The Nuba People: Confronting Cultural Liquidation

From the book White Nile Black Blood: War, Leadership, and Ethnicity from Khartoum to Kampala, edited by Jay Spaulding and Stephanie Beswick, Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, Inc. 2000.

by Roger Winter


I had the privilege of attending part of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) National Convention held in Chukudum in April 1994. The atmosphere was both tense and jubilant. Nearly a thousand delegates from throughout the South and other marginalized areas of the Sudan had gathered to establish the framework for a new civil governance for areas controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Delegates were obviously keen to bind up the fractured relations among Southerners, to improve the lot of civilians devastated by the Sudan's enduring conflict, and to confront the regime in Khartoum that, while not the cause of all of the Sudan's woes, was clearly considered the obstacle blocking any progress toward peace and development. In hindsight, it is clear that the event marked a critical turning point in the SPLM's strategy for creating a new Sudan.1

Delegates had, in many cases, traveled for weeks through the Sudan's most contested areas to be present. They represented rather openly different perspectives on how to approach the many issues that confronted their peoples. It seemed clear to all that the Government was desperate to disrupt the proceedings. Almost without stop, the drone of Government bombers could be heard searching for the precise location of the gathering. Delegates knew well the consequences of being discovered. All had experienced the war tactics of the Sudanese Government up close. Bombing of Population concentrations is an everyday event for civilians in the Sudan's war zones. Yet there they sat, in varied dress, grouped by home locations, speaking to each other in numerous languages, trying, sometimes nervously, to get on with the business at hand. To protect the gathering, the SPLA had gone to great length to camouflage the precise location. The event itself was held in a roughhewn amphitheater, thoroughly covered with brush. At the vortex, front and center, was the Convention Chair, Yusuf Kuwwa Makki, SPLM Governor of South Kordofan and Commander of the New Kush Division of the SPLA. In a war too simplistically characterized as between the North and the South, between Islam and "unbelievers," and between Arab and African, the Convention Chair was not a Southerner but rather an African Muslim from outside the traditional south. Yusuf Kuwwa was from the Nuba Mountains area of Southern Kordofan, one of the marginalized areas unknown to most outsiders.

As someone who had regularly visited the Sudan on humanitarian issues since 1981, I thought I knew the conflict well, especially the humanitarian aspects. Since early 1988, I had traveled widely through SPLA held areas of the South, especially Eastern and Western Equator's, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Upper Nile, and throughout the Sudanese refugee camps of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, but I. knew nothing of the Nuba Mountains or its fascinating people. I searched the volumes of material produced by nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), and others who documented in serious detail the nuances of the conflict and its civilian devastation. Almost never was there anything beyond a passing, nonspecific reference to the Nuba people or events in their encircled, embattled home areas where the liquidation of Nuba people and culture was taking place.

The war there really was Invisible. I resolved to know more. Through the courageous efforts of the Nuba themselves and a few interested outside individuals and organizations (most particularly, the London-based human rights group, African Rights) I was able to visit and to learn. That process is the focus of this article.


The Nuba Mountains are located in Southern Kordofan, covering about 30,000 square miles, about the size of Scotland at the geographical center of the Sudan. Perhaps a third of the area consists of the mountains or hills themselves, with most of the rest being fertile, clay-heavy plains with great stretches of the "black-cotton" soil that makes walking exceedingly difficult when wet. The hills jut up from the flatlands in rocky beauty, some to almost 1,500 meters. Well-watered and quite green in the rainy season, the territory contains few significant roads or towns. With Kadugli the principal reference-point, the area stretches to Dilling in the north, below Talodi and Buram in the south, Lagowa to the west, and past Heiban in the east.3

The Nuba people are not, at least in any recent sense, related to the Nubians farther north near Egypt. They represent a "bewildering complexity" of cultures and more than 50 languages, with some of the latter apparently related to tongues of peoples as distant as the Shona and Ndebele.4 The numbers of Nuba are unclear. Some Nuba sources suggest there are up to two million, but the numbers of migrants, displaced people, and refugees cloud the issue. In 1993, the Government asserted there were 1.1 million Nuba. In August 1995, Yusuf Kuwwa estimated the total at 1.2 million, with perhaps 350,000 in SPLA-controlled areas, a percentage that roughly comports with a 1992 SPLM census figure for areas under its control.

