As Southern Sudan prepares for its final split from Africa's largest country on July 9, the northern soldiers who aided its battle for self-determination are refusing to be left behind. In the state of Southern Kordofan, located in the center of the country on Sudan's contested internal border, fighters from the Nuba Mountains are putting up a tooth-and-nail fight to avoid being crushed by the Islamist government in Khartoum.
At least 73,000 people have fled the current fighting, according to the United Nations. As Sudanese bombs continue to fall and activists issue familiar warnings of genocide, the Nuba people face a lonely fight.
The Nuba, a diverse collection of black African tribes -- Muslim, Christian, and animist -- have long resisted the aggression of Sudan's Arab rulers in Khartoum. The government tried to eradicate them during the 1990s in a campaign of murder, starvation, rape, enslavement, and land seizure that killed as many as 200,000. During the north-south civil war, an estimated 30,000 Nuba joined the Southern-led Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was fighting to transform the whole of Sudan into a multiethnic democratic state.
In 1992, in the midst of the 22-year war, the government went so far as to declare a jihad in the Nuba Mountains. The official fatwa that declared the war made no distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim, stating, "An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them." The campaign included the use of chemical weapons (dropped by pilots from Saddam Hussein's air force) against the civilian population.
The 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war has led only to the imminent secession of the south. Southern Kordofan, a northern state whose residents largely supported the rebel cause, did not receive the right to self-determination. Instead, the state was given the sop of a "popular consultation" in which voters could express a desire for limited autonomy. Even that exercise never took place. For months now, the Nuba have felt Khartoum's noose slowly tightening.
While the government claims it is justifiably squashing an armed rebellion, it has maintained a naked focus on ethnicity and religion, with distinct echoes of the jihad era. Last year, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey obtained and released parts of a January 2009 memo from Sudan's Defense Ministry ordering militia commanders to re-enlist soldiers who had defected to the Southern army. "Get back all those who joined the SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement]," said the memo, "whether in the south, Nuba Mountains or elsewhere ... to defend their religion and their Arabism." After the south secedes, Southern Kordofan will be the sole remaining oil-producing state in northern Sudan.
As northern forces and armor began encircling their villages this year, many Nuba fighters left their bases in the south and returned to defend their homeland. Then, two weeks ago, a series of provocations by the Nuba fighters helped spark a furious bout of shelling, aerial bombardment, looting, and murder by northern Sudanese forces.
An estimated 3,000 Nuba men and boys are missing. Advocates fear they've been executed. One refugee, Abdul Mutalib Suleiman, told the banned news station Radio Dabanga that as he fled Kadugli, the state capital, with his family, they saw "a man wearing military uniform shoot at one civilian who was on a motorbike and he died immediately."