The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Nuba
Travelling southward towards the border with South Sudan in one of the few vehicles active in the area, in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, from time to time you see a group of two or three dozen children and a few women. They walk under an implacable sun, with day temperatures constantly over forty degrees, and sometime in the middle of the day they stop and gather in the shades of rare trees. They are all poorly dressed, covered in dust, the women carrying baskets with little food and few cooking utensils, and plastic jerrycans with some water. You feel pity and would want to stop. The driver says there is no more room, he is not allowed, in any case it would not solve the problem: there are dozens more behind and dozens more ahead.
It is April and there are an average of 400 such children and women arriving every day at Yida, the camp for the Nuba refugees about 20 km inside South Sudan. Most of them suffer from severe malnutrition and dehydration. The registration process is done in a shack and the camp holds more than twenty thousand of them. And they have been bombed, as if Yida were a military threat to the Khartoum regime.
What are they running from? From war and starvation. There is a war looming between Sudan and South Sudan, fed by daily belligerent declaration from both sides, but the Nuba are in another more localized war. Since June last year the president of Sudan, Omar el-Bashir, has been fighting an undeclared war against the Nuba and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northern Sector (SPLM-N), guilty of not accepting his centralizing and islamizing policy that have made of the Nuba the most marginalized people of the Sudan. Estimates of the Nuba population resident in the Southern Kordofan state, also called Nuba Mountains and part of the Sudan, varies from 800 thousand to one million people. In these ten months of war thriving centers and small villages have been bombed indiscriminately. Buram, last year a flourishing centre to the south of Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, is now a ghost town, half of it razed to the ground by constant shelling, the new school has been deserted since bombs missed it by a whisker. We meet one of its former pupils, Daniel, 15, who is still in Gidel hospital. He recounts how he was scared when he heard the bombs hit, and he embraced a tree, in a desperate attempt to seek protection. A bomb shred hit the tree, and his arms have been cut just below the elbow. The school is closed, like most of the schools in the area. Only a few courageous teachers still operate in improvised structures and without books, stationery and blackboards. The seven secondary schools that existed in the area are all closed down, most of them have been the target of bombing. The two teachers training institutes, one of them founded by Koinonia community, are also closed down.
War generates starvation. The present conflict started just when last year rainy season was about to begin. People fled to look for security up to the rocky mountain, some went back living in the caves, the fertile land of the plains were abandoned. Last December there was no harvest to be gathered. There are reports that in some areas people have started dying of starvation. Yida is the last hope for survival.
A strongly worded Presidential Statement from the UN Security Council dated 14 February 2012 emphasized that “The members of the Security Council expressed their deep and growing alarm with the rising levels of malnutrition and food insecurity in some areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States in Sudan, which could reach emergency levels if not immediately addressed, and with the lack of access for international humanitarian personnel to conduct an assessment of the situation and deliver urgently needed assistance” and therefore they “called upon the Government of Sudan to allow immediate access to United Nations personnel” and asked “the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northern Sector (SPLM N) to cooperate fully with the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies” to allow the delivery of assistance in line with international humanitarian principles and standards. In spite of this statement and of a tripartite proposal (UN, African Union and League of Arab States) for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to all conflict-affected population, the Khartoum Government has consistently denied access to the area controlled by SPLM-N, about 90 percent of the Southern Kordofan.
A high level European Union official in Juba who asks for anonymity explains: “Our hands are tied. International law does not allow us to intervene even simply with food if the government in power does not agree” “Even if the government in question does everything possible to exterminate with bombing and famine its own people?” “Yes, even in this case we cannot interfere”. Nevertheless, a large scale internationally-led relief operation accepted by both sides is the only possibility to meet the need of the estimated 420,000 Nuba that are internally and externally displaced by the war. Now, a few weeks from the onset of the rainy season which will make access extremely difficult, a rapid breakthrough on negotiated access is unlikely.
How can then change come to Sudan? The rigid positions that Omar el-Bashir has kept since he took power in 1989 make people think a change through peaceful political means is not possible. That is why the people of the areas that are most strongly contesting Bashir policy – Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile – have formed an alliance, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and have wowed to push Bashir out of power. “Bashir has superiority only in the sky. On the ground we are much stronger and we are ready to march on to Khartoum to make sure this regime will finish” states Adbel Aziz al Hilu, the military leader of the Nuba and also the head of the military head of the SRF.
More war, more suffering are in store for the Nuba. But this time they are determined to tell their own story. Ryan Boyette is a 31 year old American who came as a humanitarian worker to the Nuba 9 years ago. He has married a Nuba girl, and the Nuba cause. With simple means he has helped to set up a team of locally trained journalists. Armed with notebooks, cameras and video-cameras they go out and report on human rights violation incidents and the tragic consequence of bombing and shelling. They also, understandably, speak only on condition of anonymity, since every time they go around their life is in danger. Says one of them: “The Khartoum government has the habit of denying even the most evident facts. They deny the bombing, the human rights abuses, the devastation caused by their policies. Now this will no longer be possible. We are going to build up unassailable evidence of what is happening. The world, at least those who are interested, will hear and see the trials of the Nuba. Maybe by their own logic the Khartoum Government is right in trying to destroy us, but the more they try, the more make us determined to resist and to document our plight”.
The same is expressed by a church leader in Yida, after Sunday Mass. Looking around at the hundreds of children he says: “Violence generate violence. Whatever we will try to teach to these children they will grow up determined to drive the foreigners out of their land. The bombing of Yida has only strengthen their resolution”.
The morning of April 23 I am back with my team in Bentiu, the South Sudanese town where our trip started. Suddenly a MIG aircraft appears in the sky and drops bombs aiming at the bridge over the Bahr el Ghazal river, an essential connection between the town and the most important oil fields. We realized we are back into another war. We are not any longer in the war of Sudan against its own citizens, the Nuba. We are now in the war for the oil fields that pits Sudan against South Sudan. Another story.