“There is no way that I am going to be a bystander” – Interview with Professor Samuel Totten on the Nuba Mountains in Sudan

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY
Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

By Iona Mulder -

The Nuba Mountains are situated in the South of Sudan, near the newly formed border with South Sudan (see map). Even though the area does not have a high population rate, it is home to fifty-two different tribes, all with a different tongue. While Muslims and Christians have always lived in peaceful coexistence, the region has been in conflict with the central Islamic government in Sudan for decades. During the civil war (1983-2005) against the Northern government, the Nuba people chose the side of the Southern military coalition (the SPLA), but the Nuba region remained part of the North after Sudan was split up into two new nations.

To achieve a more thorough understanding on the conflict in the Nuba Mountains I have contacted Samuel Totten, a renowned professor in genocide studies and a specialist on this specific subject. During this interview he explained that he became familiar with the Nuba region by coincidence, but that he soon decided to dedicate his lifework to the region and its people. In this interview (part text, part audio) he explains how he became familiar with the region, the (inter-)national politics with regard to the conflict, how he perceives the cultural and social relations between the Nuba people, and his ideas about the future of the Nuba region and its people.

Question 1: How did you become acquainted with the Nuba region and what did you experience during your travels in the area?

Listen to how he got to know the Nuba Mountains and the people living there…


In January 2011, I was doing research in the region on the atrocities that occurred in the Nuba region in the 1990ties – a tragic part of their history, which I defined as a genocide by attrition. While I was there a new conflict between the people of the Nuba region and the Northern government started. The Nuba people were outraged that they were not allowed to veto the referendum about the split up of Sudan into two nations since the rest of the people of the South were allowed to do so. The referendum was a means to vote and decide whether the South would remain with Sudan or not. In the end, it was decided that the South would create its own new nation. However, during negotiations between the North, the South and some international parties who were involved, it was decided that the Nuba region remained part of the North.

Out of the conversations I had with the Nuba people at that time it became clear that they were highly aggravated about this decision and were ready to fight to avoid becoming part of the North. Many of the Nuba people said: “we know that we are not going to be treated right and therefore we are ready to pick up our weapons”. Most of them were convinced that they would be better fighters than during the last civil war, because they had gained experience fighting together with the SPLA [read more about the SPLA in my first article]. The Nuba told me that they were not just fighting for their independence. Their fight was aimed to achieve a much greater goal: to overthrow the Northern Government in Khartoum, the capital city of Northern Sudan, and to establish their own government. Thus in June 2011, the war between the Nuba people and the Northern Government broke out, and the government started to attack villages with Antonov bombers.

After June 2011 I felt compelled to go back for two reasons. First of all, I had made a lot of friends in the Nuba region so I was concerned about the wellbeing of a lot of people. Secondly, I wanted to continue my research on the genocide by attrition that occurred there in the 1990ties. In June 2012 there was another reason that made me decide to go back. I had heard strong rumors that both the US government and the UN were considering the possibility of establishing a humanitarian corridor. This would enable them to bring food up to the people that were forced to live in caves as their farms were being bombed. Such a mission was of central importance to prevent the Nuba people from starving to death; it was impossible for the Nuba people to grow food in the caves since the mountains existed out of solid rock.

However, by May 2013, nothing had happened. Because neither the UN nor the US had acted, I decided that there was no way that I was going to be a bystander, because I actually knew what was happening. Since I am also one of the few people that knows in detail what has happened in the 1990ties, when these people starved by the thousands, I found this was the opportunity for me to either really act on the behalf of other people or to get out of this field entirely. How can I write about this subject, know what is happening, and still be a hypocrite and not go?

Question 2: In one of your articles about international intervention, you wrote about the importance of a good warning system, adequate force, and most importantly, the presence of political will. You have explained that the US thought about an humanitarian intervention in Sudan. Yet, nothing has happened. Can you explain why the US does not have the political will to intervene?  

The answer to that question is really complex. First of all, the US government definitely knows what is going on. The US acknowledges the issues of the region since the current residence has appointed a Special Envoy to Sudan. In 2012 Princeton Lymand, a US researcher for the Special Envoy, spend a lot of time doing research in Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Furthermore, at my initiative, a group of sixty genocide scholars around the world sent seven or eight registered letters to President Obama, the special advisor on genocide, the secretary general at the UN and many others, about the situation in the Nuba Mountains.

