ONE of Africa's most traditional peoples, the Nuba of Sudan, is being forced off its ancestral lands by the government, according to human rights groups.
A large-scale relocation of Nubas, a composite of ethnic groups marked by a rich culture of traditional music and dance, is under way. Tens of thousands are being trucked by the Sudanese government from the low Nuba mountains of central Sudan to large camps in the Northern Kordofan Province.
No one denies the relocation is taking place, but there are sharply contrasting explanations for it.
The Sudanese government says it is a humanitarian move to help the Nubas escape a civil-war zone.
But in a Sept. 9 report, Africa Watch, a Washington-based human rights group, claims the relocation is forced - part of an attempt to "eradicate" the cultural identity of a predominantly non-Muslim people who have never cooperated with Sudan's Islam-oriented governments.
It amounts to "ethnic cleansing," according to both Africa Watch and a United Nations official, using the term now applied to the Serbian pressure to force Muslims out of their home areas in Yugoslavia. A fertile battle ground
The Nuba mountains lie in the Southern Kordofan Province in central Sudan. The range provides fertile ground for Nuba farmers and ranchers.
It is also the northern-most battle area between the Islamic Khartoum government and the mostly Christian and animist Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of southern Sudan, whose members seek greater autonomy and an end to state-imposed Islamic law.
Both the government and the SPLA have committed abuses in the area, including assassinations of civilians, according to Africa Watch. More than 40,000 Nubas have already been trucked out of Southern Kordofan to camps in Northern Kordofan, the Africa Watch report says.
According to a recent report of the United States State Department, most Nubas in the camps are "sick and malnourished," and receive "inadequate" relief from Sudanese government and Islamic organizations.
A Sudanese official says the relocation became necessary after more than 150,000 Nubas fled their mountain homes in the past two months. The refugees crowded into and around Kadugli, the provincial capital, where lack of shelter made the ongoing relocation necessary, he says.
"Nobody's forcing them" to move, the official contends.
Africa Watch disputes this explanation. The report charges that many Nuba villagers had no choice but to flee their homes. Their villages were destroyed either in fighting between the SPLA and the government, or "purely for the purposes of relocating the population."
"This appears to amount to a systematic attempt to eradicate the identity of the Nuba," the report states.
Africa Watch Associate Director Alex de Waal, who wrote the study, told The Monitor there are "mixed motives" behind the relocation. One aim, he says, is to move Nuba civilians out of a war zone, he says.
But there is a commercial motive as well, Mr. De Waal contends. "A lot of farms will be built on the land vacated," and Muslims are the likely new owners. He expresses concern that the relocated Nubas are likely to end up working on large commercial farms as laborers. `Slavery of a sense'
An international relief official who has been to the Nuba mountains says the relocation puts the Nuba people into "slavery of a sense." The official says the villagers will get very low wages working on the new farms.
A Christian church worker in Sudan, who requested not to be identified, says the government is "taking strong men to cultivate farms. The women are taken for domestic slavery."
Africa Watch speculates that women and children eventually will be sent to stay with families in Northern Kordofan while the men are likely to end up working on farms owned by "wealthy merchants."
Historically, the Nuba people have been a target of Arab slave traders and Sudanese Muslims seeking to convert them. De Waal says the relocation puts many Nubas under government control, where pressure will be applied to convert them to Islam.
Another analyst, an American anthropologist with years of experience in Africa, says: "Islamization of the Nuba is a high priority for the fundamentalist Muslims" in Sudan.
Relocated Nubas who are Muslims or convert to Islam are given preference in food allocation in the new camps, according to several Sudanese Christian church workers in Sudan.
The Sudanese official claimed that the US relief organization CARE had helped in the relocation, and that the UN is fully aware of the operation.
But officials at the CARE headquarters in New York had no details on the effort, and UNICEF official Angela Raven-Roberts says as far as she knows, international agencies have not been allowed into the camps.
Jan Eliasson, UN under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, was scheduled to meet Sept. 15 with Sudan's military president, Lt. Gen. Omar El-Bashir. He said last week he was unfamiliar with the Nuba situation, but would be briefed on the Nuba issue before the meeting.