On a wide plain of cracked earth and yellow grass deep in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, rebel commander Brigadier General Namiri Murrad raises a pair of binoculars and studies his objective, the government-held town of Talodi, some 4 km away. “They have three tanks, you see?” he says, passing over the field glasses. “They had six, but we destroyed three. They also have .50-cals. and 12.5s [heavy machine guns] in the hills above. But I have 3,000 men and two more brigades of 2,000 to 3,000, and they have just 1,700 to 1,800. We’ll finish this quickly.” He regards the dust cloud kicked up by our cars when they approached the front line, then looks up at the sky. “They send Antonovs and MiGs to bomb us when they see trucks moving,” he says. “We leave now.”
Namiri is a Nuba field commander spearheading a new rebel attempt to overthrow Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his Islamist regime in the capital of Khartoum. “Right now, our work is to clean our house,” he says. “Our allies in Darfur and Blue Nile will also clean their houses. Then we will move together on Khartoum. Some of them will die, some will run away. We will finish them.” It’s a simple plan, but it’s important for a simple reason: the Nuba are suddenly winning.
Sudan has rarely known peace. Since independence from Britain in 1956, civil war has cost 2 million lives. The dynamic has rarely changed: an autocratic Arab, Islamist, centrist state in the north vs. poorer, more African and less Muslim rebels to the south. The Nuba rebels fought with the south, but when South Sudan split to form a new country last year, Southern Kordofan, where the Nuba Mountains are located, found itself on the northern side of the border, along with two other rebel provinces, Darfur and Blue Nile.
Last June, smarting from South Sudan’s approaching independence and fearing further loss of power in a Southern Kordofan election, Khartoum ordered its security forces to suppress the Nuba opposition. TIME documented how Sudanese police and soldiers went house to house in Kadugli, the state capital, executing activists and fighters. Within hours, that escalated to ethnic cleansing. Southern Kordofan Governor Ahmed Haroun, already accused by the International Criminal Court of committing war crimes in Darfur, said in a speech broadcast on state radio, “Do not leave a single person [there]. Clear them out. Bring them alive. Eat them raw.” Khartoum’s warplanes bombed villages and refugee columns, prompting 125,000 to flee to nearby caves or camps in South Sudan. The Satellite Sentinel Project, an initiative by actor George Clooney to monitor Sudan from space, identified eight suspected mass graves in and around Kadugli. For the living — displaced and unable to farm because of the bombing — famine loomed.
But a return visit to Nuba territory this April reveals a surprise: Khartoum’s assault has backfired. Nuba forces have killed hundreds of government troops, won a string of victories and captured several key settlements, including the border town of Jau and the administrative center of Trogi, as well as an arsenal of government weapons and vehicles. The acting commander of Nuba forces on the front lines, Major General Izzat Kuku, tells TIME he controls 80% of the Nuba Mountains, leaving Khartoum holding little more than the two most strategic towns, Talodi and Kadugli — its most diminished position in a generation.
The Nuba formed a crucial alliance, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), with fellow rebels in Blue Nile and Darfur. That agreement led Darfur’s largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), to fight with the Nuba in Jau. The united rebels hope to open a second front in the Sudanese capital itself. Since the Arab Spring in early 2011, Sudanese security forces have violently crushed intermittent youth protests against al-Bashir’s autocracy in Khartoum. Izzat claims the SRF coalition now extends to that opposition, who will “organize people in an uprising” if the rebels advance sufficiently. “We are confident,” he says. “We will sweep north out of the Nuba Mountains all the way to Khartoum. We all want the same thing — to change the regime in Khartoum.”
That would likely be a fantasy but for one other crucial development: war has erupted between north and south. When South Sudan seceded, the precise north-south border was never settled. On April 14, JEM invaded and seized Heglig — a key oil installation officially in the north but claimed by South Sudan — leaving the bodies of scores of northern troops by the side of the road or floating in pools of crude. And JEM wasn’t alone. Despite months of denying an alliance with the rebels, South Sudanese troops fought openly with JEM at Heglig.
Both Sudan and South Sudan responded by dispatching tens of thousands of troops to the border. Clashes were reported along the frontier. In Khartoum and South Sudan’s capital, Juba, politicians banged the drums of war. On April 18, al-Bashir said those in the South’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement were “insects” that had to be “eliminated,” saying, “This story began in Heglig, but it will end in Khartoum or Juba.” In Juba, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir told supporters that world leaders had implored him to back off. “[U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said], ‘I am ordering you to immediately withdraw from Heglig,'” said Kiir. “I replied, ‘I’m not under your command.'” Though Kiir did withdraw on April 20 when Khartoum’s troops pushed back over the border, that retreat seems unlikely to usher in peace. Addressing the U.N. Security Council on April 18, African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki said the two sides were locked in “a logic of war.”
The Limits of Diplomacy
Khartoum has been an international pariah for years. Chief among its many crimes: hosting Osama bin Laden for five years in the 1990s and violently imposing an Arab, Islamist uniformity on a vast area long defined by a rich, ancient mosaic of ethnicities and faiths. At its worst, this repressive prejudice led to the scorched-earth assaults against rebels in South Sudan, Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. The U.S. government defined the attacks as genocide.
