A dozen years ago, Jean-Marie Colombani and Edwy Plenel at the French daily Le Monde, along with The New York Times, asked me to do a series of reports on the “forgotten wars” of the first years of the new century.
I reported on five wars between May 30 and June 4, 2001. They were largely ignored by the mainstream media who were and remain focused on the “great conflicts” of our times. Three of these wars—in Angola, Burundi, and Sri Lanka—petered out for lack of combatants, but only after uncounted millions were left dead, nameless and faceless, most buried in unmarked graves. The fourth war, in Colombia, likewise appears heading toward settlement, though (it should be said) out of sheer exhaustion. But the fifth, the bloodiest, the one that moved me most, rages on: the total war, the war of extermination, being conducted by the Islamists of Khartoum against the black population in the Nuba Mountains to the south. There, apparently, nothing has changed.
Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, filled me in when he was in Paris recently.
A handsome and impressive man of about 50, Arman has the face of a thinker, reminding me of John Garang, the guerrilla leader with whom Gilles Hertzog and I spent an afternoon in Boma discussing Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, the Peloponnesian War, and his dream of a secular, democratic, and unified Sudan.
Yes, Arman began, Abdel Aziz Adam al-Halu, who had hosted Herzog and me, is alive, and he’s still the military chief in the Nuba Mountains.
No, the little commander in Kawdah who had wept upon recognizing his father, a legendary Nuba immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s book, which we had brought with us—the little commander is no longer with us, having died last year when his village was bombed.
The pace of the bombings? Their severity? It all depends. Nothing for weeks, as the blockade and famine bring the men down into the plains, where they are rounded up into camps and sorted, just as they had been 12 years ago, for the slave dealers of Khartoum. And then entire weeks when the planes come every day, 20 bombs a day, flying low, knowing that they face only small, reclaimed guns.
The humanitarian situation? Tragic. No less than before. To be sure, the end of the war in the south and the birth, last year, of the sovereign state of South Sudan to some extent relieved the isolation of the mountains. But NGOs are still denied access. Humanitarian convoys, like any other convoy, are bombing targets. Children are malnourished; fighters are bled dry. The people survive on grasshoppers, bark, and boiled roots. In Riefenstahl’s time there were a million Nubans, but their number had dwindled to 300,000 by the time of our visit in 2001. Now there are perhaps 200,000, a people decimated by forgotten diseases no less than by the forgotten war.
And morale among the fighters? Their hopes and expectations? The same as before. They hope that, along with Jackie Mamou, the unflagging French defender of the cause of Darfur and of Sudan generally, we might remind world opinion of the shameful scandal of this massacre being carried out in plain sight. That, with Hertzog and Bernard Schalscha, who, like Mamou, were present for the interview with Arman, we will work with American friends of the Nuba to get the attention of Barack Obama. That Dr. Jacques Bérès, who was also there (on the heels of his return from Syria), might agree to bring his medical skills to these majestic, keening hills in which one still can hear, Arman confirms, the 50 different languages that make the region a unique case, one might say a holy site, of modern linguistics. In a word, they hope that the world may be persuaded to act in a manner consistent with its principles: Why, after all, indict Sudan president Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity if only to permit him to perpetuate those crimes with impunity?
Arman adds that the provinces of Darfur and Blue Nile are theaters of hardly less spectacular violence, explaining that Sudan as a whole, where three quarters of a vast budget are spent on a war against the civilian population, is a failed state—one, he reminds us, that maintains links with the region’s terrorist groups in Mali, Tanzania, and Kenya, with al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
And he concludes that, for the Nuba as for the larger region and the world, it is more crucial than ever to take the measure of the war within Islam, a war between two Islams, that is the most important contradiction of our time, a contradiction expressed, as in so many other spots around the globe, in the war raging in the Nuba Mountains.
There is the Islamist Islam of Khartoum, on the one hand, with its rigidity and racism, its urge to eradicate the animist and Christian minorities that are part of the mosaic, the Africa in miniature, that is, at bottom, the real Sudan. And, on the other hand, there is the gentle, peaceful Islam, the secular, democratic Islam—open, tolerant, rare, and exemplary—that one encounters throughout most of Sudan, the Islam personified in my interview by Yasir Arman.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy