'SHALL WE STAY OR SHALL WE GO?'
In the footsteps of Miss Leni Riefenstahl
Report from the Nuba Mountains
Todoro village, near Rekha, 8 July 2012. On one side of the shade cast by a gigantic breadfruit tree opposite the remains of a bombarded mosque, women in gowns, colourful as tropical birds – on the other side, men in white Arab clothes. Big, strong and shiny eyes like those of the Nubian kings who, a thousand years ago, ruled from Egypt and the entire Nile to the Great Lakes in Uganda. Firm features on scarred faces accustomed to the mountains of granite and black, greasy soil. Tough limbs used to hard work in the most demanding natural conditions…
People from the Nubian tribe Mesakin Quissayr are physically still superhumanly strong and similar to the Nuba I met during my first visit in 1979 when some special photographs of naked black Olympic athletes drew me to the Todoro village in the Nuba Mountains, in the central Sudan province of South Kordofan. However, they are not naked anymore. And they are skinny. Very, very skinny. And emaciated…
'Last year they built a mosque for us; however, this year they demolished it. Can you, havadja, explain why?' addressed the young mayor of the village, Mohamed Ali, in the local Arab. This was the most pressing question in the minds of everyone who gathered under the breadfruit free.
'Why do havadja make planes and fly with them and throw bombs from them?' they asked me in the Todoro village thirty years ago. 'Why do havadja like death? We like to sing and dance and make children…'
Todoro is the village where, 50 years ago, Hitler's director Leni Riefenstahl took photos for her luxurious book 'Die Letzte von Nuba'. This book is still frequently exposed in the bookstores of important galleries and on the bookshelves of cult rebels in world metropolises. The woman who, during the Third Reich, experienced the power of which women nowadays can only dream, wrote that she was the happiest among these 'nude savages'. Pablo Picasso claimed that the paintings and scarves on the nude Nuba bodies was some sort of cubism. Andy Warhol was also completely enchanted…
Havadja means foreigner, a non-Nuba. Havadja is everyone from the external world who is not Nuba. Havadja are Arab hunters on slaves, Ottoman Turks and also colonial Brits as well as Americans and Chinese people; in other words, everyone who is now fighting for land, water and other natural sources in their mountains.
'Havadja, what do you think. What should we do? Should we stay or should we go?' Mohamed Ali asked. The women and men silently and thoughtfully nod to him.
I do not recognize anyone. Not even from the copies of Leni's pictures, or my own memory. No one remembers me. Todoro is located on the south of the Nuba Mountains and represents a connection with fellow SPLA fighters in Dinka, Nuer and other tribes on the south of Sudan – the government forces viciously attacked and arabized these places.
Does anyone in the world still care about the Nuba, now that the people of the Todora village have been muslimized. Does any pop icon even care what is happening now in the villages of the Nuba Mountains?
During the last month that I spent among more than a million rebel locals in the area, the size of about five territories of Slovenia, controlled in the South Kordofan by the freedom fighters of the north Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), I haven't met any representatives of any of the UN agencies. No observers of any mission. The hybrid between the African Union and the United Nations (UNMIS), which, similarly as in Darfur, did not obtain a mandate from the Security Council to protect the civilians in the Nuba Mountains, but has been carrying out only the task of observing and reporting, left the Nuba Mountains three weeks after the beginning of the new war on 1 July last year when its mandate had expired. The mandate was never extended, since the new accommodation was, according to an official report, too dangerous for soldiers. Since then no official reports have been released from these mountains.
They immediately told me that the world community did not entirely fail after all; namely, three non-governmental organisations did not follow the exterminators in Khartoum and are helping the hungry and sick Nuba. When I found the white people hidden in inaccessible gorges in the mountains, they were scared of me. I had to give them my word that I would maintain that I had never seen them and that I would never mention their names to any organisation.
