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

Although Sudan and South Sudan are officially at peace, a brutal war rages in the border province of South Kordofan. Civilians are the primary victims of President Omar Bashir's fragmentation bombs, but the world has taken little notice of the violence.

Horand Knaup

By in Gidel, Sudan


One minute per patient, and even that is a luxury. When Doctor Tom makes his rounds, his time is a valuable commodity. There's just enough of it to ask the patient a quick question, wipe clean a festering wound and make a quick note on the chart, then it's time to move on. Whether it's a forearm that's been torn off, grenade shrapnel in a patient's abdomen or a 15-year-old girl who fell into the fire while suffering an epileptic seizure, there's no other way, Doctor Tom has to do everything quickly. With 290 patients and one doctor, there's no time for sympathetic chats, and there are always more injuries to be treated.

"Welcome to Gidel," Doctor Tom says. Evening has arrived in South Kordofan and the air, blisteringly hot at midday, has cooled to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Doctor Tom is back at the nearby Catholic mission, still wearing his green scrubs and still carrying the weight of trying to pull nearly 300 patients through. The only thing he's left behind at the hospital is his stethoscope.

Doctor Tom, 47, real name Thomas Catena, has metal-rimmed glasses, several days' worth of stubble and an ascetic build. He's an American and a devout Christian. Every morning, he hurries to the mission's chapel to pray. Catena was previously a military doctor and has also worked in Nairobi's slums and at hospitals in Kenya. He knows the very worst sides of Africa -- which is why he stayed here in Gidel when the Sudanese government sealed the borders around the province of South Kordofan about 10 months ago, when the first bombs fell and everyone else left, the NGOs, the director of the hospital, even the anesthetic assistant.

But even as they departed, increasing numbers of patients arrived. They came because bombs kept falling, because Doctor Tom was there and because aside from a small outpost run by Cap Anamur, a German medical aid organization, Gidel has the only hospital within a radius of around 150 kilometers (90 miles). "This is a textbook example of a civil war," Doctor Tom says, sipping his water.

The Invisible Civil War

No one knows Gidel, a dusty little place, and hardly anyone knows South Kordofan or the Nuba Mountains. South Kordofan, nearly twice as large as Austria, forms a sort of buffer state, its territory belonging to Sudan but directly bordering South Sudan, an independent country since last July.

It's a fertile region, rich in minerals -- and oil. And perhaps there would be no reason to know about South Kordofan if it weren't currently the site of a drama similar to the one unfolding in Syria: a dictator, an undeclared war, a population taken hostage, bombs and grenades that target primarily civilians. But there are no bloggers in the Nuba Mountains, no YouTube videos, no media-savvy rebels. This war is taking place largely away from the world's eyes. A recent protest in Washington, at which Hollywood star George Clooney was briefly arrested, did little to change the situation.

The conflict began in June of 2011, just days after elections for governor in South Kordofan. The governor appointed by the national government in Khartoum, Ahmed Haroun, supposedly won. Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected war crimes.

But no one believed Haroun's victory, and there was talk of massive electoral fraud. The indisputable leader of the Nuba region is Abdul Aziz, an experienced rebel who fought with the SPLA-North, the Nuba branch of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in the civil war against the North.

When Aziz's people refused after the contested election to lay down their weapons and integrate themselves into Khartoum's army, President Omar al-Bashir banned aid organizations from the region and sent in tanks and planes instead.

'Now They're Paying For It'

There has been war in South Kordofan ever since, fueled no doubt by the fact that South Kordofan sits astride three significant dividing lines: The region marks the divide between Christianity and Islam, as well as between Arabs and Black Africans. And, since last year, it also divides the countries of South Sudan and Sudan.

"People in Nuba fought on the side of the South, and now they're paying for it," says Bishop Macram Gassis. Seventy-three years old and not in the best of health, the bishop is nonetheless perfectly alert. He fled to Nairobi, Kenya, because his poor health renders the grueling and dangerous trip overland to Gidel impossible. In the past, he would fly from Kenya to South Kordofan, but commercial planes are grounded now that Antonov bombers from Khartoum control the region's airspace.

Bishop Gassis oversees the diocese where people are now being shot and killed.

Gassis has never made a secret of his animosity toward al-Bashir, particularly since Gassis himself grew up in Khartoum and went to university there. Eventually the bishop was no longer tolerated in the country, and went abroad. Christians make up only a small minority in the Nuba Mountains, but are accepted by the Muslim majority there, perhaps partly because their projects -- including the hospital in Gidel, schools, and a radio station -- have brought a bit of progress to this remote, mountainous region.

Al-Bashir's government, on the other hand, has always neglected the development of the Nuba Mountains. There are no roads, hardly any schools, no healthcare. None of the income from the region's gushing oil reserves ever makes it back to South Kordofan, because people in the Nuba Mountains aren't proper Arabs, because they eat pork and sometimes drink alcohol, and because they demonstrated sympathy for South Sudan's autonomy.

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