One reason the Allied powers created the U.N. after World War II was to channel international condemnation of wayward national regimes. Over the years, the U.N. has developed tools — Security Council resolutions, sanctions, peacekeepers — to implement its will. In 2002, the International Criminal Court was set up to give the U.N.’s principles legal weight. Today in support of the same broad effort, some powers take it upon themselves to act regionally — as with NATO’s 2011 operation in Libya — or even unilaterally when international standards of human rights are being violated. All these tools of international influence have been brought to bear on Khartoum. The U.S. even carried out missile strikes on the city after al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Yet the results have been mixed. Al-Bashir remains free, Sudan’s security forces continue to commit atrocities, and at times the regime even seems emboldened.
The sole but significant success was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended war between north and south in 2005. Under it, southerners were allowed to vote on independence six years later. Clooney, in Juba for the referendum last summer, described the moment as “mind blowing” but also “worrisome.” He returned to Juba this March, days before he was arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington. “Once you’ve voted for your freedom,” Clooney said in Juba, “then what?”
That what — what South Sudan would do with freedom — isn’t unfolding as its supporters might have hoped. In its first year of existence, South Sudan has revealed some worrisome similarities to the north. There is corruption: diplomats in Juba say a quarter of the $14 billion that South Sudan has earned from oil since 2005 is missing. There’s also ruthless political brinkmanship of the kind that risks all-out war for another oil field. Then there is a predatory army that pockets most of the national finances. Freedom from the north hasn’t even ended xenophobia: South Sudan’s government is dominated by the south’s biggest tribe, the Dinka, setting the stage for several internal tribal revolts and continual civil violence that has killed 3,000 so far this year.
The two Sudans demonstrate the need for an international justice system but also show its limits. The perhaps inevitable flaw is demanding compliance with a set of universal human values before leaders in places like Juba and Khartoum have universally accepted them. Employing reasonableness and neutrality in places where ruthlessness and partisanship are the rule is to set yourself up for failure — or worse, to be used. Many of South Sudan’s foreign friends are haunted by the idea that a peace deal they pursued so passionately for so long may have merely bought the South Sudanese elite time to get rich and rearm for more war. Says Clooney: “It’s two steps forward and three steps back.” U.S. President Barack Obama on April 20 called on both sides to stand down. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Obama said. War “leads to one place — more suffering, more refugees, more death, more lost dreams for you and your children.”
A Peaceful Alternative
In this desert of disillusion, the Nuba offer an oasis of hope. The tribe is descended from one of the world’s earliest civilizations, the Nubians, who lived in northern Sudan and southern Egypt beginning in 5000 B.C. There are 99 Nuba subtribes and as many different languages, but tolerance reigns. Muslims and Christians mix freely, and religion is a matter of personal choice, even within a family. At its deepest level, the rebellion pits aboriginal Nuba open-mindedness against modern tribalism. “Sudan is a multicultural country,” says Izzat. “Our aim is a government for all Sudanese.”
The significance of an inclusive culture on this otherwise contentious border between Arabia and Africa is not lost on Ryan Boyette. Boyette first went to the mountains in April 2003 as a volunteer for evangelist Franklin Graham’s foreign aid organization, Samaritan’s Purse. By 2011 he was heading the charity’s Nuba operations, had a Nuba name — Kuku (meaning firstborn) — and after four years’ hard labor had built a Nuba house high up in the hills. The Nuba, says Boyette, “really captured me.” One willowy, ferociously independent Nuba in particular. After a year of negotiation with her family — followed by paying them 10 cows and shaving himself all over, as required by Nuba custom — Boyette married Jazira in February 2011.
That June, Khartoum began its offensive. Samaritan’s Purse ordered Boyette out. He refused, then resigned. When he’s not driving Clooney, Graham and journalists around in a beat-up SUV, the 31-year-old advocates for the Nuba, addressing the U.S. National Security Council and Congress and setting up the citizen journalism site NubaReports.org .
Though Graham has called Khartoum and Islam “evil,” the Nuba have taught Boyette forbearance. From his house in the hills, he says, “When I was new here and did things that were taboo, people would say, ‘That’s O.K. This is someone from outside.'” When he married, “people accepted me as a Nuba.” As for him, “Some Christians say, ‘Muslims are evil, we need to kill Muslims.’ But here I learned they are just like Christians. They have the same thoughts, dreams and desires as Christians. We’re all seeking truth.”
Boyette’s marriage is another lesson, proof of the possibility of a common human understanding that can bridge even the widest divisions. Nuba culture, argues Boyette, is more evidence — despite the behavior of leaders in Khartoum or Juba, Damascus or Pyongyang — that those universal human values on which international justice is based are more than words. “The Nuba are a community,” says Boyette. “They’re tolerant, hardworking and resilient. And they understand freedom, that they don’t have the freedom they deserve and they’re going to fight and suffer to get that.”
It is Easter Sunday, and Boyette and Jazira walk to church. Down in the desert valleys below, Sudan is once again at war over land, oil, religion and race. But up in the mountains, the Nuba are hearing how keeping faith with higher ideals, even in the worst of times, can lead to resurrection.
— with reporting by Alan Boswell/Heglig and Juba