Only Rayan Boyette, a young American, who, right before the declaration of independence of South Sudan, did not listen to the order of his Samaritan's Purse stating that he, along with all foreigners, must leave the Nuba Mountains until the declaration of independence of South Sudan on 9 July, is not hiding anymore. In March of this year, he appeared in two 10-minute video contributions by George Clooney, who was the first famous person, ten years after Leni Riefenstahl (Leni returned to the mountains in 2000 with our film 'Nuba, clean people'), to visit the Nuba with the members of the Enough Project; moreover, following his return, he demanded in US Congress that the Obama administration begin finding a solution for the indigenous people in South Kordofan, together with China. On 4 May, Sudan air forces attacked Rayan's house near the Kurchi village, where he found a home with his beautiful pregnant wife from the Tira tribe; the six bombs of the Antonov bomber luckily missed their main objective.
'What struck me the most was the fact that someone actually woke up this morning with the wish to kill me!' was the message Rayan sent, via our satellite modem in the system 'Eyes and Ears of God', to the US Ministry of Defense and tens of thousands of others who regularly receive photographs and reports about attacks of the Sudan army and militia on the innocent civilians in the Nuba Mountains.
This time I did not arrive in the Nuba Mountains on a donkey and naked, as the first time in 1979, not even with a bicycle like when I returned in 1998, nor in an airplane with Father Kizito from Italian organisation Amani and Stane Kerin from the Slovenian Karitas, as in 2000 and 2003, but in an off-road vehicle of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO). This is a Nuba organisation for self-aid financed by a diaspora in the European Union and America – and also by activist friends, some in very important government positions. Ten years ago, with reports, books and films about the previous, hidden, Sudan war, just like the current one, friends of the Nuba managed to get the then special Bush delegate for Sudan, Protestant pastor John Danforth, to visit the Nuba Mountains. When he returned, he proposed that the US congress 'solve the Sudan problem' from the centre, the Nuba Mountains, and not from the south from where the USA had fairly unsuccessfully financed the SPLA rebels of John Garang, who started a 21-year war three years after the American firm Chevron discovered large supplies of the highest-quality oil in 1979. John Danforth was the one who helped organise negotiations between the SPLA of the commander Abdel Aziz in the Nuba Mountains and the Sudan government in January 2002 in Switzerland; these negotiations finished with a truce that lasted until last year. The Americans, British and Norwegians expanded this peace to the south of Sudan and orchestrated it until the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which also meant the end of the war with the south. However, the same CPA also sacrificed the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile province to the Arabs in exchange for the promised referendum on the secession of the South Sudan and Abyei province; this was about to happen on 9 January 2011, after six years. The indigenous people in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile, who had fought 21 years with their fellow fighters in the south of Sudan within the framework of the Garang’s SPLA were sacrificed to the Arabians in exchange for South Sudan, soaked with oil, water and good soil. The fellow fighters in these provinces achieved only a right for registration, elections for a province governor and some sort of mystical public consultations with which, instead of a referendum for the right to stay or leave, they would, after six years, only have the right to express their expectations on the relationships that they would have within the remains of old Sudan. The migrated Arabians in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile obtained more seats in the local administration than the indigenous people; in other words, it was immediately clear that the arabization would continue. This was exactly the situation against which the Nuba and the indigenous people in the Blue Nile region rebelled in 1985.
In May 2010, the dictator Omar Hassan al Bashir was re-elected in the presidential elections, while Mohamed Haroun, the butcher from Darfur, whom Bashir gave the position of minister for human rights to the scorn of the world, won the elections for governor of South Kordofan.
Jim Carter, former US president and nowadays a 'big friend of Sudan', said that the elections weren't really up to international standard, but that we must accept them.
'If you will not accept the results of the voting boxes, we shall replace them with ammunition boxes', said Harun.
'We will scrape you from your mountains, hunt you down with horses and chop you up with swords!', were the words the SPLA commander Abdel Azis who should have become governor according to the expectations of the experts recorded with our 20-dollar mini camera in the rage of Omar Bashir: 'Leave none wounded! Kill them all!'
