Nuba Mountains  -   Sudan

    (This article is one of four in the book Africa, The Holocausts of Rwanda and Sudan, published by the University of New Mexico Press Feb 2006 by Lucian Niemeyer)

    Deep in the heart of the Sudan lies the Nuba Mountains. In February of 2004 I traveled to the Nuba Mountains to learn about the troubled history of slavery, flight, "Holy Jihad", forced religious conversion and genocide of the storied people living there. It is one of the worlds most compelling sagas which has as its roots more then 5000 years of history, culminating in a torturous genocide in the last 12 years. Theirs has been a culture of survival. It is difficult to evaluate, but the best estimate is that 200,000 to 300,000 lives have been lost in this small mountainous region over these past 12 years out of somewhat close to two million people living there.

The Governors headquarters in the Nuba Mountains

    Egypt was a powerful empire in 3000 BC. It was exercising it's influence by extending its territory southward up the Nile. Snefru the ruler of Egypt left a detailed record of attacking the black "Nubians" in the upper Nile taking 7000 captives into slavery before the Great Pyramid was built. The land was called Kush. Over the subsequent 2000 years, Kush was a major source of slaves, cattle and sheep for the Egyptians. As the Egyptian dynasties waned the kingdom of Kush waxed strong and the seat of power moved up the Nile to the southern border of Egypt and the northern border of Sudan. King Alara and subsequently his brother Kashta created the dynasties and Kashta became a Pharaoh. Later in 700 BC under Piye, the Kush  conquered Egypt. From then the "Black Pharaohs" wore the symbolic royal serpent on their headdress. Large temples were built and the Kush dynasty ruled from the Mediterranean to Meroe, north of Khartoum.  But soon the Kingdom came under attack from Assyrians from now  northern Iraq. They created an Arab foothold. The lands they conquered followed a curve from Egypt down the eastern coast of Africa to Dar es Salaam in present Tanzania (The Red Crescent). So the Kush moved their capital to Napata in the Sudan and then were driven south to Meroe. They ruled for the next 1000 years holding onto their Pharaonic titles and worshipping their god Amon. There were in the Meroe dynasties many capable queens who ruled very ably. Some black Kushites feeling the pressure of the Assyrians moved further up the Nile and into the Nuba Mountains. Toward the end of the fourth century AD, Meriotic rule gave way to the Christian Coptic power from Ethiopia. The Egyptians and the black Nubians had a tortuous history of slavery and domination which was exasperated by the plundering and destruction from Arab tribes from the near East.


A Muslim herder


A Muslim riding a camel

    In 600 AD, continuing raids by Arabs from Egypt and the near east signaled the loss of independence for the Nubians and many more families migrated further up the Nile and into the Nuba Mountains seeking safety. From 600 AD to 2002 AD, raiding for slaves from the Nuba mountains by Egyptians and other Arabs including the Mahdi and the Baggara Tribe was consistent. The 50 small independent Nuba tribes could not provide resistance from the invaders. In addition each of the tribes had their own language. It is said by the Nuba that in the Mountains there are 99 peaks and there is a separate tribe and language for each peak. Until recently many Nuba tribes had no idea of the wider community in the Nuba Mountains. They are all called Nuba now. The Nuba Mountains are lush and fertile. The Mountains rise 1500 feet to a gentle 3000 feet from the plain. The land is rocky yet  crops grow easily and allows for plentiful food for their herds. Grassy plains are interspersed with hills and valleys. It is a very beautiful landscape pleasing to human dimensions of space and height. That is why Arab tribes surrounding the Nuba Mountains seek the land for themselves. The area of the Mountains is approximately 90 mile long and 40 miles wide. Their are a few unpaved roads linking the small major towns together, while many tribes live in very remote locations networked only by age old paths. 

