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The Nuba: prisoners of geography

Forgotten Conflicts - South Kordofan

The Nuba: prisoners of geography

Women and children have learned to recognise the distinctive sound of the Sudanese Air Force’s Ukrainian-made Antonov bombers long before they see them. Their lives depend on it. They look fearfully to the sky, run to their foxholes and hunker down.

The relentless bombing is accompanied by a scorched earth campaign on the ground designed to destroy crops, disintegrate communities, and starve the rebel forces into submission. Thousands of civilians have taken to living in caves: the only refuge from the bombs and the indiscriminate violence.

Welcome to the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan’s South Kordofan state, where a long-oppressed and largely forgotten minority is refusing to be driven away.

President Omar al-Bashir and his Khartoum-based regime say they are fighting a rebellion in South Kordofan driven by vested interests and Western plotters that want to overthrow his government. The Nuba say they are fighting for their own survival. 

Children hide in cave Sudan
Children hide in a cave to escape aerial bombardment by the Sudanese government forces in South Kordofan, Sudan, April 24, 2012

“All of our cattle, our clothes, our food, our beds, and even the houses we sleep in – there is nothing left. Everything was burned,” a displaced Nuba villager, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IRIN. “We came barefoot. We didn’t have anything. Only these caves that we swept and are now living in.”  

Nagwa Konda, director of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO) – a local NGO that struggles to cater for the desperate needs of the Nuba – said hope in her region was fading. 

“There is a catastrophic humanitarian situation going on right now in the Nuba Mountains,” Konda told IRIN. 

“Children in the Nuba Mountains are suffering from daily aerial bombardment, from hunger, dying from preventable diseases,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the international community to intervene and protect these children."

Students look up South Kordofan
Giovanni Diffidenti
Students look up concerned that an Antonov airplane is flying over. Their original school in Tangal Village was bombed 3 years ago. Since then, they have moved twice.

“Women are suffering too. They walk for an hour or two to fetch five gallons of water only to find a bomb has either killed their child or burnt down their whole house when they return.”  

Tales of war from places like Syria and Iraq are never far from the headlines, but the appalling – and worsening – situation in South Kordofan, cut off from humanitarian aid and with only one functioning hospital, rarely gets mentioned. When Sudan makes the news, it is usually only because of the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan, where between 50,000 and 100,000 people have died in 18 months of conflict. 

By comparison, South Kordofan’s death toll of 4,500 over four years seems insignificant. But for the people of the Nuba Mountains, the conflict is seen an existential threat. They believe the same man tried to drive them out before. 

“So many agreements have been signed and I can tell you with confidence that none have been adhered to. It’s been four years since the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel was set up and they haven’t moved an inch forward. People are dying every day.” - Nagwa Konda

Street vendor South Kordofan
Giovanni Diffidenti
Keni Hawa Abdalah, 17, has had to become a street vendor in the central market in Kauda Town. "Why is Bashir bombing our schools?” she asks. “Why does no one want to help us with school books so we can still study ?”

The Nuba, numbering between one and two million, are a collection of distinct peoples of black African origin who speak an array of different languages. Many are now Muslim, but there are Christian and animist Nuba too. 

Along with a few Arab pastoralist tribes, they have the geographical misfortune of living on the fault line between Sudan’s largely Arab and Islamic north and its predominantly Christian, animist and black African south. 

The origins of their oppression date back to the colonial era when the British segregated them, declaring the Nuba Mountains region a special “Closed District.” The Nuba were not allowed to stray northwards without a special permit and schooling was left up to missionaries. 

When Sudan emerged from British rule in 1956, the Nuba were already politically, economically and socially marginalised and lacked any educational system. The next 30 years, much of it taken up by the First Sudanese Civil War, saw the gulf widen as successive regimes in Khartoum pursued policies of racial discrimination against the Nuba and other black northerners. 

When the Second Sudanese Civil War erupted in 1983, the alternative message of equality and inclusion of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its charismatic commander-in-chief John Garang resonated with Nuba leaders. By 1987, an alliance had formed. Garang took the fight north through the central state of South Kordofan. The Nuba Mountains became a key rebel stronghold. 

After seizing power as a brigadier in a military coup in June 1989, Bashir began presiding over an increasingly hardline Islamist state. The Nuba were made to pay an extraordinarily high price for their resistance. 