The Nuba people, despite their historical attempts to participate in the greater Sudan, have largely been a disenfranchised population in Sudanese society. Confronted by the government's pursuit of an Arabized society, the diverse Nuba developed an identity out of their persistent adversity. Faced with economic encroachment and little viable access to justice in government actions, in a context where powerful elites manipulated local hostilities in pursuit of control of Nuba lands and the substantial resources they represent, the Nuba have largely been the losers. Their tolerant religious diversity bought them no respite. Politically isolated and culturally an obstacle to the government's persistent larger design for Sudanese society, the Nuba identity emerged. Thus, African Rights contends, "The central theme of Nuba history is the tension between political Incorporation into the state of Sudan and the maintenance of local identity," a theme that also characterizes the war in the South and elsewhere in the Sudan.


The Government of the Sudan has pursued a strategy of liquidation since the 1980s. It was not originated by the National Islamic Front (NIF) government that came to power on June 30, 1989, but rather by the political forces that preceded it. The actual war in Nuba began in July 1985.5 After the NIF coup, a virtual cordon sanitaire was imposed on the area. Few outsiders were able to visit, and no one could do so freely. NGO personnel and others such as those of the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) were authorized at times to conduct relief operations to fulfill government policy objectives (e.g. to assist "peace camps" in government-controlled areas); they have never been authorized to observe the conflict or assist civilians in SPLA-controlled sectors as is grudgingly allowed in parts of the South.

The strategy of cultural cleansing pursued by the government entails harsh attempts to depopulate vast areas, killing potential combatants as well as many, many others, and herding survivors into tightly controlled Peace camps." Once jihad was declared by the Government in 1992, it was clear that even Nuba Muslims were targeted, with the rationale that Muslims in SPLA areas were not true Muslims.6 Rape of Nuba women has been a "central component" of the government's strategy, aimed at destroying "the social fabric of Nuba society." Every woman who has been in a peace camp has either been raped or threatened with rape, even those as young as nine years of age.7 Taken together with other violent strategies including the targeting of educated Nuba, African Rights asserts with great justification that the Government of the Sudan's policy is legally and morally genocide.

The agents of this policy of genocide are both the official forces of the government as well as surrogates, including neighboring Sudanese Arabs such as the cattle-herding Missiriyya and Hawazma and camel-herding Humr and Shanabla. In Laying Waste to the Nuba Mountains, Amnesty International reports thousands of civilians dead, tens of thousands in peace villages, total destruction of scores of villages, and the prevention of relief efforts to respond to devastated civilians. Because of the cordon sanitaire, and without a land link to other SPLA-controlled areas, many Nuba consider themselves the Africans most exposed to the political and cultural domination of the Arab north. The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and the British NGO Christian Solidarity International reported the continuation of this Sudanese Government approach as this was being written in the summer of 1996.


African Rights, an unusually creative and energetic human rights organization, in coordination with Nuba outside of the Sudan, undertook in 1994 to breach the secrecy blanket that blocked the war against the Nuba from international view. African Rights spearheaded an effort to establish a human rights monitoring project covering the seven districts in the region, using trained Nuba as monitors with radio capacity to communicate events to outside constituencies such as human rights groups, NGOS, and Nuba organizations such as the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society, based in Nairobi, and the Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad in Britain.

These efforts have paid off. Beginning in 1995, clear, timely documentation of government depredations against the Nuba people has been available. African Rights' own reporting has been supplemented with a continuing stream of information that, for the first time, exposes the ruthless nature of the government's violence. African Rights has also worked to broaden access to the Nuba Mountains, giving journalists, NGOS, and human rights workers the first real chance to see genocide at work in the area. The response of the international community has been effectively nonexistent, but it is not for lack of information. On May 5, 1995, Commander Yusuf Kuwwa, who had been outside the Nuba Mountains for two years, returned to a triumphant welcome. Accompanying him was a team headed by Julie Flint that visually blew the lid off the cordon sanitaire. Their documentary film, The Nuba: Sudan's Secret War, was broadcast on the BBC in July. The Sudanese Government had repeatedly asserted there was no war in the Nuba Mountains and that African Rights made up its reporting from whole cloth, never having been on-site. Flint's video demonstrates the Government's unabashed use of the big lie. In early 1995, I had made known to African Rights my wish to visit the SPLA-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba leadership was consulted and the visit welcomed. What follows is a summary report on that site visit.


