, we could fight them."

A man in a gray, short-sleeved suit came into the hut. "This is the hero of Deldoko!" Mukwar announced, introducing me to a quiet colonel. "Show him what happened," Mukwar commanded. Reluctantly, the colonel pulled back his lapel to reveal a bandage on his chest, where a piece of shrapnel had pierced it. Mukwar held up his finger-nub near the colonel's chest and let out another peel of laughter, as though to say: "Why am I in charge? This guy should be commanding."

I pointed out to Mukwar that most of the villages I'd passed through on my way to him were, like Jegeba, empty. "All our people are going to the camps or the caves, because we're not able to feed them. We eat from the enemy side. We attack them to get our foods. If we're fighting, we can always eat, but also we can't feed our children," he said. "The Sudan government uses propaganda to tell the international community not to send us aid. They say that if you send the people food, it will go to SPLA. They say if you're helping the people, you're helping the rebels. It's not true.... Even South Sudan, they don't have any budget, they don't have any resources. Sometimes even our soldiers, they eat the leaves off the trees."

Driving around Nuba, you have to be careful to avoid roads that are too dry -- Sudanese pilots circle in Soviet-era Antonov bombers, looking for targets that kick up dust-clouds. They also like to bomb homes, churches, farms, markets, mosques, medical clinics, and schools, according to villagers I spoke with. Thanks to the planes' inaccuracy (bombs are typically rolled by the crew out of cargo doors), though, they miss more often than not. Still, every village in Nuba has at least a few foxholes, which people run into when they hear the Antonov's unmistakable thrum overhead. According to the SPLA-N, in November the Sudanese military dropped 330 bombs on South Kordofan. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in December, the Sudanese military "has adopted a strategy to treat all populations in rebel held areas as enemies and legitimate targets, without distinguishing between civilian and combatant." In addition to bombings, this has included killings, arbitrary arrests, and rape.

For centuries, the Nuba Mountains -- a diverse region compared with largely Arab Khartoum and Dinka and Nuer-dominated South Sudan -- was known as a place where people fleeing the Arab slave trade, and later oppressive Islamism in Khartoum, could take refuge. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, the SPLA began recruiting soldiers there. When Bashir came to power, in 1989, he ordered a program of forced migration in South Kordofan. Tribal councils and village chiefs that had existed for generations were replaced with Arab-style emirates. Black Nubans were expelled from their lands, which were redistributed to Arabs. Nuba's professional and intellectual classes were subjected to a campaign of kidnappings and murders. Children were dragooned into the military. Bashir called this social planning, but in retrospect it was clearly an attempt at ethnic cleansing, a kind of dress rehearsal for what Bashir would attempt in Darfur. In 2011, the governorship of South Kordofan went to Bashir's former minister of state for humanitarian affairs, Ahmed Haroun, in an election many Nubans believed was rigged. Haroun has also been indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. 

The results are apparent everywhere. Along the road that runs from Nuba over the border into South Sudan, families and dump-trucks full of men travel south to the refugee camp in Yida. About 60,000 people, most of them Nubans, live there now. Hundreds more arrive every day, many on the verge of starvation. Nuba is without paved roads, or almost any pavement at all for that matter. Plumbing and electricity are rare. Messages are passed by satellite phone or handwritten note. To travel around the parts controlled by the SPLA-N, you need a series of notes from various commanders -- though I found that the security at village checkpoints usually consists of a piece of string stretched between wooden posts and a sleepy guy in fatigues.

It's impossible to calculate the current population: of the roughly 1.1 million people who once lived in South Kordofan, an estimated 900,000 have been displaced or fled. Those who've stayed often live in ravines, caves, forests, or dry riverbeds; their villages are open targets for Khartoum's bombers. Others have set up make-shift villages near SPLA-N camps hoping for protection. Near a camp in Umm Sirdibba, a group of tribal chiefs assembled cross-legged on a plastic tarp and told me their story. They wore clothing cast off from Sudanese soldiers. A chief from Deldoko named Ibrahim, in green army pants and a T-shirt that showed a fish on a hook and the words "Bass to the Bone," said that before the Sudanese bombing campaign began, hundreds of families lived in and around Deldoko. Now it's nearly empty.

His family and some others managed to hold out for a time. They dug foxholes in their sorghum fields, so they could harvest their crops and not starve. Some young men moved to Khartoum to try to find work (oddly, the capital is full of Nubans); others joined the SPLA-N. When the Sudanese troops moved in, Ibrahim said, they burned Deldoko's grain-stores and homes. "They burned everything," he said. When I asked if they had considered going across the border to Yida, one of his companions sucked his teeth contemptuously. "This is our land and we will die here," the man said. "We will never leave it."

After we spoke, I made my way along a back road toward Deldoko with two trucks of SPLA-N soldiers, passing by the charred remains of settlements. We entered a clearing where a pattern of black circles and rectangles and piles of charred mud-bricks stretched to the treeline. Nothing was left standing. The corpse of a Sudanese soldier lay by the trunk of a baobob tree. Animals had eaten the flesh off his legs and picked out his eyes. "This was Deldoko," a soldier said.

A few miles further on, we reached two adjoining hills where the last engagement in the battle for Deldoko had been fought. The air smelled of cordite and rotting flesh. Bullet casings littered abandoned half-dug trenches. The body of a Sudanese colonel lay alongside one, his torso yellowed and bloated with rigor mortis, his head covered in maggots. Nearby, on a rock ledge, were four more bodies, lined up side by side. Blood stains were visible on the rock face in front of their heads. When I pointed this out to a soldier, he seemed to understand what I was getting at -- that the men had been executed. "No," he said, dismissing my suggestion, "they were shot from down below."

