Feature

Twilight of the Nuba

Is the Sudanese regime embarking on another war of extinction?

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."

The soldiers, Suleiman said, "were calling out 'Allah Akbar.'" On June 21, Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, issued a statement condemning attacks against civilians and the "targeting of people along ethnic lines."

For now, the Nuba fighters, led by their commander, Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, are holding their own. They've retaken key parts of Kadugli and have seized at least one weapons convoy meant for the Sudanese army, a haul that included anti-tank and possibly even surface-to-air missiles. (Last month, Abdel-Aziz lost the election for governor of Southern Kordofan state to Ahmed Haroun, a trusted lieutenant of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Despite Abel-Aziz's claims that the vote was rigged, observers from the Carter Center certified it as "peaceful and credible." Like Bashir, Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.)

But without an air force or tank corps to stand up to the well-armed northern forces, recent gains by the Nuba fighters will likely prove to be short term. In the near term, salvation can come from only one of two unlikely sources.

The first is Juba, which next month is slated to become the capital of the independent Republic of South Sudan. While Khartoum holds a strong superiority in air power and armor, the Southern army boasts a much larger infantry. The Nuba battling in Southern Kordofan are a part and parcel of the former rebel army that helped liberate the south, and ties between the two regions are strong.

The Southern Sudanese officer corps is keen to help its colleagues north of the border, sources in Juba say, but there is slim chance that Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir will risk losing his shot at a peaceful separation on their comrades in the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba can't expect to see brigades of Southern soldiers marching to their assistance.

Bashir has begun massing his forces on the north-south border as a warning to his Southern rivals. "We told our brothers in the south, do you want peace? Everything we've done is for peace," he said this week. "But if you want war, you can see what's going on in Abyei and in Southern Kordofan, and these are all lessons." (Northern forces overran Abyei, another disputed region, last month, displacing more than 100,000 members of the Dinka tribe. On June 20 Khartoum agreed to withdraw its soldiers from Abyei, which is to be secured by Ethiopian peacekeepers but is now firmly under Khartoum's control.)

The Nuba's other chance at victory is even more far-fetched. Their representatives are pleading for an internationally enforced no-fly zone to ground Sudan's MiG fighters and Antonov bombers. "The UN Security Council must institute a No Fly Zone in Nuba Mountians [sic]/ South Kordfan to stop the aerial bombardment of civilians," one organization, the Sudan Democracy First Group, said in a written statement last week. On Monday, June 20, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein warned that the Nuba are trying to create "a second Benghazi" -- the rebel capital of Libya -- as a precursor to Western-backed regime change in Khartoum.

Calls for a no-fly zone over Sudan are even more dubious today than they were six years ago, when the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was advocating one to stop ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Back then, the United States was embroiled in two conflicts in Muslim lands. Today, with the ongoing NATO campaign in Libya, it's three. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently expressed what many less powerful taxpayers have felt for years: Americans are tired of wars of choice.

So the Nuba, and other northerners fearful of Khartoum's ethnocentric agenda, are on their own. Even as Southern Sudanese escape to an uncertain future in their own sovereign state, the north can still free itself from the blood-stained ruling clique in Khartoum. The route probably won't be Gandhian. Recent peaceful protests in Khartoum, inspired by successful people-power revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, have all been crushed.

As it was for the people of Southern Sudan, the people of Southern Kordofan may conclusively decide that violence is their only path to freedom. In the face of rigged elections, ethnic cleansing, and torture, armed rebel groups in Darfur could join forces with the Nuba, with partisans in Blue Nile state, and with disaffected Beja tribesmen of eastern Sudan in an armed movement to topple Bashir.

It's a dismal scenario, after more than 2 million dead in the last civil war and hundreds of thousands of others killed in Darfur. Whatever the means, however, northern Sudanese are going to have to free themselves. No one else is riding to the rescue.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

Fading Legacy

Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov were giants. Why do so few Russians remember them?

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.

One of the most memorable speakers in those weeks was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Two years earlier, Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, had been released from exile in Gorky and allowed to return to Moscow, where they were beacons of hope for those who believed in human rights and democracy. Sakharov's appearance in the legislature seemed to be a singularly radiant moment.

On Bonner's death Saturday, June 18, in Boston at age 88, it is worth recalling once again their legacy, one that seems to be fading in today's Russia.

It was on display, in part, during those hectic two weeks of 1989, when Sakharov made the opening speech at the parliament, and a longer, more detailed one in closing. In between, the Congress became an explosion of public debate and unprecedented criticism leveled at the KGB, the military, and the country's leaders.

Sakharov, in the closing remarks, called for repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on power. He wanted a political system that would be built by "genuinely democratic methods," based on principles of the rule of law, including freedom of speech and conscience, and the possibility for citizens to contest the actions of their government at all levels. He wanted pluralism and competition.

When Sakharov called for the repeal of the party's hold on power, even Gorbachev lost his cool. He unplugged Sakharov's microphone.

Sakharov died later that year, and the Soviet collapse in 1991 led to the rise of a democratic Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. But Sakharov's vision has only been partly realized. After a raucous period of openness in the 1990s, Russia today is once again without political competition and largely dominated by a single power structure, that of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia today is not the same as the Soviet Union. Putin exercises a kind of soft authoritarianism. But if Sakharov could see the political system today, he would surely detect some of the same elements he and Bonner so bravely fought, including the suffocating lack of competition and the use of police-state methods to squash dissent.

Bonner, who founded one of the most active human rights groups in the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s, kept the flame alive in the two decades after Sakharov's death. She backed President Boris Yeltsin in his violent confrontation with hard-liners in 1993, but also harshly condemned Russia's brutal crackdown on Chechen separatists in two wars. Bonner was among the prominent figures who signed petitions protesting Putin's rollback of democracy in his eight years as president. She also established the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, which features exhibitions and seminars on Soviet repression, the Gulag, and Sakharov's life.

In the second of his memoirs, Sakharov wrote of Bonner, whom he called Lusia, "Truly, she is the only person who shares my inner thoughts and feelings. Lusia prompts me to understand much that I would otherwise miss because of my restrained personality, and to act accordingly. She is a great organizer, and serves as my brain center. We are together. This gives life meaning."

Sadly, a generation of young people in Russia who have grown up since Sakharov's death only dimly grasps his importance. Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times reported in Sunday's paper that when a group of college students at the Russian Law Academy in Moscow were asked recently for their views of his legacy, they fumbled. Most seemed never to have heard of him. Schwirtz reported that a survey conducted last year by the Levada Center, a respected polling organization in Moscow, found that 44 percent of Russians ages 18 to 24 knew nothing about Sakharov. Of those who did, only 9 percent knew that he was a champion of human rights and a dissident.

Unfortunately, the apathy about politics today in Russia is not only among young people. Absent genuine competition, people aren't interested. This leaves Putin and his men relatively free to carry on as they please. Putin and Medvedev talk openly about making the decision among themselves about who will be the next president -- and rarely mention that the choice should be with the voters.

Sakharov would not have understood nor approved of this. So much was sacrificed for freedom, he might say, that it is not something you can allow to fall into disuse.

DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images