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Online Extra
February 2003

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The Nuba: Still Standing

By Karen E. Lange
Branded as infidels by Sudan's Islamic rulers, a traditional people fight for their lives.Fresh from throwing his opponent, a young Nuba wrestler is blessed with ash to mark his victory. Half a century ago, a robust champion was hoisted onto a teammate's shoulders. Hunger and sickness caused by government attack and blockade in Sudan's civil war have shrunk the Nuba's physiques. Yet they have endured to see a cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains—and fragile hope for their culture's survival.
Bearing loads home the only way they can, Nuba women walk through the hills where their people have often fled to escape the civil war, abandoning the surrounding plains. In 1985 the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), based in the south, infiltrated the Nuba Mountains, the Nuba homeland in central Sudan. Long discriminated against by the north's Arabized, Islamic majority, many Nubas—members of a minority that clings to indigenous traditions—joined the rebels. In response the government declared all Nuba the enemy; militias surrounded the mountains, occupied the towns, and terrorized the plains, burning villages and farms, and raping, killing, and abducting civilians. Seeking refuge in the hills, the Nuba could not grow enough to eat. Meanwhile Khartoum banned humanitarian aid flights, hoping to starve Nubas out. Tens of thousands died; hundreds of thousands were forced into government "peace camps." More than a million survive, 350,000 in rebel areas. Among survivors, long-besieged women relish a gift of sesame oil, prized for the gleam it gives their skin.
Where Arab Meets African
The battle for the Nuba Mountains is strategic—they border Sudan's oil pipeline. It is economic—below the rocky hills lies some of the country's most fertile land. And it is cultural. Journalist Oswald Iten calls the Nuba homeland "the front line between . . . two ways of life." The Nuba, diverse tribes who share a common culture, form an island of black Africa in the Arab-dominated north. Most Nubas speak Arabic, and about half are Muslim, yet Sudanese Arabs despise their continued faith in traditional healers and ritual customs like nudity, beer drinking, and female wrestling.
Holding Out
Steeling himself for the larger struggle, a Nuba rebel brandishes an automatic weapon as he dances in the victor's circle after wrestling. To rally embattled Nuba civilians in rebel territory, the SPLA imposed strict discipline on its fighters, offered a measure of democracy, and encouraged a cultural revival. Traditionally the Nuba saw no shame in baring their bodies, unless they were unfit or sick. At a ceremony welcoming the Nuba SPLA commander, a woman took off her clothes and painted herself with mud. The freedom to continue such customs has kept many Nubas in the hills, despite little food or medical care. Falling to the ground in grief, a Nuba mother sobs over the grave of her three-week-old baby, who died the night before without seeing a doctor. A villager pours sorghum into the pit—the newborn's last ration. "People die like flies," a wartime song laments. Born near a hospital, another infant is lucky. Treated for diarrhea, he will go home alive. 
Enduring Spirits
Drunk on sorghum beer, Nubas at a peacemaking festival form a boisterous conga line, their bodies decorated with bits of fur, beads, mud—whatever they can find. "There were suddenly a hundred people dancing in a frenzy," says photographer Meredith Davenport. "The mayhem reached its zenith with men and women running toward a hill to wrestle. Three or four groups rolled around in a cloud of dust, laughing—women were taking men down to the ground!" Later, during a more sober ceremony, the clan kujurs, or medicine men, symbolically buried the preceding year's problems in hopes of a better future. In 2001 a government offensive almost wiped out the Nuba. Last year a U.S.-brokered cease-fire ended fighting in the Nuba Mountains, brought UN relief flights, and led to negotiations for peace for all of Sudan. But the status of the Nuba has yet to be settled. Will they, like the south, have a chance at autonomy and a vote on their future? Having held out since 1985, the Nuba now face new challenges: How to manage outside aid without losing their self-reliance and achieve peace with the right to be themselves.


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