In August 1995, I left for the Sudan with a stop in London for coordination purposes. While there, I had the opportunity to visit with Alex de Waal of African Rights, Julie Flint, and others to talk through issues and practical preparation. After the meeting broke up, Julie and I went for a very quick sandwich, after which I was to leave for Heathrow. The lunch was far quicker than some obviously anticipated. Upon our return, we found the residence in which we had met had been burgled. Nothing but my bags, sitting on the living room floor, had been touched. Nothing of value in the house or my bags was taken. Only the papers and maps in my bags had been tampered with, apparently dropped on the floor as we unexpectedly re-entered the residence while the burglar made his escape. After checking the residence to ensure that the perpetrator had left, I repacked and headed for the airport while Julie called the authorities. Subsequently, both British and U.S. officials indicated that Julie was under observation by agents of the Sudanese embassy, and it was certainly they who were seeking information to shut down access to the Nuba Mountains. Upon arrival at the jump-off point in East Africa, we took additional security precautions in what was already a tight security context. We undertook our flight well aware that the Nuba Mountains are a short distance from the Government's air base at El Obeid. There are few pilots willing to fly "unofficially" into the Sudan's war zones. The principal obstacle is lack of insurance coverage, though the risk of flight without standard navigation assistance in mountainous terrain where violent storms can arise quickly is another. I've lost two pilot friends in this context. Still, the Sudan is a huge place, as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River, and bold and/or politically conscious pilots can be found to take the risk. While the risk of encountering Sudanese Government air units exists, there is an equally large risk of seeking to land at a remote air strip thinking SPLA defense units on the ground know that you are coming when in fact they do not. To minimize all but random risk, normally no one other than the pilot and those actually on the plane knows the flight time. A small plane in such a huge airspace is truly a needle in a haystack.

Flying over the southern Sudan is always emotional for me. The several hour flight provides time to remember what I've seen and experienced in all these years of visiting. I always remember dead friends-like Egil Hagen, the near legendary Norwegian who effectively pioneered humanitarian assistance to war-devastated civilians in the SPLA sector long before it became fashionable with the UN and other NGOS, and like Gwet, a very funny and astute SPLA soldier who often shared his company, family, and home with me. I remember the living leaders, like SPLA Commander in Chief Dr. John Garang de Mabior, Kual Manyang, Salva Kir, and many others, often seen only as military hardliners, but perceptive, personable and politically very thoughtful men when seen up close.

Most of all, I remember the people. Flying about on arid landscape with occasional haze-shrouded mountains piercing the sky, you see the evidence of people's lives. Thatched conical dwellings called lukuts and kraals, sometimes occupied, often abandoned, dot the landscape. Towns and roads have been the strategic focus of the war but people, wherever they are found, are always vulnerable. Abandoned fields, crowded camps of displaced people, torn bodies with no one to help are the pattern. I remember many individual faces and stories, like the dying nineteen-year-old girl, whose waist could be encircled by the fingers and thumbs of both my hands, ultimately kept alive because by chance I carried some medicines that a skilled but supplyless doctor of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA)9 could and did use to work a miracle. Most of all I remember the kids, playing with toys constructed of trash, in a few cases struggling to learn some educational basics, but fundamentally a lost generation growing up knowing nothing-but war. Besides such irreplaceable memories, the trip is uneventful until our destination comes into view. Fortunately, they do know we are coming. A crowd waits at the isolated strip. A celebration ensues. Yusuf Kuwwa, ever the gracious host, welcomes us but immediately shepherds us away from the airstrip as the plane quickly departs.