    In more modern times (1821) the viceroy of Egypt ordered the conquest of Sudan. With the help of other Arabs the Egyptians raided the Nuba Mountains for 60 years taking slaves, herds and gold. In the late 1870s the Governor of Sudan,  General Gordon Pasha tried without success to suppress the slave trade. In 1881, the Mahdi chased out the Egyptian army with the British and Gordon was killed during the fall of Khartoum. Nothing changed in the Nuba Mountains. The Mahdi needed soldiers and food and they invaded the Nuba Mountains with fervor. In 1898 the English General Kitchener defeated the Mahdists at Omdurman. The Mahdists impacted the Nuba tribes by bringing Islam and arabic to the Nuba Mountains. The British rule brought some peace to the Mountains but the administration was overburdened and they gave authority to the Arab cleric leaders in Khartoum. Even so many British officers felt that the spread of Islam was a threat to the Nuba Mountain people, but it was too little and too late. Though the Nuba were Muslim, Christian and animist, they were quite pure and simple, mixing religions and cultures well in the Nuba Mountains, resisting the brown Arab slave raiders from the outside. In the early 1950s,  the English merged South Sudan and North Sudan into one creating Sudan with the capital in Khartoum which was located in the north. Sudan was given its independence in 1956. The Christian south as well as the Nuba Mountains were now under fundamental Islamic rule with its code of law called the "sharia". Strife between the south and Nuba with Khartoum commenced immediately. In the Nuba Mountains the farmers were squeezed by the Jellaba and the Baggara Arab tribes from their ancestral lands. Thus when fighting broke out in the Sudan between the Christian south and Khartoum in 1983, the Nuba Mountain tribes forged an alliance with the SPLA in the south. The great Nuba Mountain leader Yousif Kuwa, a Muslim,  and SPLA leader John Garang, a Christian, formed a partnership which provided a defense mechanism for almost all of the Nuba Mountain tribes as well as the Christian south. The Sudan Government (GOS) armed the Arab tribes which militia surrounded the Nuba Mountains. By 1988 systematic killing of civilians by forces operating with government approval had commenced in force. In 1992 the GOS which had taken Muslim fundamentalism to new extremes, declared a "Holy Jihad" on the Christian south and the Nuba Mountains. (Osama bin Laden got his start in the Sudan). The genocide was on. Lists of important Nuba intelligentsia leaders were created. "Eradicating the Nuba", a report by a group of influential Muslim leaders spread like wild fire and became the blueprint for killing, the destruction of villages, forced conversions and forced removals including slavery. A leader of the GOS army stated in a press conference in Bern that during a seven month period in 1992 and 1993, the PDF (GOS) had killed 60,000 to 70,000 Nuba. He stressed that these ethnic-cleansing operations made no distinctions between Muslims, Christians or animists. The Khartoum government sealed the Nuba Mountains off from the outside world in this ethnic-cleansing operation. They forced the  Nuba to attend conversion programs to Islam upon the threat of death and destruction of their villages. Inhabitants told me that the Russian Antonov planes of the GOS would come overhead, circle back and then would drop their bombs. The bombing runs were not very accurate as the bombs were rolled out of the doors of the cargo planes, but because of the closeness of the small villages, they created a great deal of destruction. It was not till 2001 when Senator John Danforth was sent by President Bush to the Sudan and the Nuba Mountains that the window to the atrocities of the Taliban type government in Khartoum in the Nuba Mountains was finally  revealed and sharply criticized. We heard stories from sources relating horrific accounts of the terrible genocide there. The Catholic school that was bombed; villages razed if they did not convert to Islam. The continued bombings... Kevin Ashley of 748 Air Relief Services flew into the Nuba regularly taking in supplies and bringing out stories at an extreme risk. Brad Phillips of Persecution Project risked death and bombing to the bring supplies, radios and a vehicle to the Nuba people. Bishop Gassis and his nuns conducting schools in the Nuba Mountains, A hospital run by German doctors took care of the wounded when no one else was in the Nuba Mountains. The Dutch had a small mission. The UN, Europe and the rest of the world were silent. A deafening silence.... A cruel silence.... A forgotten people under a death sentence from a rogue regime as the world stood by.

