Sleeping through genocide?

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Article Ethic of Life Social Justice War and Peace
The world needs a wake-up call to save a population at risk of meeting a violent end.

What is happening today in the Nuba mountains is exactly a carbon copy of what has been taking place in Darfur—only even worse,” said Bishop Macram Max Gassis, spiritual leader of Sudan’s Diocese of El Obeid. Gassis was speaking outside the United Nations in New York in July and worrying over what he describes as a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Nuba people of Sudan’s South Kordofan state.

He charges that an effort to “wipe out the Nuba” is being undertaken with brutal enthusiasm by the Khartoum-based regime of Omar al-Bashir. The Comboni missionary hopes to rouse the United Nations—specifically Security Council members Great Britain and the United States—from a geopolitical coma over the matter.

The sprawling El Obeid diocese is one of the world’s largest and is certainly its most politically troubled. El Obeid includes violence-plagued Darfur; the disputed, oil-rich region of Abyei; and South Kordofan, where a liberation movement seeks either autonomy from Khartoum in the north, independence altogether, or union with the new Republic of South Sudan just across the newly established border.

South Kordofan’s Nuba people are culturally and ethnically distinct from the Arab tribes of northern Sudan. Many Nuba are Christians, making them double minorities in Sudan. They have become the targets of both Khartoum politicians looking for scapegoats for Sudan’s flagging political and economic fortunes and of Muslim radicals intent on the complete Islamization of Sudan. Since June 2011 South Kordofan has suffered a relentless series of attacks, primarily aerial bombardment, from Sudanese military in an ongoing campaign to dislodge the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)-North.

The persistent bombing raids have driven the Nuba from their villages and farms to caves in the Nuba mountains. They are subject not only to these indiscriminate aerial attacks but also to hunger and the region’s brutal conditions. Human Rights Watch reports that the attacks may amount to crimes against humanity. The U.N. estimates that 205,000 people have fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Sudan and that an additional 700,000 have been internally displaced or severely affected by the fighting with little or no access to aid.

“The victims as usual are the children, the women, and the elderly,” says Gassis, “because the men, they are carrying their guns and they are going to fight their battle, but it is the victims who are paying the price to maintain [the Nuba] identity.”

The SPLM-North finds itself alone in a continuing fight for greater autonomy, if not outright independence. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that for the most part brought Sudan’s civil war to an end included a political blueprint that led to independence for South Sudan. Unfortunately a similar process was not detailed for the people of South Kordofan and other disputed territories.

As a result there is no clear political path ahead for the Nuba and villagers in other conflicted regions. Worse, the diplomatic community seems to be experiencing Sudan fatigue just as the crisis has dangerously accelerated. Gassis fears the Nuba face eradication if Bashir’s campaign is allowed to continue. He implores a more forthright international effort to contain this most recent cycle of orchestrated state violence.

Unraveling this complex web of ethnicity, religion, politics, and resource competition—the southern region is “cursed” with oil reserves—will require creative and persistent diplomacy. The international community, with a large contribution by the United States, achieved a significant success in midwifing last year’s birth of South Sudan as an independent state. That success, however, should not offer an opportunity to declare victory and walk away from this troubled region. That would represent a “sin against humanity,” says Gassis, and a death sentence for the Nuba.­

This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 10, page 47).

Image: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of El Obeid