The Nuba people of Sudan knew that key decisions were going to be made about their future, after the 2005 Peace Agreement. and they wanted a voice. Most of all they wanted self-determination, even as they knew that the Nuba Mountains were not only in the North but nowhere contiguous with what will become the Republic of South Sudan on July 9. Their fear was that they would be left alone in a North Sudan dominated by Khartoum’s ideological Islam and Arabism (the ethnically diverse African people of the Nuba follow a number of religions, including Islam). Their worst fears have been realized.
Historical memory in this part of Sudan is defined by the terrible experiences of the 1990s, when Khartoum mounted a full-scale genocidal assault on the people of the Nuba, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands. This was jihad, and it was based on a fatwah issued in Khartoum in January 1992. With this justification, a total humanitarian blockade was imposed on the region, and many starving people were driven into “peace camps,” where receiving food was conditional upon conversion to Islam; those refusing were often tortured or mutilated. It is hardly surprising that Deputy Governor Ismael Khamis would tell me bluntly, “Khartoum doesn’t regard us as human beings.”
And judging by the nature of the genocide that is rapidly developing in South Kordofan, there can be little quarreling with Khamis’ assessment. Clear patterns have emerged from the many scores of reports that have come to me from the region over the past two weeks. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Khartoum’s regular military and militia are undertaking a campaign of house-to-house roundups of Nuba in the capital city of Kadugli. Many of these people are hauled away in cattle trucks or summarily executed; dead bodies reportedly litter the streets of Kadugli. The Nuba are also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those in Rwanda; those suspected of SPLM or “southern” political sympathies are arrested or shot. The real issue, however, is not political identity but Nuba ethnicity; one aid worker who recently escaped from South Kordofan reports militia forces patrolling further from Kadugli: “Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, ‘Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.’” Another Nuba aid worker reports that an Arab militia leader made clear that their orders were simple: “to just clear.”
Yet another Nuba resident of Kadugli (“Yusef”) told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the notorious Popular Defense Forces (PDF) that they had been provided with plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: “‘He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up. He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town.’” There have been repeated reports, so far unconfirmed, of mass graves in and around Kadugli. We should hardly be surprised that the charges of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are coming ever more insistently from the Nuba people, observers on the ground and in the region, and church groups with strong ties to the region.
Just as shocking is Khartoum’s renewed blockade of humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba, hundreds of thousands of whom have already fled into the hills or mountainsides. The Kauda airstrip, critical for humanitarian transport, has been relentlessly bombed over the past ten days, and the UN now reports that it is no longer serviceable for fixed-wing aircraft. The airstrip has no military value, as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces have no aircraft. The concerted bombing, with high-explosives producing enormous craters, is simply to deny the Nuba food, medicine, and shelter.
- The UN World Health Organization warehouse and offices in Kadugli have been completely looted, as have those of other UN humanitarian agencies.
- The Kadugli airport has been commandeered by Khartoum’s military forces, and all humanitarian flights into South Kordofan have been halted.
- The World Food Program has announced that it has no way to feed some 400,000 beneficiaries in South Kordofan.
- As in Darfur, Khartoum intends to wage a genocide by attrition—defeating the Nuba by starving them.
What Khartoum seems not to have fully understood is how determined the Nuba SPLA are.
- These are not southerners, but true sons of the Nuba; they cannot “return to the South,” because they are from the north.
- And they are well armed and well led by Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, a former governor of the region and fearsome military commander.
- They believe they are defending their homeland and their way of life. They have no alternative: as Khamis said to me during our 2003 meeting, “we have no way out.”
Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy, declared on June 16—eleven days after the killing began in Kadugli—that the United States “doesn’t have enough information on the ground to call the campaign ‘ethnic cleansing.’”