A young woman sings as she mills sorghum, the staple food of Sudanese living in the Nuba Mountains.
She grinds a grapefruit-size rock against a stone table, pulling the dried grain under the stone and pushing aside the flour as it piles up. Looking around at the mud-brick huts in the village of Mirawi, it would be easy to think that women here had been milling grain by this way for centuries.
But they haven't.
Only a few years ago, there was a diesel grinding mill nearby, saving hours of hard work for the Mirawi women. Since the civil war began in 1983, it seems, the people here have travelled back in time.
"People went back to the stone age," says Daniel Kodi, a Nuba native and founding member of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). "People started surviving from the resources they had used in former times, hundreds of years ago."
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the sight of the world's deadliest war. It has pitted successive Arab Muslim governments in the north against Christians and animists in the south. Over the past 17 years, nearly 2 million people have died from both famine and fighting related to the civil war.
Earlier this month, reports from the capital, Khartoum, said that almost 30,000 civilians fled the Nuba Mountains as fighting intensified between government troops and SPLA rebels.
Although much of the fighting is over religion, the Nuba Mountains show the ethnic dimension to the war. Many in the Nuba region are Muslim - religious tolerance is the norm, and intermarriage is common. Nuba Muslims say that because they are black and not Arab, they have never been accepted by the Arab north. The Nuba threw in with the SPLA in 1985, and since then the government has enforced a strict blockade against the region. Even though the United Nations warned last month that the Nuba region is threatened by starvation this year due to drought, the government in Khartoum will not allow aid deliveries to the south.
In the village of Mirawi, that means things like salt and sugar are rare commodities, and running water is unheard of. Malnutrition is widespread. "You cannot even find agriculture tools," says Mr. Kodi. "It is only if you are lucky to survive a shelling or bombardment. The fragments of that iron, people take it and try to make agriculture tools or knives or axes - that is the only material which could be found."
Kodi's words are borne out as a convoy of rebel soldiers passes through the village. The Kalashnikov assault rifles the soldiers carry are the only modern machine seen in the mountains these days. Just like everyone else in the region, the rebels walk as their only means of transportation, sometimes covering 50 miles in a day. The soldiers plan to walk toward the only functioning airstrip in the region, a clandestine runway about a 10-hour march from here. As they go, many villagers rush to join the convoy for the protection it offers.
Walking in the fertile plains between the mountain ranges has become particularly dangerous. Before the war this was productive farmland. "Most of the people were living in the flat fertile lands," says Jacob Yusef, who works with the Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organization - the political wing of the SPLA. "After the government offensives, they were forced to go up to the hills, which they are not used to," says Mr. Yusef.
Now the flat lands belong to neither side. The rebels burn back the brush near their trails so government troops cannot lie in ambush. According to Daoud Sadiq, a human rights monitor in Mirawi, "the government is using food as a weapon" The government has settlements in the parts of the Nuba hills under their control that are referred to as "peace camps." Mr. Sadiq alleges that these camps are the site of rape and forced labor. Famine is perhaps a larger killer than combat in Sudan, and when Nuba civilians get desperate they go to the camps where there is food - some of it provided by UN aid flights.
Sudanese Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"I would argue that there's a genocide going on," says Roger Winter, executive director of the US Committee for Refugees in Washington. "This is a culture that the government of Sudan is trying to liquidate." Mr. Winter says the Nuba Mountains, which had over a million people in 1985, have less than half of that now.
The combination of hardships has galvanized the many tribes of the Nuba Mountains. Though dozens of different dialects are spoken across the region, the Nuba suffer none of the in-fighting that plagues the rebels of southern Sudan, where the main ethnic groups, the Dinka and Bor, have warred as much with each other as with the government in the north.
"For us in Nuba, we feel that we are one people, regardless of our tribe regardless of our religion," says Ismail Khamese, acting commander of the SPLA in the Nuba Mountains. Mr. Khamese presided over a meeting in November with representatives who walked in from all the far reaches of the mountains, a territory the size of South Carolina.
After three days of discussion, the representatives voted, as they do every year, to continue fighting. "The future we want for the Nuba is that the people they should determine," says Khamese, "Otherwise there will be no Nuba. If you are not free to determine - it is better to die than to live as a slave in your own country."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society