Sudan accused of 'ethnic cleansing' of Nuba people

THE ONLY indisputable fact is that people were murdered. The circumstances and number killed are still under investigation, but researchers are convinced that over Christmas something evil happened in Jebel Heiban, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. It was the latest atrocity to emerge in what human rights groups say is a Sudanese government campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' against the Nuba people.

Since October 1991, access to the Nuba Mountains area of Kordofan province has been restricted by the Sudanese military crackdown on the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel group fighting the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. At that time, the human rights group Africa Watch reported the Nuba were suffering from raids by Arab militia, army attacks and SPLA abuses. It said the Nuba 'faced the destruction of their ethnic identity'.

Reports of the destruction of Nuba villages and a forced relocation campaign continue to trickle out of the area. The reports talk of atrocities and Arab confiscation of Nuba land. The latest came from Jebel Heiban. Although details are sketchy, it appears that Arab militiamen armed by Khartoum entered Jebel Heiban and killed many people. Estimates of the death toll range from 100 to more than 6,000. 'We are not sure of the number, but we are sure something pretty horrible happened,' said Virginia Lewling of Survival International which has sought to bring the Nuba people's plight to international attention.

Tomorrow, Amnesty International will issue a report highlighting abuses against the Nuba and condemning the state of human rights in Sudan. A debate on whether to make public a UN human rights report on Sudan, supposedly including criticism of Khartoum's policy toward the Nuba, is scheduled for next week in Geneva. An international campaign for Nuba defence will be launched in London on 4 March.

The Nuba is a diverse group of 1 million Bantu-speaking farmers and herders living in the 'Arab' half of Sudan. They attracted Western attention through glossy photo books by Leni Riefenstahl, the former Nazi film-maker. The depictions of 'noble savages' with elaborate body paint also brought the wrath of successive governments. Khartoum has tried to clothe the Nuba and clamp down on their 'primitive' way of life, which was an embarrassment to political leaders or an affront to their religious values.

The government of General Omar Hassan el-Beshir denies there is persecution of the Nuba, 40 per cent of whom are Muslim, and says reports of deaths and relocation are due to the civil war. According to Survival International, events in the Nuba Mountains are not a result of army operations against the SPLA or villagers thought to be aiding the rebels, 'but a concerted campaign to eradicate the Nuba as a people, leaving their lands to be taken over by other groups more acceptable to General Beshir's regime'.

The droughts which ravaged northern Sudan forced nomadic Arab tribesmen, who support the fundamentalist government, to look covetously towards the fertile Nuba lands.

Suleiman Rahhal, the general secretary of the Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad group, said the goal was to make the area for Arabs only. 'The plan is to drive Nubans from the land by force. This job is given to the Arab militia who have an interest in this. They burn villages to the ground. Then the government come in with their relocation camps to make sure the Nuba never settle in the area again.'