The NUBA Tribe: Anatomy of a Genocide


Anatomy of the Nuba Genocide

Introduction

The Nuba peoples of the central Sudanese region of South Kordofan were faced with complete annihilation by a genocidal campaign waged by the Government of Sudan from 1985 until roughly 1993, although the violence persisted until a ceasefire was agreed upon in January 2002. The conflict was more or less resolved as part of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that settled the long-standing North-South Civil War. Indeed, genocide in the Nuba Mountains was committed in the context of this war, as the (Northern) Government of Sudan’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the (Southern) Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) caught the Nuba peoples in the middle. The government aimed to depopulate the area and completely destroy all vestiges of Nuba society. There are many similarities between this case and the later genocide waged by the Government of Sudan in Darfur since the early 2000s. While the following outline does not make any such comparisons, it does contextualize modern Sudan as a zone of genocide. At any rate, what follows is a brief anatomical sketch of the Nuba genocide.

A Note on Methodology

The template of following outline, especially the methods and techniques of genocide, is loosely drawn from Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959; see photo below), “Father of the Genocide Convention” and founder of the field of genocide studies, as well as from the Secretariat’s Draft, the first draft that ultimately resulted in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. [1] Lemkin was a co-author of the Secretariat’s Draft, along with two other highly regarded jurists, Donnedieu de Vabres of France and Vespasian Pella of Romania. In the summer of 1947, this panel of experts was mandated by the UN Secretariat to organize a first draft to the Genocide Convention. They were advised to construct it as broadly as possible, including any aspects likely to be adopted and leaving for later deliberations such provisions which may be excised, although by the final draft much of its definitional scope was narrowed down considerably. Surely, this intellectual exercise of directly co-authoring the Secretariat’s Draft later shaped Lemkin’s “Revised Outline for Genocide Cases,” itself probably drafted around 1951, which is also used here as a template. It should be noted, however, that these models have been rearranged and, in some cases, conflated for the sake of this review.

 

[1] Outlined in Raphael Lemkin, “Revised Outline for Genocide Cases,” Raphael Lemkin Collection, Manuscript Collection P-154, Box 8, Folder 10, no page number, American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History, New York City, New York; and The Secretary-General, Report and the Draft Convention of the General Secretariat, U.N. Doc. A/AC.IO/41 (June 26, 1947). This latter document is available athttp://www.preventgenocide.org/law/convention/drafts/, accessed 3 March 2011.

Background

The Nuba Mountains is in the middle of Sudan. The area covers about 30,000 square miles in the administrative region of South Kordofan. Rocky mountains with cultivatable hillsides and valleys define a significant portion of the landscape (see image below), while the rest of the area is marked by plains. The region enjoys fertile soils and has escaped the plights of drought which have plagued the rest of the country. With such rich natural resources, the Nuba Mountains and their surrounding environs have induced the lust of exploitative outsiders.

 

Beginning with the British colonization of Sudan, there has been an effort of successive regimes to shatter the viability of local sustenance patterns in favor of large-scale agriculture. Beginning in the late 1960s, there was an increased effort to introduced mechanized farming operations, particularly of cotton. In 1968, the Government of Sudan established the Mechanized Farming Corporation, receiving financial aid from the World Bank. In conjunction, the Government rewrote its penal code, establishing new land titles that effectively expropriated the land from indigenous smallholders. Despite its adverse environmental, economic, and social consequences, mechanized farming was fully entrenched by the mid-1980s.

By then, the Second Sudanese Civil War between the Government of Sudan in the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of the South was in full swing. The war reached the Nuba Mountains in July 1985. The Government’s immediate response was to arm local Arab militias to fight the SPLA. These militias occasionally ransacked local villages. Soon, Government military and security forces entered the fray. Their counterinsurgency strategy was marked by collective responsibility and mass reprisals; wherever the SPLA operated, local communities were attacked by Government forces. The conflict escalated from 1989, when the Government imposed a cordon sanitaire, effectively cutting off the Nuba Mountains from the rest of the world. In 1992, the Government declared a jihad, escalating their genocidal counterinsurgency even further.

Perpetrators

Genocide in the Nuba Mountains emerged in the context of the North-South Civil War, which reached Southern Kordofan in 1985. The violence was seriously escalated in mid-1989 after a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir (see photo below) brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power in Khartoum. The NIF sought to transform Sudan into an Islamic state based on sharia law, providing the pretext for the Government of Sudan’s ambition to reorganize the social and demographic makeup of Southern Kordofan and the Nuba people. Anyone deemed to be resistant to this socio-cultural revolution was to be destroyed. As such, the NIF project of social transformation was folded into the counter-insurgency campaign.