In this area near the Achirun hills, as throughout most of the SPLA areas, there are no roads and not a single vehicle. As we left the airstrip, the evidence of the war was already clear: regular glances to the sky, the craters and detritus of air-dropped bombs, the noticeable impetus to seek the relative security of the uplands. Yusuf Kuwwa is a very likeable man, not ostentatious, obviously in command, obviously revered. He leads the way for the party of about 20. Our bags have gone on before us in a separate 44 "convoy" of women, each of whom was tougher and more spirited than I could every hope to be. Yusuf Kuwwa's second wife, Hanan, a Christian, precedes me, herAK-47 at her side. The weather is perfect. We walk through bush, rivulet and field, past a few cows grazing and women hoeing.

The sun is setting as we arrive at our camp for the evening. That night by lantern-light, we talk about the Nuba people and the war that shapes every aspect of their lives. In conversation, Yusuf Kuwwa recounts his perspective:

The intent of the Government is the complete and utter elimination of Nuba culture. Its intent is not new. I myself believed I was an Arab until high secondary school; that is what we were taught. As I understood what was happening and became politically conscious, I recognized that I was Nuba, not Arab. To me, being Nuba means to be a human being, with dignity and identity. Seeing the attack on my people and culture, I joined the SPLA.

Why the SPLA? The SPLA program referred to a New Sudan for all Sudanese, not just for Southerners. Garang spoke of unity on the basis of free choice, unity with decentralization. I am a Pan-Africanist and have to support unity. If that cannot be, then the Nuba need their own state. Most Nuba support the SPLA, though a few resent the inadequate support the Nuba have received from the South. People say such things, though, because they fear the Government is strong. My role in the Convention, I believe, educated many in the SPLM. Our voice was loud, and the Convention's resolutions clearly identified the Nuba as part of the SPLM's vision. When the SPLA first became active in this area, there were some problems, but that is now ancient history to us.

The Nuba are a tolerant people. Religiously, we are Muslim, Christian and followers of traditional religion. The government's divide and rule strategy doesn't work here. They attack Muslims and mosques equally with others in Nuba territory. In one incident, government soldiers even shot Nuba Muslims at prayer. I am a Muslim; my second wife is a Christian. Such mixed marriages are common here. In December 1994, we convened a Religious Tolerance Conference that confirmed the acceptability of such marriages and the unacceptability of preaching religious intolerance. This is the Nuba way.10

As SPLM governor of the area, I have worked hard to put in place a civil administration. That has resolved a lot of problems. We have even tried to reach out to the Baggara Arabs who are our traditional neighbors.

Still, the war and the isolation it has brought have devastated us. In 1990-91, when rains were few, we even encouraged some to go to the enemy since we couldn't help them. We have constantly sought the assistance of Operation Lifeline Sudan but to no avail. Our herds have been devastated without veterinary to no aval services, and we need solar pumps for water. Since 1994, things have improved some. We've started a nurses school and now have 500 graduates, though we still have no doctor, no medicines. But we have learned how to survive under difficult circumstances.

The government army always avoids confronting the SPLA, attacking only civilian villages and burning the fields. Since the implementation of 'peace camps,' no one goes to the government voluntarily.

We have the initiative militarily now in a half dozen places. We always lack military supplies, but our morale is very high. We control the rural areas. Government patrols only sortie out to destroy and to kidnap people into "peace camps."

With glasses on, a wedding ring on his finger, he narrated location by location the military situation, hunched over a map in a heavy rain. Our concentration now, besides the military, has been on strengthening our people's identification as Nuba. Dancing and singing are a big part of our life. Our great concern is for our children. For the last eight years, since 1987, there has been no education for children.

Sitting around later in the dark, I watched the young men thumbing through the copies of the African Rights report I had brought with me. They recognize those in the pictures and laughed at sections they read to each other. It was clear that this embattled people was not a defeated people.