So it is clear that people know, but the US does not have the so-called political will. The initial excuse was that the comprehensive peace agreement (established in 2005) between the North and the South was still very delicate. The US government had put much effort, as did other members of the international community. Also, the war went on from 1983 until 2005 and took two million lives. Therefore it was huge accomplishment that this agreement was signed and the US did not want to risk this delicate peace between the North and the South to fall apart.

However, bearing in mind that the peace agreement was signed in 2005 while we are now discussing the situation in 2011, there clearly were other considerations for the US and UN not to get involved. First of all, the US had long been involved in trying to establish some form of resolution for the fighting in Darfur, a conflict that has been going on since 2003. So the US stated that they were already preoccupied with this complicated situation. Another reason for the US not to interfere in Sudan were the political threats by Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan. Al Bashir stated that if anybody would attempt to cross the border into the state of Sudan without his permission, they would slit their throats. With this statement Al Bashir tactically threatened with war if anyone would infringe on the sovereignty of Sudan. Another consideration of the United States was the presumed existence of a small US drone basis on Sudanese soil in order to keep an eye on any terrorist cells that might be heading over towards Afghanistan, Iraq, or possibly Yemen. It is therefore presumable the US and Sudan made a quid pro quo, in which Sudan gave permission for the drone basis while the US silently agreed not to intervene in the Nuba Mountains.

To complicate matters even more we also have to include the perspective of American citizens, who did not want another unsubstantiated war as the one in Iraq. For something to happen it, the question of intervention will have to go through the Security Council, of which at least two members have a close relationship with Sudan: Russia and China. China has large petroleum interests in Sudan and is selling lots of weapons to Sudan. Russia is selling a lot of weapons. Both of them would therefore use their veto-right to uphold any resolution of the Security Council to intervene in Sudan.

Consequently, in May, June and July 2013 nobody was getting food in the Nuba Mountains and people were really starting to suffer. This was the moment I decided to step up, or disappear.

Question 3: You mention that Al Bashir called the conflict in the Nuba Mountains a rebellion. Authoritarian leaders often use the argument that there are no crimes against humanity or genocide in their country, but that it is just a rebellion, a civil war, in which no intervention is needed. Would you say that systemic aerial attack by the government against the Nuba people constitutes a genocide or not?

No, I would not say that these aerial attacks constitute a genocide. Many anti-genocide activists and scholars have called it a genocide. However, I think this is another example of a case in which the term and concept of genocide is used too easily [See the article of Marieke for more information about the definition of genocide]. I have been there, I have seen what is going on. Similar as in Darfur and during the civil war with the South, Antonov bombers come out and bomb civilians. While they bomb the villages, children, women and elderly are being killed in really horrific ways. For this reason, it is more than a war: the Sudanese government commits crimes against humanity against the people of the Nuba Mountains. Now is this genocide? I do not think so because, in contrast with the genocide by attrition in 1990ties, people are not yet dying of starvation. There is still enough food in the Nuba Mountains for most people to have one meal a day.

However, when I was there in December 2014, the situation had changed. These Antonov bombers were flying over left and right, all day long, plus they had MiG jets out there, that were attacking villages. If these attacks continue to ramp up and if nobody will do anything about it we will see genocide by attrition without a doubt.

Question 4: Could you elaborate on the opinions of the Nuba people with regard to the conflict? Do the Nuba people view their situation as a war, or do they perceive the conflict as an intended massacre against the Nuba?

There are a lot of different opinions about the situation. But most people I spoke with see it as a continuation of the civil war. The only difference is that this time they want to fight all the way to Khartoum. Also, most people do not really use the terms that we use. What they do say is: “Yes, we have been bombed, yes we are forced out of our farms, we don’t have food. Yes, we need help getting food”, but that is all.

Another interesting thing is the Nuba people do not blame the international community for not intervening. They are not asking for the UN, because they think that they are going to win. I think they are at the point where they are completely fed up with their situation. They have been beaten up for forty years now, they do not want to go through it again, therefore they plan to finish it off for once and for all.

Question 5: Do the Nuba people perceive religion and ethnicity as essential factors of the conflict or are other aspects, such as regional solidarity and social-economic issues, more important?

I have come across a lot of scholars who say that the conflict is not an issue of ethnicity, race, religion or culture. Instead, they argue that it can best be explained along the lines of geography; who controls the land and who controls the resources. But to most of the Nuba people I have interviewed, the conflict can be defined in racial, religious, ethnical and cultural terms. They also talked about the loss of control over their lands but this seemed a secondary issue. Almost everybody refers to the Government in Khartoum as Arabs, while they refer to themselves as black. Often you cannot tell the difference by the gradation of their skin, yet the Nuba people feel stereotyped and suppressed by the Arabs. I have heard them say: “the Khartoum’s just see us as slaves. We are not given the freedom to practice their own cultural practices and religion.”

