Nuba refugees who have been forced to live in caves to avoid the government bombs.
In 1955, a civil war began northern and southern Sudan. What followed was 17 years of bloodshed as the predominately Muslim north and mostly animist or Christian south shot, burned and stabbed each other over being born in different parts of the country. In 1972, in terms with the Addis Ababa Agreement, the fighting stopped and everyone got on relatively well for ten years. Then, in 1983, then President Gafaar Nimeiry decided to try and instate Sharia law throughout the country and make the increasingly autonomous south a federal state of Sudan.
Obviously the southerners didn’t like that, so back to war they went – for 22 years, until a peace agreement was signed in 2005. Eventually, after over half a decade of fighting, a referendum was held to vote over whether the two regions should just cut their losses, part ways, become their own countries and stop killing each other. A 98.9 percent majority in the south voted that they should, so on the 9th of July, 2011, South Sudan became independent from the Republic of Sudan.
However, a couple of months before that happened, Ahmed Haroun was elected governor of South Kordofan, a Sudanese region bordering South Sudan and home to many pro-South Sudan communities. As you might expect from an election involving Haroun – a man accused of multiple crimes against humanity and a long-standing member of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government – the results were controversial.
The majority of the local population and the man Haroun was running against, Abdeaziz al-Hilu – a commander in the SPLA, the army of the Republic of South Sudan – claimed that they had been cheated. Their feelings presumably bolstered by the fact that South Sudan was set to gain its independence two months later, meaning that a Sudanese government official would be in charge of pro-South Sudan citizens who were about to find themselves on the wrong side of the border, rather than a well-respected member of their own national army.
No one likes being cheated – not in poker, not while buying second hand sporting equipment and certainly not into having a governor whose people have been at war with your people for a good 50 years. So al-Hilu helped to form the Sudanese People Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), a rebel army set up with other members of the SPLA who remained in Sudan following South Sudan’s independence. He then sent them to fight Haroun’s men in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the military of the Republic of Sudan.
Most of al-Hilu’s rebel army come from the Nuba tribe, a pro-South Sudan group comprising of both Muslims and Christians who live in the mountains of South Kordofan. Unfortunately for the rest of the Nuba, that small detail meant that they were the first to feel the SAF’s backlash, which came in the form of an intensive bombing campaign targeting their homes.
By July of 2012, an estimated half a million people had been displaced from within South Kordofan. Reports started to emerge of families being forced to eat leaves to survive and of Haroun ordering his troops to kill absolutely anyone they came across. I also learned through the Enough Project – a group of activists fighting genocide in Sudan and South Sudan – that thousands of innocent civilians had resorted to living in caves in the Nuba Mountains to keep safe from the SAF bombs.
In October, 2012, I went to the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, 20 miles away from where the Sudanese government is attempting to eradicate the Nuba people. At the time of my arrival, over 65,000 people had fled to the camp from South Kordofan.
I didn’t hear any bombs for the first few days, and South Kordofan actually began to look like a relatively picturesque area. At times, it reminded me a bit of the south of France; 900 miles away from any water, yes, but also the kind of place you could see Philip Green building a modest getaway palace or anyone from the Tatler list getting married to a European conglomerate heir. In fact, the only sign of war were a few holes in the ground that my guide Charles had pointed out. But everyone knows that holes can mean absolutely anything, and I was glad to see that the area appeared peaceful.
However, early one morning as Charles and I were driving through the desert, we spotted five or six children walking along the side of a mountain. Pulling over, we made our way up the rocks and were met by another 20 children all covered in dirt – the first refugees we’d met outside of the camps. They were apparently waiting for their elders to come back and, although they were initially pretty animated, you could tell by the way they moved (very slowly) that they were exhausted.
“I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t understand why there’s an aeroplane dropping bombs on us,” Narsa, an eight-year-old girl, told me.
“Why don’t you go to the Yida refugee camp instead of staying in a cave?” I asked her.
“My mother doesn’t want to go there. She doesn’t know what’s there and we don’t want to give our village up.”
Narsa told me that three families, including her own, had moved there – close to the SPLM-N’s military base, an obvious target for the Sudanese government’s forces – because it was safer than staying in their huts. The cave she took us to was no taller than 70cm and maybe two or three metres in length, yet 20 people somehow managed to share it every night.
Maria’s camp within the cave. Her husband carries a rifle with him everywhere he goes, “just in case”.
