Half a million displaced as Khartoum moves to crush Sudan's Nuba people
Fierce fighting raises fears the country's 22-year civil war will be reignited as the government turns on the north's Africans, sidelined in the south's peace deal
Saturday 18 June 2011 23.26 BST
Fierce new fighting along Sudan's volatile north-south divide is raising deep concern for the safety of the Nuba people, the forgotten victims of the country's long-running civil war who are once again under attack by government forces and militias.
The fighting has significantly increased the chances that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war six years ago will collapse, reigniting a north-south war and ending all hopes of peaceful partition when oil-rich South Sudan formally declares itself independent on 9 July.
Many Nuba fought alongside the southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the 22-year war. As black Africans within the Arabised north of Sudan, their hope was that the "New Sudan" promised by the SPLA would end their marginalisation and win respect for Nuba languages, religious observances and culture. The war that began in the 1980s in the Nuba region of South Kordofan was not just a footnote to the war in the south, it was a civil war in its own right, a deep-rooted indigenous rebellion that prompted a declaration of jihad by the Khartoum government in January 1992. Villages were burnt, livestock raided, food stores destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Nuba forced into "peace camps". But the Nuba were short-changed in the CPA. It denied them self-rule and, crucially, did not specify what would happen to the 30,000-strong Nuba rebel army enrolled in the SPLA.
On 5 June, as the Sudanese government army prepared to "control" – disarm – Nuba fighters, fighting erupted in South Kordofan's capital, Kadugli, and spread quickly across most of the region. The battle for Kadugli became a street-by-street war of attrition: Khartoum piled in brigades of regulars and irregulars, and the SPLA relentlessly mortared the army's divisional headquarters.
UN reports seen by the Observer state that "human rights abuses are commonplace and part of the strategy" in the new Nuba war. There are "door-to-door searches, presumably for SPLA elements"; "wide-scale exactions against unarmed civilians with specific targeting of African tribes"; looting of relief offices and warehouses; and "sightings of cattle-trucks with people sitting on their floors, with sentries guarding them".
"They take the young men," one official said. "Are they going to detain them and feed them and give them water for months? I don't think so."
Four days into the war, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (Unmis) warned in an internal report that a humanitarian crisis was already developing "of a magnitude that Unmis… is not sufficiently prepared to counter and the UN agencies are unprepared to deal with".
On Thursday the Nuba leader, Abdelaziz Adam al-Hilu, told African Union (AU) mediators frantically crafting a ceasefire agreement that more than 3,000 people have disappeared – either killed or their whereabouts unknown – "because they are Nuba or belong to the SPLA". He said 400,000-500,000 have been displaced, in a population of approximately 2.5 million, and more than 50 towns had been bombed.
Food, he said, was being used as a weapon, with no flow of goods to rural areas since May. Kadugli airport has been closed to humanitarian flights. Relief coming by road has been turned away.
The war in the Nuba mountains is already being seen through the lens of earlier wars: the north-south war; the Darfur war; the jihad. It is different. The sheer number of armed men under organised command on both sides has never before been matched in Sudan— including more than 60,000 on the government side. In focusing so heavily on the north-south conflict, the international community has underestimated the determination of the Nuba: their fighters are more numerous and much better led than the Darfur rebels, with formidable organisational skills, command capabilities and discipline.
As in the 1990s, Khartoum is closing Nuba to international scrutiny. Unmis has been told to leave by 9 July, the day of partition. In Kadugli, government troops helped Unmis evacuate international relief workers, but then, according to confidential reports, stepped up the "intimidation and obstruction" of Unmis itself. An Unmis helicopter was warned it would be shot at if it attempted to land. An 11 June report said: "International staff are restricted from leaving the [Unmis] compound and the majority of the national staff left are now not willing to leave for fear of their lives." On Friday, after two bombs from an Antonov plane fell 500 yards west of the compound, Unmis said: "The excessive use of bombardment recently is threatening our presence and putting the lives of civilians at high risk."
"The government is bringing an enormous amount of military hardware and reinforcements into Kadugli and doesn't want witnesses," one foreign observer said. "They are trying to make sure we can't report on what they do. It's a war, and a dirty war."
Although the AU team led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki has won both sides' agreement in principle to cease firing, Unmis is so weak and discredited that its capacity to sustain a ceasefire is doubtful. In an attack on an army base in the south-west of South Kordofan last week, the Darfur rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement seized large amounts of heavy weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and told the Observer: "We will not allow the government to defeat the Nuba."
Most Nuba saw state elections last month as a last chance to achieve democratic change in northern Sudan through a political process. They were confident of victory. But although they won a majority of votes, they won only 21 seats to the 33 claimed by President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress party (NCP). In gubernatorial elections, the NCP's Ahmad Haroun, indicted by the International Criminal Court on 42 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur, was declared victorious over Hilu.
"They rigged the census, the elections, the ballot boxes," Hilu told Mbeki on Thursday. "We tested the NCP over six years. They don't respect agreements, they did not implement the CPA. They declared clearly there is no room in this country for any group except Arabs, and no other religion except Islam."