“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…

 Continue….

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….