Nuba Mountains & Blue Nile

war and genocide in the new south

Posted by OBS Team on January 1st, 2014

This overview is a brief history that provides a contextual background for understanding the issues Operation Broken Silence works on. Specifically, this overview provides an overarching historical narrative of the war and genocide in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile areas of Sudan. It is part of our Educational Resources list. 

Pre-Crisis Background

The war and genocide that began in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state and Blue Nile in 2011 has roots in many historical grievances and Sudan's previous north-south civil wars. Both of these areas sit directly on the religious, ethnic, and political faultline that is the border area of present day Sudan and South Sudan.

While the history of these two areas stretches as far back as 200 B.C., this article will focus on the time period after Sudan achieved independence on January 1, 1956. This is due to there being little information about the peoples living in these areas before this important date other than various tribal name mentions in historical documents ranging from 200 B.C. to 1945. It is important to note that the state of Blue Nile did not become a political entity until 1992; however, for the purposes of this article, the geographic area defined by the current political state will be called Blue Nile. 

Regardless, it appears that Arab slave raids against African tribes into both the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile areas for several centuries played a critical role in creating the conditions for today's situation. Additionally, the divide-and-conquer approach of British rule during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the joint British and Egyptian government that administrated Sudan beginning in 1899, saw the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile areas largely ignored as the central and eastern areas of the country were heavily invested in. It appears that the British did make an effort to keep the Nuba African tribes separate from nearby Arab tribes for loosely-defined security purposes. At various points though, the British found themselves at odds with both sides in the Nuba Mountains area.

Following Sudan's independence, the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile began to witness growing levels of tension with the successive Arab-dominated governments in Khartoum. As the development of ideas such as Arabization and Islamization continued to gain stronger traction in Khartoum, a simmering rebellion in the southern regions of the country began to spread. While the First Sudanese Civil War had little impact on the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, Khartoum's policies of Arabization began to dominate the atmosphere. 

Rights Removal & Cultural Pressure: 1956-1982

As the civil war continued to expand in southern Sudan underneath various Khartoum regimes, people in both the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile faced varying levels of cultural oppression that would set the stage for two devastating wars and genocides. While the types of oppression and removal of rights varied at the local level, there are three primary areas that played the largest roles: pressure on traditional cultures, government-backed land seizures, and changes in the national economy. At the same time, various tribes in both areas became more closely linked together in their attempts to preserve their heritage. 

Government-backed oppression of traditional cultures through name-changes, language, and the introduction of Islam had a slow, grinding-down effect on communities throughout various national governments. While people in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile found their cultural heritage threatened shortly after Sudanese independence, it reached various levels of intensity throughout 1956-1983. Although rarely mentioned in historical narratives of these two areas, relations between traditional, African Nuba and Blue Nile tribes with their Arab neighbors actually improved in the early years of Sudan's independence, despite government wishes for an Arab-dominated country. 

The situation in these two areas began to degrade in 1968 due to the introduction of mechanized farming in arable regions of Sudan. Arab tribes in these two areas soon found their traditional grazing and watering routes blocked by large-farms built with the support of the government. With nowhere to go, Arab tribes such as the Baggara began to arrive on lands they did not have access to. This increased tensions between many Arab and African tribes in the two areas. 

The situation worsened further in 1970 when the government of Sudan introduced the Unregistered Land Act, which effectively abolished communal land ownership under customary practices and further stipulated that all lands not privately owned and registered would automatically belong to the government. This law quite literally destroyed the centuries-long tradition of Nuba tribes considering the wider area around the hills they inhabited to belong to the community.

Underneath what was becoming a systematic campaign to Arabize the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, people in both areas began to put aside their differences and move towards a broader unity. Various new political parties emerged that attempted to solve issues through the lens of a broader identity that linked various African tribes more closely together. 

In 1972, a peace agreement ended Sudan's civil war in the south. While the situation in the south improved during a brief period with the end of that conflict, little changed in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Northern intrusions, both militarily and politically, into the south during the 1970s significantly raised tensions during that decade. The discovery of large quantities of oil in the south in 1978 was swiftly followed by a northern attempt to gain access and control of these areas. This violated the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement.

Meanwhile in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Islamic fundamentalists in Khartoum gained more and more power within and outside of the government. Under pressure from within, then President Nimeiry declared all of Sudan to be an Islamic state and terminated southern autonomy in 1983. In the same year, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) emerged in the south. The Second Sudanese Civil War had begun.

The new north-south conflict would greatly eclipse the first civil war and see the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile enter the war on the side of the south. By the early 1980s, sporadic clashes between armed Arab groups such as the Misseriya Baggara were accelerating at a rapid pace in the Nuba Mountains. Tensions were on the rise in Blue Nile as well, where the government of Sudan had begun directly arming Arab militias. 