Deputy Governor Isaac KuKu surrounded By Simon Peter and the Commissioner of Dilling

    This was the background when I went into the Nuba Mountains. Peace had come to the Nuba Mountains for a little over two years. Non-governmental relief agencies (NGOs) had returned to the Nuba Mountains providing assistance. An organization MineAction UK, was courageously removing the myriad thousands of mines which were taking lives and limbs each day. There is a peace. It is being observed by the World Monitoring Organization and the killing has stopped. I flew into Kauda with a 1940's DC-3 Samaritan's Purse plane, a Southern Baptist organization. We landed on a dirt landing strip with no amenities. The plane dropped me off and left. I waited for 3 hours in the very hot sun sitting on my bag under a sparsely leaved tree. There was no one around. A truck came up from the distance in a cloud of dust. Simon Peter said they had come to take me to the Governor's village some miles away. Over the roughest dirt tracts we rode through the Nuba Mountains to a lovely village set among two mountains. Tukuls, the round adobe hut with a thatched roof, were built on the terraced hillsides as an artist would have placed them. I was taken to a group of three tukuls sitting on a small hill in the center of the village. On both sides the laughter of children and the bustle of women and men working was contagious. This was the governor's home village and the three tukuls were for his guests. He was attending the peace talks in Kenya. An attendant showed me to a tukul where I could sleep. Then an hour later an emissary from the Deputy Governor came and sat down in the shade and we began to talk. My visit had been preceded by a recommendation from respected sources and the questioning of why I was there was very polite. We talked for hours. After a meal of goat, a pita type of bread and water, we went outside to enjoy the night. We were joined by a group of elders and we talked for additional hours. Among these elders was the Commissioner from Dilling. He had walked days to visit with the Governor to discuss the peace talks. He instructed me on the state of the Nuba people. He told me that the Nuba people, Muslim, Christian and animist were united. The recent years of fighting had pulled the tribes all together in an alliance. Each tribe had a chief, They elected a commissioner for the different regions and elected the governor of Nuba. Only a few tribes to the east were aligned with Khartoum. The government had garrisoned some of the larger towns, but the troops dared not leave the garrison. The SPLA controlled 85 to 90% of Nuba Mountains. He told me Khartoum continues to try to infiltrate the Nuba people but that the Nuba are very questioning of strangers and expel them. Also it seems that the displaced Nuba which had been living in camps on the outskirts of Khartoum were returning to the Mountains. Since they had been brainwashed as to their inferior status in the camps, they were asked by the Nuba leaders to reacclimate themselves in camps for six months prior to rejoining their tribes. The Commissioner told me that there had been an assassination attempt on his life just a few months before. Among the group that night were Christian and Muslim, though the Muslims were in the very high majority. Arabic was their common language, yet all of them were bilingual. They had hired 200 Kenyan  teachers to teach the Nuba English as their mother language. Their history with arabic was too painful. In addition, the Nuba were shedding their Islamic names for their given tribal ones. They spoke of preserving  their 50 tribal languages and their different cultures as one of their major tasks. Religious tolerance was very obvious and the slow deliberate discussion was open and profound, revealing the concern that these leaders had for their all of their people. It was obvious that the Nuba people were enjoying a moment of peace after so many centuries of persecution. Peace is a very rare commodity. It was a wonderful evening under a star filled night.


                                                         A Nuba woman                                            A Nuba Man

The next day broke early announced by the braying of an ass and then the roosters. After a breakfast of tea I asked the leaders there if I may record with my camera what I saw. I was told that I have to clear any picture taking with the local military commander. Very shortly a group approached us. Isaac KuKu is the deputy Governor of Nuba. He was quite commanding and his gentle manner and voice belied his position and past military leadership. We talked for several hours about the Nuba and their history as well as the current state of affairs. I gave him articles of my prior work in the Sudan and a book. After the meeting there was no more resistance to my taking pictures. In fact he requested pictures and showed me a woman who had been injured in a bombing attack to photograph. I then walked into the village. I was asked by a Kenyan schoolteacher to come to her school some distance away. It was filled with adult women learning English. Nearby was the market and the community well. It was filled with lively women filling their containers and visiting. My presence created some self conscious laughter, and was treated with curiosity. Here the Muslims, Christians and the animists mixed easily. Camels, goats, chickens, dogs, pigs, donkeys and cattle also mill in the market place. Further travel took me to a gasoline powered mill. Here the women would come for miles around to pay for the grinding of sorghum, millet and maize (corn) into flour for bread. It was run by an old man with a wonderful sense of humor, as he handled the line of waiting women very well. Even though I live in a similarly arid region in New Mexico, the blinding heat was exhausting and created a terrible thirst. I did not stray too far from the vessel containing cool water.  The evening brought relief from the heat. The repast of goat, bread and water from one cup was repeated. In the cool evening we talked for hours. In this place half way around the world I felt a joy and peace that is rare. The people, even though they had gone through a most oppressive genocide, were at peace. The women in the Nuba have an equal status in the running of their society. I presume that this is a throwback to several thousand of years when the women ruled. In fact, during the main gathering of the Nuba in 1992, it was two women that spoke up. They wanted to resist the Arab "jihad" and genocide. Their thoughts carried the day. For twelve years the terrible genocide was withstood, with the Nuba being driven up in the mountains. The leader Kuwa went to Europe to explain the situation in the Nuba Mountains. No one wanted to hear.


