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Last of the Nuba, again?

Published in: CNN

Fadila Tia Kofi, 70, looked at her right foot where her toes used to be and remembered when the bombs hit near her home last September. “I heard the sound of the plane and I fell to the ground. A big piece of metal cut my toes,” she said. “I don’t know why the bombs come. I work. I farm. But now I crawl.”

Kofi belongs to the Nuba, a farming people from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state in far southern Sudan, and is a civilian victim of a festering war.  The Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army- North (SPLA-North) rebels are fighting the  Sudanese government in an extension of a 22-year civil war that mostly ended with a 2005 peace agreement that provided for South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.

Many Nuba, who live just north of the new international border, nurse grievances of marginalization similar to those that fuelled the long civil war.

Sudan has known almost continual war since 1983, with an interminable toll on non-combatants like Kofi. Central government forces, under the country’s longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, use tactics against communities it believes support the SPLA-North that were characteristic of the conflict: indiscriminate bombing, assaults on civilians by soldiers and allied militia, and obstructing humanitarian aid.

Human Rights Watch researchers recently visited South Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state, where the SPLA-North also battle the government.  We found that the government bombing severely endangers civilians, inhibits farming and creates chronic food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people in both states have been driven from their homes, either internally or to refugee camps in South Sudan. Sudan’s forces have also indiscriminately burned and razed villages, tortured detainees and raped women.

All this should ring a bell. As early as 1993, Human Rights Watch denounced similar abuses by all sides in the civil war – and a decade later, similar atrocities in Darfur by government forces and militias.  The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Darfur.

South Kordofan is a strikingly scenic region of broad plains of tall grass and sorghum punctuated by rock outcroppings and high mountains. As recently as 40 years ago, sturdy Nuba men and women lived, farmed and herded cattle in a seemingly pristine utopia. Their fame spread beyond Africa after World War II through pictures taken by the British photographer George Rodger, whose lens focused on the Nuba manly rites of wrestling. Later Leni Riefenstahl, a documentary filmmaker who once worked for Hitler, romanticized the Nuba in a coffee table book of photos, “The Last of the Nuba,” a title that portended the waning of Nuba traditions.

The current conflict started in early June 2011 over major disagreements between Sudan’s ruling party and the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, over political and security arrangements in Southern Kordofan. In Sudan, SPLM became the SPLM-North after South Sudan’s independence, and its armed wing, SPLA-North. In September 2011, the conflict spread to Blue Nile state.

Last February, under an agreement with the United Nations, African Union and Arab League, al-Bashir’s government agreed to let humanitarian aid move unencumbered into both states, but the accord has not been implemented. The de facto blockade violates international law, which requires letting impartial humanitarian groups aid civilians when a warring party can’t.

In any event, warfare has threatened the idyllic Nuba of legend; spears and shields are out, AK-47s are in. The clicking of cicadas and bray of donkeys are routinely supplemented by the low buzz of Antonov airplanes, a Soviet-era cargo behemoth from which the Sudanese air force drops bombs of various types and sizes. Antonovs seem to be the favorite dispenser of indiscriminately dropped ordinance, though Nuba residents say MiG jets are also used.

My first Antonov experience was in October near the town of Kauda, during an outdoor interview with a local official. First the buzz, then thunder, then smoke. A colleague and I hopped into round foxholes that many Nuba build to provide refuge air raids.

The bombs hit a few miles away. Military targets, if any, were unidentifiable. No soldiers were in the area – Kauda is not near the front line. Two bombs set aflame grass near a sorghum field, another hit near a well where a cluster of women had gathered and third near a tin-roofed women’s center. No one was hurt.

Artillery creates similar havoc. In Wadega village in Blue Nile state, a witness saw his neighbor killed in October while farming: “When the shell hit, it cut Ahmed’s body to pieces. It was difficult even to identify him.”

West of Kadugli, the South Kordofan  capital, we visited a market that was hit in mid-October. Antonovs had circled the area morning and afternoon, witnesses said – but on one run, a bomb struck the cattle area of the market and shrapnel killed a woman and her donkey.

Such events are commonplace. They will continue  until the United Nations, African Union, Arab League and powers such as the United States and China, which has interest in regional oil production, put sustained pressure on al-Bashir. The United States should quickly name a replacement for Princeton Lyman, the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, who recently resigned. The Obama administration should also intensify efforts with China, and friends in the Arab world and among African states to drive home a unified message: when it comes to civilian victims and lives destroyed, enough is enough.

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