Nuba Mountains & Blue Nile Enter The Civil War: 1983-1992

The SPLA, a southern rebel group founded in 1983 after the SSLM, formed following a series of southern mutinies within Sudanese government ranks. The SPLA managed to seize large swaths of rural areas in southern Sudan. In 1984, President Nimeiry announced the end of the attempted implementation of Islamic law in the south in an attempt to peacefully end the brewing conflict. Southerners and other Sudanese non-Muslims remained deeply suspicious.

A short-lived coup that unseated Nimeiry in Khartoum in 1985 led to a reversal of some Sudanese government policies in the south. Protests across Sudan began in 1988 as the war strained the national economy. Under pressure from across Sudan to end the war, the government of Sudan attempted to secure peace with the SPLA. After several complex political moves and threats from the Sudanese military, the Sudanese government reached a deal with the SPLA. The fragile peace would not last for long though. 

Against the backdrop of the broader civil war, community leaders within the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile had been preparing for war as early as 1977. By the early-1980s, small groups of Nuba leaders had moved south to train with the SPLA as Arab militia attacks continued increasing. By 1986, the Sudanese army began deploying into the two areas to support Arab militias. This only increased the flow of Nuba recruits to the SPLA further south. These recruits brought weapons back with them following their training. In 1987, as the peace agreement continued to deteriorate, a SPLA battalion entered the Nuba Mountains to spread the war further north. SPLA fighters began to flow into Blue Nile as well. 

In 1989, Colonel Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the National Islamic Front seized power in a military coup and began ruling via a military junta of 15 military officers (reduced to 12 in 1991) assisted by a civilian cabinet. Bashir took the titles of president; chief of state; prime minister; and chief of the armed forces.

Between 1989-1991, the Bashir military regime consolidated control over the government by banning trade unions, political parties, and other "non-religious" institutions. Over 70,000 members of the army, police, and civil administration were purged in order to reshape the government and bend it towards the Bashir regime's vision of an Arab and Islamic-dominated Sudan. It quickly became clear that agenda existed only to preserve the new government’s own power. In 1991, the Bashir regime instituted Islamic Shari’a law across Sudan, raising fears in southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile that a full-blown war with Khartoum was inevitable.

The dreaded war came in the summer of 1992, when a massive Sudanese government offensive into southern Sudan drove the SPLA out of their strongholds and to the far southern extremes of the country. The Nuba Mountains was promptly surrounded by government forces and cut off from the rest of southern Sudan. This "SPLA-island" would soon bear witness to some of the worst crimes committed during the Second Sudanese Civil War. 

War And Genocide: 1993-2005

Much of the world's attention during the Second Sudanese Civil War was on southern Sudan, not the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. While Blue Nile shared the fate of much of southern Sudan as far as how the conflict played out, the Nuba Mountains faced a different situation entirely. The situation during this time period has been described as a "genocide by attrition" due to the systematic approach of the government of Sudan in trying to wipe out the population there. 

The outside world literally knew nothing of the catastrophe unfolding in the Nuba Mountains due to the government closing off the region to outsiders. The Sudanese government repeatedly made claims that there was no conflict going on in the Nuba Mountains. Without solid evidence, the world continued to engage more and more on southern Sudan. It wouldn't be until 1995 when the first news of a genocide in the Nuba Mountains would reach the international community. 

By 1990, the Sudanese government had completely cut off the Nuba Mountains from the rest of the rebellious areas. As SPLA fighters dug into the mountainous outskirts of the area, government forces and various Arab militias seized surrounding farmlands. 1992 was the peak of the genocidal onslaught as an estimated 70,000 Nuba civilians were brutally murdered by government forces and Arab militias. By 1993, most civilians had fled into SPLA-controlled areas or into government "peace camps," where they faced torture, rape, and hunger. 

Over the next several years, attempts by SPLA forces further south to reopen a humanitarian and arms supply corridor to the Nuba Mountains largely failed. Surrounded and under siege on all sides, SPLA forces in the Nuba Mountains dug into perimeter communities and defenses. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Nuba civilians moved behind rebel lines to the safety of mountain caves. 

Despite being poorly armed, the SPLA managed to block Sudanese government forces from entering the mountains. As pitched battles in perimeter communities often times ended in stalemates, the Bashir regime began bombing areas where it believed civilians were hiding. Although never proven, allegations that the government of Sudan used chemical weapons persist based on eyewitness accounts. Meanwhile, Arab militias actively prevented civilians from farming by occupying former Nuba communities. It is worth noting that throughout the war, some Arab communities near the Nuba Mountains acted as smugglers to get food and other basic commodities to Nuba civilians.

