The Nuba moun­tains are a scat­ter of gran­ite out­crops jut­ting abrupt­ly out of the plain in the cen­tral Sudanese region of South Kord­o­fan. With the wide low­lands between them, they cover an area of about 30,000 square miles. Here a group of tribes, totalling about a mil­lion people, have lived side by side for cen­turies, defend­ing them­selves from slave raiders and other ene­mies. The Nuba are a clus­ter of diverse peo­ples, speak­ing more than a fifty lan­guages. ‘Nuba´ is a col­lec­tive name given to them by out­siders. (‘Nubian´, the name of the people living on the Egypt-Sudan border, is anoth­er form of the same word.) Link­ing the dif­fer­ent tribes are com­mon­al­i­ties which grow out of the shared con­di­tions of their lives. They are skil­ful farm­ers who work either ter­races on the hill­side or when con­di­tions are peace­ful enough, till larger and more fer­tile fields down in the plain. They grow millet, ground­nuts, sesame, and veg­eta­bles, and keep cattle. For a long time the Nuba have also been leav­ing their moun­tains to look for work else­where in Sudan. Now they make up a large pro­por­tion of the army. How­ev­er, they are gen­er­al­ly treat­ed as second class cit­i­zens and are dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in edu­ca­tion, employ­ment and civil rights. Ever since the 1960s, the fer­tile plains have been taken over by large, hugely prof­itable, mech­a­nised farm­ing schemes owned by busi­ness­men who dom­i­nate the Sudanese state. These schemes are ruinous to the envi­ron­ment, to the nomads who graze their herds on the plains, and to the Nuba. Those who refuse to give up their land have been harassed, impris­oned and mur­dered.

It is against this back­ground that the Nuba have become caught up in Sudan’s long drawn out civil war. On the one side is the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Khar­toum deter­mined to impose its own vision of an Islam­ic State and to wipe out the cul­tur­al diver­si­ty of this vast coun­try with its many dif­fer­ent peo­ples. On the other is the Sudan Peo­ples’ Lib­er­a­tion Army (SPLA), a move­ment of the south­ern peo­ples, who adhere black Africans to either Chris­tian­i­ty or indige­nous reli­gions. The Nuba, though geo­graph­i­cal­ly in north­ern Sudan, have much in common with the peo­ples of the south. Since the 1980s, the Sudanese gov­ern­ment has been harass­ing the Nuba as sus­pect­ed SPLA sup­port­ers, but it was not until 1989 that the ‘New Kush Divi­sion´ of the SPLA arrived in the moun­tains. They won the sup­port of the Nuba people as lib­er­a­tors and many of the young men joined them. They con­trol much of the coun­try­side, though the gov­ern­ment holds the main towns. In retal­i­a­tion, gov­ern­ment forces destroy vil­lages and farms, plant land mines, and arrest people. The object is to induce the people to leave the SPLA con­trolled areas and settle in so called ‘peace camps´. The offi­cial posi­tion is that these camps are inhab­it­ed by ‘returnees´ and are cen­tres for relief and devel­op­ment. In fact, the inmates are either kept against their will or sent to work for little or no money on the mech­a­nised farms. Women are raped, chil­dren are taken from their par­ents and put into ‘Islam­ic´ schools, and men are forced to join the gov­ern­ment mili­tia. As one Nuba farmer put it, »Because they have not defeat­ed us, they are burn­ing our vil­lages so that we will go to their towns and become their slaves.«

One strat­e­gy of the gov­ern­ment is to use the local Arab tribes against the Nuba. Called ‘Bag­gara´, a name mean­ing ‘cattle´ these Arab tribes and the Nuba have com­pet­ed over water and land for gen­er­a­tions but they always found ways to limit and resolve con­flict, traded togeth­er, and even inter­mar­ried. But since 1989 the Bag­gara, who have lost their own pas­ture lands to com­mer­cial farms, have been armed and trained as a para­mil­i­tary ‘People’s Defence Force´ (PDF), and encour­aged to take over Nuba land. They are now being joined by Nuba recruit­ed to the PDF, often forcibly, from the peace camps or in the cities. Since 1991, the Nuba moun­tains have been in a state of siege. Arthur Howes