From a distance, the lights dotting the hillside ahead look like they might be coming from homes, though that can’t be right, and closer in, they turn out to be small fires that have been set at regular intervals. Since word has gone out that government bombing could begin again at any time, the Nuba people are burning off the brush pre-emptively to keep any fires started by shelling later from spreading.
There are other lights in the night — embers in the hive smokers that calm the bees into producing more honey and the bright white moonlight that’s washing over a crowd of kids playing in a field. But there is almost no electricity here, no internet, phone service or indoor plumbing, and not a single paved road.
Maybe that’s why the international community has forgotten the Nuba people of Sudan’s fertile South Kordofan province, where farmers in what looks like a pockmarked Garden of Eden have for much of the last 34 years been under attack from the Islamists who control their country from its capital in Khartoum, where Osama bin Laden lived in the ’90s.
I must admit I’m surprised to hear Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s name mentioned in this forgotten corner of the planet along with George Clooney’s as two of the best American friends the Sudanese people ever had. (As a congressman, Brownback “was one of the first to recognize the danger of political Islam,’’ says Yasir Arman, general secretary of the political arm of the opposition.) But the most unexpected aspect of life in this other world is that the same Donald Trump whose pointless and discriminatory Muslim travel ban — and yes, that’s what it is — would keep the Nuba out of the United States is nevertheless seen as a hero.
The few Americans most people here have ever seen include the beloved New York-born Catholic missionary, Dr. Tom Catena, the only surgeon for 1.5 million local people, and the Sudan Relief Fund workers with whom I’m traveling. We’re bringing medicine to Dr. Tom, whose hospital the relief fund built and supports, along with that of his Nuba colleague Dr. Ahmed Zacharia.
So everywhere I go, adults as well as children seem delighted to meet another one of us. “Greet me!” says one girl, extending her hand. “Are you my sister?” asks another. “Will you be my friend in the future?”
From the acting governor to the women selling dried chili peppers and ginger coffee in the Kauda market where a goat is foraging in a foxhole, my new friends beseech me to tell President Trump that they are counting on him.
“We expect him to bring peace,’’ says 27-year-old Kacho Gabush, because “he will have the influence to bring a new constitution” based on equal rights. Gabush, who is wearing a ‘Crimson Tide’ T-shirt, not only doesn’t dream of being taken in by the United States, but like many I speak to, wants only to stay where he is: “I’m ready to die here, but I won’t leave.”
This may explain why the U.S. president who wants to temporarily ban travel from Sudan and five other predominantly Muslim nations is so widely admired. They love his tough talk, and even what he says about putting America first, since that’s how they feel about Nuba.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “doesn’t want to meet Donald Trump; he’s afraid,’’ a grinning soldier tells me. He and others here sound a bit like some of the Trump supporters I met at his campaign rallies. “I don’t want Islamic radicals,’’ the soldier explains, “and neither does he.”
Though the Nuba are mostly Muslim, too, they believe that the state should be secular and religion a private matter. Their Islamic liberalism has made them the target of deadly attacks, as have their darker skin and more verdant land, where gold and other minerals lie mostly untapped beneath the mango and the ancient baobab trees.
“We get along with Christians, raise pigs and drink beer,’’ says Joseph Konda, who works for the local ministry of health, “so it’s OK to kill us.”
Over and over since war broke out again in 2011, government soldiers have poisoned their water, raped their women and girls, burned their crops and rolled thousands of barrel bombs out of old Russian cargo planes onto their mud-and-thatch homes.
An unexploded 1,000-pound missile is just part of the landscape now in front of what used to be a hospital in the town of Kauda, where explosives have also fallen on a Catholic elementary school and even the mosque where Bashir has said he looks forward to praying after he wipes out the local population of “black insects,’’ as he calls the Nuba.
Forty years ago, Adolf Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, briefly made a sensation of the dozens of tribes who make up the Nuba. The only white woman living here between 1962 and 1977, Riefenstahl published two best-selling photo books about their endangered culture.
But few travelers venture here even in peace time, and envoys never came even before the government barred humanitarian aid workers and independent media, targeting some who defy the ban after dark.
Despite Sudan’s abysmal human rights record here and in neighboring Darfur, where killing is still going on — it’s Sudan’s terror-sponsoring president, Bashir, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity, who was rewarded with an easing of financial sanctions during President Barack Obama’s final week in office.
Why? Bashir has been providing the CIA with intelligence about Islamic State, and sometimes an American value like taking on terrorists overrides an American value like protecting our friends from our enemies.
In return, Bashir extended a ceasefire that the Nuba never trusted and now say he has broken. Even when it was quiet, just a few days before the reports of an attack on Feb. 21, the government troops remained in their barracks several miles away, and a MiG fighter plane that flew overhead put everyone on edge.
Of course Bashir does have intel on ISIS to dole out since he’s part of the terror network he’s supposedly helping us combat. But it’s still outrageous that it’s the Nuba, without any cards to play or trade, whom the Obama administration blamed for not agreeing to a peace deal with Khartoum before Obama left office. In the eyes of the people here, that agreement would have foreclosed any hope for the future in return for humanitarian aid that the government insisted could come only through them.
“We have not been fighting all these years for food, but for freedom,’’ opposition Gen. Jagud Makuer, of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, tells me in a dawn interview in his compound, where some of his soldiers are singing as they do their morning workout.
Yet food is very much an issue here, especially since this year’s rainy season was so short and strange, with all the water falling at once. The sorghum crop failed, and the price of the staple soared.
In a market in Tobo County, where a boy and his father are riding through on their camels, some of the women selling food are discussing their neighbors who were fleeing hunger rather than violence when they recently left Nuba for a refugee camp. One man in the market, Kuku al-Fateh Zakaria, a village chief, asks me to tell President Trump about the seven days he spent hiding in a cave with his wife and nine children during bombing two years ago. His younger brother Abdu died running to join them, and the snakes hiding in the rocks made it hard for them not to run from their refuge, which Zakaria left every night to get water for his family.
“They’re still talking about it,’’ he says of his children.
Before Americans could even begin to help these abandoned victims of one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, we’d have to start talking about what’s gone on here, too.
We’d have to lean on our allies, including those in the European Union, which is providing funding to Sudan in the apparent hope that Bashir will prevent some of the refugees he’s creating from leaving his country for theirs. (Yes, of all of the perverse profit-making schemes in this broken world, this one is a stand-out.)
And our president, playing very much against type, would have to want to be the man that the Nuba believe and so desperately need Trump to be.
The first in a series
Kansas City Star opinion writer Melinda Henneberger recently traveled to Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda with the Sudan Relief Fund, which has built and supports hospitals, schools and orphanages there, and trains nurses and teachers.