 

In waging their campaign, the Government of Sudan has employed not only their own military forces, but also enlisted the help of surrogates as well, using neighboring Sudanese Arab tribes, such as the Missiriyya, Hawazma, Humr, and Shanabla. The usage of local proxies was similarly used by the Government of Sudan in its genocidal counterinsurgency in Darfur during the early 2000s. Foreign-born mujahedeen, or religiously motivated fighters, were also used by the Government of Sudan as part of its purported jihad in South Kordofan.

None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice for genocide or their crimes against humanity. Omar al-Bashir was charged in absentia by the International Criminal Court in summer 2010 for his role in the genocide in Darfur, but the earlier genocide against the Nuba was not mentioned.

Victims

The notion of a singular “Nuba people” has been imposed by outsiders. This can obscure the rich cultural diversity amongst the indigenous peoples who have long inhabited the Nuba Mountains. They are actually comprised of at least fifty distinct communities, united by a common experience of oppression and discrimination. In fact, the label “Nuba” was imposed by Egyptians and Northern Sudanese as a disparaging term, connoting that these people were “black, “primitive,” and subject to enslavement.

Nonetheless, in the modern era the label “Nuba” has been adopted by these indigenous peoples as a unifying reference to their myriad cultural traditions, united by hardships. There are indeed cultural connectors which further provide a basis for a common identity. One element is their agricultural traditions, for they are skilled cultivators, producing sorghum, millet, sesame and other crops for local sustenance. Secondly, they share similar political and judicial institutions which have facilitated inter-communal relations. Thirdly, despite the bewildering complexity of indigenous languages, of which there are at least thirty three, Arabic has been used as a lingua franca. Apart from these unifiers, many Nuba tribes and communities celebrate their own autonomous and distinctive cultural traditions. Some are well known for their beautiful body art, for instance (see image above), while others are famous for their impressive wrestling and sporting skills (see image below). Moreover, apart from their universal affection for music and dancing, there is a rich variety of styles.

 

As suggested, a unified front has been forged through resistance against the Government of Sudan. Indeed, a major reason why the genocide against the Nuba failed was because of their staunch resistance. Almost all of the Nuba communities supported the SPLA. Yousif Kuwa Mekki (see photo below), who was born to the Miri sub-tribe in the Nuba Mountains, was the commander of SPLA forces in the Nuba Mountains. Not only did he valiantly lead the resistance as a formidable military commander, but as a former schoolteacher he was also a spirited cultural activist. His efforts forged deep social commitments between the Nuba and the SPLA, thereby mobilizing broad based support for the resistance. As such, the Nuba guerrilla movement also included a significant civil aspect that opened schools and clinics. These efforts, by the way, were entirely local and indigenous, done without any external support or foreign aid.

 

However, such spirited resistance was not ubiquitous in the Nuba Mountains. Part of the Government of Sudan’s genocidal counterinsurgency entailed Salaam min al Dakhal (“Peace from Within”). This was essentially a policy of co-option, whereby local Nuba leaders were bought off as accomplices. Through the combination of rewards and coercion, some opportunistic Nuba leaders sold out to the Government. These corrupted leaders were used by the Government as puppets to refute any international suspicions of human rights abuses. It should go without saying, of course, that such “leaders” were hardly representative of the Nuba peoples.

Methods and Techniques of Genocide

Physical

Group massacres and individual executions: Government-sponsored assassination squads began operating in the Nuba Mountains with impunity by the late 1980s. With their policies of collective responsibility and mass reprisals, entire villages were attacked in areas where the SPLA operated. Inhabitants who were not able to flee beforehand, including children, elderly, and infirm people, were routinely killed either by gunshots, shellings, or burnings.

Subjugation to conditions of life which are likely to result in the debilitation or death of individuals, and the deprivation of all means of livelihood by confiscation of property, looting, denial of housing and of supplies otherwise available, as well as starvation and deportation: Under the officially-sanctioned euphemism of Tamshit, or “Combing,” entire areas of SPLA operation were utterly devastated by a scorched-earth policy. Villages were burned, crops destroyed or looted, livestock stolen or killed, and people driven out. Such depredations, when combined with a drought that hit the area in 1990, created a severe famine in the Nuba Mountains. Indeed, famine turned into a deliberate weapon by the Government. Moreover, a program of massive forced relocation was enforced. The strategy was to depopulate the entire area and force civilian populations into Government-controlled “peace camps.” These highly securitized “peace camps” were effectively concentration camps used to supply a steady reserve for slave labor and sexual victims.

