Report: Nuba Mountains Mission

28 May 2015

We received this report from Samuel Totten, a prominent genocide scholar who regularly visits the Nuba Mountains. It is an account of his most recent visit to the Nuba Mountains, between the 12th and 30th April 2015. It is reproduced here in full, with permission. If you wish to contact Samuel, you can reach him at 

“Mission-wise, this effort was a resounding success in that four tons of food was delivered to two different groups of civilians in the Nuba Mountains, all of whom are indesperate straits. On another level, though, it was filled with darkness and pain. Ultimately, carrying out the mission was vastly different from earlier missions, and herein I shall explain why that was so.

Even though I had relatively recently completed mission to the Nuba Mountains to insert food in December 2014, I felt compelled to return to the Nuba in April. Based on recent reports concerning an ever-increasing and critical lack of food in certain regions of the Nuba Mountains and the fact that the rainy season begins in May, which essentially precludes vehicle movement in the Nuba due to the swampy conditions, I decided to it was imperative to undertake one more mission this spring while I still could.

Following a hop on a cargo plane from Juba (the capital of South Sudan), which was carrying huge bags of food from Bangladesh as well as an array of South Sudanese soldiers and civilians from the Nuba Mountains, to the Yida Refugee Camp, along the South Sudan/Sudan border, my interpreter, Ramadan Tarjan, and I immediately met up with our driver, Daniel, who was waiting behind the wheel of the Land Cruiser we were renting. We immediately headed to the local souk and purchased three thousand dollars worth of dried beans, lintels, salt, sugar and cooking oil, which weighed just over two thousand pounds. As luck would have it, no one had sorghum for sale, which is the mainstay of the Nuba diet, but we figured we’d locate sorghum elsewhere down the road. Fortunately, our intuition served us well.

We pulled out of Yida about 2:00pm that afternoon and drove straight through to Kauda in the heart of the Nuba Mountains, arriving about 10:00 PM that evening. After spending the night in Daniel’s family compound, we got up early the next morning, and as we motored through Kauda, we came across several individuals we knew who filled us in on the latest re the fighting in the region. One of them was Ryan Boyette, a U.S. citizen and a good friend who is the founder/director of Nuba Reports, a team of citizen journalists who cover the war and regularly disseminate their reports to the international media. Each of the individuals informed us that our destination (Kwalib) was, indeed, one of the current hotspots in the war between the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army-North and Khartoum (i.e., the Government of Sudan). In fact, both Ryan and the assistant commissioner of Kauda informed us that the past week Kwalib had suffered repeated ground and aerial attacks (both from Antonovs and Sukhoi fighter jets) and that a good number of people had fled their homes and villages and that many had also been injured, if not killed. That was not surprising since Kwalib has been, and for quite a while, considered “the front.”

As we left Kauda, a rebel stronghold and the town considered to be the headquarters of the SPLA-N, and headed toward Heiban, which, prior to the war, had been a GoS-stronghold, we (Daniel, Ramandan and I) variously commented on what we were likely to come up against and confronted by as we made our way to and then back from Kwalib. Fresh in all of our minds was the rather trying trip in December, when we found ourselves constantly screeching to a stop in themiddle of the road and exiting our Land Cruiser as quickly as we could in order to scramble into the desert in an attempt to locate something we could crouch down behind as a protection sorts from shrapnel should the Antonov bomb us.

Just before we entered Heiban proper, we turned left onto the rutted, dusty road that would take us to Kwalib.  Twenty to thirty minutes down the road a man on a knoll with severalother men threw his hands in the air and came running and shouting towards us. As our driver stopped in the middle of the road, I leaned out the window and called out “Ma?” or “What?” Nervous, jittery and hyped up, he demanded to know why we had not stopped and told them that a Sukhoi fighter jet had just attacked Heiban. We told him we had no idea what he was talking about, and that when we had passed through Heiban all was quiet. Indignant and obviously not believing us, he raged on and on, and since we had nothing more to say, we continued on our way (all the while wondering where he had heard such a thing and whether he was right or not about the attack).

About half way to Kwalib, we came across a white Land Cruiser heading south. The driver, a good-hearted fellow named Idris, who I had met during my first trip to the Nuba Mountains back in 2010, greeted me with a big bear hug.  In 2011 he kindly invited me to his home in Kwalib, where I interviewed a well-known rebel who had gained a good bit of notoriety due to his toughness. Idris told us he was taking the halfdozen women in his vehicle to Kauda as they all suffered from serious eye problems and had heard that eye specialists were scheduled to be in the region for two weeks. The women claimed that their poor eyesight was due to a lack of food and adequate nutrition; but later, upon speaking with Dr. Tom Catena, a U.S. physician based in the Nuba Mountains, about the matter, he said he was more likely due to cataracts.

