Africa's Forgotten War: The Bloody, Invisible Battle for South Kordofan

By Horand Knaup in Gidel, Sudan

Part 2: 'Either Operate Yourself -- Or Let Them Die'

Photo Gallery: The Suffering of South Kordofan Photos
Horand Knaup

"To Khartoum's Muslims, they're second-class," says Bishop Gassis. And at some point, they were no longer willing to be neglected.

Now al-Bashir is waging war against them. The president's preferred method is to operate from the air, with bombs designed to fragment on impact. The result of that tactic is easy to see at the hospital in Gidel. Despite Tom Catena being the only doctor there, it is considered the best equipped in all of South Kordofan. And it's hopelessly overcrowded.

Mutassir Amdaraman is one person who owes his life to Doctor Tom. A lively child, just 14 months old, Mutassir is once again laughing, babbling and toddling about. The only thing missing is his right arm.

It happened in early January in the village of Ongolo. "They heard the Antonovs coming," explains his grandmother Samir. "My daughter was carrying Mutassir. They were trying to run down to the river, but they didn't make it."

The bombers were faster. Eight people died, including Mutassir's mother. The child's upper arm was shredded by shrapnel. When he arrived in Gidel after a two-hour drive, all that was left of his arm was a scrap of flesh hanging from his shoulder. Now his grandmother Samir, herself just 32 years old, is taking care of the child.

Seeking Shelter in Caves

This is all part of everyday life for Tom Catena. The doctor operated on over 1,500 patients in 2011. "You don't have the option of transferring them to a better hospital," he says. "You only have the choice of doing it yourself -- or letting them die."

Many thousands of people have fled south from the Nuba region. There are 30,000 refugees stranded just in the dusty border town of Yida, between Sudan and South Sudan. Others have retreated to the mountains, where they seek shelter from the bombs in caves or under rock ledges.

Politically, the situation is at a standstill. Geographically and according to the 1956 borders drawn by the British that still form the basis for the north-south divide, South Kordofan belongs to the North. But Khartoum has never valued the Nuba region's residents. For centuries, the Arabs used them as slaves, and made no investments in the region. The area served as a buffer between North and South in a civil war that dragged on for 23 years.

Then came the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South, and a serious political lapse. The two sides couldn't agree on what to do with the contested provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Both provinces had fought on the side of the South in the civil war, but both belonged geographically to the North's territory.

John Garang, the South's rebel leader who later died in a helicopter crash, didn't want the issue to ruin South Sudan's chance at independence. South Kordofan and Blue Nile were left out of the peace accord, with a vague agreement that the matter would be decided by a "popular consultation," or referendum, in both provinces.

That referendum never took place, and for good reason from al-Bashir's perspective. In Gidel, for example, the majority opinion would be clear.

A Permanent Break

The town's administrative secretary shows up on his motorbike. Kuku Barnabas, 35, hasn't received a salary in months. His pay, of course, used to come from Khartoum, and nothing comes from Khartoum anymore, no pay, no gasoline, no medicine, nothing. And yet Barnabas wouldn't return to the old days. "They faked the election," he says. "They know all the things they can get from the Nuba Mountains: oil, gold, charcoal. And they knew they would lose all of that if they lost the election."

What does Barnabas see as a solution? "We belong to the South," he says. "The North wants to Islamize us. It will never work out with them."

It does seem as if a permanent break has been made. Major General Izak Kuku, 50, and his troops have dug in along the road from Gidel to Yida. Under the scrubby branches of acacia trees, the soldiers have set up tents, pick-up trucks and tankers, forming a camp that's barely visible from the air. Every person here carries a Kalashnikov, even the cook's assistant, and ammunition crates serve as benches.

Kuku himself is in plainclothes -- he's about to go out, and doesn't want to be recognized on the road as a general. He apologizes for the makeshift arrangements. "We're guerrillas," he says. "Our office is still under construction." Kuku has fought against Khartoum since 1985, 20 of those years as part of the civil war.

No Conclusive Answer

He comes to the point: "The Arabs simply don't want us here. They only want our resources, the oil, the gold, the minerals -- and they'd like us to just disappear." Kuku isn't interested in annexation to South Sudan, he says, "but it won't work with al-Bashir either." He describes how once before, in 1992, Misseriya Arabs incited by Khartoum killed hundreds of Black Nuba residents.

Now, Kuku is optimistic. Two thirds of South Kordofan is in rebel hands, he says. But the real problem is still on the horizon. With so many bomb attacks, he explains, farmers were not really able to do their planting, and only sometimes able to harvest their crops. "There will be hunger," the general says.

Barnabas, the young administrative secretary in Gidel, has the same worry. But before he swings himself back onto his motorcycle, he asks the question that's on everyone's mind in the Nuba Mountains, one for which there is no conclusive answer.

Barnabas talks himself into a rage, and nearly shouts his question: "Why isn't the world helping us? Why did they spend six months intervening against Gadhafi in Libya -- and why not in South Kordofan?"

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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