NUBA MOUNTAINS, Sudan — When Gen. Jagod Mukwar joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), soon after it formed, in the mid 1980s, he was a young man, and Sudan's civil war was already many years older than he was. Factions from the north and south of the country had been fighting since before Sudan won its independence, in 1956. Still, the SPLA's cause -- independence for the south -- remained internationally obscure. Sudan had not yet become a pariah state, while a famine in Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa used up the world's limited bandwidth for African tragedy. Mukwar's cause-within-a-cause -- the plight of the people of the Nuba Mountains, his home, in Sudan's South Kordofan province -- was unheard of.
Today, nearly 30 years after Mukwar took up arms, the bloodshed continues. Though the Second Sudanese Civil War (as it's now called), the longest official conflict in modern African history, came to an end on paper in 2005, when Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the SPLA signed a peace treaty, the fighting never ceased. And the creation of the Republic of South Sudan in 2011 didn't much improve matters, ironically. It merely turned a civil war into a border war. South Kordofan -- a region on the central border between the two countries, populated by an assortment of African tribes and Arab settlers, farmers and pastoralists, Muslims, Christians, and animists -- has borne the brunt of this grim transition. When I met Mukwar, I asked him where the front line is these days in South Kordofan. "The front line is everywhere," he said.
Mukwar at least has the benefit of world attention now. With the conflict in Darfur out of the headlines (though by no means over), South Kordofan and the border state of Blue Nile have become the new focus of international condemnation of Bashir. They are a matter of growing concern to lawmakers in Europe, Washington, and the United Nations Security Council, which in May passed a resolution calling on Sudan and South Sudan to end hostilities. The conflict has achieved celebrity status: George Clooney regularly travels to the Nuba Mountains and has testified about what he's seen there before Congress. Meanwhile, Bashir -- indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide -- is losing power in Khartoum, thanks to a plummeting economy and growing dissatisfaction after 23 years in power. As he does, he seems increasingly eager to tear apart South Kordofan.
Now roughly 50 (he wouldn't say exactly), Mukwar commands what is known as the SPLA-North, an army of 80,000 men and women that does battle with Bashir's Sudanese Armed Forces along the border. The SPLA-N split off from the South Sudanese Army (which is still called the SPLA, confusingly enough) in September. The South Sudanese government denies any connection to the SPLA-N, but Bashir routinely accuses his foes in Juba, the new nation's capital, of backing it, and it's easy to see why: While there are tensions between the SPLA-N and Juba, the SPLA-N still has extensive support among South Sudanese officials, some of whom made their names fighting with Mukwar in the Nuba Mountains. (Bashir is not alone in this charge. In October, Anne Richard, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, claimed the SPLA-N recruits child soldiers from the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. I saw no evidence of this, either in Yida or Sudan.)
Mukwar's headquarters moves frequently. At the moment he's installed in a small compound of mud-brick and thatch huts in Jegeba, a mostly abandoned village at the foot of a crescent of hills. I arrived there in late December, after a six-hour ride on dirt roads in the back of a pick-up truck through the Nuba Mountains, a semi-arid region that resembles the American Southwest. Two roosters were pecking around a pair of Eurostar satellite dishes, and in a nearby creek a family that lives in a cave in the hills was washing clothing. I was greeted by a group of soldiers sitting quietly outside the compound, Kalashnikovs resting on their legs. On the shoulders of their uniforms was the flag of South Sudan, which began life as the flag of the SPLA. Below that, on some of the uniforms, were loose yellow threads where GOSS, for Government of South Sudan, used to be embroidered. After the split they were ordered to unstitch it.
I was shown into a hut that appeared tiny from the outside, but which turned out to hold a kind of conference room, with two tables and a lot of the plastic lawn chairs one typically finds in African rebel compounds. At the head of one table was an office swivel chair, which in this context looked like a Louis XVI chaise longue. When Mukwar, a man of moderate height and respectable paunch, ducked into the hut a moment later, he was wearing suit pants, a dress shirt open at the collar, and flip-flops. He offered the desk chair to me. I declined. After placing a bulky satellite phone on a table, he eased into the fake leather.
"Thank you for coming here to see us," he said. "Thank you for describing what is happening here. Because of people like you, the world knows what is happening to the people in the Nuba Mountains." They didn't want to secede and join South Sudan. "We are northern," Mukwar said. "How can we become southerners?" All they wanted, he said, was for Bashir to stop the attacks and treat them fairly.
War has given to Mukwar -- he exudes purpose and pride -- and taken away. In a battle some years ago in the village of Tolushi, while manning a machine gun nest, most of the ring finger of his left hand disappeared. There is disagreement as to how it happened. The official line is that the finger was shot off by enemy fire. But some of his troops believe Mukwar's more self-deprecating story: He was never much of a gunner, he claims, and during the battle he was shooting so off-target he thought his gun must be loaded with blanks. So, in his frustration he put his left hand in front of the muzzle and pulled the trigger with his right. The bullets were real enough. "I shot it off myself!" Mukwar said with a peel of laughter, holding up the nub.