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The Next Darfur?

In Sudan's Rebel-Held Nuba Mountains, War Rages On

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SOUTH KORDOFAN, SUDAN — The squat, tin-roofed buildings of the Mother of Mercy Hospital lie surrounded by rocky hills in a natural amphitheater in Sudan’s rebel-held Nuba Mountains. The hospital was made for 80 patients, but last month there were four times that number. Beds lined the corridors and the outside verandas. Injured civilians and wounded soldiers lay alongside the sick, diseased, and malnourished.

Dr. Tom Catena, an American missionary doctor and the only surgeon in the region, made his morning rounds. There was a 12-year-old boy left incontinent and impotent by a bullet wound in the crotch, a teenager recovering from a chest wound, a soldier with a missing right hand, another in traction with his fractured leg pulled straight by a sack of sand hanging from the end of the bed, and yet another was missing part of his upper leg and femur due to a round fired from a .50-caliber gun.

Those were just his male patients. Similar injuries could be found in the female and children's wards. The day before, a woman had succumbed to grievous injuries a week after being hit in an aerial bombing raid. Her shredded body lay in the hospital morgue, a small blockhouse that baked in the sun close to the chicken-wire perimeter fence.

During the past two years, Catena has operated on over 1,000 war-wounded, from infants to the elderly—but the worst, he said, are the bombing victims. The government in Khartoum has converted Russian-made Antonov cargo planes into crude bombers which drop their deadly cargo over the Nuba Mountains every week. “The Antonov wounds are horrible, gruesome,” Catena said. It's a cheap and effective strategy, scaring people from their farms so that food is even scarcer than usual and malnutrition more prevalent and deadly. Where the bombs fall, they maim and kill—sometimes hitting the rebels, sometimes civilians.

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The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) trains new recruits at a secret location in the Nuba Mountains.

Human Rights Watch says the “indiscriminate” bombing might constitute a war crime. Some go further. Dr. Mukesh Kapila, a former United Nations diplomat in Sudan, suspects Khartoum of committing genocide in the Nuba Mountains. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already indicted Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide once, for attacks in the western region of Darfur in 2008.

All of Sudan’s conflicts are iterations of the same tension, between a hegemonic center and the restive peripheries. The Arab-centric regime in the capital, Khartoum, imposes its authority by force of arms on the non-Arabs and non-Muslims that it considers to be second-class citizens, and it hoards the country’s resources for itself: As Khartoum develops, the far south (where the Nuba Mountains are located) and the west (the Darfur region) are mired in poverty. The Nuba Mountains enjoyed relative peace in the six years between 2005, when a peace deal made Southern Sudan an autonomous state, and 2011, when the state took its independence, becoming the country of South Sudan. But conflict resumed that year, and as it worsens—late last year, the International Crisis Group described the mountains as “the largest rebel-controlled area in Sudan”—those six years look more like a fleeting hiatus in a forever war.

The fighting, like the causes, resembles that in the west of the country, raising fears that the conflict in the Nuba Mountains might become another Darfur1: massacres, starvation, mass displacements, ethnic cleansing and allegations of genocide. And now—as Bashir accuses his old enemies in South Sudan of backing the Nuba rebels, and South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar heads to Khartoum on Sunday in a bid to ease tensions—the conflict threatens to trigger a resumption of one of Africa’s longest and deadliest civil wars.

The massifs and rocky hills of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, which borders South Sudan, are the traditional refuge of the myriad African tribes who live here. For centuries they have offered protection from Arab slavers, European colonizers, and invading armies. And so, when civil war resumed in Sudan two years ago, the Nuba people fled the flat, tree-covered savannah for these hills. 

Proud of their diversity, the people of the Nuba Mountains are an ontological challenge to Khartoum’s regime. Some Nuba people are Muslim (including the rebel leader), some are Christian, some hold traditional beliefs and some, including a young man who translated for me during one visit, are atheists. All are black Africans, but the mix of tribes and languages is broad. When there was no fighting, Arabs and Africans lived alongside one another, if not in harmony then at least in manageable discord.

Now the Arabs have all left and the Africans are either fighting or living in fear of being bombed. When I first visited a year ago, I found entire towns burned and abandoned, their inhabitants had moved up into the hills and were living in the safety of caves, barely surviving on foraged leaves and stored seeds.

The region’s rugged remoteness helped the Nuba to survive decades of bitter war with Khartoum, characterized by scorched-earth raids and starvation, but it also means the current conflict is happening largely out of view. Journalists are banned by Khartoum from rebel areas (as are aid workers and the U.N.) so I had to cross the border illegally and hitch a ride across hundreds of miles of parched plains, scanning the clear sky for the bombers and fighter jets that are drawn to the plumes of dust thrown up by vehicles. 

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Mother and child rest in a cave outside Tess, South Kordofan, in Sudan.

For decades, successive governments in Sudan’s predominately Arab, Muslim north sought to put down insurrection in the mostly African, Christian south where rebels fought for the freedom to live and pray as they chose. By the time the U.S. helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the conflict had ground on for 22 years and cost two million lives, the vast majority southern civilians who died of disease and starvation. In January 2011, the south voted overwhelmingly (98.8 percent) for its independence, and became a new nation that July.