Biological

Separation of families, segregation of the sexes, and obstacles to marriage: The government deliberately separated Nuba men and women in order to prevent the possibility of any future generations. Moreover, Nuba women were stolen and forced to “marry” Government soldiers or Arab militants. All of these tactics were designed to eliminate the Nuba identity.

Rape: Rape was systematically deployed by the Government of Sudan and its proxy militants. Women were raped during “combing” operations in the villages and/or upon arrival in the “peace camps.” Also, the forced “marrying” of Nuba women to Government soldiers and Arab militants was actually a Government sanction of rape. Such sanctions were used as an incentive for the perpetrators. Moreover, by humiliating and terrorizing Nuba communities, rape attacked the social fabric of the Nuba peoples. Such atrocities targeted the communal life force of the family.

Cultural

Systematic destruction of religious monuments and prohibition of cultural activities or codes of behavior: The destruction of churches was widespread, given further impetus by the purported religious sanctioning of the jihad. As the entire counterinsurgency program was infused with transformative social and cultural objectives, “Islamization” was pervasive. There were severe restrictions on Christian and animist worship and forcible conversions to Islam in the “peace camps.” However, many Nuba communities were also Muslim, yet this did not spare them from similar deprivations. They were castigated as “fake” Muslims, and their mosques were similarly destroyed and desecrated.

Destruction of cultural leadership by forcibly and systematically killing or exiling individuals representing the culture of a group: Government-sponsored assassination squads began systematically targeting educated Nuba and community leaders by the late 1980s. They cast their destructive nets far and wide, eliminating not only chiefs, but also merchants, civil servants, priests, lawyers, health worker, or anyone potential community leader or spokesperson. The impact of these “disappearances” was devastating, cowing some community leaders into submission and acquiescence. Moreover, the resultant leadership vacuum were intended to leave the Nuba without educated leaders to speak on their behalf to the outside world.

Forced transfer of children to another group: Once in the “peace camps,” many children were stolen from their parents and forcibly converted to extremist Islam. Many were later sold into slavery, conscripted into the military, and/or used as sex objects

Bystanders

Bystander reactions to the Nuba genocide were limited by the Government’s cordon sanitaire, which cut of the area from the outside world. Despite the Government’s efforts to cover up their crimes, their forced relocation of several hundred thousand destitute Nuba victims attracted wider attention within Sudan. Islamic relief agencies and local governments were forced to respond in order to meet the needs of these internally displaced persons. Local groundswells of popular opposition to the Government campaign were a significant factor behind the downscaling of the counterinsurgency in 1993.

International responses were less apparent; indeed, they were hardly existent. Much of this was due to the cordon sanitaire, which limited any outside information gathering, let alone a response. Moreover, the international community was more generally interested in resolving the North-South conflict as a whole, and any exclusive focus on the plights of the Nuba jeopardized humanitarian access in the South. As such, many Nuba suspected that they were being sacrificed and abandoned for an internationally-brokered conflict resolution.

The Nuba genocide was expertly documented and publicized in the West, however, by African Rights, a non-governmental organization based in London. Led by Alex de Waal, a prominent anthropologist and activist specializing in Sudan, and his colleague Rakiya Omaar, a small African Rights team visited the Nuba Mountains in 1995 and organized a human rights monitoring program. Their efforts resulted in a comprehensive monograph, finely detailed with rich eyewitness testimony, entitled Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan (London: African Rights, 1995; see cover image below). As the first outsiders to make into the region, they helped draw a certain degree of international attention to this otherwise forgotten genocide.

Aftermaths

The genocidal counterinsurgency was scaled back in 1993 for a number of reasons. First of all, the spirited resistance of the Nuba and the SPLA ensured against their complete destruction. Bereft of any international aid, they took it upon themselves to ensure their own existence. And secondly, the jihadi impulse of the Government was beset by internal contradictions. There was no committed consensus amongst the ruling elite of Sudan. Genocide is difficult to fully implement, but of course even a partially successful genocide can be devastating. Nonetheless, these two factors ensured that the Nuba peoples were not entirely wiped out.

A ceasefire was brokered in January 2002 between the Government of Sudan and the SPLA. It was successfully monitored and maintained, and in January 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement officially ended the civil war (see image below). However, the demands for autonomy in the Nuba Mountains were largely marginalized in the North-South negotiations. And while a popular referendum in January 2011 ensured the independence of South Sudan, South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains remain a part of the North, occupying a precarious buffer zone. The SPLA has yet to fully demobilize from the area, and armed irregular militants still have a degree of impunity. Any future North-South conflict, which may very well be likely, will once again escalate the violence in the Nuba Mountains.

 

In short, all of the peace agreements between the North and the South have failed to address the fundamental plights and demands of the Nuba peoples. They are continuously denied the right to self-determination.

 

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