The Nuba Vision
Volume 1, Issue 1, June 2001
By Peter Moszynski
Outside the scrutiny of the international community and the jurisdiction of the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan, government forces appear to feel free to treat the Nuba Mountains as a "free fire zone" conducting military operations regardless of the cost to civilians. The government's forced villagisation policy attempts to depopulate the land and keep the people in "peace villages" both through blockade and scorched earth tactics, of which the continuing use of banned anti-personnel mines form an integral part.
Mines are used both to prevent SPLA attacks on government garrisons and to keep the local population incarcerated in their protected villages. They are also used to prevent people from returning to their own villages to salvage their property after raids out of the garrison towns. Numerous amputees tell similar stories:
"I was returning to my house after the army had attacked from Heiban. It was still smouldering but it wasn't too badly damaged, so I went inside to find what I could save. There was a huge bang. When I woke up my leg was missing"
Soldiers of the 5th Division regularly use AP mines to prevent pursuit following raids, but also use them for ambushes along purely civilian routes such as paths to water holes, markets and orchards. Despite Khartoum being a signatory to the Ottawa Convention banning the use of anti-personnel mines, captured government military engineers responsible for recent mine laying apparently had no awareness of their prohibition.
Recent mine incidents documented by the SPLA Nuba mine action team include an attack on Kululu in December 2000: "The enemy of Kadugli managed to capture Kululu but had to withdraw following an SPLA counterattack. During their evacuation they planted an estimated 200 mines in the area. Mines killed 50 civilians and injured another 51. We estimate around 100 mines remain. The types of mine used are POMZ-type fragmentation with trip-wires, and PMD type box mines."
According to NRRDO Mine Awareness Coordinator Mohamed Bedawi, since September 1999 they have registered a total of 110 people with mine injuries (25 women, 25 children and 60 men) as well as 75 deaths from mine incidents. 56 of the injured were evacuated - mostly to the government side.
I find it interesting to see that Khartoum is still denying its aerial bombardment of the Nuba Mts - even after such high profile raids as the attack on the visiting Bishop of El Obeid on Easter Monday. I was myself recently caught in an air raid, as I had been on two earlier visits.
This latest incident I viewed with slightly more professional interest than previously, as I was in Sudan researching landmines, bombs and unexploded ordnance, and documenting their effects on civilians, so was strangely glad to witness this attack first hand.
I had unfortunately missed my flight out and was thus stuck in the mountains longer than I intended. As there are no cars or vehicles in the area, the sound of aircraft engines can be heard clearly even at considerable distance. I was nervous of missing another flight so it became a standing joke with my hosts whenever I heard a distant engine: “is it a plane, or is it an Antonov?” Being quite close to El Obeid airbase, several planes pass over each day, mostly on delivery runs to the besieged army garrisons in the south. It's only those that linger and begin to circle overhead that one really needs to worry about. Several times there were raids on distant locations - a changing engine pitch followed by a distinctive low rumbling - but with most of the population already displaced following last year's devastating bomb attacks, the Antonovs appeared to be ignoring Kauda for the time being.
I had photographed numerous unexploded bombs and craters that still scar the landscape around Kauda, but at least there were no more of the devastating cluster bombs that Khartoum had previously been deploying against the defenceless Nuba. Last time I was there hundreds of these evil devices had carpeted the area, just like the numerous landmines, silently awaiting an unknowing footfall or an inquisitive child before detonating to lethal effect. Nowadays the government appears to rely mainly on home-made “dumb bombs” constructed from recycled oil barrels and filled with scrap iron. Having bombed the Nuba virtually back to the stone-age, there is a certain irony in the way the children rush to scavenge the best bits of shrapnel to take to the local blacksmiths for further recycling. Among my most prized possessions are a knife made from bomb fragment and a rababa (local banjo) made from a landmine A relief plane was finally expected and I joined hundreds of locals in the trek to the airstrip. There was the usual delay and confusion, but people waited patiently under the hot sun. I toasted farewell to my friends with local beer which somehow materialised and wondered if the flight would really arrive. A surge of excitement greeted the first distant sound of aero engines, followed by an uncertain pause as the plane appeared to hover overhead - so high it was difficult to make out with the naked eye. I grabbed my camera and although the plane was still too small to see clearly, with my long lens I could just make out a bomb glinting in the bright sunlight, and rapidly growing larger. Pandemonium broke out as people scattered in every direction, desperately seeking shelter. I looked to my old friend, Cdr Yousif Karra, for a lead. “In these circumstances, it is better to lie flat where you are than to try to run away” he advised, without adjusting his position, already reclined on a small local bed. I could clearly see the bomb's trajectory, fortunately some distance away, as it tumbled down towards Kauda and exploded over a kilometre away. The next bomb was closer, exploding just behind the nearby Mosque, and as raised myself off the ground I could see small mushroom-cloud of dust and debris rising over the Mosque. “It's a strange kind of Jihad that bombs Mosques and Believers” commented one of my colleagues, himself a Christian.
After a few more passes the Antonov lazily circled back towards El Obeid, and people began to dust themselves off. It was difficult to believe how serene and pacific the plane looked, that such a tiny insignificant object could rain death and terror from the sky.
As our intended flight was still some hours away I went off with a group of soldiers to check for damage. We had only gone a short distance when the familiar whine of engines warned of the Antonov's sudden return. Strangely we found ourselves in front of a large hole in the ground, and I went through a quick mental check list to decide if it was suitable shelter: “Is it full of water? Mines? Snakes? Scorpions?”
I turned to see what my colleagues were thinking. The officer was grinning triumphantly, while bombs exploded all around. “You know, this hole we have found would make an excellent shelter” he exclaimed. “Yes, my friend,” I had to concede, “I'm sure this would make a wonderful shelter, if only we were inside it, rather than standing here discussing it.”
At that moment the Antonov finally relented and we continued on our way. We soon encountered some small children sheltering under trees by the river. One of their cows had been blown up. I looked at these small kids, dressed in rags and huddled together for protection, and my colleague turned round and said: “Now you are going back you can tell your people what you have seen. This is the dangerous enemy that the government comes to bomb.” Fortunately this time the cow was the only casualty, but the terror of the Antonov remains. Having failed to starve them out, the government appears to be trying to bomb the Nuba into submission, and each successive raid leaves another dent in their armour of self-reliance.