Separation has been messy and incomplete. There are still disputed areas, the border is not fully demarcated, and there is the oil: Most reserves lie in the south, but all the pipelines lead north. Analysts predicted this would lead to a symbiosis. Instead, north and south have behaved like rancorous conjoined twins hurting themselves to hurt each other.

South Sudan was the first to use oil as a weapon, shutting down production in January 2012 to protest what it said were exorbitant pipeline fees charged by Khartoum. In April that year, as tensions rose, the two armies clashed in a battle over the Heglig oil field just north of the disputed border. Only heavy international pressure prevented all-out war. 

After 16 months the oil was turned on again but not before the economies of north and south alike were brought to their knees. The South is rock bottom in most development indices, so fared better because most people had nothing to begin with. During the shutdown, however, Khartoum was the scene of rare street protests and growing challenges to Bashir’s 24-year rule.

Now Bashir is the one making threats. This month he called on young men to join the army and paramilitary brigades, to prepare for “holy war,” and threatened to shut down oil exports from South Sudan if its support to the rebels did not stop.

But is South Sudan backing the rebels? What I found in the Nuba Mountains suggests otherwise.

The Nuba rebels do enjoy South Sudan’s political support, which is hardly surprising after the years they spent fighting alongside one another against Khartoum, but evidence for military help has been hard to come by. When I met Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), at one of his hidden bases in the Nuba Mountains last year, he told me his forces had no need for outside military support. “Bashir is supplying us,” he said with a chuckle.

Later, one of his commanders showed me what he meant. Pointing with a notched bamboo stick, Brigadier-General Kuku Jazz ticked off the booty hidden in a cave a few miles from the town of Tolodi, where a battle was underway. There was a recoilless anti-tank rifle, neat piles of 82mm and 120mm mortars and launching tubes, a few 12.7mm belt-fed machine guns, and boxes of bullets. Then came the vehicles, throwing up columns of red dust as they weaved through the acacia trees. They circled like Wild West wagons: Land Cruisers with the roofs sawn off to make shooting in all directions easier, and a heavy-duty military truck mounted with a swiveling four-barreled anti-aircraft gun. (Some of the vehicles had northern license plates, others had Sudan military markings.)

All of this material, Jazz claimed, was seized from the Sudanese army. “We have captured many weapons and vehicles. We will push them back with their own ammunition and their own guns,” he said, smiling beneath his clipped, graying mustache.

Researchers from the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based monitoring group, have come to the same conclusion. “It appears that the majority of newly acquired weapons have been obtained through seizure from SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] on the battlefield,” Jonah Leff, the group’s Sudan coordinator, told me. 

A detailed report published in April by Leff and his colleagues found no evidence of southern military support, at least not since the war began again in June 2011. “We believe that large quantities of weapons were transferred from the south around the time of independence, which coincided with the outbreak of conflict in South Kordofan,” Leff said. Those weapons got the SPLA-N off to a good start, allowing them to expand their control beyond the hilltops they held during the 1980s and 1990s.

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An SPLA soldier with ammunition stolen from the Sudan Armed Forces during fighting in the mountains.

With so much blood spilled over so many years, it is no surprise that both Khartoum and the Nuba leadership talked of peace, but were all the while preparing for war. This time, the Nuba rebels are emboldened by their gains on the ground and by Khartoum’s apparent weakness despite its much larger military and unchallenged control of the skies. The SPLA-N has built alliances with other anti-Khartoum forces, and together they have fought under the banner of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which includes SPLA-N wings in South Kordofan and Blue Nile as well as Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Liberation Army rebels from Darfur.

Acting as a kind of Land Cruiser cavalry, the battle-tested JEM fighters have proved “crucial to rebel victories,” according to the Small Arms Survey. In April, combined SRF forces attacked Umm Rawaba, a major town in North Kordofan, surprising and humiliating the Sudanese army and moving closer to Khartoum than at any time since 2008, when JEM launched an audacious and unprecedented dash across the breadth of the country and into the capital itself. Caesar Elia, 26, of Gidel, spoke for many in the Nuba Mountains when he told me, “The war will only end when we march to Khartoum and overthrow the government of Bashir.”

To lend its armed rebellion political heft, the coalition launched its "New Dawn Charter" manifesto in Kampala, Uganda, in January. The talk of peace and freedom harks back to the dream of John Garang, the revered SPLA founder who died in a helicopter crash just months after signing the 2005 peace accord. Garang’s vision was of a "New Sudan," not a divided one. He was committed to replacing the Khartoum government while maintaining the country’s territorial integrity.

In a 1985 speech, he described his dream “of a new and democratic Sudan in which equality, freedom, economic and social justice and respect for human rights are at the core.” The Charter echoes this ambition, seeking to replace Khartoum’s “theocratic tyranny” with “a state founded on equal citizenship and total guarantee of basic freedoms and respect for human rights.”

For now, that seems a long way off. Talks between Khartoum and the rebels have broken down, and in holding talks with South Sudan’s vice president this weekend, Khartoum is picking the wrong interlocutor: Machar’s government does not command the rebels, and would struggle to rein them in even if it wanted to.

Meanwhile, the fighting goes on in South Kordofan. Decades of bloodshed did not win Garang the New Sudan he dreamed of, and although the South is now a separate country, his dream lives on among the Nuba rebels as they fight for a freedom they believe can only be won at the barrel of a gun.

  1. Which, since 2008, has enjoyed its own period of relative peace—until recently.