JUBA, South Sudan — The embattled area of the Nuba Mountains is squarely situated in North Sudan, but the recent separation of the South poses new challenges for what in the past two months has become the region’s latest deadly front. As the festive mood surrounding the South’s independence celebration tapered off, many journalists in town for the big day turned attention – quietly, given the immense sensitivities – toward the conflict unfolding just over the new international border. Much of the reporting about the atrocities being committed by Khartoum-aligned soldiers and militias has relied upon secondhand information, often filtered through layers of sources who have access to satellite phones and email.
But the options for now traveling to the Nuba Mountains and witnessing the conflict first-hand narrowed significantly when the once-fluid border became a hard international boundary. The worst-case scenarios that one must consider when weighing travel into an active conflict zone just got markedly more serious. Pilots fear having their planes shot out of the sky, Enough was told.
Even among people with resources, relatively few Nubans are making their way out of the area. In the month and a half since the offensive there began, only about 200 or 300 Nubans have arrived in Juba. Enough met with some Nuban aid workers who were in Kadugli when the violence began, and who told harrowing stories about the first days of the crisis and how they managed to escape.
Even before the violence erupted in early June, a rights activist named Peter said that staff of his organization had been threatened. Their work “was seen as a threat because the regime does not want an enlightened people who know their rights,” Peter said.
On June 5, Peter was in the market when a truckload of soldiers arrived. They started shooting in the air at first. People ran in all directions. “Then they started targeting people who they thought were part of the SPLM,” Peter said. Even though he is not part of the SPLM, he realized that his work would put him and his family in grave danger. The government-aligned soldiers and militias were targeting specific individuals through a “carefully organized” campaign.
Peter tried to find a way to get his family out of Kadugli, but it took two more days until they could find a car and a group of people also willing to attempt to drive out of town. In the meantime, he and his family hid in their home.
Their house was in a neighborhood where there were many NCP supporters, and on the first day of fighting guns were distributed in the community. “The supporters of the NCP – civilians, just civilians – would shoot from their house to show that this is a secure house,” Peter said. “The houses that did not have sound of guns shooting is probably those of the enemy.”
After learning that helicopter gunships were “hunting” people who were trying to escape Kadugli toward SPLA positions, Peter and his family opted to travel out of town via the northern route. He credits this counter-intuitive decision with saving their lives.
“They probably believed that if we are associated with the SPLA, we would not be brave enough to travel on this side.” Their car was stopped at a roadblock, and some of the men, including Peter, were beaten, but eventually they were allowed to pass. The next day Peter learned through a friend affiliated with the Khartoum-backed Popular Defense Forces that his name and photo were included on the list of people the militia was instructed to track down and kill.
For a couple of weeks after he arrived in Juba, Peter spoke daily with his friend in the PDF to follow the events in Kadugli. “He told me he did not want to do what the PDF was doing, but he was given a gun,” Peter said, adding that the man had expressed concern that his commander suspected he might be sympathetic to the Nuba.
Weeks ago Peter’s friend called him distraught about the mass graves near Tilo primary school that were recently pinpointed by satellite images. “He saw mass graves with his own eyes. He saw people loaded into trucks (…) and one morning he counted more than 20 bodies.” There were other small graves as well with six or seven bodies, Peter’s friend told him.
But since June 20 Peter has not been able to reach his friend and now suspects that their phone calls were traced. “I am really feeling guilty about this, if that is the reason he was killed,” he said. “I am sure if he was still alive he would have called me, he should have called me.”
After the summary executions in and around Kadugli, the northern-aligned forces turned their attention to the mountains to the east and the SPLA-held region around the town of Kauda. This time, death came from above.
“When the MiGs come, we run for the bomb shelters,” said a Sudanese aid worker who fled Kauda for Juba just over a week ago.
Antonov cargo planes with payloads of heavy ordnance and MiG fighter jets showered the region with bombs sending terrified civilians running for shelter in mountain caves. Those caught out during bombing raids were cut in half by shrapnel. Others were critically wounded and have flooded local clinics in the past few weeks. The death and destruction has been captured in gruesome and haunting photos and video that Enough has witnessed.
The Sudanese aid worker from Kauda made it out on one of the last humanitarian flights from the region before South Sudan’s independence on July 9th. She is safe in Juba, but she is desperate to go back to continue assisting those who were not fortunate enough to flee. With flights to the region suspended indefinitely, she doesn’t know when she will return.
“I am worried about safety if I go back,” she said. “But I am more worried when I am out of the area and I think about what is happening to my people.”
Photo: Satellite image showing three excavated areas that corroborate allegations of mass graves in South Kordofan (Satellite Sentinel Project)