The government of Sudan also tried to enforce Sharia Law – a religious but also a legal issue. Evidently, this is an important reason for the tension between the Northern Government and the Nuba people, for both Christians and moderate Muslims. They want to practice their religion in the way they want. Prior to the government going in and causing what they consider absolute chaos into their lives, the Nuba people  lived side-by-side and nobody cared about differences in religion and how these different religions were practiced.

Listen to the story of his Christian interpreter whose name is Ramadan…

This issue is the origin of the conflict. However the direct provocation of the conflict in 2011 was the Nuba people’s dissatisfaction about their exclusion of the referendum to decide about the split up of Sudan and the fact that they remained part of North Sudan.

Question 6: How do you think the conflict will evolve in the region? What are the perspectives of the Nuba people? 

Hear what he has to say about the future of the Nuba Mountains…

Question 7: One last question: What is your personal plan for the next few years?  Will you continue to travel to the Nuba Mountains to bring food and medicine?

Listen to his plans for the next years….





Think beyond our desire ‘to do good’: Humanitarian aid during the Sudanese Civil War

European Commission DG ECHO


European Commission DG ECHO

Photo: ECHO/Flickr (CC BY-SA)


By Iona Mulder -

The picture that you will see if you click on this link is one of the most illuminating pictures I have ever seen. It was sent to me by my professor Lee Seymour  after I told him that I wanted to write an essay on humanitarian aid during the civil war in Sudan. The picture is ambiguous: it is humorous and very sad at the same time. It shows soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) carrying blue children’s backpacks, which were distributed by UNICEF for the purpose of being used by pupils. Looting of humanitarian aid products was denied by all sides of the Sudan’s civil war. However, as this picture displays, this was not the truth.

Humanitarian aid is a controversial subject. How can we judge those who want to ‘do good’, while ‘doing’ nothing ourselves. Despite this feeling it is important to remain critical about the policy and distribution of humanitarian aid because  the effects are not always the ones that were desired. In addition, some local, national and international humanitarian agencies work with a double agenda to favor their ‘own group’, or have other interests. Especially in conflict situations  where  much is at stake and interests are  conflicting, this is a great risk. To quote Mary Anderson: “When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.” The purpose of this article is not to be merely critical, but to give insight in the undesired effect humanitarian aid can have.

Two aspects are important in this relation. First of all, how humanitarian organizations, also called NGOs (non-governmental organizations),  deal with the complexity of violent conflicts. Secondly, how humanitarian aid can affect the patterns of violence of a civil war. Similar to my previous article, Sudan will be the example of this subject, as part of a three-part series I will write about this former-nation.

The general policy of NGOs  dealing with the complexity of conflicts can be divided into two groups with different policy principles. The classists are a-political, whereas the group referred to as the “political humanitarians” have a political premises. Most NGOs aspire, contrary to state support, to be impartial and neutral in relation to the conflict parties and aid they provide. However, the exact interpretation of  this principle leads to two different policies. The classists’, of who The Red Cross is the founding father, state that humanitarian action and politics have to be completely isolated from each other. In contrast, ‘ political humanitarians’ argue that this is impossible and/or should not be the objective of humanitarian aid. An organization that is exemplary for this latter point of view is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The difference in practice is that these latter organizations also try to stand up for the interests of victims by political means: creating awareness of crisis situations and systemic human right violations, encourage politicians and states to take action, and report abuse of humanitarian aid. The down-side is that this can antagonize certain political leaders or groups, as a result limiting the access to victims and donors.

In the 1980s Sudan was in the middle of a civil war. Furthermore, a famine was forecasted in the southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains. To prevent or minimize the consequences of this famine and to take care of the victims of the violence, an ambitious humanitarian operation was launched in April 1989: Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The primary policy of the operation was the implementation of an apolitical distribution policy. The goal was to transport 120,000 metric tons of emergency aid to the south, in a timeframe of six weeks. Sudan’s government and the SPLA both gave their permission to the UN and the forty-four different NGOs involved to distribute humanitarian aid in areas under their power. Remarkably, the evaluations  about the success of the OLS are diverse. This diverseness can be related to the debate about the objectives of humanitarian aid. The classicists valuation of humanitarian aid is primarily focused on the lives that have been saved; they were generally positive about the results of the  OLS. Political humanitarians, as the MSF, who have evaluated the OLS beyond the objective of saving lives are more critical. They claim that the OLS suffered from much political abuse.

