Register senior writer Gabriel Meyer traveled to the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan last month with exiled Sudanese Catholic bishop Macram Max Gassis of the El Obeid Diocese. Along with several American human rights activists, Meyer spent the Christmas holidays in a Nuba village under the control of the Sudan People's Liberation Army with Bishop Gassis and members of his pastoral staff.
THE NUBA MOUNTAINS, Sudan—The bombing raids began shortly after Mass.
The Nuba tribesmen in this part of the mountain range that dominates southern Kordofan province are highly attuned to that sound — the unmistakable drone of the Antonovs, Russian-made transport aircraft flying at high altitudes, which have, especially since August, regularly unleashed their deadly cargo of “barrel” and cluster bombs on highland villages.
Aerial bombardment is just one of many weapons employed in a decade-old campaign to force the Nuba, one of Africa's oldest peoples, to submit to the Khartoum-based National Islamic Front government and its vision of a nation militantly rooted in Arabic culture and Islamic law. (There are more than 300 tribes in Sudan, many of which identify themselves as ethnically African and profess Christianity and traditional African religions as well as Islam.)
The tenor of the regime, which came to power in a 1989 military coup, was on display in a mid-January edict from the government's Public Order and Appearance Committee. According to the official news agency Suna, the edict stipulates that all “women who enter Sudan through any ports and entry points should [dress] in a manner reflecting Islamic values” (read: veils) and called for proper attire to be provided for non-Muslim tourists at airports, along with the deployment of dress code police at bus stops to ensure compliance with the new policy.
The committee said the laws “[do] not contradict what others call human rights.”
Since the mid-1980s, the Nuba tribesmen have sided with the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), and its armed wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), against the threat to their survival posed by the government's aggressive brand of Islamic revivalism.
The government has responded by confiscating Nuba land, unleashing “political” famine on the Nuba population, and, effectively, imprisoning tens of thousands in so-called peace camps in government-controlled areas in what one British journalist has called “Sudan's secret war” against the Nuba.
The recent cease-fire signed by the government and representatives of the SPLA last April to permit distribution of relief to famine-stricken areas of southern Sudan does not include the Nuba Mountains, since Khartoum officially regards southern Kordofan as part of the north. Many Nuba suspect that the letup in hostilities in the south has unintentionally had the effect of freeing the government to focus the military campaign on rebel-held areas of the Nuba Mountains instead, a view which the recent upsurge in fighting in the region only confirms.
On Christmas Day, the Catholics of this remote, agrarian culture, gathered in a clearing under sycamores to honor the birth of Christ — and were prepared for the worst.
On receiving reports from SPLA sources that bombers were headed their way, the people did what the Nuba have always done in such cases: They did what they could to protect themselves — and went on with their celebration.
“Yarob Jesu'a fi rabbi!” (“Jesus Christ is Lord!”) — Arabic choruses driven by the steady pulse of Nuba drummers rang out over the hills as the nearly three-hour Mass, complete with 92 baptisms and two dozen confirmations, came to an unhurried close.
Many had walked for days in order to participate in the Christmas festivities. The event was made all the more significant by the presence of Bishop Macram Max Gassis, since the early 1990s a stalwart defender of the Nuba, who make up part of the southern flank of his country-sized diocese.
‘We may die on these mountains,’ said a Nuba commander to me one day, after delineating the famine prospects for 1999. ‘But we will die free.’
For more than a decade, Bishop Gassis has been an outspoken critic of Khartoum's human rights record, a stance that, not surprisingly, has made him persona non grata in government-controlled areas of Sudan. Since the early 1990s, he has launched a bold effort to break Khartoum's relief blockade of rebel-held areas by bringing food, agricultural supplies, and Church personnel into the Nuba Mountains.
Here, in the middle of Africa, one could feel the gravitational shift that Church experts on missiology, and, indeed, many cultural commentators have long noted: the shift from the hegemony of an increasingly secularized Western Hemisphere where faith is viewed as a cultural option, to Christianity's growth sector, its vital front line in Africa and Latin America, where faith is often a matter of life and death.
That shift manifested itself most recently in last summer's Lambeth Conference where the proposals of first-world Anglican clergy on homosexual rights and gender issues were voted down by African bishops who not only insisted on assertions of traditional Christian sexual mores, but demanded that famine and civil strife in Africa take a higher profile on the Anglican communion's social agenda.
“If you're looking for where the 21st century is happening,” one of our delegation remarked, “it may not be in New York or Washington, D.C., but in places like the Nuba Mountains.”
But there was a political as well as a religious dimension to the refusal of the Nuba to allow Khartoum's threats to break up their Christmas. The thousands of Nuba Catholics in these hills, along with their Muslim and animist counterparts, pride themselves on their hard-won status as a free people.
Even in the midst of war and hardship, the Nuba, along with other anti-government forces, are working to build civilian structures that defy Sudan's long history of colonial rule and military dictatorship, with what scholars of the region have called “the politics of ecstasy” — the country's periodic, and disastrous, flirtations with messianic religious enthusiasms, a trend that goes back at least to the 19th century — and is amply reflected in the program of Hassan al-Turabi, ideologue of the current National Islamic Front regime.