Continuing on our way, both Ramadan and Daniel commented on the heat – how extraordinary hot it was. Ramadan surmised the temperature was right around 43 or 44 degrees Centigrade, while Daniel guessed it was closer to 42 Centigrade. Forty-fourCentigrade would have made it 111 degrees Fahrenheit; 43, 109 degrees Farenheit, and 42, 107. Later in the week, some were sure the temperature had reached an outrageous 48 degrees Centigrade, which would have made it 118 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d never heard a Nuba complain about the heat, but later in the week Ramadan did just that, stating he was so light-headed it took all his strength not to fall down whenever he attempted to walk. As for me, I was miserable throughout the trip: constantly sweaty and thirsty as I continued to rely bottled water that I was sure registered 70 degrees F or higher.

Once we reached Kwalib we drove straight to the compound of the local commissioner. Greeted there by a half dozen local leaders, we explained we had purchased and trucked up a ton of food up for those civilians in most desperate need. We also explained that we would deliver another ton or two within the next several hours if we could locate any for sale in the region.

We then listened to what the locals had to say about the most recent attacks by GoS troops. They essentially corroborated the rumors we had heard back in Kauda: over the past several weeks Kwalib had been hit pretty hard and pretty regularly by Antonovs, Sukhoi fighter jets, and shelling. Some of the planes, they said, had dropped cluster bombs. Just the day before a family of seven had been killed in a nearby village. Not far from where we were sitting, they told us, a rocket had been shot towards a house but did not explode; the unexploded ordnance, they said, was still sitting in the hole that the rocket had dug out.

Hundreds of people had fled their villages, we were told, and were now in roughshod IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, and were badly in need of food and medicine. I informed the leaders that it was my hope that the food we delivered that day would go to such individuals, as well as any others who were in dire need.

Once we off-loaded all of the food we had trucked up, one of the local leaders informed us that he had about ten bags worth of sorghum at his compound and would gladly sell us five or more bags at a decent price should we wish to purchase it. He mentioned in passing that his son was attending secondary school in the Yida Refugee Camp in South Sudan, and that he (the father) wished to send his son some money in order to pay for school supplies and other necessities. As we drove towards the seller’s compound, one of the local leaders asked if we wished to see the rocket that had not exploded. I said, “Definitely.”

We drove about another quarter of a mile and then got out and walked up a slight hill towards a tukul. Only four or five feet from the tukul was a large hole about two feet deep and three feet wide filled with the constituents parts of a cluster bomb  — not simply a shell as I had been led to believe. Locals had thrown twigs and branches over the hole and ordnance as a means to keepchildren and animals from inadvertently stepping or falling into the hole. A man told us that three children had been sitting beside the house when the rocket hit. All  three would have certainly been killed had the cluster bombs exploded. In fact, I am not sure just how lucky all of the people realized they were when I recognized the clutter of parts as being cluster bomb. It was something that certainly could have taken out a lot more than the three children had it not failed to detonate.

We then proceeded to the seller’s compound, which was a rocky, head-jarring twenty-minute ride across fields and wadis and around other areas that had recently been targeted by the Government of Sudan (GoS). Once we reached the compound, we purchased five bags of sorghum, which at roughly 200 pounds each, was another ton’s worth of food. Subsequently, we delivered the sorghum to the commissioner’s compound in Kwalib.

Even though it was late in the day, we decided to head back to Kauda since we figured that was the only place we’d find more food to purchase for other IDPs. Eight, long hours later, we arrived in Kauda.

The next day, Sunday, word quickly spread that, in fact, Heiban had been attacked the previous morning  — shortly, in fact, after we had made the turn toward Kwalib. We were told that at thesight or sound of a Sukhoi 24, a young man in his late teens raced towards a hole to jump into but before he could jump in the shrapnel from the bomb dropped by the Sukhoi killed him.

Forthe first time I was really spooked at the thought of even driving down thedirt roads in the Nuba. Daniel, our driver, said that while individuals more often than not heard the slow, lumbering Antonovs heading their way, and thus, had plenty of time, to either jump in a hole or seek some sort of shelter, Sukhois were so fast that they were often on top of a target before anyone could react, and that is why they were so deadly. It was not lost on any of us that had we been a bit later in making our turn towards Kwalib that we would have been a prime, if not perfect, target, for the Sukhhoi, and that had its bomb hit us, there would have been little to collect for our respective burials.