With nearly every effort to defeat the SPLA ending in a stalemate, the government of Sudan expanded it's campaign of forced starvation. What little aid flowing into SPLA-held areas of the Nuba Mountains was increasingly blocked. Government warplanes began targeting what little farming area remained as attacks on the SPLA defensive perimeter increased. Eyewitness accounts report that the fighting between SPLA and government forces became so severe in some towns that the bullet casings were piled knee high following weeks-long battles. 

In 1993 and 1994, the situation in the Nuba Mountains had reached a truly desperate state. Entire communities faced living conditions that were well beyond emergency humanitarian thresholds. Thousands were starving to death and preventable disease outbreaks had become more deadly than the daily aerial bombing. Meanwhile on the frontlines, the SPLA found itself under near-constant attack. The government's genocide by attrition strategy was slowly beginning to strangle the area. 

A considerable effort by a small number of international organizations to confirm the rumors of a crisis in the Nuba Mountains had begun in 1992 but met little success other than discovering more rumors. That all changed though in 1995, when British journalist Julie Flint entered the Nuba Mountains and returned with a harrowing documentary film showing the situation. While the film did little to move world leaders to action, it did spur a growing number of organizations towards searching for a way to assist the Nuba people. In the coming years, various international NGOs would begin funneling relief into the Nuba Mountains via a dangerous, low-profile humanitarian bridge that included ground transports and small aircraft. Flint's film also provided the first real counter-argument to the government's cover-up. 

The aid effort was minimal at best as access to the Nuba Mountains was still extremely difficult and had to remain small-scale so as to go undetected. Several areas remained inaccessible for the entire conflict, but areas that were reached with humanitarian supplies managed to improve their situation. 

Between 1995-1998, the conflict remained locked in a stalemate as the government's grinding genocide by attrition strategy continued unabated. The government's strategy was shockingly effective and varied little across the Nuba Mountains: constant warfare bogged down the SPLA, aerial bombings and shelling prevented people from farming, and hunger slowly spread across the population. 

In June of 1999, nearly ten long years of being cut off from the outside world later, the United Nations finally began gaining "official" access to the Nuba Mountains as international pressure mounted against the Sudanese government. Ongoing fighting and intimidation by government forces minimized these efforts. It wouldn't be until November of 2001 when the U.N. World Food Program began a major relief operation into the SPLA-held areas of the Nuba Mountains. As the international presence in the area grew, the government of Sudan slowly began to back down. Under increasing international pressure and crushing U.S. sanctions, a ceasefire for the Nuba Mountains was signed in 2002.

On January 9, 2005, the government of Sudan and the SPLA signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA managed to secure a referendum vote on southern independence after an interim period of autonomy and provided solutions for a variety of other issues as well. Left out of the CPA were any real solutions for the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. 

Sidelined By The International Community: 2006-2010

While the CPA dealt with a large number of issues that had plagued Sudan since 1956, undoubtedly the largest problem with the agreement is that it did not include a solution for the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Unlike the people of southern Sudan, the two areas were not given the option of self-determination: choosing their own future as part of Sudan or as a new country. 

This was a devastating decision in the peace process, in which the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile were "sacrificed" to reach a deal and permanently end the war in southern Sudan. While the deal-makers pointed out that the two areas would be given the right to "popular consultation votes," in which the people living there would get to express what they wanted for their areas, the process was ill-defined and meaningless in that it created no mechanism for the two areas to secure a permanent peace.

In short, the decision to sacrifice the two areas so that peace could be achieved in southern Sudan was ignorant at best and criminal at worst. Only a few short years after the signing of the CPA, it was clear that peace would not last in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Under the CPA, the SPLA was supposed to withdraw from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile and government forces were supposed to reduce their number to pre-war levels to reduce tensions. Neither side followed this section of the CPA. 

As early as 2008, tensions were once again on the rise as Arab militias began attacking Nuba communities. Talk of another armed rebellion spread throughout Nuba communities as it became clear the government of Sudan was once again arming the militias. Meanwhile in Blue Nile, the Sudanese government was slowly building up it's armed forces again. The remaining SPLA fighters began stockpiling weapons, fuel, and food in preparation for another conflict. 

By 2010, it was clear that another war was inevitable in the two areas. 

War And Genocide In the New South: 2011-Present

Between January 9-15, 2011, a referendum vote was held in South Sudan to determine whether southern Sudan should become an independent country or remain a part of Sudan. The referendum was a critical component of the CPA and there were concerns the government of Sudan would attempt to block the effort. Under international pressure, the government of Sudan allowed the vote to go forwards. 98.83% of the southern Sudanese population voted for independence.

