In 2011, the SPLA and rebels from Darfur attacked the Sudanese Armed Forces along the new border, and Sudan responded with a campaign of bombings and killings that continues to this day. Last year, Bashir began moving thousands of troops into South Kordofan. Today, they've taken control of most of Nuba's larger towns, including Kadugli, the capital.
Khartoum has superior firepower, Mukwar told me, but its men are untrained and weak. His comparatively ill-equipped but more committed SPLA-N troops have been fighting back, slowly. They'd been shelling Sudanese positions in Kadugli, and, the week before I arrived, had won a two-day battle in nearby Deldoko, capturing a dozen Sudanese tanks and armored vehicles. "We are not dead. We have not surrendered. We are still strong," Mukwar said. Knowing I was American, and apparently wanting to impress or rattle me, or both, he said, "If they brought your Marines in here, we could fight them."
A man in a gray, short-sleeved suit came into the hut. "This is the hero of Deldoko!" Mukwar announced, introducing me to a quiet colonel. "Show him what happened," Mukwar commanded. Reluctantly, the colonel pulled back his lapel to reveal a bandage on his chest, where a piece of shrapnel had pierced it. Mukwar held up his finger-nub near the colonel's chest and let out another peel of laughter, as though to say: "Why am I in charge? This guy should be commanding."
I pointed out to Mukwar that most of the villages I'd passed through on my way to him were, like Jegeba, empty. "All our people are going to the camps or the caves, because we're not able to feed them. We eat from the enemy side. We attack them to get our foods. If we're fighting, we can always eat, but also we can't feed our children," he said. "The Sudan government uses propaganda to tell the international community not to send us aid. They say that if you send the people food, it will go to SPLA. They say if you're helping the people, you're helping the rebels. It's not true.... Even South Sudan, they don't have any budget, they don't have any resources. Sometimes even our soldiers, they eat the leaves off the trees."
Driving around Nuba, you have to be careful to avoid roads that are too dry -- Sudanese pilots circle in Soviet-era Antonov bombers, looking for targets that kick up dust-clouds. They also like to bomb homes, churches, farms, markets, mosques, medical clinics, and schools, according to villagers I spoke with. Thanks to the planes' inaccuracy (bombs are typically rolled by the crew out of cargo doors), though, they miss more often than not. Still, every village in Nuba has at least a few foxholes, which people run into when they hear the Antonov's unmistakable thrum overhead. According to the SPLA-N, in November the Sudanese military dropped 330 bombs on South Kordofan. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in December, the Sudanese military "has adopted a strategy to treat all populations in rebel held areas as enemies and legitimate targets, without distinguishing between civilian and combatant." In addition to bombings, this has included killings, arbitrary arrests, and rape.
For centuries, the Nuba Mountains -- a diverse region compared with largely Arab Khartoum and Dinka and Nuer-dominated South Sudan -- was known as a place where people fleeing the Arab slave trade, and later oppressive Islamism in Khartoum, could take refuge. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, the SPLA began recruiting soldiers there. When Bashir came to power, in 1989, he ordered a program of forced migration in South Kordofan. Tribal councils and village chiefs that had existed for generations were replaced with Arab-style emirates. Black Nubans were expelled from their lands, which were redistributed to Arabs. Nuba's professional and intellectual classes were subjected to a campaign of kidnappings and murders. Children were dragooned into the military. Bashir called this social planning, but in retrospect it was clearly an attempt at ethnic cleansing, a kind of dress rehearsal for what Bashir would attempt in Darfur. In 2011, the governorship of South Kordofan went to Bashir's former minister of state for humanitarian affairs, Ahmed Haroun, in an election many Nubans believed was rigged. Haroun has also been indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The results are apparent everywhere. Along the road that runs from Nuba over the border into South Sudan, families and dump-trucks full of men travel south to the refugee camp in Yida. About 60,000 people, most of them Nubans, live there now. Hundreds more arrive every day, many on the verge of starvation. Nuba is without paved roads, or almost any pavement at all for that matter. Plumbing and electricity are rare. Messages are passed by satellite phone or handwritten note. To travel around the parts controlled by the SPLA-N, you need a series of notes from various commanders -- though I found that the security at village checkpoints usually consists of a piece of string stretched between wooden posts and a sleepy guy in fatigues.
It's impossible to calculate the current population: of the roughly 1.1 million people who once lived in South Kordofan, an estimated 900,000 have been displaced or fled. Those who've stayed often live in ravines, caves, forests, or dry riverbeds; their villages are open targets for Khartoum's bombers. Others have set up make-shift villages near SPLA-N camps hoping for protection. Near a camp in Umm Sirdibba, a group of tribal chiefs assembled cross-legged on a plastic tarp and told me their story. They wore clothing cast off from Sudanese soldiers. A chief from Deldoko named Ibrahim, in green army pants and a T-shirt that showed a fish on a hook and the words "Bass to the Bone," said that before the Sudanese bombing campaign began, hundreds of families lived in and around Deldoko. Now it's nearly empty.