This abuse went beyond the stealing of aid goods by armies and rebel fractions for their own use, which seems “an inescapable” aspect of humanitarian aid during conflict, as Alex de Waal has argued.  However, MSF and others have made the persuasive claim that the specific organization of the OLS increased the possibility of the government and the SPLA to exploit  humanitarian aid. A larger part of the execution of the OLS was the responsibility of the government, the SPLA  and local authorities, instead of humanitarian organizations themselves. These organizations often acted from self-interest as a substitute of humanitarian principles. Moreover, they blocked humanitarian aid to certain areas if they feared that their enemies would also be able to benefit. As a result, the humanitarian aid did not benefited the weakest  but the strongest: the militias or local elites.

After a few years of operation  the government successfully promoted a shift in focus within the OLS program from emergency aid to development assistance. With this money, agriculture companies owned by the northern elite were developed. As part of the development program displaced persons, who fled their homes because of the violence in the South, were incorporated on these companies as cheap laborers. They were paid almost nothing, still these displaced persons stayed because they did not have other options to create an income, as the development assistance was concentrated around the northern cities and most of the other economy was destroyed during the conflict. Arguably, these laborers could be seen as labor-hostages. Hence, it were the northern elites who did profit the most from the development assistance.

As I stated in my last article the destruction of villages and their economic resources was part of the military strategy of both sides of the  Sudanese civil war.  Reasons why villages were destroyed were to punish  the supporters  of the  enemy within the conflict, to profit from the plundering or to prevent other parties from obtaining this profit. The presence of humanitarian goods in a village thus increased the vulnerability for military attacks.

Moreover, civilians became target of long-term military strategies to attract humanitarian aid. By undermining the economic infrastructure people become dependent of outside relief, which they could confiscate for their own war economy. Especially large groups of displaced people packed in small areas of refugee camps could attract huge amounts of humanitarian fund. The centralization of humanitarian aid in refugee camps also make it easily obtainable by military groups. In addition, the existence of refugees had some other advantages for the warring groups. To reiterate, the displaced were abused by the  Sudanese government as cheap agriculture laborers. The SPLA did not exploit the refugees in the same structural manner, however, they saw the refugee camps as important recruitment areas for new soldiers, including many child soldiers, due to the fact that Sudanese camps were full of vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  The creation of refugee camps also had a direct link with the military strategy of the government. They placed some refugee camps on strategic places to secure their power over these areas.  The creation of the camps was facilitated by the humanitarian fund of the OLS.

Besides material benefits and military strategies, humanitarian action can also influence the political situation and status of political leaders.  On all level of society can humanitarian aid legitimize the power of leaders and groups. Primarily, humanitarian organizations often have to pay “legitimate” payments to local leaders or groups, in that way recognizing their power over the area.  Secondly, because humanitarian aid can fill gaps of social services, such as water, food and education provisions, community leaders will  not be held accountable by  the population for their omission to provide these services.  Thus alienating leaders of the society.

This was the case in Sudan as well. In the words of Alex de Waal, “at key moments, humanitarian aid has been used to defuse the political implications of famine, finally assisting General Omer al Bashir [president of Sudan] to emerge politically strengthened from the 1990-91 disaster.” The close cooperation between the NGOs and the government gave the impression that the government was willing to work on a solution for the famine, drawing a veil over the fact that it was the policy of the government and their unwillingness to prevent the famine that caused it in the first place.

In sum the humanitarian program in Sudan (the OSL) has saved many lives on short-term. However, in the long run it has contributed to the war economy in various ways and has legitimized the power of political leaders when their politics failed to take care of the population. It seems therefore that the following politically associated questions are important to be answered by NGOs and donors before they take humanitarian action; is the population extra vulnerable because of the presence of humanitarian aid? Are those who have the power of distribution reliable to bring the goods to those in need, without other interests? Is the aid not legitimizing the power of politicians, palliating their mistakes and alienating them from their population?  The ethical implications of the mistakes of the OLS are not that it is better not to provide any humanitarian aid at all, but that, especially in continuing conflict situations, the politics and military context has to be taken into account to avoid undesired consequences that can make the population extra vulnerable. We should think beyond our desire ‘to do good’.