Nuba school children in Lowere



Nuba women being schooled in English in Lowere

My observations were that each person had a role in the tribe and that each person knew that role. People are happy there. Children  play, laugh and go to school, women sing while they work, men discuss as they work. The next days brought the same. I walked alone on the paths, visited another school with lively learning children. They sang some songs for me. A small shy young girl was asked her name and school. She spoke strongly and was applauded by the other children. It was schooling at its very best. Outside the village the paths were well trod and the countryside became less inhabited until the next small village appeared. In one afternoon a vehicle appeared to take me into the countryside to a place where on the night in September 2003 a tank mine was placed in the middle of the road, presumably by GOS operatives. The next morning a vehicle carrying ten people blew up, eight died. Even with the peace there are those who want no peace. Later that day I was taken to the mausoleum of Governor Jousif. It was lovely with planted plumaria inside. The smell was sweet. There  was obvious love in the mountains for the Nuba leader.

As the means of transportation in Nuba is by foot most of the time, the extent of my walks were limited to the range I could go without water. At each end of this lovely valley was a narrow pass bordered by steep cliffs. It was easy to guard against attack. This was the military headquarters and the training camps for the Nuba SPLA. People were coming and going to the market and the community hand pumped well. Up and down the streams were newly built dams to provide water retention and irrigation. On the last day Isaac KuKu again visited me in full uniform. He wanted a picture taken of him. The last evening we again talked about the hopes of the Nuba people. They were peace and self rule. They did need help with a radio system that would keep all the tribes in communication with the Governor while providing news. The radio they had was not set up correctly, though it did allow them contact with representatives in Lokichoggia  to arrange for a plane to take me out the next day.

A Nuba woman selling bread 

I had expected to go back to Lokichoggia via a UN plane on Saturday. Early Saturday I was told that there was a 748 Air Relief plane coming to pick up MineAction workers and myself. Quickly I was hustled to the airstrip where we boarded for the six hour flight back. It was with very great sadness that I left the Nuba people and their lovely hospitality. There is in me the great respect for a society that works well. It would be well for us to understand them. We would be better for it. Certainly it is up to the world to protect them.

The marketplace

    The saga of the Nuba, buried in the heart of the Sudan, must not be lost. For in this history are some of the world's worst atrocities that have been practiced for over five thousand years. Here in recent times the fundamentalist Muslim regime initiated a "Holy Jihad", practiced their "sharia", then commenced a total genocide combined with ethnic cleansing. Here the brown Arabs look down on black Africans as less then people. Here slavery of blacks is an inherent right of brown Muslims. So it has been for millennium. Yet this culture of survival has won. The Nuba are intact and unified. There is religious and gender equality in a way that any society would wish for. In these mountains is a wisdom of living together that I know of only in the Old Order Amish culture. The world led by the UN, Europe, the US and the other world powers must let the Nuba live in peace with local rule. If we don't achieve this, the world will be a far lesser place. Their very rich and old cultures must be preserved. That the religious organizations, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and others have been silent to this carnage is totally inexcusable. Where is their moral justification to exist as religions? President Bush sent Senator Danforth to report what he saw in the Sudan. He chose the Nuba Mountains and gave a scathing report back to the President about the Khartoum government actions. The US Congress then passed the Sudan Peace Act; Colin Powell has been the point person to negotiate a peace, but it took the fall of Iraq to break the deadlock in the negotiations.  There are peace talks going on between the government of Sudan and the SPLA, who are speaking for the Nuba Mountain tribes. We should encourage signing of the peace accord. Then we must insist that the peace be kept. We should demand it.  The Nuba Mountain people have withstood enough persecution from the outside world.


Lucian Niemeyer

Santa Fe,  New Mexico

April 2004

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