Hidden war that threatens Africa with spectre of another Darfur

The Times of London
Nuba Mountains, Sudan

Nuba woman and child
A woman holds a child in a cave in the mountains of Tess (Times photographer, Marc Hofer)

The two bombs exploded in quick succession, sending large chunks of shrapnel whirring across the rocky hillside. Inside a grass-walled restaurant at a nearby market, people dived to the floor, sending plates of food and scalding cups of tea on to the dirt. “Stay inside! Stay down!” someone shouted as the attacking jet roared overhead.

In panic, a nine-year-old girl tore a gap through the back wall and dived into a hole in the ground outside.

Nuba bomb
Men by a town hut which was set on fire when a Sudanese Army jet bombed a nearby hill (Times photographer, Marc Hofer)

Standing shellshocked by the smoking remains of his hut close to where the bombs fell was Mohamed Kati, 25. What meagre possessions he had were destroyed, but he was lucky. He had been resting in the shade of a large tree, just metres from the explosions. Shards of hot metal littered the ground, and a bushfire was still burning on the hillside.

“There was so much dust I couldn’t see. I just lay on the ground. I was so scared, I just prayed to God. The people who do this, they want to kill us all,” said Mr Kati.

Since June, when a decades-old war was reignited, pitting Nuban rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-North) against Khartoum’s larger and better-equipped armed forces, bombings like this have become an almost daily occurrence.

The people of South Kordofan, the region in which the Nuba mountains are located, fought alongside southern rebels (also called the SPLA) during a 22-year civil war against Khartoum that ended in 2005. That resulted in South Sudan’s independence last July, but the split left the Nuba area marooned in Sudan’s territory.

As South Sudan’s independence loomed last year, President al-Bashir of Sudan vowed to crush any internal opposition. An election in South Kordofan was rigged in favour of Ahmed Haroun, an al-Bashir loyalist who, like his leader, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

When an internationally supported disarmament deal in the Nuba mountains failed last year, the SPLA-North took up arms again and Khartoum’s bombers began sorties from El Obeid airbase.

To reach this hidden war, we were smuggled across the South Sudan border and into Sudan in a rebel pick-up truck. Inside South Kordofan we found neither aid agencies nor United Nations, nor peacekeepers; just a rebel force determined to defeat their more powerful enemy and communities on the verge of starvation after almost a year of conflict.

Nuba caves
People are hiding out in the mountains (Times photographer, Marc Hofer)

Fear of bombardment means people have been too scared to plant their crops. They have already missed one harvest, and as the planting season arrives they are likely to miss this one too. The children here have become skinnier and weaker, their eyes dull and bodies listless. For months now, the people have survived on boiled leaves mixed with wild fruits. When the trees were plucked clean they began to eat the seeds they had been saving to plant. Bombed out of their fields and villages, they are now being starved out of the caves and crevices on hillsides that were their bomb shelters and have become their homes.

On the slopes of Jebel Elasar, faces appear between rocks; beds and bicycles stick out of boulders, washing lines are strung between branches and wisps of smoke from cooking fires twist into the clear blue sky.

“We have never experienced such hardship before,” said Ibrahim Nahar, an elder sitting on a wooden bed close to the summit; a worn AK47 in his weathered fingers and a cauldron of leaves bubbling away behind him: dinner for him, his two wives and 12 children. “I am scared of the bombers and the artillery shelling; of the long-range missiles, of the random bombardments that come at any time,” said Mr Nahar.

On a rocky outcrop, as another bombing run rumbled in the distance, General Abdulaziz Adam Al-Hilu, 57, the military and political head of the SPLA-North, said that his troops were fighting not for secession, but for freedom within Sudan.

“We had six years of peace, but it was a bad peace,” he said of the period between January 2005 and June 2011 when a ceasefire held. War is better than bad peace.

“We are working for regime change and a new constitution of liberal values, of justice, equality, individual rights and freedoms,” said the general, who has fought Khartoum and Mr al-Bashir for much of his life.

“Khartoum’s problem is they do not want to recognise the diversity in this country. They want a monolithic state based on Islamism and Arabism.”

The rebel leader is a Muslim, but his Nuban fighters are a hotchpotch of Muslims, Christians, atheists and those with traditional African beliefs.

Nuban families are similarly mixed and proud of a tolerance they say is at odds with Khartoum’s ideology.

General Al-Hilu is also the commander of a new rebel coalition calling itself the Sudan Revolutionary Front, launched in November and aimed at linking up rebel groups from Darfur in the west, the Nuba mountains in the centre, and Blue Nile in the east in a crescent of resistance stretching across the south of the country. “Our objective is to expand the front line from east to west, to stretch the [northern] forces. We are going to march on Khartoum and will destroy them in their headquarters,” General Al-Hilu said.

Khartoum’s military is larger, better equipped, and includes an air force with MiG jets and Antonov transport aircraft adapted as bombers. But the SPLA-North note that when a border war with South Sudan over the disputed Heglig oilfield erupted earlier this month, there was a let-up in Sudan’s daily bombings of the Nuba mountains for the first time in nearly 11 months.

They say that this shows that Sudan’s forces are less strong than they might appear. But for now, marching on Khartoum seems a long way off.

Nearby, new recruits to the rebel army practice drills with sticks rather than rifles. Brigadier-General Mahana Bashir, the officer in charge, said that 4,000 volunteers were in training.

For the past week, the fighting in South Kordofan has been focused on the town of Talodi, the territory’s colonial capital. The SPLA-North has taken a succession of villages, seizing mortars, ammunition, large-calibre machineguns, anti-tank guns and vehicles abandoned by northern forces.

But the advance has come at a cost. At a nearby medical clinic staffed by an Australian and two Sudanese, who asked that neither their names nor that of their aid agency should be known because they were in Sudan illegally, 22 wounded soldiers were treated over three days this week. Some had to have limbs amputated.

The Australian is angry at the inaction of aid agencies and foreign governments at what he describes as an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

“Everyone has known this was coming since June. Every time people go in the field an Antonov goes overhead so there’s no harvest and no planting. The people here are in deep shit,” he said. “It’s another East Timor, another Rwanda, another Darfur: there’s a lot of talk, but not much action.”

Yida camp
An exhausted woman sits on a tree in the refugee camp of Yida (Times photographer, Marc Hofer)


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