From the valley beside the hills, we could see to Kadugli, the capital, still held by Sudan. As we looked on, a Sudanese attack helicopter suddenly appeared on the horizon in front of us, above the town. We ran for the rocks to take cover, and as we did, the helicopter let loose a missile. An explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose above the hills. We stayed hidden until the helicopter flew off.

* * * 

During the battle for Deldoko, Mukwar's men took three Sudanese prisoners. They were being held in Jegeba, where I was brought to meet them. They sat one next to the other on a cot outside. One was in his 40s, one in his 20s, and one claimed to be 19, though by the looks of him he was barely into his teens. All three were skinny and wore filthy clothes, though they did not appear to have been mistreated. They had been recruited into the People's Defense Forces, a government-sponsored militia, in Khartoum, they told me, where they received arms but virtually no training. They were moved to Kadugli, where they were informed that they would secure the town. Then they were sent to attack Deldoko.

Like everyone else fighting for Khartoum in South Kordofan, they had been fed a steady diet of Islamist propaganda. They were told that Nubans were infidels who wanted to take their land. The 19-year-old, Mustafa, told me that it was only after he was captured by the SPLA-N that he learned this was all wrong. He told me that SPLA-N soldiers asked him: "Do you think we are disbelievers? We are Muslims, like you. We are your brothers, the Nubans." He continued: "Then I hung my head.... When I realized we were both Muslims, I said, ‘Shoot me.' I asked them to shoot me." They didn't, happily for him, though he insisted to me that he still believes he should probably die.

Like Mustafa, Mohamed, the eldest prisoner, was visibly petrified. He kept reiterating how well he had been treated. He'd been shot in the leg during the battle ("I only shot two bullets," he said), and when he was captured, the SPLA-N took him to a hospital. Once he was bandaged up, they fed him sorghum porridge. "Tell the world that what's going on here is wrong," Mustafa implored me. "The Nubans just want their rights." Whether he was told to say this or was trying to ingratiate his captors or believed it, I couldn't tell.

I asked a SPLA-N commander what would happen to the prisoners. "We won't kill them," he said, in such a way as to make it clear the thought had occurred to him. "This is political war, not a religious war. They'll stay with us until we return them to their families."

Back in Mukwar's hut the general said, "I want to show you something." One of his men brought in a video camera. After the battle for Deldoko, he explained, his soldiers found a videocassette in an abandoned truck. The footage on it had been shot by a Sudanese soldier as he and his comrades advanced on Deldoko.

Mukwar pressed play. As the video begins, Sudanese soldiers are haphazardly firing their carbines and rocket-propelled grenades into a haze. They're in no recognizable formation. The cameraman moves around, while the men jump into the frame, like fans at a college basketball game. They hold up their index fingers and triumphantly repeat "Allahu Akbar!" over and over again. The cameraman says it back to them: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!"

Each time, Mukwar let out another peel of laughter and mimicked them. I asked whom they're shooting at. "No one!" he said. "We're not even there at this point. They're shooting at the bush!"

In the video, a soldier walks into the frame and says in Arabic, "I want to greet the camera before I die."

"Ok, if that's what you want!" Mukwar said back to the screen.

"They are morons," the colonel who took the shrapnel wound, watching with us, said.

Mukwar pressed fast-forward and let the tape roll a bit. "Now listen to the sounds of the bullets," he instructed. Suddenly the nature of the firing changes. Rounds can be heard whistling past the camera. It's the counterattack. The video becomes shaky. The cameraman drops the camera to his side and begins running. Then the footage goes black. When it comes back on again, there is no more preening, just men running around in disarray. "Allahuakbarallahuakbar," the cameraman chants to himself, as he whirls about, except now it sounds as though he's crying. The camera comes upon a dead soldier, shot, presumably, by one of Mukwar's troops. Men have gathered around him. One says a prayer and then shuts the dead man's eyelids.

"You see that? He died!" Mukwar said, beside himself with laughter. "They closed his eyes because he's finished!"

"They're very stupid," the colonel, who is not laughing, said.

A few weeks after I left Mukwar and the colonel, Sudan launched a counterattack near Deldoko and retook some of the land the SPLA-N had seized in December. Sudan claims that it killed 50 rebel troops. The SPLA-N claims only a few died. Both are probably lying.

Meanwhile, African Union leaders, including Bashir and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, have been meeting in Addis Ababa at the U.N. Security Council's behest. Bashir had planned to travel to Juba to negotiate with Kiir personally, until talks broke down last week. He was expected to push a plan to partition South Kordofan into two states. At the same time, Bashir's influence in Khartoum continues to wane. In November, the city went into lockdown after a reported coup attempt by senior military officials. Before that, Bashir imprisoned his intelligence chief, after he allegedly expressed his desire to take over the presidency. Last year saw a series of demonstrations, followed by bloody crackdowns by the state.

"The problem isn't in Nuba," Mukwar told me. "The problem is in Sudan. Now even the students in the university are protesting. And Bashir is beating them, killing them, torturing them," he said, pausing to set up the joke. "And the students aren't even Nuban!"

"There's always war in Sudan," Mukwar said, serious again. "There's something wrong in this regime."

I asked how much longer his forces could go on. "This is war. I can't determine that," Mukwar replied. "If there's a change of regime in Khartoum and a peace agreement, maybe then we can stop. Maybe then."


The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
You can contact me here.