Solving Sudan’s Nuba Crisis

“We are forsaken.”

Halima Kaga, a Muslim woman from Sudan’s Nuba ethnic group, looks directly into the camera. She is angry and exhausted, with her face full of anguish.

“We are only looking for food,” she pleads in the video clip, filmed in South Sudan’s Yida refugee camp and now circulating online. “Omar Bashir only wants to kill us with his airplanes. But the poor, elderly, orphans, small children. What does he need with their souls? What did women do that he wants to kill us?” “The people of Nuba are dying,” Halima says with exasperation.

Halima fled the Nuba Mountains on Sudan’s southern periphery, where several hundred thousand terrified people today are huddled in caves seeking shelter and safety from government bombardment. The vast majority have gone months without access to adequate food and are running out of water. Reports indicate they have resorted to eating bark and leaves. Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, echoed many international observers in warning that “if there is not a substantial new inflow of aid by March” the situation in the province of Southern Kordofan, where the Nuba live, will be “one step short of full-scale famine”.

Southern Kordofan, on the 2011 partition border with South Sudan, has become a potential battleground between the North and South that could become an African version of Kashmir. Like Kashmir, which has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for over six decades, Southern Kordofan could have gone to either North or South Sudan. Because Kashmir’s fate was unresolved at partition in 1947, both India and Pakistan claimed the region and went to war three times over it. In Kashmir, those who suffered most were the local people. Alas, we fear this could be the fate of the Nuba.

Though the Nuba – a majority-Muslim assortment of tribes that also includes substantial numbers of Christians and animists – supported the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the Sudanese Civil War, their resource-rich area was not included in the new nation of South Sudan. The partition was based on British colonial districts, which placed the Nuba in the North.

The North declared the status of the region was to be decided by “popular consultations”, but no such consultations have been held. Instead, the North launched the current military push to extend government authority over the mountains in mid-2011. The result of this operation has been chaos as hundreds of thousands of Nuba have been violently displaced, affecting already unstable neighbouring regions. There have been reports of widespread atrocities against the Nuba population, with a TIME magazine reporter last summer describing the military campaign as a “bloodbath”.

Dangerous levels

The involvement and interest of world powers was dramatically seen last week when Ambassador Rice condemned the Sudanese bombing of a Nuban Christian school that was funded by American donors, while Sudan’s ally China dispatched a team to negotiate with a rebel group for the release of 29 Chinese construction workers captured in the Nuba mountains. With the crisis worsening and the humanitarian situation reaching dangerous levels, the conflict has the potential to further draw in regional and international actors, in addition to disrupting the local economy and the oil sector so important for both Sudans.

The Nuba, described by Winston Churchill as a “mountain people who cared for nothing but their independence”, have fiercely resisted central control for centuries. In the late nineteenth century, they fought back against the armies of the Arab anti-colonial mahdi movement as Sudan fell under British administration. The British ruled the Nuba indirectly, isolating them from the Arab population in the north and stipulating that traditional law and leadership be preserved. Yet after Sudan’s independence in 1956, the central government began consolidating its power over the mountains, evicting the Nuba from their lands and distributing them to settlers and officials loyal to the government.

In the mid-1980s, the Nuba were drawn into the North-South civil war with area attacks by the SPLA, which resulted in the government arming local Arab tribes who had previously largely co-existed with the Nuba. Some Nuba began to venture south, where they joined SPLA rebels. In addition to resisting what the government saw as efforts of centralisation and modernisation, the Nuba were now seen as posing a security threat to the state.

Following his 1989 coup, Sudanese President Omar Bashir stepped up the campaign to subdue Nuban rebels and impose an Arab identity on the population. The policy was cast as a jihad against nonbelievers, despite the fact that the majority of Nuba were Muslim. Pro-government Islamic leaders declared that any “insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate” which “Islam has granted the freedom of killing”.

The commander of a powerful government-backed militia announced his intention to “cleanse every stretch of territory sullied by the outlaws”. The government cut off access to the mountains and began a campaign to starve the population. Hundreds of thousands of Nuba were held in so-called “peace camps” where men were conscripted and forced to fight against fellow Nuba, women were raped in an effort to dilute the ethnic group, and children were forcibly taught Arabic and the central government’s interpretation of Islam.

Villages were systematically destroyed in bombing campaigns, and Nuba intellectuals and community leaders were arrested and killed. By the time the campaign was halted with the international mediation of the civil war, as many as half a million Nuba lay dead.

The crisis involving the Nuba today needs to be seen in the context of this history as current events carry ominous echoes of the past. Recent satellite imagery shows the Sudanese military massing its armed forces for a full-scale assault on the Nuba, with evacuation routes sealed off. President Bashir had said last year that if the Nuba did not accept the results of the Southern Kordofan gubernatorial election – which saw a Nuban rebel leader defeated by a prominent government bureaucrat wanted by the ICC for war crimes in Darfur – “we will force them back into the mountains and prevent them from having food just as we did before”.

Echoes of the past

The Nuba issue has proved intractable for the Sudanese government because it has not treated the Nuba as full citizens with basic human rights. Furthermore, there has been a consistent cultural campaign to deprive them of their honour and dignity. The Muslim Nuba rebel leader and politician Yousif Kuwa, who died in 2001, captured the pain and alienation of his people when he wrote that he initially believed himself to be Arab until secondary school: “As I understood what was happening and became politically conscious, I recognised that I was Nuba, not Arab.”

“I remember since elementary school until I went to the university that there was nothing in the history books about the Nuba that was good,” he wrote. “The conclusion, of course, was that there is something wrong in Sudan that must be corrected… I started to think, we have to do something.” For Kuwa, “being Nuba means to be a human being, with dignity and identity”.

If we accept that the Nuba region is to remain part of Sudan, and the problems of the past decades stem from a denial of basic human rights to the Nuba, then extending those rights is the only way to solve the current crisis. The Sudanese government should halt the current military operation and distribute food in the Nuba areas, not deprive its citizens of it. Government representatives need to be meeting the Nuba on a human level, eating meals with them and discussing how they can forge a new Sudan together. These methods, which could also include a discussion of a true federal system that would allow for local autonomy, are of utmost relevance not only for Southern Kordofan but also for the troubled peripheral regions of Blue Nile and Darfur. Such policies would be in accordance with international law as well as the dictates of Islam.

Resolving the Nuba issue is not only crucial for the stability of Sudan but also for its very identity as a modern, Muslim country. The Sudanese leadership self-consciously projects itself as an Islamic nation, and Sudan has indeed produced influential Muslim figures and scholars. It is imperative that they explain Islam’s inherent compassion to the Sudanese leadership. The Quran is replete with verses demanding compassion and mercy for all mankind, and the last great address of the Prophet of Islam at Mount Arafat clearly established an Islamic worldview in which distinctions based on ethnicity and color were rejected.

“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab,” he said, “nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white except by piety and good action… Do not therefore do injustice to yourselves.”

It is only in the extension of these Islamic and human rights to all of Sudan’s people, whatever their religion and culture, that order can be restored and the suffering of people like Halima Kaga alleviated. For the Islamic leaders of Sudan preparing a final onslaught on the famished Nuba, it would do well to pause and ponder her name. This Nuban woman proudly carries the same name as one of the most revered figures in Islam, Halima, the foster mother who cared for and loved the Prophet of Islam.

It would be a supreme irony that instead of honoring another Halima in our age with such a noble name, the leaders of Khartoum are planning to destroy her.