The first cameras of the Eyes and Ears of God were brought to the Nuba Mountains last January before the referendum, when Bashir declared that in the case of the South’s secession he would finally arabize the rest of Sudan and use the 'Ein Land, ein Folk, ein Fuhrer' tactics in order to prevent foreigners from continuing to dismember Sudan with further incitement of those indigenous people who would keep faith in the referendums and independence declarations that were to follow.
During each vote of the Security Council for a resolution that would enable access to the sacrificed civilians in the largest hidden humanitarian catastrophe on Earth on the border between the two Sudans, the Russians and Chinese, who provide the junta of Omar Bashir with Antonov and Mig airplanes as well as tanks, vote against the resolution every time and prevent the agencies from helping; namely, the agencies cannot provide help without accusing the generals of the biggest crime against humanity, including genocide. However, three organisations are still operating in the Nuba Mountains despite the bans and the opposition, proving that 'where there's a will, there's a way'.
The conditions in the territories controlled by the SPLA are safe for the access of humanitarian organisations; I went there on my own during the three weeks in the last two months during which, using a 125cm3 motorbike borrowed from the NRRDO, I travelled practically everywhere around the Nuba Mountains without having any problems other than those connected to the new rainy season, such as mud and water. An Antonov appeared above me only three times; however, it never threw any bombs. No sign of bandits who otherwise ravage Darfur, no fighters of the government militia who otherwise prevent such journeys in the Blue Nile region. The government army is present only in larger towns, such as Kadugli, Dilling, Talodi, Kortala, or Delami where they are virtually surrounded from all sides with newly recruited or newly trained SPLA soldiers. The government troops cannot leave, especially not now when, during the rainy season, the black soil turns into greasy slime that prevents any use of heavy army mechanisation. Armoured vehicles, tanks and transporters simply lean over or sink into the mud, which is like quicksand, where they stay until they can be dug out after the rainy season in October or November.
The only people I met were hungry people. Hundreds, thousands and hundreds of thousands of hungry people who could not harvest their food in the fall because they did not plant last June. They didn't plant because they didn't believe they would be able to harvest. Now they wander around, seeking food and asking the same question:
'Shall we go – or shall we stay?'
The indigenous people, wearing colourful necklaces, waved from the terraces on the fields on the top of their mountain fortresses and ran down to the paths winding among the fantastic layers of red and black granite. I could stop and listen to anyone who walked toward me or to whom I caught up.
'I'm hungry. Please, havadja, give me something to eat!', they said, raising their shirts and gowns and showing hollow stomachs and wrinkled skin where there should have been some layers of fat.
Old people crumbled like stumps on the common. Grandmas and grandpas looked like crusts of old bread. But also young, intelligent, ambitious people, their eyes glowing when they saw that I was breaking down and my eyes were becoming misty.
'Morale fog!', they glowed and laid hands on my heart, bowing as their ten thousand year old tradition demands.
Fog means up in Arabian. Up with the morale! The morale is up; the morale is high.
As during the largest challenges in the past, the Nuba have again presented themselves as enthusiasts and idealists. No hatred against the Arabians is apparent, but more so, pity.
'What are they doing?', they held and shook their heads, laughing at the same time. 'These Arabians just don't get it …'
'Mishkila! It's O.K.! We'll manage!', they explained to me coming from the spoiled world, used to comfort…
These are people from granite. Granite has protected them during all attempts of slave hunters until now. Granite provided protection; moreover, with the iron ore among the layers, they learned to melt iron and turn it into steel, which they used to help them defend themselves against the attacking havadja. However, after the rainy season, there always comes the drought. And now, the havadja have more sophisticated weapons than the halberds and sabres.