The next morning, we walked for some hours, stopping under a huge tree in a landscape only God could have created. Along the way, men shouted and women ululated their welcome; few came down from their hilltops, embarrassed to show strangers like me the nakedness the war and isolation have brought them. Under the tree, some local folks do come forth to greet Yusuf Kuwwa and his team. In our conversation en route, he has learned that I am a few years older than he. Thus begins his own little joke that lasts the entire visit. I am called "the old man," and at all rest stops am given the canvas stool an aide has carried for him to sit on. He sits on the ground. Officially, though, all of us have been given a code name for reference on the radio; I am "Whiskey." Then we really started up. In the hot sun, seemingly almost vertical climbing took its toll on me, though apparently on no one else. Water was never so necessary, shade so sought after. Everyone was sensitive to the old man's needs. After nearly a full day of trekking, we arrived at Yusuf Kuwwa's headquarters and the celebration really began. Thousands of people had gathered to welcome him and welcome us. For hours, the din continued. Joyfully competing groups sang and danced. Ladies' groups with crosses held high sang with a spirit that heaven itself could not miss. I made a trite speech that was translated into numerous dialects. But clearly, Yusuf Kuwwa was the man of the hour, the embodiment of a people's hope.

After visiting a pitiful clinic and with a group of traditional religious leaders, I met Bernaba Angelo, the representative of the New Sudan Council of Churches, asking that he arrange a meeting of religious leaders along the way. An Episcopalian, he taped a message for me to deliver to Episcopal leaders in the United States. By the next day, the weather had turned. It poured constantly, Yusuf Kuwwa, of course, offered me his only umbrella. On the wet rocks, I twisted my ankle and immediately feared I would become a liability to the entire group. The next two days were painful ones, but I wasn't about to compromise my pride. In the heavy rains, with no human life in sight in the sparsely populated areas we traversed, it was as if we were on an uninhabited planet. That is, until we passed through an SPLA training base for new recruits. In the downpour, they observed military formalities, greeting the Commander and executing parade maneuvers. The evening was spent in stone shelters halfway up a Mountainside with everyone's belongings soaked. It was wonderful camaraderie, in a shared experience with an embattled troop fighting with spunk in a noble cause.

The next day, we began to descend, solid-rock hopping, largely without paths, along cascading streams to the flat lands. Then the really tough walking began. The glutinous soil clung to our boots with total tenacity. Each step added a layer of mud, so that soon we appeared to be walking on very unstable stilts. Every few steps, we tried to scrape off the mud. The going was very slow. After many hours, we emerged at a dirt airstrip outside the village of Regife, an entirely civilian village that had been bombed from the air by the Sudanese Government on June 21 and July 9. Six had been killed and thirteen others injured, mostly children. There were direct hits on houses. Bomb fragments were readily visible. That, however, did not stop the celebration at our arrival. Beside the Christian leadership that Angelo had organized, a large Muslim group paraded throughout the village with drums and chants.

After documenting the air attacks on the village, I had the opportunity to meet with a large group of Christian leaders in the village church, the only building other than homes I saw on the entire visit. It was a very diverse group, with Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, the evangelical Church of Christ, and others all participating. They narrated for me the pattern of abuse African Rights had documented so well in other locations. They spoke of hardship; they asked me for nothing, an unusual experience for me, being routinely and forcefully confronted with appeals for relief in other situations. When I persisted, one said, "Our only need is for Bibles and teaching materials. We have been reduced to an oral tradition here. We are concerned about wandering from the correct path. We are concerned about teaching our children." At the end of several hours' discussion, one churchman lead the group in prayer for me, though I mildly protested their "prayer to God for Whiskey." I next met with an equally large group of Muslim leaders who narrated a similar pattern of government attacks upon mullahs and mosques, even instances of destruction of the Koran itself citing their identity as Nuba, they asserted their devotion to Islam and the heretical nature of those in Khartoum who would assert otherwise.

As we left Regife, two churchmen brought me a gift of two chickens for visiting with them to learn of their situation, a gift that proved of great value later that night. We trudged through the plain, wading surging rivers in new downpours back to the camp where we had spent our first night. The next day, with our plane encountering great difficulty in the stormy sky and muddy airstrip, we flew, zigzagging, sometimes at treetop level, out of the Sudan.


Since 1995, it has been impossible for the world community to assert truthfully that it does not know what the NIF government in Khartoum is doing in the Nuba Mountains. Human rights practitioners like those of African Rights and journalists like Julie Flint have been on site, have documented professionally, and have characterized faithfully what they have seen. A system is now in place to update regularly those that want to know.