Arab militias and paramilitaries, already long used to waging Khartoum’s Islamification campaigns, were formally incorporated into the Sudanese military as the Popular Defense Forces. A jihad was declared in South Kordofan. A fatwa made it clear that Nuba Muslims were not to be spared either. 

Ultimately, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes in what human rights groups and many observers believe was an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” South Kordofan of the Nuba people through a systematic campaign of murder, rape and resettlement. 

Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army
Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N), climb through the mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan, April 25, 2012.


After the loss of up to two million lives across Sudan, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) finally brought an end to Sudan’s 22-year civil war in January 2005. 

As a fragile peace took shape between the north and the south, a separate conflict in the western Darfur region was springing from the same roots of failed federalism and neglect of the peripheries.  

Under the terms of the CPA, an overwhelming January 2011 referendum ushered in South Sudan’s independence, but the contested areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan were left under Khartoum’s control, pending further “consultations.” 

Garang’s death in a helicopter crash in July 2005, less than seven months after signing the CPA, was a blow for South Kordofan as the former rebel leader, then the national vice president, had been expected to push Khartoum hard to follow through on its promises of greater autonomy. 

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation. From afar, there was a sense of optimism and some jubilation, hope certainly that the history of war might be replaced by a brighter narrative. But even as the world applauded, bombs were once againfalling on the people of the Nuba Mountains and the conflict that still grips South Kordofan today was well under way. 

South Kordofan had been under the governorship since 2009 of Bashir’s trusted lieutenant Ahmed Haroun – like him indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating atrocities in Darfur. As promised consultations on greater autonomy failed to materialise, so discontentment grew. When the delayed gubernatorial election was eventually held in May 2011 and Haroun beat ex-SPLA commander Abdulaziz al-Hilu by just 6,000 votes, the former rebels cried foul. 

The touch paper was lit when the 20,000 SPLA fighters remaining in the north were asked to disarm in advance of South Sudan’s independence. They refused.

On 5 June 2011, South Kordofan was at war once again. 

Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army
Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N), point at Sudanese government forces from the top of a mountain in South Kordofan (April 25, 2012)


The rebels, now the SPLA-North, largely drawn from northern remnants of the group that had won South Sudan’s independence, made quick gains. 

Within months, the Bashir regime’s superior air power had stemmed the tide. Sudanese armed forces and Janjaweed militia from Darfur, rebranded as “Rapid Support Forces,” used light trucks with mounted machine-guns to conduct lightening raids on villages suspected of harbouring or supporting the rebels. 

Very soon a grim pattern had formed

“All indications suggest the conflict has settled into a vicious deadlock in which Khartoum is unable to dislodge the rebels ensconced in the Nuba Mountains, and the SPLA-N and its allies are incapable of holding much territory in the lowlands,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a February 2013 report. 

“The conflict shows every sign of strategic stalemate, with each side hoping pressure from elsewhere will change its foe’s calculations. Yet, it is exacting a horrendous toll, principally among civilians.” 

The SPLA-N is a larger and better-resourced force than the Nuba contingent that fought off Khartoum’s eradication campaign in the 1990s. Now thought to number as many as 30,000 soldiers, it retained sophisticated weaponry when it splintered from the South Sudanese military. 

The SPLA-N joined with two Darfuri rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) in November 2011. This alliance, known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), gave it more military and political muscle and meant those trying to topple Bashir could attack his forces on multiple fronts. 

By 2013, Bashir had deployed between 40,000 and 70,000 troops to South Kordofan, according to the ICG report. Local Arab tribes, the Misseriya, were coopted again by Khartoum to fight their black African rivals. 


Since April 2012, almost 4,000 bombs have landed on civilian areas in South Kordofan, an average of between three and four every day. Out of the 4,577 recorded fatalities between June 2011 and May 2015, almost 500 were unarmed civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

Civilians stand above a crater of a bomb
Civilians stand above a crater of a bomb that was dropped by the Sudanese government's forces in South Kordofan, Sudan, June 17, 2013.

The UN’s aid coordination agency, OCHA, says more than 565,000 people in the state are in need of humanitarian aid, of whom at least 184,600 are displaced. 

