Dry weather means war in the Nuba Mountains. News from the front comes almost every day: shelling of Kadugli, clashes at Um Heitan, an assault on Daldogo. A steady trickle of refugees moves south, wearing their households on their heads: pots, pans, a radio, some flour and sometimes a whole bed.
Valley after valley lies desolate where rich crops used to grow, the seedbeds now in disarray and the stalks bruised. Market after market is depleted, but for some produce from the highlands. On mats no bigger than bath towels traders lay out their fare: piles of little tomatoes, okra, potatoes or three to four lemons, sometimes mangoes. Almost nobody buys.
Unmistakable overhead comes the swelling hum of engines. No more than a glint between rock and sky, the Antonov is the most widely recognized aircraft type in Sudan. More cargo plane than bomber, its creators in the Ukraine must have never imagined that it would be used in such a place, over and over again, bringing more than 2000 bombs this year, according to Montasir Nasir, head of the region’s human rights commission.
On a Sunday morning in Buram the church is emptying, stirred up by the sound overhead. The service will be held in the rocks. Through the tall grass the congregation searches toward the mountain, a group diminished by so many departed – those at the front, those in the camps, those who have died.
The deacon Isaac Kafi Nahal leads the ones that remain: Women in scarves almost neon bright, drab barefoot children, men in flamboyant shirts. The sermon is from Revelation: “Outside are the dogs and murderers. But God will come soon.” In the rock cave there is cheering, dancing and prayer. When the time comes for the collection, the congregation produces a corncob and two Sudanese pounds – half a dollar.
‘I expect the worst famine that this generation has experienced’
There is only one real hospital in the Nuba Mountains. It is run by Dr. Tom Catena, a 52-year old Catholic mission doctor from New York state. He has more than 300 patients.
“Over the past three years I have seen the number of malnourished children grow,” says Dr. Catena. “Within a few months, I expect the worst famine that this generation has experienced. The people have no more reserves. The rain in the past year was so bad, that they hardly made it through the year. Due to the air bombardments there is not enough harvest in November. This will lead to a great shortage of food.”
His assertion appears to be backed up by survey data collected in August by a hybrid group of local civil society and foreign aid workers. The group, which prefers anonymity owing to fears for their security, conducted a household survey in August that showed “high levels of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ hunger in all SPLM-N-held localities.”
“The levels of ‘severe’ hunger reported in Kadugli are particularly high, at 85.4 percent for resident households and 87.5 percent for displaced households,” the group noted in a report which was given to Radio Tamazuj in late October.
Little relief will come from the ongoing harvest, according to the survey, largely because security in many areas was too poor for planting or harvesting. The result of this is evident at the local markets: “Wheat and millet were not available in any of the locality markets surveyed and availability of maize was also limited. … The situation is notably worse in Kadugli [locality], where staple commodities are much less readily available. Indeed, sorghum, the key staple food for poor households, was only found in one market in Kadugli.”
Malnutrition rates have worsened, according to a separate August survey conducted by an international NGO that that likewise prefers anonymity, fearing retribution from the Sudan government.
The ‘Rapid Food Security and Nutrition Assessment’ report, which was vetted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, showed that food security in the Nuba Mountains “has dramatically deteriorated, with 81.5 percent of households surviving on one meal per day, compared to only 9.5 percent one year ago, and 0 percent two years ago.”
The report concludes that the nutrition situation is serious, verging on critical, with a current global acute malnutrition rate in children 6-59 months of 14.9 percent and a severe acute malnutrition rate of 3.6 percent with the presence of aggravating factors such as endemic malaria.
Nobody is counting exactly how many Nuba have fled. There are three UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan – in Darfur, South Sudan and in the disputed Abyei area – costing some $2.4 billion per year. But none has a mandate for the Nuba Mountains. The UN pulled its bases from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan when the conflict began in June 2011.
The UN Coordination Agency (OCHA), however, sketches out some rough estimates. It says in an October report that the number of ‘displaced and severely affected’ people, including refugees, is 207,000 within government-held areas of South Kordofan, 350,000 within the SPLM-North territory, and 65,000 refugees in camps South Sudan.
That puts the total figure at more than 600,000, a quarter of the state’s population of 2.5 million according to the 2010 census, but a far higher percentage if one excludes the western, Misseriya-inhabited counties of the state, which have not been directly affected by the conflict.
Adrian Edwards, UN Refugee Agency spokesman in Geneva, says that a new influx is expected at refugee camps in South Sudan as the rains come to an end. He says that the agency is preparing new sites to settle refugees to relieve pressure on the already massive Yida camp. At least 100 refugees are still arriving every day at the camp, a far lower intake than earlier this year but what is taken to be only a temporary lull.
Some Nuba, on the other hand, head north, crossing the front line into government towns. They risk recrimination or abuse in the hope of accessing food and labor opportunities. Dr. Catena explains: “Here in the Nuba Mountains it is a matter of starving or you walk over to the Khartoum-controlled areas. Read the reports. What happens if you do not choose their side: torture, rape, abuse, or you will be treated as a spy.
“They are draining the Nuba Mountains of humans as one would drain a swamp. Food is in government-controlled areas, like in Talodi and Kadugli. It does not come from the government of Khartoum, it is provided by WFP,” he adds.
