With most international attention fixed on the newly independent South Sudan in its continuing dispute over territory and oil revenue with the government of Sudan, in Khartoum, the northern regime has continued a campaign of indiscriminate bombing, harassment and starvation against the Nuba people in South Kordofan Province. The encircled territory is held by rebel forces seeking autonomy from the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir. In a standoff with the rebels, the military of northern Sudan has maintained a climate of terror through almost daily bombing raids that have driven the Nuba people from their villages and prevented them from attending to their crops or livestock as they seek refuge in the Nuba mountains.
“The situation is becoming grimmer and grimmer every day,” said the Sudanese Bishop Macram Max Gassis, M.C.C.I. “Aerial bombardment by Antonov Russian-made planes and by MIG’s has become the order of the day. The victims, as usual, are the children, the women and the elderly because the men, they are carrying their guns and they are going to fight their battle, but it is the civilians who are paying the price for the struggle to maintain their [Nuba] identity.”
Bishop Gassis was in New York on July 11, attempting to focus the attention of the United Nations on the plight of the Nuba people and urging an acceleration of the resolution of the final status of disputed Sudanese territory. Bishop Gassis’ sprawling Diocese of El Obeid includes a number of Sudan hotspots, including Darfur, Abyei and South Kordofan. The relative inattention of the West to the suffering in the Nuba mountains, says Bishop Gassis, has become a mortal threat to the villagers of the region. The Khartoum regime’s low-level but relentless attacks against the Nuba people, he charges, repeat a pattern of ethnic cleansing last employed in Darfur. He fears that without international intervention, the Nuba people could be wiped out, driven from their ancestral lands or forced into an undesired assimilation with the Arab north.
According to Bishop Gassis, the Nuba people are African and whether Christian or Muslim would prefer complete federal autonomy or to join with South Sudan rather than remain tethered to the Arab north. “[The Nuba people] say, ‘We are not Arabs…. Yes, some of us are Muslim, but we live in peace as Nuba in a very extended family.’ You find Catholics; you find Protestants; you find Africans of traditional beliefs and you find Muslims,” said Bishop Gassis. “It is a beautiful way of finding unity among diversity.” He worries that the attacks on the border areas are part of an effort from the north, with military aid from Iran, to Islamicize the Nuba people.
Bishop Gassis said the indiscriminate bombings have been killing and maiming with shrapnel; lately some new chemical agent has also been used by Sudan’s bombers, and el Obeid’s medical teams, already overwhelmed by the volume of the wounded, face a new challenge treating serious burn wounds from this unknown chemical.
The United States, Britain and Norway helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which brought an end to decades of war between the Muslim north and Christian and traditional south. Bishop Gassis said these major international players need to resume their efforts and finish the job in South Kordofan and other Sudan provinces. He urged Catholics in the United States to bring the suffering of the Nuba people to the attention of their members of Congress with the hope of bringing more pressure on the Bashir regime to commit to a cease-fire and renegotiate the political status of South Kordofan.