Fighting for their lives

The Nuba tribe of northern Sudan, made famous by the photographer George Rodger 50 years ago, are caught up in a brutal civil war against the Arab, Islamist government in Khartoum. It is a fight that has left thousands dead and many more homeless. Despite this, the Nuba's pride and traditions - including their love of a good wrestling match - remain intact. Special report by Julie Flint and the photographer David Stewart- Smith
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A thatch of spears pierced the sky. Drums beat. Women trilled. And the heaving throng on the Nuba plain contracted and expanded like a human heart. It was exactly as Leni Riefenstahl had described it a quarter of a century earlier: "A thousand, perhaps two thousand, people were moving about in the light of the setting sun on an open space thickly surrounded by trees. In the middle of the crowd, larger and smaller circles had formed inside which pairs of wrestlers were facing each other ..."

But this was not the ceremonial "harvest" wrestling that the film director turned photographer Riefenstahl documented during her time in Sudan's Nuba mountains. This was a three-day tournament to commemorate the passing of a great champion, an extravaganza of sport, singing, dancing and drinking. A celebration of Nuba life, of black African life, in the middle of a genocidal war.

The little village of Shatt Safiya sits on the southernmost edge of the Nuba mountains, as far removed as it is possible to be from the influence of the Arab, Islamist government in Khartoum. Almost every child here wears a witch doctor's charm around the neck; the women are scarified, beaded, braided and oiled. To the south, the flat immensity of southern Sudan stretches as far as the eye can see, broken only by pillars of smoke - bush fires, perhaps, or the ravages of Arab militias. To the north, a string of charred ghost villages testify to the price the Nuba are paying for supporting the southern-dominated Sudan People's Liberation Army against the fundamentalist generals who rule Sudan. Shatt Safiya itself has had little direct contact with the war. It has been attacked only twice - on both occasions from the air - since the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989 and an attempt to suppress the Nuba insurrection grew into a war of annihilation.

On 18 August last year, the people of Shatt Safiya saw a government bomber coming in low. Thinking they were under attack again, they ran for their lives. A 95-year-old man was knocked to the ground and broke a hip. Three weeks later he was dead. Known to everyone - even his 10 children - as Jumping Donkey, he was a wrestler so strong that in his day he would lift opponents on to his shoulders before throwing them to the ground. A little wrestling attended his burial, but Nuba tradition dictated that there be a grand match some months later. This was it.

Sudan's million-strong Nuba - a collection of black African tribes just inside the Arab-dominated north of the country - have long been a despised minority. Until the SPLA rebellion in southern Sudan struck a chord among the Nuba in the mid-Eighties, the mountains were slowly but surely succumbing to Arab influence. Many Nuba were happy to replace spears with guns and mud huts with tin roofs; many abandoned traditional African religions and converted to Islam. But then a succession of governments in Khartoum attempted to enforce Islam down the barrel of a gun - and the Nuba rose up in protest.

In 1992, Sudan declared a Holy War on its Nuba population. The mountains were closed off, scorched-earth tactics unleashed and a large-scale campaign of forcible relocation began. Today only 250,000 Nuba live in SPLA-controlled areas; at least as many more have been forced from their homes and transported to "peace villages" on the periphery of the mountains where their African identity is smothered and they are deployed as human shields in front of government garrisons. Dignified with the name of "returnees" in the hope of attracting donor support for the relocation programme, they are, in reality, prisoners.

"Inmates are kept there against their will, they are forced to work for low wages or no wages, men are forced to become members of the PDF (Islamic militia), women are raped and children have their identity changed. It is all part of the programme for dismembering Nuba society," the organisation African Rights declared in a book entitled Facing Genocide. "The entire peace camp programme is suffused with the objective of religious and cultural transformation of the internees."

I first became aware of the Nuba in 1992 when a report entitled "The Anonymous Diary" began arriving in the mail, sent from the government- controlled town of el-Obeid. One described the state of a group of "returnees" transiting through el-Obeid. "They have no food, no money, ragged clothing. No means to fight the cold night. They are a miserable sight: of hunger, of shame for their nakedness, of dejection at being kicked about like animals ... There are no children below the age of three or four and no boys below the age of 10 or 11 ... Older children and youths are forcibly taken up for military training and enrolment in a new militia ... " The diary, which I later discovered was the work of churchmen, claimed that one tribe had been "virtually wiped out". "Only women and girls arrive in el-Obeid. All the male population that could not reach the SPLA strongholds deep in the mountains has been mercilessly massacred. All females from 14 up are pregnant. These uneducated, simple people are too deeply wounded in their dignity to recount what they have passed through: the word `rape' does not exist in their culture ... "

A few months later, I joined two members of parliament in a British delegation invited to visit government-controlled areas of the Nuba mountains. Security was tight - ostensibly to protect us from the "rebels" - and impressions were all we could glean: impressions of phalanxes of silent, stony-faced "returnees" queuing for food, queuing for clothes, queuing, we had no doubt, for our cameras; of hopelessness; above all, of fear. "Terrible things have happened here," someone whispered as we walked through a market- place, "but no one will talk to you."

Then, one day in 1994, I received a telephone call from a stranger. "This is Youssef Kuwa." I knew him only by name: leader of the Nuba SPLA, teacher turned politician turned rebel. Those were the days when the SPLA was bankrolled by Tiny Rowland's Lonhro and we met, over breakfast, in a Lonhro hotel. We have been friends ever since.

When he returned to the Nuba mountains in 1995, despairing of international support for the Nuba cause, I went with him to make a film for the BBC. At the end of two weeks I was in no doubt that this large, lumbering man is loved by the mass of people under his control. He is, they say, "a humble man, a common man". His soldiers say he is the only SPLA leader who admits to mistakes and apologises. He himself says he has only one ambition: "To build my civilisation and then forgive anyone who humiliated me before."