In the most northern part of the free territory, in the Kowalib mountains near the mechanized government farms Delami and Kortale, populated by the eponymous tribes, I found some one thousand locals who escaped from the attacks of the government garrisons to the cavities at the foot of the mountains. Without food, without medicine, without any aid of the international community, totally dependent on only the support of their local hosts who also had nothing. No sorghum, which represents the majority of their diet. In the village markets, it was only possible to get sugar, coffee, tea, soap and cigarettes that have been smuggled from the north by the Arabian nomadic tribe Baggara who are 'sometimes friendly to us and sometimes not'.
They told me that Bashir shot two such smugglers. 'Now they even shoot their own people'.
With the help of tribe leaders, we selected three children aged from ten to thirteen years and recorded a day in their lives. From waking up in the cave among the snakes and scorpions where they still hide in panicked fear of bombardments from Antonov airplanes to the sweeping, carrying water in cans from a dry river bed an hour away, where water must virtually be dug out from sand, to making fire, preparing breakfast of grass and bark, to planting and weeding of sorghum in the fields not far away in the savannah, to afternoon games with a ball made from old plastic bags, until the evening when they go to sleep, night after night in hunger and forgotten, without any mosquito nets, covered only by their ragged clothes. I was mostly moved by a girl who resembled my daughter Maja; namely, when I asked her what she wanted in life, what she wanted to become, a doctor or teacher, she just bowed her head, covered her face and began a flood of tears…
What future? What dreams? There are no schools here. The simplest village schools built with mud and hay and without any equipment have been abandoned since the beginning of the war last year. Teachers from Kenya and Uganda have all escaped back home. After all, it is too dangerous to gather under those roofs. Some local enthusiasts, such as Kristo in Sarafat Jamous, are still persistent and teach in the shade of colossal trees, without chalk, without books, without pencils or paper…
'Shall we stay or shall we go?', the locals repeated in every village. In every tea place. And with typical gestures begging for food along their way.
'Will white people finally come to help us? Or will you leave us to die of hunger?'
'This is only the beginning of the big hunger', said the mayor Mohamed Ali in the Todoro village on 8 July. 'Will you foreigners help us and send food up here to the mountains – or should we go to Yida. Will you finally be able to negotiate humanitarian corridors with Omar Bashir, against whom a warrant has been issued by the International Tribunal at the Haag accusing him of genocide. Will you perhaps start throwing food from airplanes? Or is it best that we all immediately go to… Yida?'
Yida is a refugee camp south of the Nuba Mountains on the border between South Sudan and what remains of old Sudan after the secession on 9 July. More than 65,000 Nuba have already escaped to the bushes in the swamp, two days walking from the last mountains in the south. Lines of indigenous people from all ends of South Kordofan are, as naturally as water, flowing to this area.
Americans from Samaritan's Purse were the first who helped with food, typical blue plastic canvasses, doctors, drinking water and hygiene. This was all supposedly by courtesy of Rayan Boyett, whose decision to stay with the Nuba in the toughest times could not be overlooked even by his superiors.
Initially, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did not want to support the fast growing camp, claiming that it was formed on the border, too close to the country in war. The bureaucrats requested that the refugees walk at least fifty kilometres away from the border if they wanted to obtain the services of the UNHCR. These are the rules and the UNHCR achieved this with the refugees from the Blue Nile region. Last month I was in the Upper Nile region in South Sudan and witnessed that the MSF or other non-government organisations obey these rules and did not help the families who lagged behind after weeks of walking if they lacked only one metre for the necessary fifty kilometres. They had to walk that one metre, then they were loaded onto trailers and driven by tractors to the Jamam camp along the Malakal Bunch road. In the swamps during the rainy season, they fish directly from their tents and contract malaria on a massive scale. The UN administrators have no talent for the natural. Important decisions are made in the constructed minds in constructed building far away from the next victims.
However, where there's a will, there's a way! In the case of Yida, they formed a camp at a location naturally chosen by the people; they stopped forcing children, the elderly and women deep into the swamps in Nyal close to Bentu, where the UNHCR camps were prepared with huge delays. The border between the Sudans has not been determined anyway and no one actually knows where it will run.