The Nuba, and their southern Sudanese allies, have a name for the areas they control: Sudan il-jadid, or “new Sudan.”
“Welcome to the new Sudan,” a rail-thin Nuba soldier with an ancient weapon had said on our arrival in the days before Christmas, pointing to a crude SPLA flag — a blue-starred triangle set on black, green and red stripes — flying from a whittled branch flagpole.
“We may die on these mountains,” said a Nuba commander to me one day, after delineating the famine prospects for 1999. “But we will die free.”
“The non-government areas of the Nuba Mountains,” one official in the civil administration explained, “[constitute] the only place in Sudan where there is an actively functioning democracy today.”
A Nuba parliament, the Advisory Council Conference, has been meeting in SPLA-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains since 1992. And, according to reports, it's a feisty affair. Civilians outnumber soldiers in the assembly, and at a 1997 session in Kauda, civilian leaders reportedly took SPLA commanders to task for perceived lack of discipline among some troops in the region.
(Antonov bombers launched raids in the Nuba Mountains to prevent the parliament from meeting last year. Eyewitnesses said the cluster bombs had been wrongly fused and failed to explode, though a schoolteacher who was in the process of evacuating primary students was injured by shrapnel.)
“Ironically, despite the war,” the official said as we left the Mass site, “this is a joyful place.”
Nuba at the clearing had just settled in for an early start on the songs and drumming that would lead to dancing and wrestling matches when the heat of the day had passed.
As for the bishop and his party, we were in the middle of the half-mile hike back to the compound for lunch when we first heard the steady drone of the approaching bomber through the haze of far-off singing.
While most of the crowds had dispersed into smaller groups, the arrival of the Antonov had found us in the middle of an open area where the Nuba water their cattle. It was the worst possible place — fully exposed to view from the air. The cattle and their herders, now fleeing across the sandy river bottom for the safety of nearby thickets, are a frequent target of the raids.
Suddenly, everything was moving, fast — the bishop's hand had been seized by a guardsman who was pulling him into the shade along the river bank. Running alongside the bishop, I looked back to see Peter, the cameraman, white as a sheet, mapping out camera angles as he darted for shelter behind us.
People were now scurrying everywhere into the bush, their eyes scanning the hot cloudless sky for a hint of the bomber's whereabouts.
Who were the pilots manning these planes, one wondered? Raw recruits with little sense of the terror they unleashed from the bowels of their craft, men merely following orders? “Islamic” warriors who really did believe what the regime proclaims: that Christianity is a foreign faith brought to Africa by colonial powers to stem Islam's march across the continent? (This, despite the fact that the Nubian kingdoms that once comprised much of northern and central Sudan were Christian until the late Middle Ages.) Mercenaries, war profiteers?
“They've thrown the bombs,” the bishop said, when we'd finally stopped under a tree to catch a collective breath. “They've already dropped them,” he reiterated, cocking his head in the direction of the white plumes of dust that rose over a hilltop some distance away.
Back in the clearing under the trees, where the Mass had been held, a visiting Maryknoll priest later told me of the strange silence with which the Nuba had greeted the sound of the approaching plane.
“It was as if they could hear it, as if they were listening for it through all the drumming,” he recounted. All of a sudden, the music stopped, as if on cue. Without a word, Nuba grouped together very closely in the shade, he said.
The immediate danger had passed, though it was some time before we learned the exact location of the attack. Eventually, reports filtered back that eight bombs had been dropped in the area with some collateral damage to property, but because most people had left their villages for the festivities, no one had been injured that Christmas Day.
The bombings would come to be something of a daily routine in the week that followed: the 9 a.m. alert, the drone overhead, a frantic search of the skies for the bomber's position, the sound of distant concussions, plumes of smoke and, a few hours later, eyewitness damage assessments.
The air force's aim was off that week, so the raids did little more than level a Nuba hut here and there, and keep the nerves on edge. Still, the regime's aerial hunters had served their purpose: to make life for the Nuba, without potable water and a reliable food supply, even more precarious on their hills, to destabilize their settlements, and to destroy livestock and the hard-won agriculture the Nuba had managed to coax from the stones.
Christmas Day, late afternoon, the drumming had started up again. With the light mellowing across the grassland, we accompanied the bishop to a clearing just over a rise from the compound, a traditional tribal place of assembly, sheltered by an amphitheater of hills. The threat of bombing raids now past, the Nuba, with quiet defiance, had resumed their celebrations.
I never found out what the ancient name of the hilltop was where we sat in a huge circle applauding good-natured Nuba wrestlers with their ankle bells, and the Nuba “singers,” the poets, who had already transformed the day's events into jir sibr, “celebration songs.” But “Hill of Freedom,” I was told, was the new name local Nuba had given the large circular clearing where their ancestors had, for centuries, passed down the dances that memorialized the Nuba way of life.
Surely, it was no accident that Nuba young people lined up there in the fading light to raise their hands in the gentle rhythms of the “Bongus,” a dance composed expressly for use in the new Sudan.
Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.