Nuba civilisation is one of the oldest in Africa, characterised as much by its religious and political tolerance as by its celebrated wrestling, dancing and body-painting. It is a model of diversity, its very existence a threat to Khartoum's fundamentalist project. But until the Nuba rebellion took root, centuries of domination by Arab elites had made many Nuba ashamed of a culture the Arabs called "backward" and "primitive". Today, 12 years after Kuwa led SPLA forces into the Nuba mountains, Nuba culture is enjoying a renaissance, actively encouraged by the SPLA. Stick-fighting has been banned and the SPLA is campaigning against female circumcision, scarification and tribal customs that discriminate against women. But every schoolchild now studies a Nuba language and no political event is complete without a festival of singing and dancing. Wrestling, long since banned by Khartoum, has become a symbol of the Nuba's determination to maintain their own separate identity.

I had seen Nuba wrestling before, most recently on a visit to attend the Nuba's Advisory Council - an exercise in grassroots democracy unparalleled in today's Sudan. But this was different. It was not organised by the SPLA; it was by the people and of the people. And it was taking place exactly half a century after the British photographer George Rodger took the now-famous photograph of naked Nuba wrestlers that inspired Leni Riefenstahl.

The site of the commemoration was on the other side of the mountains from the secret airstrip into which we flew one blindingly bright African morning, having been assured that the area was now safe. Safe from capture, perhaps, but not from attack. Within minutes, government artillery opened up. The shelling was inaccurate, but unsettling. Ahead of us was a 29- hour walk, much of it across territory controlled by the government. But we finally arrived safely in Shatt Safiya and a message was sent to SPLA headquarters: "The wight womant has arrived." It was kind of them not to mention that the wight womant had in fact collapsed in a cornfield shortly before dawn on the last day, toes glued together with blood.

Shatt Safiya was a riot of song and dance. While men did what men do on occasions like this - drink marissa, Nuba beer brewed from sorghum - children wrestled under baobab trees. Women fetched water and ground grain. And in the middle of everything, under two iron bells that will remain silent until the family produces a new champion, Jumping Donkey's relatives sat and received their guests, hand-marks stamped in ash on their bodies as a sign of mourning.

"Everything our fathers did, we do," said Jumping Donkey's oldest son, Hamad Tutu Dabbah, a 48-year-old farmer who wore ancient beige trousers and a moth-eaten cardigan with a dignity that defies description. "Wrestling is the pride of the Nuba. You feed your boy so he will be strong. Before a match his brother will bring him water to drink. His sister will carry water for him. He will put tree roots on his wrists, his arms and his waist to keep him safe. If he wins, all the family and all the area will be proud."

But Nuba strength is not as it was in George Rodger's day, when the Nuba farmed the fertile plains of south Kordofan and young wrestlers were isolated in the bush with their cattle, eating meat and drinking milk. Today government troops control the plains and the Nuba are penned in in the mountains. Cattle are looted and cow-boys abducted from the bush. Confined to villages where cows are few and girls many, most young wrestlers marry young and retire early.

Old men speak of wrestling in elegiac tones. "We used to feed our boys to be good wrestlers. Today we feed them to fight the Arabs. We used to send our boys to the bush, to be away from women and become strong. Today wrestlers live in the village with women and girls. There is no milk, no meat; only sorghum. In our days, you never set eyes on a woman. If you looked at a woman your father would beat you."

Half a century ago, Jumping Donkey wrestled for more than three decades and married at the age of 46. "Wrestling is as important as it ever was," says his son, "but the champions aren't the same." They do not talk, as Leni Riefenstahl did, of wrestling as "the expression in the visible world of the invisible world of the mind and of the spirit."

But while wrestling may have lost some of its symbolism, much of its ceremony remains. Before the first matches began in Shatt Safiya and the dry stony plain became a dust storm, a goat was dismembered alive - in Rodger's time, before the war left the Nuba destitute, a bull would have been killed with spears - and the wrestlers' bodies were covered in ash scattered from calabashes. The best wore trophies made of horses' tails, as they always have. They stamped their feet, danced with their hands and made the traditional "wrestlers' snort" in imitation of a bull, before crouching, looking for signs of weakness or imbalance, and finally lunging at their opponent.

The celebrations continued for three days, attended by everyone except a group mourning a young girl who had died for want of medical treatment - a direct consequence of Khartoum's refusal to allow foreign aid access to the mountains. Her father was dull with grief: his wife and other three children had surrendered to the government in 1992 during a government- induced famine and had died, he had heard, in a "peace village".

But for most people, for these three days, the war was forgotten. From beyond the grave Jumping Donkey bore witness not only to the resilience and determination of the Nuba, but also to a unity that cuts across tribe, religion and even race.

Among the cheering crowd was an Arab prisoner of war. He had been treated for his wounds and was about to be returned to his family. On the long walk back across the mountains, past village after village burnt by government troops, I asked an SPLA commander why he released men to fight against him again. This was his response: "There are better ways of fighting than war. He may correct propaganda that says the SPLA are not good people and are fighting against the Arabs. The war is not against the Arabs; this war is for democracy and the rights of people."

Rodger's photographs and Riefenstahl's films have made the Nuba cultural icons. But their truly distinguishing features, their tolerance, generosity and respect for human rights, have gone unrecognised by an international community that is standing by while they burn. The images of the Nuba will forever remain part of the immortal iconography of Africa, but the people themselves may no longer exist. If the assault against them continues, Nuba culture will be eradicated and the people will live on only as a vassal underclass at the service of northern Arabs