In another cave nearby – close to Meitan, the northern frontline of the region held by the SPLM-N – I met Maria, a mother of five. “They [the SAF] burned down our houses, so we have no other choice but to stay in caves, like animals,” she explained. Maria was quick to tell me about the daily flyover of Antonov aircraft, the Ukrainian-built bombers that the Sudanese government use to sporadically lay waste to the local population.
“We couldn’t stay where we were. The Antonov were coming all the time,” she told me. “And when it wasn’t the Antonov, they fired rockets at us instead.” Next to Maria was a bed, a jerry can, a plastic stool, a few sacks of grains and an iron basin. This was all her family took when they fled their home. “We left everything behind, but I won’t leave my land; I won’t let the SAF take it. We will stay until the end. The only food we have left is almost gone already and we have to wait ten months before the next crop. We can’t go to the field to grow food because the Antonov could come and kill us.”
At first, the SAF targeted the surrounding villages, destroying almost every house in the Meitan region. But since early 2013, the government forces have also been targeting the mountains. “We stay here all day, we can only go down to get muddy water from the stream,” Narsa’s younger brother Uhana told me. “I hate living here; there are snakes and scorpions everywhere.” Explaining the conundrum they’ve found themselves in, Maria added, “Our elders and our children are here with us. They are already struggling to survive in the caves and we can’t make them walk four or five days to go to a refugee camp – they would die. So we stay.”
A week later, I drove to the northern region of South Kordofan, near Kadugli, the area’s capital city. There, I got speaking to an SPLM-N commander, who insisted that two of his soldiers escort me if I wanted to go back up into the caves. An hour later, the three of us were driving into the jungle in an old pick-up for one of their routine patrols. Their sole armament consisted of a few sub-machine guns they’d recovered from the War in Darfur.
Narsa and her siblings lying in their cave.
After hours of driving along bumpy roads, we finally made a stop at one of the caves. From where we stood, we could see one of the frontlines and a number of SAF soldiers patrolling the area with Berettas in hand. The younger of the two soldiers – Nader, a 19-year-old Nuba – joined the SPLM-N in early 2012.
“Before joining the rebels, I lived in one of the caves near Kadugli with my brothers and sisters, like all those who didn’t leave or surrender,” he told me, taking an impressively long drag on his cigarette. I asked about his family. “I haven’t seen them in months. The way we live is worse than anything,” he said. I asked him what’s got worse since the beginning of the war. “Everything. The Nuba eat leaves and drink horrible water. Do you know why? Because the SAF target the boreholes where we get our water – they destroyed every single one of them.”
The other soldier, Michael, seemed more at ease than his slightly anxious partner. “The reason we keep fighting is because we consider this land as our own,” he said, implying that the Sudanese government are trying to kill off anyone loyal to South Sudan so they can move in and freely claim the land. “This is our home – not theirs. We won’t surrender.”
Some of the children living in caves along the mountain range.
Near the end of my patrol with the SPLM-N members, while driving through the Sahel desert towards the Yida camp, Michael – exhausted by the heat and the day’s work – asked me, “Why don’t you people see us? Why do they all talk about Syria but never about us?”
The Nuba have been left alone to face a government that wants them dead, and it seems that the realisation of that is only just beginning to set in on an international scale, two years after the conflict began. In December 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the government’s attacks against civilians in South Kordofan may amount to war crimes. Considering the ridiculously under-equipped SPLM-N rebels are dealing with old, malfunctioning artillery and living in caves while their opponents in the SAF bombard them with aircraft and tanks, it seems that HRW might be on to something.
Those accusations may explain why, in April 2013, President al-Bashir claimed to be open to negotiations with the SPLM-N. Yet, he has already cancelled two meetings with rebel spokesmen that were scheduled for May. When I left in February, 2013, the Sudanese government’s Antonovs were still dropping bombs on the innocent people of South Kordofan.
And it seems to me that, as seems to often be the case with al-Bashir, the Sudanese president is merely playing nice in the media while continuing to murder his own citizens for his own selfish ends. In this case: ridding the most southerly part of his country of anyone loyal to South Sudan and making sure he never has to deal with being challenged again.
More on Sudan and South Sudan:
Darfur’s Tribes are Killing Each Other Over Gold and Water
In the Red Zone with Sudan’s Blue Nile Rebels