Stranded in the war of Sudan’s Nuba mountains

I don’t want to start writing this story. I’ve been stuck in a rebel area in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, surrounded by hostile government soldiers, without any way to reach the safety of the outside world for several weeks now. I feel smothered by lethargy. Hope leads to hopelessness. Writing takes energy but energy creates expectations. In order to get through this I have to put my feelings on standby.

A new war has broken out in Sudan. In 1955, the black South Sudanese started a rebellion against domination and exploitation by the Arab people of northern Sudan. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended decades of fighting and eventually led to the independence of South Sudan on 9 July 2011. But the CPA didn’t solve Sudan’s fundamental problem: is this an Arab or a black African nation?

The black tribes in the Nuba mountains and neighboring Blue Nile State, as well as in the western region of Darfur, continue to resist marginalization and Arab domination. Civilians are the main target in the Nuba mountains; in order to cover this vicious conflict, I have to be here where it’s happening and so here I am. The resistance is being led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army–North (SPLA/N).

Everyday, government bombers fly overhead. The Sudanese government is using the same tactics it used during the first war: bomb the civilians in the rebel areas into submission. Tens of thousands of Nuba people have fled into the mountains to escape the bombs.

They can’t do much farming and the blockades around the cities mean that trading has stopped as well. Students don’t go to school because the bombing is indiscriminate. There is no medicine because foreign aid organizations have been prevented from entering the area. A few weeks ago, a pilot took a chance and flew me in. It’s been raining since then and the landing strip is just a mud pool.

There is no way to tell one day from another and sometimes I wonder if the sun will ever shine again. I want to be a cow and just endlessly chew and chew. Watching insects is a way to pass the time; sand flies during the day, mosquitoes in the evening and fleas during the night. Ants bite me anywhere they can and leave nasty red bumps behind. Tonight I’m going to imitate the goats: they climb up a rock-face and then slide down, scraping insects and bites off their hides. I want to scrape away the itching and the pain.

Julud was a mountain village during the first war. After 2002, the thousand inhabitants came down the mountain and created a new village; first there was a little shop, then a market with ten little shops and then more houses. Every day I go and eat my plate of beans at Arafa’s, she’s an attractive young tea lady. She serves beans with sugar or beans with crumbled cookies and sugar. She also has milk with sugar and tea with sugar. People in Sudan like sugar with everything.

Arafa brings Adam some cucumber and sour milk. When fighting broke out in the regional capital Kadugli four months ago, Adam fled to the rebel-held territory. “President Omar al-Bashir’s government wants to wipe out us Nubas,” he says loudly.

Government soldiers ransacked his house in Kadugli; anything that had any value was taken, including the furniture, the roof, the toilet and the kitchen sink. Then the soldiers brought in a bulldozer and flattened his house: Adam has nothing any more. His long political tirade in Arafa’s teahouse betrays a deep hatred of ‘the Arabs’. “It’s a genocide of the Nuba people.”

Adam tells about a bombing that took place yesterday, some ten kilometres up the road. Two women were killed by shrapnel wounds to the stomach. Exhausted rebel fighters stumble into Julud from the front lines; the government troops went on the attack but were intercepted, eight people dead.

The SPLA/N commander decides to move me to a safer area, further away from the front line. It’s cheaper in Tima; smugglers have managed to bring goods in from the besieged towns. There are tubes of toothpaste and lollies on the dusty shelves of the little shops and on market day, even a few bottles of fizzy drink. The richest person in the village has a teaching diploma and a television. In the evening, the silence is broken by a police siren screaming on a TV show.

There’s excitement in the air the following evening; the fighters welcome a man, they clap him on the shoulders and embrace him: “SPLA oyé,” they say jubilantly. He escaped from the nearby garrison town of Logowa and, after a two-month trek through hostile territory, finally made it to SPLA/N territory. He laughs, “I’m free here, I’m home.”

Will I ever get away from here? Will this ever end? I haven’t got anything left to read and there’s nothing else to do. I’m even running out of paper to write on.

 

The graves of Garba Tulla

Yussuf Ammo Halake lives in Garba Tulla in an area called Prison. “It was once a concentration camp”, he says. “There is a mass grave here of the shifta war in the sixties. At that time we nomads of the Wuasa Boran were dying an invisible death. Now we are living an invisible life”.

Garba Tulla lies on the vast and mainly dry savanna’s of Northern Kenya. The wounds of a vicious war nearly fifty years ago are still open. “Thousands of civilians were killed, we were imprisoned in this area and our cattle was driven away to the highlands”, laments Halake. “That is the way the authorities deal with us nomads in the North”.
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Dadaab: Anyone here dying and speaks English?

Galgayo, Somalia - Petterik Wiggers/Hollandse Hoogte

Cynical press
International networks and journalists shamelessly focus their cameras on hunger and death. African leaders are embarrassed. Ethiopia wants to get rid of its image as the famine capital of the world. That’s one of the reasons its government has worked hard since 1991 towards guaranteeing food security. In his book Famine and Foreigners, Ethiopia since Live Aid, Peter Gill describes how in 2003 and 2008 the government tried to keep famine victims away from Western cameras. And now it is reluctant to let foreign correspondents cover the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

“Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” The title of this book by war correspondent Edward Behr reflected the cynicism in the press coverage of the violence in Congo in the early 1960s. Africa had only recently become independent and Western journalists found it difficult to write in an informed way about the continent. The de-colonisation of the Western mind had yet to begin.

Visible bones
“Anyone here dying and speaks English?” Fifty years later this line haunts me during a visit to Dadaab, the refugee camp in Northern Kenya crammed with Somali refugees. Nobody knows the exact dimensions of the disaster. The epicentre lies in inaccessible territory in Somalia. There is no mass starvation in Dadaab, but the journalists need shocking images to reinforce their tales of misery so they go looking for death. There is no room for subtlety.

A staggering cow eating the straw from a nomadic dwelling, a desperate goat sucking the toes of his herder, these images may give an idea of the dimensions of the crisis for local cattle herders, but don’t contain enough drama to titillate the dulled appetites of Western readers. So the reporter goes for the kill. “Put your baby a bit more in the light, please”, a photographer asks a mother. And yes, take its clothes off – otherwise the bones are not visible.

Superlatives
Aid workers larded their announcement of the disaster at the beginning of July with superlatives: the worst drought since, the biggest humanitarian tragedy now. And the ace in the pack: worse than 1984’s famine in Ethiopia.

Referring to “the worst” seems the only way to get attention. Journalists copied the fundraisers’ chorus of woe. Hunger caused by a war raging in Somalia became a famine in the entire Horn of Africa. Some media even started talking about “the famine in Africa”.

Figures
When asked what he needed most, a Somali herder near the border with Kenya told me “I need respect”. Do aid workers and journalists show respect for the victims when they toss around figures like “four million dead in Congo” or “hundreds of thousands killed in Darfur genocide”.

When will figures become people? There is great suffering in Somalia, but how can aid workers claim that thousands of people have already died there because of the famine? Tens, hundreds, thousands? Is there a difference? Or have these calculations been made on the back of a matchbox to feed the journalists and the fundraisers? It seems perfectly understandable that African leaders are reluctant to join the hype created around this serious food crisis.