Despite my dread at getting back on the road that morning, I decided to head northeast, towards a town called Mindi, only because I had heard that a good number of people had fled to that region following the bombing of their villages and farms. I was informed that there was at least one IDP camp just south of Mindi, and that people there were largely bereft of food and medicine.

Just prior to arriving in Mindi, we pulled off the road and asked to be directed to the head of the IDP camp in the region. A man in his mid-twenties, serious and matter of fact but quite friendly, said that the headman was not available but that he was in second in command. He then filled us in on the status of the IDPs: they not only suffered from a dearth of food but they also were without any soap or other hygiene products. He added that many youngsters, particularly those five years old and younger, were suffering greatly from malnutrition, and that any help we could provide would be incredibly helpful.

I promised the man that the next day we would deliver at least a ton of food (sorghum, sugar, cooking oil, dried beans), along with as much soap as we could afford. Tapping his chest and with tears welling up in his eyes, he said, in Arabic: “I do not have the words to thank you enough for your kindness. We will always be grateful to you and those in America who donated the funds to assist us.”

Since we were fairly close to the “town” of Mindi and it was “market day” there, I decided we should motor over and see if we could purchase any bulk food in the souk for the IDPs. As soon as we arrived and were about to back up under a shade tree I noticed a camouflaged jeep with an antiaircraft gun positioned between the driver and passenger seat, racing towards the souk, kicking up clouds of dust. Off-handedly, I commented to Daniel, “I wonder what those characters are up to.” Moments later the jeep came to an abrupt stop about two hundred yards from us, and as it did 50 or so people quickly surrounded it.

Within seconds, a man approached us and said that a young boy had stepped on a landmine, was badly injured, and that the rebels were looking for someone to carry the boy to a medical clinic. Why the soldiers didn’t do so themselves, I don’t know, and he did not say. Immediately, though, I said we’d take the kid to Mother of Mercy Hospital. As I ran over to the jeep, Daniel started up the truck and pulled parallel to the jeep. We had to push and shove the crowd out of the way in order to lift and place the boy, who was about twelve years old, into the back of our truck.

Checking out the boy’s most obvious wound – his upper leg was bandaged and “soaked” with dried blood, I noticed that blood was not pouring or seeping from the wound. The boy was still conscious and in obvious pain but he didn’t say a word as we moved him from the jeep to the back of the truck.

I pulled a bottle of water from the front seat of our truck, along with a cloth, and asked a young boy next to him to periodically dab the injured boy’s face with the cool water, but not to, under any circumstances, provide him with or allow him to drink any of the water as it could cause him even more harm.

I then told the small group of people who had already boarded the truck – which we later found out included the sister of the boy and some close friends/neighbors  —  to lift the boy’s legs and feet up and place them on an empty jerry can, which was sitting on its side. I explained that was for the purpose of preventing any more blood than possible from draining into his legs, which could be fatal.

We then set out for Mother of Mercy Hospital, which was roughly an hour and fifteen to thirty minutes away over a very bumpy, dirt road. It was impossible to travel over 30 miles an hour due to the bumpiness of the road; indeed, if we had gone any faster, the passengers, and the victim, in the back of the truck, would’ve bounced up and down the entire way. When we did come to smoother stretches, Daniel increased the speed to 50 mph, but such stretches were rare. About half way to the hospital, someone in back knocked on the back window, and we stopped to see what the problem was. We were informed that the village that the boy was from was about a mile away and that someone on the back of the truck wanted to alert his parents to what had happened. For some maddening reason, Daniel insisted on waiting for the parents to be alerted versus driving over to the village. After hectoring the heck out of him, he finally drove towards a woman who was running across a huge field towards us. The woman ended up being a close neighbor. The parents had not been at home, but the neighbor said she wanted to accompany the boy to the hospital and thus joined the boy in the back of the truck. Immediately, she hugged him to her breast, pulling his upper body towards her while pulling his feet and legs off of the jerry can. Again, I had to explain why it was imperative to lay the boy flat on his back with his feet and legs raised. The woman looked askance at suggestion, but finally acquiesced.

Maddeningly, it took well over an hour to reach the hospital. I was, understandably, hoping against hope that that the boy would make it. As soon as we pulled up to the gate of Mother of Mercy we informed the guard that we were carrying a badlywounded boy and he waved us right in. I directed Daniel to pull the truck directly up to the entrance of the medical building and I hopped out to notify hospital officials that we were there and that I needed a stretcher. After a few minutes, Dr. Tom Catena, the director of the hospital and only surgeon on the staff, approached me and after hearing what I had to say he told me to have the driver to drive up over the curb and pull directly into the park-like sitting area that serves as inner courtyard of the hospital.

