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Crisis in Sudan: Allegations of Ethnic Cleansing in the Nuba Mountains

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Image by Rebecca Hamilton. Sudan, 2011.

For 19 days, media cut off from direct access to the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan, which lies in northern Sudan, have been struggling to verify information emerging about the situation there. On Wednesday, a long-time Sudan analyst who was in the Nuba Mountains when the bombing began on June 5, and who only just got out, sent the following letter to friends and forwarded it to journalists covering Sudan.

The analyst, who is Western, has asked for his identity to be protected for fear of retaliation against his friends and colleagues still in Sudan. On Wednesday night I did a lengthy phone interview with him. Much of the content in his letter aligns with what information has been filtering out of the region to journalists through diaspora networks and the United Nations over the past week. However readers should note that it contains some second-hand information, obtained through his interviews, in addition to his eyewitness testimony. In particular, regarding the allegation of the use of phosphorous-like bombs, he told me he had no direct knowledge of this. The basis for the allegation was an interview with a source he trusts, who said that after certain bombs fell in Kadugli there was “a strange burning substance that you couldn’t put out.”

Commenting on what media coverage of the crisis he has read since he left the area, he had one message to convey: “This is not a north/south war. This is not an Arab/black war. This is not a Muslim/Christian war. This is a war against one of the minority groups in northern Sudan.”

Here is his letter:

Dear friends,

Sorry to have been so out of touch. Just got out of Nuba a couple of days ago by which time it was already a full-on war zone. Twenty-five days there seemed like a lifetime. While I was there, it was obvious the election process had become so seriously flawed that despite great efforts to inform voters and put forward candidates, the government simply wants no even democratic opposition. Making Haroun, an indicted war criminal wanted for genocide, the governor was a clear message to the people of South Kordofan.

Then in the first week of June, Bashir’s forces started an operation to “remove” any local people who had sided with the opposition during the recent elections. There was an enormous build-up of troops, artillery, tanks, and machine gun carriers. And now they’ve started ground attacks with strong air support. All access is cut off, official statements that any United Nations planes will be shot down, no commodities, going in or out, no humanitarian access, roads mined, large numbers of militias armed.

With the invasion of troops in Kadugli, people began to run. Before Nuba became completely cut off we started working with local people and the remaining local staff of NGOs to respond to the enormous needs of the displaced. We were bombed by Antonovs and strafed by MiGs. Heavy shelling was never far away but we never ran into trouble except from the air. It seems that there is an overt operation to completely “neutralise” (either by killing or by terrifying) any likelihood of opposition. There are very brutal and aggressive attacks with new weapons. We heard stories (we are not sure) of what sounded like phosphorous bombs that cause fires that never go out and horrible burning. People are terrified. There are many civilian casualties already and I fear it is going to get much worse.

What can only be called ethnic cleansing, when an ethnic group is targeted for extermination, started in Kadugli and Dilling while we were there. Door to door executions of completely innocent and defenseless civilians, often by throat cutting, by special internal security forces. We don’t know how many yet; hundreds seems for sure, but could be much worse. Terrible accounts of civilians – friends – attempting to find safety in the UNMIS (United Nations Missions of Sudan) compound being pulled out of vehicles and executed immediately. And now we hear that all the displaced who had been seeking some form of security alongside the perimeter fence of UNMIS are being forced to move by the government authorities. What will happen to them? So we just had to stay focused and get things moving on the ground. Incredibly brave and impressive locals both experienced aid workers and villagers leading the response; freed up by the immediate exit of all expats before thingswent wrong. Probably over 100,000 already displaced and more coming.

With a bit of help from WFP (World Food Program) we were able to get access to food stocks that were left when WFP pulled out its staff. And we managed to get some useful (but not enough) medicines and shelter stuff in, albeit with great risk. This all being done by local people in South Kordofan. I was just fortunate to be around at a time when, unusually, an outsider can actually help a little.

But of course, as always, the real heroes are all the Nuba civilians trying to respond to the terrible humanitarian crisis and the targeted attacks. They are risking their lives in doing so. Even today (Wednesday 22 June) they are being targeted by aerial bombardment while still trying to respond to needs of displaced in many different areas of the Nuba Mountains. At the same time a civilian protection team of young men and women move between villages to spread local ideas on protection gleaned from the last war as well as some training on how to document what is happening and to get photos out by internet. A great and committed journalist has also done training of local men and women across the state in photography and ways to communicate with the outside world. All phone networks there have been switched off by Khartoum (the day before it all started), so communications was very limited – a few old sat phones and limited internet. With small solar systems out there they should be able to maintain some access, albeit very limited. Desperately sad and terrible. And at the same time the spirit and bravery of the Nuba just continues to soar above the horror of it all and makes me start crying again as I write. Leaving was difficult security wise (over email, can’t say how at this stage) but also broke my heart despite the fact that I was aching for loved ones at home. Not sure how many of them I will see again.

So you know, this is not a war about south versus north, nor Christian against Muslim, or black against Arab. There are as many Muslim Nuba as Christian (and a healthy percentage of traditional spirituality), they see their future in the north, they are intermarried and have been living along side Arab nomadic groups and northern communities for centuries. There are nomadic Arab communities in southern Kordofan who also voted for the SPLM (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement) and many of the Misseriya and Hawazma groups remain as marginalised as the Nuba ; and as vulnerable to the policies of the center. The Nuba SPLM are not the same as the southern SPLM/A. They are fighting to resist a regime that refuses them basic rights and a voice – access to justice and even basic social and economic rights. This is so important because the Nuba offer a vision for Sudan that builds on religious tolerance and a local understanding of democracy – relevant for so many areas of the world right now. And the war is in a large part our fault again. The UN “peace-keeping” forces are not only totally ineffective (summary executions going in front of blue berets in Kadugli) but may even add to the problem. The diplomatic efforts are too often driven by ill-informed strategies or self-serving policies more related to economic gain for us rather than any sense of humanity or justice. This return of a horrific war needn’t have happened if only there had been much stronger international support for the planned political process. There was never enough international pressure to promote a genuine chance for a just peace.

How can you help? Not sure at this stage. Any effort to demand of your government representatives a much greater attention to what is happening in South Kordofan would help. Not peace at any price, the Nuba despite their horror at the return to war can see no future unless there is a change of regime in Khartoum now. And if any of you have any good media contacts do please put them in touch with me. I am now splitting my time on this between fundraising, media, and supporting the local relief effort via Internet and occasional satellite phone advice and support. The key in the end is probably Arabic speaking media to help inform and activate all the very good Sudanese who live in the North and would be horrified by what their Government is doing but have no idea at what is actually happening. Anything that can raise the profile of what is happening can only help. Any of you who have contacts who are good at using internet to put out information (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) could also help. And pray to whatever goddesses and gods you’re in touch with to sow a seed of doubt and hesitation and change the minds of those in power in the government who are responsible for all this, and to help the Nuba and others there in South Kordofan, while fighting for their survival, never to lose their incredible capacity for compassion and forgiveness and tolerance. Thanks and forgive the waffle – synapses shutting down I fear.

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