After the Bombs

KAUDA, Sudan — It was the sound of the fluttering pages that first drew my attention to the exercise book at my feet.

Under normal circumstances, the weathered pages with a child's scribbles might have gone unnoticed altogether. But only weeks before, more than a dozen young lives were snuffed out here in a hail of shrapnel. In the tense silence that still reigns over this primary school in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, one hears the smallest of sounds.

A dirty notebook, without cover, wedged between bricks, its pages webbed with penciled exercises in English grammar and math — smeared, here and there, with dried blood. It had blown here, probably, from the school-yard. The last dated page, Feb. 8, 2000, had a math problem scrawled across the top, then blotches of brown stain marking the exact moment when this Catholic bush school of 230 pupils found itself the target of a Sudanese air force bombing raid.

“It came without warning at 9 o'clock in the morning,” headmaster Baruch Kume told the Register in a March 2 interview in Kauda. Shells were already raining down on the schoolyard when the headmaster shouted to students to fall to the ground. Shrapnel whizzed in every direction. Within seconds, the yard was a scene of carnage.

Five “barrel” bombs had been unleashed from the belly of a low-flying Russian-made Antonov MU2, the Sudanese air force's weapon of choice in its decade-long war of terror against “insurgent” populations like the Nuba which resist Khartoum's campaign to impose its will, along with an extremist brand of Islamic ideology, on Sudan's 300 tribes and especially on its fast-growing Christian minority.

“People were already tense,” said headmaster Kume. A July 17 bombing raid in this area held by insurgent forces allied with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement which has been battling the country's northern Arab establishment for nearly two decades, resulted in the deaths of eight Kauda youngsters tilling fields. Locals described aerial reconnaissance missions over Kauda only three days before the school bombings.

Target Was Planned

Medical personnel reported seeing helicopter gunships in the vicinity Feb. 5, three days before the school attack.

“They dropped bombs not 15 minutes from the school the Saturday before,” said Kume. “They had to see the children running into the bush.

They knew where to strike next.”

Kauda's Catholic primary school, Holy Cross, looks like many another African “bush” school with its low mud and brick buildings and thatch roofs. Founded in the late 1990s by Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid Diocese in central Sudan, which includes the Nuba Mountains, it plays a unique role in stabilizing war-weary populations in the region who have been subject to decades of neglect, war, famine and government persecution.

Khartoum's apologists, used to having their way unobserved in remote locales like the Nuba Mountains, were clearly caught off guard when the Kauda bombing attracted the attention of the international media.

The official rationales seemed to change daily: The bombing was a fabrication; the children were killed in a rebel military camp; the school was next to a military garrison; schools are a legitimate target in a contested area; the children were guerrilla fighters; the bombing was a regrettable mistake.

But all the evidence on the ground points to the fact that the attack on Holy Cross Catholic School in Kauda was deliberate. The raids and reconnaissance activities preceding the school bombing clearly point in this direction, as do the initial declarations of Sudanese officials themselves.

Asked about the incident early on, Dirdiery Ahmed, a minister in the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, told Reuters that “the bombs landed where they were supposed to land.”

‘Low-Intensity’ War

Journalists are fond of describing long-running conflicts such as Sudan's as “low intensity” wars. But there was nothing “low intensity” about the terror visited upon this Nuba Mountains schoolyard in February. Of the five nail-studded bombs dropped on students, one failed to detonate, two landed in the dry washes that ring the site, but two landed directly in the yard, one not more than 10 feet from a class of 50 first-graders studying English on log benches under a Nime tree.

By 9:15 it was all over. The low-flying Antonov had dropped its deadly cargo, and made another pass across the schoolyard to assess the damage.

The headmaster, who had taken cover himself, rose to find students dead or dying all around him.

Miraculously, in a land without roads, emergency medical help arrived on foot within 40 minutes of the blasts.

“When we heard the explosions, we just grabbed what equipment we could, and ran for the school,” one nurse said.

There, 12 students, ranging in age from 9 to 16 years of age, lay dead, along with Roda Ismail, 22, their teacher. Two students who fled into the bush died later of their wounds.

According to Tina Wolf of the German Emergency Doctors group who provide primary medical care to the people of Kauda, five critically wounded children perished in the days following the bombing, raising the student fatalities to 19.

A mother, summoned to the schoolyard by the sound of the attack, died of heart failure when she discovered her daughter among the dead.

Of the 17 wounded, three youngsters required amputations.

Galvanized Resistance

If the intent of the Kauda bombing was to weaken the Nubas’ resolve to remain on their ancestral land, or to frighten them into submission to the regime's program of forced cultural and religious assimilation, it has, at least in the short run, had the opposite effect.

If anything, the bombing would appear to have deepened the resistance of these Nuba. And that new determination is nowhere more evident than in Kauda's children.

On the day after the bombing, headmaster Kume was astonished to hear that schoolchildren were waiting in the schoolyard for classes to begin.

“I went out to reason with them,” he said. “Listen,” he told several hundred of his charges, “Go home. I can't tell you when, or even if we'll be able to resume classes. We're all destroyed by what happened. I'll let you know what we decide.”

A 10-year-old boy came up to him, the headmaster recounted.

“Ustaz, professor,” the boy said. “Let us continue. If it is God's will, we won't die.”

By the time I visited, a few weeks later, school was back in session.

Gabriel Meyer, who wrote and narrated “The Hidden Gift,” a documentary about war-torn Sudan, is based in Los Angeles.