At first glance Dr. Catena thought the young boy was still alive, but when he returned with a stretcher on wheels and bent over the boy he whispered to me that the boy was dead.

Stepping away from the truck, he told me that he wished to conduct an autopsy on theboy, and that afterwards he would inform the people accompanying the boy what had killed him.

I chose not to attend the autopsy, but Daniel did. Later, he informed me that the boy had also suffered a horrific wound to his abdomen; one so deep, in fact, that Dr. Catena was able to shove his entire fist into the wound and up towards the boy’s sternum. As for his leg wound, Daniel informed me that once the bandages were taken off the horrible destruction of the boy’s leg was shocking: almost sliced in half, a large piece of bone had pierced the skin (constituting a compound fracture), while the rest of the bone had been pulverized, essentially forming a mush-like substance along with the shredded skin, muscle and blood.

As I stood alone in the courtyard waiting for Dr. Catena to exit from the autopsy room, a young man in his early twenties, who was sitting on a bench against a wall, with a crutch called out, “What is the situation going on?” I walked over to where he was sitting, noticing that he was missing a leg, and sat down. After I informed him about the situation with the young boy, I asked him what had happened to his leg. He laconically said, “An Antonov.”

Once Dr. Catena completed his autopsy and rolled out the body of the young boy, I joined him and as he rolled the stretcher back towards the truck. Dr. Catena gently told the sister of the boy and the next door neighbor that the boy had perished on the way to the hospital. As to be expected, both broke into tears, hugging one another as we lifted the boy back into the truck.

For some reason, the boy’s sister, who had been wounded but only slightly, initially directed us to take the boy’s body to Kauda, where his grandparents resided. Some ten minutes, while on our way to Kauda, she knocked on the window and called out to us that we should, instead, head back to her family home in order to inform her parents about  her brother’s death. We readily agreed, and thus headed back across the territory we had traveled earlier. About fifteen minutes into the drive we saw a man and a woman moving quickly across the dry and dusty landscape, the man about 300 yards or so in front of the woman. We pulled up to the man, who turned out to be the boy’s father. He walked up to the truck, looked down at his son, who had been covered with a shroud, and without a word turned around and walked off into the field alone. When the boy’s mother saw her husband heading out into the field alone, she let out an agonizing screech and fellflat on her face. She screamed and screamed and screamed for the next ten minutes or so.

For a good while no one approached the mother, and then, once someone did, both the mother and father were helped onto the back of the truck. We then proceeded to Kauda, where we delivered the body of the boy to his grandparents. As each female relative (grandmothers, aunts and cousins) approached the truck and glanced at the boy’s body, they broke out screeching. The mother refused to leave the back of the truck and simply started at her son as she, too, cried and cried and cried. No one attempted to provide any solace for the poor woman, and not being able to stand by and watch her cry and cry without solace, I reached out and touched her hand. She grabbed it, looked up at me, and moved her hand a little higher, latching onto my wrist. (Later, I mused, “I wonder if she is a Muslim. If so, touching her hand the way I did was totally out of bounds.” Indeed, it would have been impermissible according to the teachings of Islam.)

Later that evening, Daniel informed me that the boy would be buried that night, as is customary in the Nuba Mountains.

The next day, we delivered two tons of food to the IDPs near Mindi. A day later I headed back to the Yida Refugee Camp.

Less than 24 hours later, due, it seems, to the adverse impact of the medical prophylactic, Mefloquine (Larium), I was on, I passed out as I showered in a cinderblock shower in a NGO compound. As a result of the incredible pain all across my lower back when I came to – along with the fact that, at first, I couldn’t seem to move  —  I feared I was paralyzed. But then I found I could move if I scooted along on my butt. So, first, I scooted out of the shower, pulled on a pair of under shorts, and then scooted out of the dressing area to an outside sidewalk. After calling for help, I was taken to the compound of Médecins Sans Frontières, where I was hospitalized and attended to for three days in their makeshift hospital, an old Quonset hut with some thirty beds in it. I was then medevaced to Nairobi, where I spent an additional five days in The Nairobi Hospital.

While I am still experiencing the aftereffects of the Mefloquine (chronic dizziness) and the fall (a terribly sore back), I am doing well. This week, at the directive of my primary physician, I am going to get an MRI.

Once again, A HUGE, HUGE THANK YOU TO ALL OF THE donors who helped purchase the food for this mission. Your donations have not only helped to offset hunger, butlikely will help to fight off malnutrition or worse among the civilian population that received the food. May God bless all of you!”

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