The Sudanese circle of violence: exploitation of cultural identities

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr  (CC BY-NC)
Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr  (CC BY-NC)

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

By Iona Mulder -

In 1983, a civil war started in the former Sudan. Two parties, the Northern government in the capital Khartoum and a Southern coalition called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), fought each other to retain and gain more political authority and control over the natural resources of Sudan. The civil war was extremely violent, with a tremendous amount of civil suffering: an estimated two million civilians died and around four million people were displaced. In January 2005 – after twenty-two years of fighting- a peace agreement made an official end to the war. Included in the peace agreement was the possibility for the South to become independent on the basis of a referendum that would be held in July 2011. Unfortunately, the peace agreement did not end the violence in Sudan. The civil population remained target of plunder and killings. Furthermore, after the South of Sudan became independent in 2011, a new conflict started in this new nation.

How is this possible? Why do the people of Sudan, as well as in many other regions in the world, keep fighting with each other? Why does Sudan face such difficulties in bringing peace and stability? In my view, one of the most important insights to understand war, crimes against humanity, and genocide, is that the process that creates the social environment in which people can hurt and kill each other, starts with the creation of ‘the Other’. In other words, with the social exclusion of one group from a society. In this process, ‘the Other’ is defined as a dangerous enemy and is dehumanized, creating an atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘them’. To understand this process of creating ‘the Other’ helps to grasp the origin and causes of a conflict.

The civil wars in Sudan and South-Sudan are often explained as conflicts between different cultural identities based on race, religion, ethnicity or region. On that account, the civil war in former Sudan was a clash between people with an African and/ or Christian identity living in the Southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains – the latter three also have a large Muslim population – on the one side, and the Northern regions, who consider themselves Arabic and Muslims, on the other side. For the civil war in the young nation of South-Sudan it is often believed to be a conflict between the Dinka and Nuer, the two main ethnic groups living there.

It is true that the conflicts took place between groups that are identified by themselves and others as mentioned above. However, the process of creating the atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘the Other’ in general does not begin as rivalry between cultural identities, but between political – regional, national and international – elites. When a society is in a crisis situation- for example in the case of an underdeveloped state with a weak government as Sudan – political leaders use the patterns of existing cultural identities to create a so-called in-group. They do this to develop a support platform for their power and to generate material gain. To strengthen the in-group, they classify an out-group and define them as the enemy that endangers the in-group. This out-group can be appointed from outside the society, but also from within.  The idea/myth is created that by defeating or annihilating this out-group, the problems of the in-group will be solved. The prospect of a better future will generate support for the political elites. Their tactics to create this division is to facilitate and allow the humiliation, suppression, plundering and killing of the outsiders for the benefits of the insiders.

The motivation of individuals or communities to become part of an in-group are therefore based on opportunism and/or fear. On the one hand, people might be driven by fear to be appointed in their society as ‘the Other’. On the other hand, they can be scared to become a victim of an out-group;  hence the need for protection. The book What is the What of Dave Eggers provides a clear analysis of this process in the situation in Sudan. The book is an autobiographic story of Sudanese Valentino Achak Deng. As a boy he fled from his village and found himself wandering through Sudan with a large group of other minors in search of a safe-heaven. In the following part, one of the elder boys in the group, named Dut, explains the political situation in which the villages of Valentino was raided:

“So General Dahab used a strategy familiar to many governments before this: he armed others to do the work of the army. In this case, he provided tens of thousands of Arab men, the Baggara among them, with automatic weapons. – Why didn’t the government have to pay these men? I asked. – Well, that’s a good question. The Baggara had long fought with the Dinka over grazing pastures and other matters. You probably know this. For many years there has been relative peace between the southern tribes and the Arab tribes, but it was General Dahab’s idea to break this peace, to inspire hatred in the Baggara. When they gave them these weapons, the Baggara knew they had great advantage over the Dinka. This upset the balance we’ve lived with for many years. But how would the government pay all these men. It was simple. They told the horsemen that in exchange for their service, they were authorized to plunder all they want along the way. General Dahd told them to visit upon any Dinka village along the rail lines, and to take what wished – livestock, food, anything from the markets, and even people.”

The fighting in Sudan continues for the reason that political elites on all levels of society exploit the Sudanese cultural diversity for their own goals, not because these cultural identities are unable to live respectfully side by side. Only if a government will be able to gain enough power to create a monopoly of violence and at the same time will respect the cultural diversity of Sudan, the possibility will rise to truly end the violence in Sudan. This is probably not a prospect for the near future, as many – national as well as international – people in power want their share of Sudanese natural resources. Until then the Sudanese people – North and South -have to live in the complex web of hostile cultural identities, that are defined by opportunism and fear. That is what is happing now in Sudan.