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Genocide in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan

By Eric Reeves

June 22, 2011 (SSNA) -- The Kauda valley in the very center of the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan is a beautiful place, one of the most beautiful I've ever encountered. The hillsides are alive with tukuls (traditional thatched huts) and terraced landscapes that give the impression of always having been there---of belonging there. During my days there I took long walks into the remoter regions of the valley, taking many pictures and communicating awkwardly with folks I met. My camera seemed the perfect translation tool, as most of the people I photographed had never had the experience before, especially the children. And when they saw themselves---typically for the first time in their lives---in my flip-out monitor, the inevitable reaction (once recognition took place---not always an immediate process) was unconstrained laughter. I'm not sure I understood the laughter, or that there was much to understand beyond the fact that seeing themselves was hugely entertaining and out of the ordinary.

I attended a local church service in Kauda town, where I was welcomed graciously, and every word not sung was laboriously (and in places bewilderingly) translated for me. This made the service rather long, but it was a sign of real appreciation. Afterward there was a beautiful interweaving of communicants, walking in opposite directions around the church. All the women and children were in colorful finery, and the men were dressed in their best attire.

But I also attended a much grimmer gathering, in the rocky hillside well above Kauda: a meeting of Nuba military and civil society leaders, led by the deputy governor of the region (the governor was in Nairobi), in a large tent set up for this occasion. They were determined that I should hear their story, and they were deadly serious. Again and again I felt the force of decades of anger and disappointment pushing me back in my seat. I learned firsthand how bitter the people of the Nuba were, having been left out of consideration at the time of independence (1956), and in the Addis Ababa peace agreement (1972) that ended Sudan’s first civil war. They would not be left out of the next peace agreement, they insisted with a vehemence that was almost shocking, and clearly meant to be conveyed to those in whose hands their fate rested.

This was in January2003---shortly after the cessation of hostilities agreement (October 2002), but well before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 2005) was signed by Khartoum and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The Nuba knew that key decisions were going to be made about their future, and they wanted a voice. Most of all they wanted self-determination, even as they knew that the Nuba Mountains were not only in the North but nowhere contiguous with what will become the Republic of South Sudan on July 9. Their fear was that they would be left alone in a North Sudan dominated by Khartoum's ideological Islam and Arabism (the ethnically diverse African people of the Nuba follow a number of religions, including Islam). Their worst fears have been realized.

Historical memory in this part of Sudan is defined by the terrible experiences of the 1990s, when Khartoum mounted a full-scale genocidal assault on the people of the Nuba, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands. This was jihad, and it was based on a fatwah issued in Khartoum in January 1992. With this justification, a total humanitarian blockade was imposed on the region, and many starving people were driven into "peace camps," where receiving food was conditional upon conversion to Islam; those refusing were often tortured or mutilated. It is hardly surprising that Deputy Governor Ismael Khamis would tell me bluntly, "Khartoum doesn't regard us as human beings."

And judging by the nature of the genocide that is rapidly developing in South Kordofan, there can be little quarreling with Khamis' assessment. Clear patterns have emerged from the many scores of reports that have come to me from the region over the past two weeks, Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Khartoum’s regular military and militia are undertaking a campaign of house-to-house roundups of Nuba in the capital city of Kadugli. Many of these people are hauled away in cattle trucks or summarily executed; dead bodies reportedly litter the streets of Kadugli. The Nuba are also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those in Rwanda; those suspected of SPLM or "southern" political sympathies are arrested or shot. The real issue, however, is not political identity but Nuba ethnicity; one aid worker who recently escaped from South Kordofan reports militia forces patrolling further from Kadugli: "Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, 'Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.'" Another Nuba aid worker reports that an Arab militia leader made clear that their orders were simple: "to just clear."

Yet another Nuba resident of Kadugli ("Yusef") told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the notorious Popular Defense Forces (PDF) that they had been provided with plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: "'He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up. He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town.'" There have been repeated reports, so far unconfirmed, of mass graves in and around Kadugli. We should hardly be surprised that the charges of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" are coming ever more insistently from the Nuba people, observers on the ground and in the region, and church groups with strong ties to the region.

Just as shocking is Khartoum's renewed blockade of humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba, hundreds of thousands of whom have already fled into the hills or mountainsides. The Kauda airstrip, critical for humanitarian transport, has been relentlessly bombed over the past ten days, and the UN now reports that it is no longer serviceable for fixed-wing aircraft. The airstrip has no military value, as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) forces have no aircraft. The concerted bombing, with high-explosives producing enormous craters, is simply to deny the Nuba food, medicine, and shelter.

The same assault on humanitarian efforts is underway in Kadugli and other towns under Khartoum's military control. The UN World Health Organization warehouse and offices in Kadugli have been completely looted, as have those of other UN humanitarian agencies. The Kadugli airport has been commandeered by Khartoum's military forces, and all humanitarian flights into South Kordofan have been halted. The World Food Program has announced that it has no way to feed some 400,000 beneficiaries in South Kordofan. As in Darfur, Khartoum intends to wage a genocide by attrition---defeating the Nuba by starving them.

What Khartoum seems not to have fully understood is how determined the Nuba SPLA are. These are not southerners, but true sons of the Nuba; they cannot "return to the South," because they are from the north. And they are well armed and well led by Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, a former governor of the region and fearsome military commander. They believe they are defending their homeland and their way of life. They have no alternative: as Khamis said to me during our 2003 meeting, "we have no way out." Given the geography of South Kordofan, there can be little quarreling with this assessment. These people will fight to the death.

Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy, declared on June 16---eleven days after the killing began in Kadugli---that the United States "doesn't have enough information on the ground to call the campaign 'ethnic cleansing.'" This is an astonishing claim, given what the UN is saying in its confidential reports on the situation in Kadugli, what Human Rights Watch has reported, what is revealed by satellite photography, what escaping aid workers have told journalists, and what is revealed by photographs of the bombing of the airstrip at Kauda. Again, the airstrip has no military purpose: it is being attacked solely to deny humanitarian access to the Nuba people. And it is working: the World Council of Churches, an organization with close ties to the Nuba, reported on June 10 that as many as 300,000 people were besieged and cut off from humanitarian relief.

Yet again the Obama administration is showing a painful lack of clear-eyed assessment and moral courage in addressing the genocidal ambitions of the Khartoum regime. This is the President's second "Rwanda moment," the second moment in which to decide whether or not halting genocide really matters to this administration. The first "moment" came early in the form of a decision about how to respond to undiminished human suffering and destruction in Darfur, about which Obama now barely speaks, despite his forceful campaign rhetoric: "The government of Sudan has pursued a policy of genocide in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been killed in Darfur, and the killing continues to this very day" (April 2008). Obama’s response was to appoint a special envoy to Sudan, General Scott Gration, who failed badly and conspicuously with his policy of accommodating Khartoum’s génocidaires, men he thought would be impressed by his offer of "cookies, gold stars, and friendly faces." But as I've repeatedly argued in this forum, conditions on the ground in Darfur are if anything worse than when Obama issued his uncompromising words.

This brings us to the present, to this very moment, in which a decision must be made: acquiesce and settle for stern warnings to Khartoum, or act forcefully to compel a change in Khartoum's thinking. A militarily enforced No Fly Zone over South Kordofan---however desirable---is impracticable for a number of reasons: there is no easy or obvious solution to the problem of basing the necessary aircraft (including AWACS, tanker refueling aircraft, and patrolling combat aircraft); constant mid-flight refueling would present extraordinarily difficult and expensive challenges; and there appears to be no possibility of securing either UN backing or even moral support from the Europeans for such a complex undertaking---let alone domestic support from a war-weary America. There is a much less costly but equally effective alternative, one that could be undertaken unilaterally if necessary: attacking Khartoum’s military aircraft on the ground, if those aircraft have been implicated in bombing civilians and humanitarians. The U.S. should then demand as a condition for halting these serial attacks an end to hostilities in South Kordofan, and an opening of humanitarian access. For despite Ambassador Lyman’s disingenuous claim about our not having enough information to assess the nature of the atrocity crimes in South Kordofan, there can be no reasonable doubt about the reality of widespread, systematic, ethnically targeted destruction of the Nuba people.

When I think back to my time at Kauda, and the beauty of the people and the hillsides---now much of it in flames, and all of it under the most intense assault---there hardly seems to be a choice. But diffidence, over-commitment, and apparent failure to understand what is at stake have made for what appears to be a disastrous decision by Obama in confronting his second "Rwanda moment."

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

Genocide in Sudan: Is it Happening Again?

By Eric Reeves

June 20, 2011 (SSNA) -- Two weeks after Khartoum's tanks, artillery, and military aircraft began moving into South Kordofan, violence—especially against civilians---continues to explode. There are now scores of reliable reports that attacks against the indigenous Nuba people have accelerated, both on the ground and from the air. Humanitarian conditions are deteriorating rapidly, aid workers are fleeing the region, essential relief supplies have been looted in the regional capital of Kadugli, and the U.N. World Food Program has indicated that the violence could prevent it from reaching the 400,000 people it was serving before the recent onslaught. There are no verified estimates of the number displaced, but Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, former governor of South Kordofan, has put the number at almost half a million. Dozens have been reported killed, but in the absence of any effective UN or humanitarian monitoring this surely understates significantly. For its part, Khartoum has ominously promised to continue fighting. Troops and military vehicles are still pouring into Kadugli; according to U.N. observers, some 280 military vehicles have been spotted, and "preparations for a major ground offensive" are being made. Understandably, according to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, this has created "a growing sense of panic" among the Nuba.

These highly provocative military actions—on top of those occurring in Abyei and parts of southern Sudan---put all of Sudan at risk of renewed civil war. Complicating matters is a weak U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Kordofan that, even before it became subjected to this most recent violence and harassment, was barely able to protect itself, let alone the civilians seeking its refuge. Indeed, it has a very poor reputation among the Nuba people. (Several Egyptian members of the U.N. mission have even been accused of assisting in ethnic roundups.)

And, ultimately, it is in the Nuba who are at the crux of this conflict. Indeed, the violence is only partly focused on the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), even though the Nuba sided with the SPLA during Sudan's long civil war. It's the Nuba people, of multiple African ethnicities, and their way of life that seem to be the primary targets. And as in Darfur, they are being attacked not only by Khartoum’s regular military forces but by the notorious Arab militias known as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF). And this fact, inevitably, raises questions about whether what we are witnessing is ethnic cleansing or, worse, genocide.

There is an extraordinary amount of information being smuggled out of South Kordofan by fleeing aid workers and civilians and conveyed via electronic communication, including digital photographs. And, from the mounting evidence that has come to me, clear patterns emerge. The signature feature of Khartoum's operation is the door-to-door roundup of Nuba, who are often summarily shot. The Nuba are also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those once seen in Rwanda. One aid worker who recently escaped from South Kordofan, told McClatchy, "Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, 'Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.'" Another Nuba aid worker reports that an Arab militia leader made clear that their orders were simple: "to just clear."

Another Nuba resident of Kadugli told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the PDF that his forces had been provided plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: "'He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up. … He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town.’'" There have been several more reports, so far unconfirmed, of mass graves in and around Kadugli.

There also clear indications of how Khartoum means to conduct its campaign going forward. On June 15, military aircraft of the regime completed destruction of the runway in Kauda, a small town in the middle of the Nuba Mountains. The destruction was of no military significance, as the SPLA has no air force. But it was nonetheless of enormous consequence and emblematic of how Khartoum intends to wage war against the Nuba people. Because the Kauda airstrip is critical for humanitarian transport in the region, its destruction works to ensure that the hundreds of thousands already in need will remain cut off from relief. It seems Khartoum intends to starve the Nuba into submission.

How, then, to label this sort of violence? The language of "ethnic cleansing," increasingly used in describing what is occurring in South Kordofan, seems not to convey adequately the realities on the ground. (Certainly, this is the view of many Nuba.) "Ethnic cleansing" is a phase that has no established meaning in international human rights law. It is rather, as Samantha Power has observed, "a euphemistic half-way house between genocide and crimes against humanity." Indeed, the deliberate and widespread destruction of the Nuba people seems more accurately to meet the standards of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The murders, killings, rapes, and destruction of livelihoods that have been reported all appear to comport with the terms of Article 2 of the Convention, which details the qualifying actions undertaken "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

To be sure, the allegation of genocide is a strong and for some a controversial one, and I do not claim to have full knowledge of everything that has happened or will happen in South Kordofan. But, given Khartoum's legacy---its actions during the country's long civil war, including a genocidal assault against the Nuba, and the conflict in Darfur, which resulted in President Omar Al Bashir being indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide---as well as the horrific evidence we have seen and heard in recent days, it is important to consider seriously whether the situation in Sudan is taking the shape of the worst crime mankind can commit against its own.

The United States and its allies---or the U.S. alone, if necessary---should state that, if Khartoum does not halt its campaign of ethnic destruction in South Kordofan, the aircraft responsible for bombing civilian and humanitarian targets will continue to be destroyed, until the regime yields. And the international community should make this commitment quickly. For, as was the case with Darfur seven years ago, when it comes to South Kordofan, the window of opportunity to change the thinking and actions of Khartoum, before the regime's forces permanently change the demography of the Nuba, is likely to be brief. This campaign is being brought to us live, and the failure to act to stop it would occasion withering historical judgment.


Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

In Sudan, Genocide Anew?

We are, once again, on the verge of genocidal counterinsurgency in Sudan. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

from The Washington Post, June 18, 2011

By Eric Reeves

June 18, 2011 (SSNA) -- By early 2004, it was clear that the ideologically Arabist and Islamist regime in Khartoum was waging a genocidal counterinsurgency war throughout the western region of Darfur. Yet months passed before a broad range of human rights, government and academic voices said as much, even as the consequences of silence and inaction were conspicuous. In February 2004 I argued on this page that a "credible peace forum must be rapidly created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction."

This prediction was borne out in the months that followed, the most destructive phase of the Darfur genocide, in which African tribal groups were mercilessly targeted by soldiers and militias. Sadly, mortality from war-related causes continues to mount. But now we are debating how many hundreds, not tens, of thousands have perished from war-related causes in Darfur.

Today, another episode of genocidal counterinsurgency is beginning in another part of Sudan. Absent a vigorous international response, there will almost certainly be a reprise of ethnically targeted human destruction in the middle of the country, specifically within the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan, which has a rich mixture of African inhabitants.

Sudan was ravaged by a north-south civil war from 1983 to 2005; the war nominally ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed by Khartoum and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). But key terms of the agreement were never fulfilled, among them "popular consultations “that were to give the people of South Kordofan a voice in how they were governed. The armed wing of the SPLM was especially strong in the Nuba Mountains, and Khartoum saw a threat that it was determined to eliminate.

On June 5 a military campaign began in South Kordofan. It has rapidly escalated in ferocity as disturbing accounts emerge of the African people of the Nuba being rounded up in house searches and road checkpoints, and subjected to indiscriminate aerial bombardment. All signs point to a new genocide.

It will be similar to the 1990s, when Khartoum declared a jihad against the peoples of the Nuba (who adhere to a range of religions, including Islam).Because the mountains are not geographically contiguous with South Sudan (with which it is militarily, politically and culturally allied), its people were largely left to fend for themselves.

The regime imposed a total blockade of humanitarian assistance from the south. Many starving Nuba were forced into "peace camps," where receiving food was conditional upon conversion to Islam. Some who refused were tortured or mutilated. Khartoum's decade-long campaign killed and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Today, reports from the ground and wire services detail heavy fighting underway in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, and surrounding areas. There are multiple reports (including photos) of military aircraft such as MiG-29sattacking deep in the mountains; on Wednesday these attacks destroyed the keyrunway at Kauda, critical for transporting humanitarian supplies into the Nuba,a disturbing sign of how Khartoum will prosecute the genocide.

Nearly all humanitarian operations in the region have ceased, as Khartoum denies the United Nations air clearances; workers for the U.N. Mission in Sudan have been evacuated or confined to their base. On June 8 that base was raided by Khartoum's military intelligence, and the United Nations was effectively disabled.

Khartoum's actions come just days after regime forces seized Abyei, whose indigenous residents are overwhelmingly Dinka Ngok and see themselves as part of the South. The 2005 peace agreement promised them a referendum for self-determination, which Khartoum has aborted. Last month the regime launched a military attack to seize Abyei; the U.N. High Commission for Refugees reports that some 100,000 civilians have fled south - virtually the entire Ngok population. They are living in extremely difficult conditions, and many will die. A U.N. report found that Khartoum's actions were "tantamount to ethnic cleansing," a decisive phrase that senior U.N. officials excised from later versions of the text.

The U.N. Security Council demanded on June 3 that Khartoum immediately withdraw its forces from Abyei, but the regime scoffed - as it has at previous council demands, including those bearing on Darfur. This is bad news for the people of Abyei and for the prospects of a just and peaceful separation of Sudan's north and south, which is scheduled for July 9. For the Nuba people, such fecklessness spells catastrophe.

Too often with Sudan, empty demands and threats signal to the regime that the world is not serious about halting atrocities. Either the international community gets serious about preventing further violence in Abyei and the adjacent region of South Kordofan, or we will again see "tens of thousands of civilians . . . die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction."

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, is the author of "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide." He is a consultant to several human rights and humanitarian organizations in Sudan.

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