“When the war started in 2011, it was bad. Every year, it is getting worse,” said NRRDO’s Konda. “People started by selling their properties, then they sold their livestock, now they have even started selling their utensils because they are starving.” 

Last year saw a 55 percent increase in civilian deaths compared to 2013, and the situation in 2015, if anything, is getting worse

Sources on the ground reported that more than 160 bombs fell in civilian areas in May, killing at least five people. Some locations were bombed for days on end and drones were seen scoping out churches and schools before they too were targeted. Fighter jets reportedly dropped four cluster bombs on 27 May in the same area – the Kauda valley – where a bomb had killed two children a couple of days before. Their mothers were also injured in the attack. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of South Kordofan in January after its clinic was bombed for a second time, leaving Doctor Tom Catena at the Mother of Mercy Hospital as the last surgeon in the Nuba Mountains, performing around 1,000 surgeries a year. 

Last December, Bashir vowed to end all of Sudan’s conflicts before the April 2015 election. 

After operation “Decisive Summer” in 2014, he launched operation “Decisive Summer II” at the start of this year. But despite his rhetoric and nasty spikes in the intensity of the fighting, the frontlines have barely shifted since the outset of the conflict four years ago. 

Because the Bashir regime forbids journalists from accessing South Kordofan, news is hard to gather, while humanitarian aid is hostage to an impossible Catch-22. The government insists that assistance to rebel areas must be overseen by its officials so it doesn’t go to the guerrillas, but the SPLA-N, fearing Bashir’s spies, says it must only come from areas not under government control. 

The result is that the Nuba Mountains region, more accurately described as a large area of hills, is effectively under constant siege. 

When the fighting is fiercest, some try to escape. At the start of this year, more than 500 people were fleeing from the Nuba Mountains every week to refugee camps in South Sudan. This is hardly a safe haven though, as a civil war is raging in South Sudan and Sudanese jets are accused of regular bombing raids there too. 


After winning more than 94 percent of the vote in April’s presidential election, Bashir was sworn in on 2 June for another five years: his promises to unite the country and offers of “full pardons” sounding hollow to rebel fighters. 

More than three years since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2046, calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflicts in Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the peace process is in a state of paralysis. Sanctions and arms embargoes make little difference as Bashir’s regime is propped up by major investments from China, Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

The African Union, which has been mediating peace efforts under the stewardship of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, has sought to “synchronise” negotiations over Abyei, Blue Nile, Darfur and South Kordofan, but different processes remain. 

Overshadowed by the civil war in South Sudan and the atrocities in Darfur, efforts to help the Nuba have fizzled out unnoticed. The latest round of talks involving South Kordofan was adjourned indefinitely when heavy fighting broke out in December. 

“Given the situation in the Nuba Mountains, it is really unacceptable that the international community has been quiet all this time," said Konda. 

“War in Sudan is not a new thing. The international community knows the tactics of the government of Omar al-Bashir. They know them very well. They don’t come to the negotiation table genuinely seeking a solution to the problem. They only come to buy time."

The Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan, a UN-backed research project, detailed alleged human rights abuses at the end of January. 

“The vast majority (of violations were) reportedly committed by government or pro-government forces,” the study said, highlighting “indiscriminate and targeted aerial bombardment of civilian areas, recruitment of child soldiers, the mass rape of women and girls, the illegal detention of citizens in government-held areas.” 

The international community was shown up for its failure to act by an unnamed interviewee quoted in April by the International Refugee Rights Initiative

“I am sending my voice loudly to the international community and the Security Council to stop this government from killing its own civilians and to protect them,” the person was quoted as saying.

Facing what they see as a renewed threat to their existence, those joining the Nuba rebel ranks are quite clear about what is at stake. 

"You  want to ask me why I fight?”  Thayr Urwa Hamdan Said, a new rebel recruit, exclaimed. 

“After the separation of the South, Omar al-Bashir  said that Sudan is now an Islamic Arab country that would be governed by Islamic sharia laws.”  

"They have to recognise and bear in mind that there are other people living with them in this geographical area called Sudan," he told IRIN.  "That is why if we do not overthrow this government we would be second-class citizens in our own country.” 

"Your silence is a shame to humanity." - Unnamed interviewee

South Kordofan
One surgeon for an entire war
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