Forgotten or ignored: the conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains

A hostile and devastating conflict between the Sudan government and rebels threatens to upend the country's progress and prospects for peace with the passing of each day.
Source: Nuba Reports. SPLA-North Soldiers drive a tank they captured from the SAF army during an ambush. Over a week, they managed to capture 6 other tanks as well.

Mohamed Adam stared at the burnt rubble in front of him, oblivious to the heat of the noonday sun as he surveyed all his hard work, his home and food storage preparations, destroyed in a matter of minutes. A melted cassette can be seen peeping out of the ash piles, a Congolese pop album that his son had listened to incessantly. The Antonov, one of Sudan’s bumbling warplanes, bombed his house and food storage –forcing him and his family to survive on the goodwill of neighbours. Mohamed, a clerk for the rebel governor in the Nuba Mountains, was at his office that day in May 2016 when the Antonov flew overhead. When the deafening bomb dropped, he panicked and rushed to his home. “Thank God my family was safe,” he said.

A cassette at Mohamed Adam’s burnt house

Adam’s wife, Husna Mohamed, and her two children managed to hide in a “foxhole” (a hole in the ground used to hide from shrapnel spread by government bombs) and survived. The lid covering the hole, however, caught on fire and slightly burnt the leg of their three-year-old child Munasid Mohamed. The young girl was rushed to the local hospital in Lewere for treatment, one of two facilities in the entire rebel-controlled area.

According to Johannes Plate, a medical field coordinator for the small but crucial hospital supported by the German Emergency Doctors organisation, the Sudan government has repeatedly attempted to bomb the hospital. Like Adam’s house and all homes in the Nuba Mountains, the hospital has foxholes around the building in case a warplane attempts to bomb it. “I hope you can see they are not just bombing military targets but civilians,” Adam said. “In Syria, the international community responded very quickly, why not to us? Are we not human beings like them?”

The conflict since 2011

The Sudan government has bombed over 4,000 civilian targets since the conflict began in 2011.

The citizens of Nuba are currently experiencing a cessation of hostilities between the government and rebel army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), but Antonovs occasionally circle above without bombing, local farmers told Words in the Bucket (WIB).

The ongoing six-year Nuba conflict is essentially an extension of the long civil war that eventually provided South Sudan its independence in July 2011. The Nuba people played a key role helping the former South Sudan rebel forces gain sovereignty. But nothing changed in the Nuba Mountains – unfulfilled promises of autonomy and suspected rigged local elections triggered renewed fighting between the Sudan government and the Nuba rebels.

All attention –whether local or international—focused on South Sudan once Africa’s newest country gained independence. The ongoing conflict in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state is largely ignored. When internal fighting broke out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in December 2013, what little support the South Sudan government provided to the Nuba had waned further. Sudan placed South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir under pressure to end support to the SPLM-N with the agreement that Khartoum would not support South Sudanese rebels targeting Kiir’s government. While there is physical evidence of the Sudan government’s support to these rebels in 2011 and 2012, there has not been any verifiable evidence of the same in recent years. This is partly due to U.S. pressure on Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to cease any meddling in South Sudanese affairs in return for the U.S. to lift nearly 20 years of economic sanctions. Along with oil interests, the U.S. has invested heavily in South Sudan.

Political interests and objectives at play

With new political interests in Sudan, the West and the U.S. in particular have little interest in the Nuba Mountains. The U.S. may lift sanctions against Sudan in October this year –largely in return for Khartoum’s non-interference in South Sudan, and, more importantly, for alleged anti-terrorism support. The European Union (EU) is also keen to improve relations with Sudan after funding the Sudan government in late 2015 to curb transitory migration across the country’s borders. “Both the UK and U.S. believe there are more important geopolitical interests at play in the region than the fate of Sudan’s minorities,” says Professor Samuel Totten. “Insofar as time is spent on Sudan in Washington or London, the US and UK have calculated they have more to gain by appeasing Khartoum than by challenging it.”

Besides a lack of regional and international political interest, there is also very little media interest due mainly to issues of access. Khartoum has banned reporting in conflict areas. Sudanese authorities detained and questioned editors of the private daily Al-Tayyar twice this month for having the audacity to interview the Nuba rebel leader Abdulaziz Al-Hilu. For local and foreign media to gain entry into the rebel-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains or Blue Nile State is extremely taxing — the rainy season muddies road to the point that access is intractable half of the year. And even when a reporter manages to reach the Nuba Mountains, selling the story is another challenge in and of itself.

Unlike the heart-pounding bombing campaigns reported in Syria’s six-year conflict, the war in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile is a war of attrition, whereby Sudan’s government forces conduct intermittent attacks to ultimately starve the populace into submission. Sudan’s forces continue to occupy two key agricultural areas and have seized farmland in over 20 locations in the Nuba Mountains. Pro-government militias raided and looted villages on at least 16 occasions in April and May this year. “It’s done purposely,” said Ali Abdelrahman, director of the Nuba Mountains Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organization (NRRDO), a community-based support group. “To set fire to people’s homes, to drive away livestock – purposely to get them hungry. Once you get into that situation, you [either] die or join government-controlled territories whereby youth are recruited against their own people.”

Harvest time in the Nuba Mountains

There is still no humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains at a time when nearly 10 percent of the South Sudanese population faces severe malnutrition rates, according to the South Kordofan Blue Nile Coordination Unit, an organization that monitors food insecurity in the two areas. But limited media coverage and political interest is keeping a seemingly inevitable food crisis largely unknown to the global and Sudanese audience alike. “Even if the world has forgotten us we will keep going,” said Zachiah Issa Abdullah, a female rebel soldier from Delami County in the Nuba Mountains. Zachiah is currently not fighting while the ceasefire remains in place, but remains prepared in case it resumes. “When the ground fighting begins, I only think of those we have lost and, at the same time, I think of my children back home. Then I go forward, reminding myself who I am fighting for.”

Forgotten or ignored: the conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains
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Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes is the Managing Editor of Nuba Reports, a news and video platform that focuses on the under-reported conflicts in Sudan. Previously Tom worked as a press freedom advocate for the New York-based advocacy organisation, The Committee to Protect Journalists and co-founded South Sudan's first independent newspaper, The Juba Post. He has contributed to many publications including Africa Confidential, BBC Focus on Africa, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, among others.
    2 Comments on this post.
  • Karva Chauth Images
    22 September 2017 at 3:57 pm
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    • WiB Team
      WiB Team
      23 September 2017 at 1:10 pm
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