While attacks against Nuba communities increased throughout 2010 and 2011, southern Sudan began moving towards declaring independence. Meanwhile, just north of the new border, SPLA forces tacked a "N" onto their name for "North." The Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement-N was now "separate" from the SPLA, which would become the governing party of southern Sudan upon independence. It is important to note that despite the name change, Nuba fighters in the SPLA continued to receive salaries and equipment from the SPLA.

Allegations of a rigged election in South Kordofan state did not stop one of Sudan's indicted war criminals, and a member of President Bashir's inner circle, from becoming governor of South Kordofan. Elections were conducted on May 2, 2011, and Ahmed Haroun, wanted for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, was placed in charge of the state. 

On May 23, 2011, the government of Sudan sent an ultimatum to the SPLM/A in Juba that all SPLA soldiers should withdraw south of the 1956 North-South border before June 1, 2011. The SPLA stated that as the Nuba soldiers were not Southern Sudanese, it saw no ground to recall them. Although Khartoum's military buildup up in South Kordofan and Blue Nile had been going on for some time, the Bashir regime ramped up it's efforts to amass large troop numbers into South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Underneath Haroun, government and militia attacks against Nuba communities rapidly escalated. The inevitable war arrived on June 6, 2011, when a horrifying outbreak of violence in Kadugli witnessed government-aligned forces dragging Nuba civilians from their homes and executing them in the streets. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, SPLA-N forces in Kadugli withdrew. Over the next three days, the government of Sudan would oversee the mass murder of thousands of Nuba civilians in Kadugli. Satellite imagery confirmed the existence of mass graves around the city shortly after the massacres were completed. 

Within a matter of hours, Sudanese government warplanes had initiated a massive bombing campaign against known SPLA-N strongholds across the Nuba Mountains. By the end of June 2011, much of the Nuba Mountains was experiencing open, armed conflict between the SPLA-N and Bashir regime. 

By the end of 2011, it was clear that the government of Sudan had vastly underestimated the strength of the SPLA-N.  Following a series of brief setbacks during the outbreak of the war, SPLA-N forces soon pushed out of their strongholds in the Nuba Mountains and took control of large parts of rural areas they had not been able to take during the previous war. SPLA-N forces soon pinned downed Sudanese government forces in Kadugli, seized key areas along the Sudan/South Sudan border, and begin a series of moves to cut off government supply lines. Fleeing government forces left behind tanks, vehicles, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons, which were incorporated into the Nuba SPLA-N's every-growing stockpile of weapons. 

On September 1, 2011, SPLA-N forces in Blue Nile came under attack by Sudanese government forces in Damazin, the capital of that state. The SPLA-N governor was promptly overthrown.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands of mobilized Sudanese government troops swept through Blue Nile in a campaign that witnessed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government of Sudan's campaign in Blue Nile looked eerily similar to the beginning days of the new war in the Nuba Mountains. 

Less prepared for a conflict in Blue Nile, SPLA-N forces were quickly pushed south to a thin strip of territory along the South Sudan and Ethiopian border. Small pockets of SPLA-N resistance remained in various areas across Blue Nile, such as in the Ingessana Hills. These areas have witnessed particularly brutal Sudanese government actions. While the SPLA-N has slightly improved it's situation in Blue Nile, government forces still hold the upper hand. Aerial bombings, enforced starvation, and targeted rape remain key elements of the government's strategy in Blue Nile. 

With the government of Sudan unable to achieve a decisive military victory in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the Bashir regime has decided to pursue the same strategy it did during the previous war: genocide by attrition. The government of Sudan has attempted to violently enforce a media and humanitarian blockade on these two areas with relative success. Arab militias are once again being mass-mobilized and armed by the Bashir regime to assist in it's genocidal strategy. Human rights and humanitarian groups have limited access to these two areas today; however, the flow of information out of both the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile is notably much improved as compared to the conflict in the 1990s. 

Nuba Mountains & Blue Nile Today

Mass government crimes continue today in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile and have been well-documented despite the Bashir regime's ban on the region. Still, government attacks against civilians in both areas are accelerating at an alarming pace. Rape as a weapon of war has become a daily occurrence. Aerial bombings have displaced people hundreds of thousands of civilians. In the Nuba Mountains, the SPLA-N and Sudanese government are locked in a stalemate. In Blue Nile, the situation is much more at-risk as SPLA-N forces are vastly outnumbered.

There is a desperate need for the international community to reengage in these two areas and elsewhere in Sudan. Despite multiple chances to arrest indicted Sudanese war criminals, world leaders have refused to take decisive action. This lack of impunity has reinforced Sudanese government official's thinking that there are no consequences for committing genocide. By working hard to arrest known war criminals and ramping up pressure on the Sudanese government to allow unfettered humanitarian access across the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the international community can save lives and begin helping the people get the peace and justice they deserve. 

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Tags: Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, Sudan, educational resources

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