Although the African south and the prevailing Arab north had six years from the signature of the integral peace agreement in 2005 until the referendum and declaration of independence, both sides obviously made false promises. They did not agree on the border or on the transport price of oil that remained in South Sudan through oil pipelines to the refineries that remained on the north side. After the referendum and declaration of independence, the north requested a price 50x higher than usual for services of this type. In January this year, South Sudan stopped the oil pumping. The pipelines and relationships turned into asphalt road. The economies of both Sudans started to collapse catastrophically. Some experts believe that South Sudan will first go bankrupt, since it received 90 per cent of all its income from exported oil. Others say that Sudan will fall first; a place where the Sahara prevails and food can be produced only along a one-kilometre belt on each bank of the Nile. Moreover, the rise in prices will finally lead to a new Arab spring that will overthrow the generals in Khartoum.
The last protests and student demonstrations in Khartoum and other northern towns bring hope to some people in the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, Abyei and Darfur that they will not have to leave their homes after all.
However, after leaving Sudan in 1956 the colonial Brits left the power to the Arabians. Every party that came to power in Khartoum throughout history was a racist one. After the secession of South Sudan following an agreement orchestrated by foreigners and signed without them by Arabians from the north and Dinka, Nueri and other tribes from the south, the Africans have been aware that, even after an overthrow, which must eventually happen in Khartoum, young new Arabians with power will not lead any other policy against them.
During the last day on my bike on a terribly flooded road towards Yida, I listed at least 2,000 refugees. Almost all of them were walking. Tractors and trucks immediately got stuck in the mud after descending from the mountains to the swamps. Domestic animals were eaten. Some carried a chicken or goose in their baskets, but they mostly carried children. Older children carried younger children…
Only some groups of refugees were walking in the opposite direction back towards the mountains. They said that they would plant sorghum, since they did not want to be dependent on aid. Moreover, they said that people couldn’t return anymore since others have populated the fields where the ancestors of their tribe planted and harvested in the past. It looks like the great Arab plan is being realised. And the havadja are interested only in oil – this damned blood of the planet.
'How do you feel in such a camp?', I asked the men and boys without work, who escaped the draft and training in the SPLA units, who prepare in the mountains in almost every village for the time after the rainy season.
'It is O.K.', at least one hundred refugees in Yida said. 'Look, children are playing!'
'It's not how they say it is!', shouts Karen, a doctor from the Samaritan’s Purse. 'You know the Nuba culture: they never push you down. They do everything to boost you up. However, it is a fact that children are dying because of dysentery as a consequence of terrible hygienic conditions in the camp. Thirty per cent of children that reach me after a few weeks of marching with their parents from the mountains are underfed. Normal children die from diarrhea and vomiting in four days, underfed children in two days.'
'There will be no airdrops!', said in Juba Peter from the Danish Church Aid, a non-government organisation that has received the most video footage on the events in the regions of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains; therefore, it is also the most self-sacrificing…
'Because the airdrops are too expensive!'
'In 1998, during the last war, the Hercules' threw food worth 2 billion dollars to the territories of the SPLA rebels in South Sudan. Why not send at least a fraction of this to the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region where at least half a million people are internally displaced in each province, according to the estimations of the UN? Medical ethics do not leave a patient, even when there is no chance left for his/her recovery. The humanitarian principle demands the same.'
'All this is just a job!', shrugs the American Taylor in the Garden Club , the best of the best, a mechanic who repaired every broken vehicle he saw in the Nuba Mountains until the rain drove him away. 'There are many things we don't stick to anymore in the humanitarian business.'
'For example, we shouldn't just distribute aid only to the areas in which we have political interests. Now, it's all just strategy and tactics!'
And how many children will die until the end of your vacation?
“Experts” do not even dare to make an estimate.
Leni Riefenstahl in Nuba mountains