His family and some others managed to hold out for a time. They dug foxholes in their sorghum fields, so they could harvest their crops and not starve. Some young men moved to Khartoum to try to find work (oddly, the capital is full of Nubans); others joined the SPLA-N. When the Sudanese troops moved in, Ibrahim said, they burned Deldoko's grain-stores and homes. "They burned everything," he said. When I asked if they had considered going across the border to Yida, one of his companions sucked his teeth contemptuously. "This is our land and we will die here," the man said. "We will never leave it."
After we spoke, I made my way along a back road toward Deldoko with two trucks of SPLA-N soldiers, passing by the charred remains of settlements. We entered a clearing where a pattern of black circles and rectangles and piles of charred mud-bricks stretched to the treeline. Nothing was left standing. The corpse of a Sudanese soldier lay by the trunk of a baobob tree. Animals had eaten the flesh off his legs and picked out his eyes. "This was Deldoko," a soldier said.
A few miles further on, we reached two adjoining hills where the last engagement in the battle for Deldoko had been fought. The air smelled of cordite and rotting flesh. Bullet casings littered abandoned half-dug trenches. The body of a Sudanese colonel lay alongside one, his torso yellowed and bloated with rigor mortis, his head covered in maggots. Nearby, on a rock ledge, were four more bodies, lined up side by side. Blood stains were visible on the rock face in front of their heads. When I pointed this out to a soldier, he seemed to understand what I was getting at -- that the men had been executed. "No," he said, dismissing my suggestion, "they were shot from down below."
From the valley beside the hills, we could see to Kadugli, the capital, still held by Sudan. As we looked on, a Sudanese attack helicopter suddenly appeared on the horizon in front of us, above the town. We ran for the rocks to take cover, and as we did, the helicopter let loose a missile. An explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose above the hills. We stayed hidden until the helicopter flew off.
* * *
During the battle for Deldoko, Mukwar's men took three Sudanese prisoners. They were being held in Jegeba, where I was brought to meet them. They sat one next to the other on a cot outside. One was in his 40s, one in his 20s, and one claimed to be 19, though by the looks of him he was barely into his teens. All three were skinny and wore filthy clothes, though they did not appear to have been mistreated. They had been recruited into the People's Defense Forces, a government-sponsored militia, in Khartoum, they told me, where they received arms but virtually no training. They were moved to Kadugli, where they were informed that they would secure the town. Then they were sent to attack Deldoko.
Like everyone else fighting for Khartoum in South Kordofan, they had been fed a steady diet of Islamist propaganda. They were told that Nubans were infidels who wanted to take their land. The 19-year-old, Mustafa, told me that it was only after he was captured by the SPLA-N that he learned this was all wrong. He told me that SPLA-N soldiers asked him: "Do you think we are disbelievers? We are Muslims, like you. We are your brothers, the Nubans." He continued: "Then I hung my head.... When I realized we were both Muslims, I said, ‘Shoot me.' I asked them to shoot me." They didn't, happily for him, though he insisted to me that he still believes he should probably die.
Like Mustafa, Mohamed, the eldest prisoner, was visibly petrified. He kept reiterating how well he had been treated. He'd been shot in the leg during the battle ("I only shot two bullets," he said), and when he was captured, the SPLA-N took him to a hospital. Once he was bandaged up, they fed him sorghum porridge. "Tell the world that what's going on here is wrong," Mustafa implored me. "The Nubans just want their rights." Whether he was told to say this or was trying to ingratiate his captors or believed it, I couldn't tell.
I asked a SPLA-N commander what would happen to the prisoners. "We won't kill them," he said, in such a way as to make it clear the thought had occurred to him. "This is political war, not a religious war. They'll stay with us until we return them to their families."