For the last 16 years, I have been on site in most of the world's conflicts that have produced refugees and internally displaced people. In today's pattern of conflict, in which communal and ethnic struggles predominate and civilians rather than opposition militaries are the primary target, much of what is seen in the Nuba Mountains is not unique. What is rare, however, is that such a war by a government against a civilian population is being waged so invisibly. The years-long isolation of the victims is unique in the case of the Nuba.

As a result, the Nuba have been forced into a pattern of self-reliance that is also not common. That self-reliance, coupled with an empowering pride, have produced a popular spirit in the Nuba who are still free, typified by an old woman in Julie Flint's film. She articulated her motivation by saying she might be killed, and all the others with her, but so long as one child is left, that child will still be Nuba.

Khartoum still asserts there is no war in the Nuba Mountains and that "peace camps" exist solely for the purpose of caring for Nuba civilians who would otherwise have their needs unmet. Khartoum has used the "big lie" very effectively.

For me, having been there, five issues are clear. Firstly, the war is real. The government's intentions are clear; it is involved in a war to culturally cleanse the Nuba and to do so by physical liquidation if necessary. The destruction of food stuffs, the obliteration of villages, the targeting of leaders, the kidnapping, control, reeducation, and forced conversion of Nuba civilians are now well documented and entirely evident on the ground. In the second place, the government's blanket of secrecy has been very effective. No one gets to the Nuba Mountains through government-controlled territory without conforming to the government's purposes. There is no land access from the SPLA-controlled South. Until the African Rights and BBC interventions, no one was telling the Nuba story in detail based on personal knowledge, except for the efforts of a few Nuba sources. Further, the normal human rights and humanitarian mechanisms the world uses to target and respond to such tragedies have failed the Nuba. Operation Lifeline Sudan has been irrelevant; the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs and International Committee of the Red Cross absent; the NGO community ignorant; the UN Security Council silent; interventions like that of Jimmy Carter's "cease fire" in Sudan neglectful. That some Nuba survive free is entirely due to their own efforts. The implications of the three preceding points have precipitated an extraordinary effort by a few human rights and humanitarian practitioners to undertake a highly unusual operation, with elements of process not often seen so clearly in this field: secrecy, a high degree of coordination, substantial personal risk, creativity. The effort has proven workable and productive. Yet in the end, despite the fact that ample data and very credible analysis are now available, the Nuba are still waiting for the world community to respond to their plight. Relief is not the major issue, though medical and development assistance are needed. What is needed is an expression of outrage by the international community that genocide is in fact occurring in the Nuba Mountains, complemented by an effort to take the pressure off the Nuba people.

Between September 30 and October 5, 1992, Yusuf Kuwwa convened an Advisory Council of 200 Nuba community leaders. It item on Its a,,enda: the question of war or submission. In the form of a two-day history lecture, the recorded history of the Nuba peoples flashed before the collective mind of the assembled delegates. He concluded by saying, "Up to today, I will take responsibility for all that has happened to the Nuba People. But from today, the responsibility is with you…" The nascent Nuba Parliament chose to continue to fight. Since then, they have survived and developed an organized approach to meeting the needs of their people and celebrating their common culture, with almost no help or recognition. But in the end, communal solidarity alone cannot reverse the military tide.


1. Video coverage of limited portions of the SPLM National Convention is
available for research purposes from the U.S. Committee for Refugees.
1717 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20036, USA. Back

2. Being neither a Sudan historian nor anthropologist, this background
precise is entirely drawn from others, most particularly from the definitive
work by Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan,
London: African Rights, 1995. I only seek to provide a framework for the reader
to understand my own experiences. Back

3. All of which, along with some intervening points along key roads, contain government garrisons. Back
4. Omaar and de Waal, Facing Genocide, p. 13.
5. lbid.,
6. Ibid., pp. 4-5, 286-295.
7. Ibid., pp. 3, 221-242.
8. For security reasons, many specifics are deliberately left out of this account. The Government of the Sudan is desperate to restore the information blackout it had in place prior to 1995.
9. The SRRA is the relief arm of the SPLM. It has been responsible for coordination of humanitarian programs of Operation Lifeline Sudan in the SPLA controlled sectors.
10. See also Omaar and de Waal, Facing Genocide, pp. 278-303.