Other Nuba stay behind anyway. For some, they would rather die than join the enemy. For others, the journey to South Sudan is too long, and there is little chance of help along the way. International organizations that are caught providing assistance in the rebel-held region will be thrown out from northern Sudan, so less than a handful of organizations help secretely by providing medicines or food. Among them are Americans, Germans, French and Dutch.
The remnant of the Nuba still clinging to their homeland try to bring supplies from the outside. But the roads to the south are so poor that it’s cheaper, though far more dangerous, to smuggle goods from the north. At Kurchi market, for instance, a truck pulls in carrying sesame, sorghum and diesel. Nomad traders bring the goods from across government lines. The prices are less than they are at Yida refugee camp.
But virtually no one in the Nuba Mountains carries money: 73.2 percent of all households have no income, according to the Rapid Food Security and Nutrition Assessment carried out last August.
‘Language and culture are systematically destroyed’
Montasir Nasir, a chemical engineer with a calling for human rights, lists churches, schools and farms that have been hit by bombs. He shows little anger, just grief. Since the Christian Nubian kingdoms were overrun in the 14th century, “the culture of the Nuba peoples and especially the Christians is restricted,” he says.
Nasir says that the conflict is about identities: “The politics of Khartoum toward the Nuba peoples is to Arabize and Islamize. The local language and culture are systematically destroyed. In all bombings, the government is trying to hit schools and churches. By hitting the cornfields, they cause a famine.”
Any opposition to this programme – real or perceived – is met with brutality, according to Martin Boulis, a refugee working with the Sudan Council of Churches. He recalls the day he lost a friend, 32-year-old Nemeiri Phillip Kallo: “Right in front of the gates of the UN peacekeeping mission in the capital Kadugli my friend who worked for the UN was executed.”
Nemeiri was in Kadugli, the state capital and a government garrison, when the first fighting broke out on June 5, 2011. Ethnically Nuba and fighting age, he feared for his life. He headed to the base of the UN, which was preparing its exit but still had a troupe of Egyptian peacekeepers.
Pulling up near the gates of the base, in a car driven by a friend, he was stopped by security officers and taken from the car. The Egyptian UN officers at the gate did not dare to intervene, says Boulis. “A soldier pointed his gun at Nemeiri’s head. Someone shouted: ‘Do not shoot here.’”
“So they threw him in the truck, tore away around the corner and then we heard the gunshots. Soldiers threw him out of the car on the side of the road.” The account of this murder is corroborated by a former employee of the UN who was an eyewitness and driver of the car from which Nimeiri was taken.
Dr. Tom Catena lifts the shirt of a boy he operated earlier in the day. The boy has a temporary stoma surgically created because there is a shard in his bowel and abdominal cut: “No problem, it can later be removed.”
He takes the sheet off a woman. Her abdomen is covered in gauze. “I removed nothing but grass and stones from the inside,” he says. She was hit by debris from a bomb while crossing the fields near Heiban. “She has a family of seven children, and they have twice already given here a chicken. She’ll make it.”
The doctor continues his round. He is worried about the man who turned his hand to ‘spaghetti’ in an accident with a grenade launcher. He fears amputation will be necessary. Then there is a prostate patient, and a woman who miscarried twins, and a woman with a leg traction expertly mounted to the bed frame.
Doctor Tom smiles at a small man standing in the ward: “I thought he had appendicitis. I cut him open this morning. Then I found two bullets. He had forgotten that he had been shot a year earlier.”
“Look around you here in this hospital. Are these rebels? Here, look at this boy, he lost his arm. That girl is a paraplegic because of a bombardment. These are dangerous people? Are malnourished babies guilty of fighting? Help me out here, these people just live in this area,” he says.
The doctor strokes his shaved head: “Instead of giving assistance to the region, the world watches the bombs falling. We are ruled by criminals, but the international community still does business with them. President Omar al Bashir and Governor Ahmed Haroun are both indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague wanted for war crimes. But they can quietly continue their destruction of the Nuba people. ”
“This is ethnic cleansing, chasing people from their area because of their political, ethnic and religious beliefs. They had the right to fair elections, which have not been held. According to the peace agreement, the Nuba peoples had the right to a popular consultation on what form of government they wanted. Khartoum denied it,” he adds.
“Normally international organizations come in to help. The government and rebels had even reached an agreement with the UN, African Union and the Arab League to give help. But until today there is no grain that arrived in the rebel areas. But meanwhile the UN Food Programme, WFP, gives food aid to the government-controlled region.”
The lone doctor in the Nuba Mountains shakes his head: “This is a classic example of the use of food as a weapon… I don’t get it. Why don’t people understand the logic of this?”
Nuba soldiers, meanwhile, expect that more attacks are imminent. The government is preparing its dry season offensive. Montasir Nasir looks up at the sky: “Make it stop.”
Hildebrand Bijleveld is a journalist working since 1994 in Sudan. He is the founder and director of Radio Dabanga and Radio Tamazuj, shortwave broadcasters for Darfur and the other conflict zones in Sudan. Edited by Daniel van Oudenaren.
Related: Photos: The Nuba in Crisis
You can contact the director of Radio Tamazuj, Hildebrand B. Bijleveld: