"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
"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
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".
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
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
|"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
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
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.
This article was written by Akbar Ahmed and Frankie
Martin. Professor Akbar Ahmed is a a mamber of the Board of Advisors at ISPU, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High
Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun
Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International
This article was published by Al Jazeera English on February 6, 2012. Read it here.