Interview with Yousif Kuwa Mekki London, February 12 and 13, 2001
By Nanne op ‘t Ende
On 31 March 2001, Yousif Kuwa Mekki died in Norwich, England. Shortly before his death he agreed to a very long interview, that took two days to complete. In sessions of half an hour, with a weak voice but with unfaltering mind, he spoke one more time about his life, the struggle for the rights of the Nuba people, and finally, the struggle against cancer.
Mr. Kuwa, when were you born?
Well, in those days our people didn’t care about birthdays, but my mother said I was born when my father came back home from the war of Tullushi. And the war of Tullushi was in 1945. It was the last battle between the British and the Nuba people. My father had been a noncommissioned officer during World War II. He fought in many places: in Ethiopia, in El Alamein and so on.
And where did you grow up?
At the beginning we were in the Nuba Mountains, but after some time my father decided to go to Medani and we followed him there. Then, the Government of Sudan (after independence, in 1956. NotE) started asking old soldiers to report to them; it was in need of soldiers to fight the rebellion in the South, Anya Nya I. Many were tempted to rejoin the army by promises of good salaries and certain concessions at the end of their service. My father too decided to go, and I went back to the Nuba Mountains.
Did your father’s profession as a soldier influence your perception of the situation in Sudan?
It affected me a lot when I understood how he was being exploited, taken to fight his brothers in the South. It wasn’t fair.
How about your education?
I went to the first primary school in Miri and we sat for examination in 1957. I did well, but nobody from our school passed because the teachers didn’t teach us properly. The headmaster, for instance, was supposed to give us mathematics. But by the time the pupils entered the class, he would just take his chair outside to go and sit under a tree. He was from the North, and saw no need for a Nuba to be taught.
But you did pass eventually?
I went to my father, who was in Malakal by then, in the South; I travelled to Kadugli, from there to Kaka, and then to Malakal. By the time I reached there, my father’s unit was about to be taken to the North; to eastern Sudan actually. So I went with him, I repeated the year in Gibeet and this time I passed the examination.
I had two years of Sinkat school in Kassala and then the rest of it in Sinkat itself. After that I went to Khartoum Commercial Secondary School. I could say I used to be a good student in intermediate school and even a good Muslim. But when I came to the Khartoum Commercial Secondary School in 1964, I had some incidents, which really effected my thinking.
After the uprising against Abboud (president Ibrahim Abboud had taken power in a coup in 1958 and was overthrown by a popular uprising in October 1964. NotE), we had a National Government and there was a lot of discussion within the society. One of the issues that divided the Sudanese was the women’s right to vote. One of those days the religious teacher, who gave us Islam, asked the class: “Well, what do you think about women’s right to vote?” We all participated, some are for, some are against and so on.
What was your opinion?
I was for of course. In the Nuba society we don’t think of women as in any way inferior to men. So after we had finished debating, some students were asking him: “And you, teacher, what is your idea?” He said: “Women’s rights? Why should they be given any rights? Women do not even work in their home or in their kitchen. They have the Nuba boys for that.” I was very frustrated; I just threw the books and went out of the class. That was the impression we Nuba got: this feeling of being disregarded – it certainly affected my political career.
After I passed the certificate I didn’t go to the university; I went to Darfur instead to work as a teacher. I worked at an intermediate school in ad Da’ein for five years, and then another year or two in Nyala. In Nyala I passed the examination to enter Khartoum University, Faculty of Economics, in 1975.
What was Khartoum like at that time?
Well, agui (brother. NotE), I don’t know; it was a normal city of the north, with the usual discrimination. Sudan was like that: if you were black, you were always treated as a slave. It was one of the problems there. But I would like to hint at some other points that affected my political thinking at that time.
When I applied to the University of Khartoum I wanted to go to the Faculty of Arts, to study languages. Instead, the ballot took me to the Faculty of Economics – and I have never regretted it. Studying politics and anthropology really opened my eyes: to the life, the political situation and so on. One day, I came across a book written by Nyerere: ‘Let us run while they walk’. (Julius Nyerere was Tanzania’s first president. “We must run while others walk” was one of his slogans. NotE) He was saying that we Africans should run while the white people are walking, because they are far ahead of us. But to me the most important issue he addressed was the role of the indigenous religion.
With the incidents that happened in Higher Secondary School, with the life I was living, religiously I wasn’t in equilibrium with my self. Although I felt I was a Muslim, I also had the feeling something was eluding me. And I felt no self-release, until Nyerere somehow provided me with an answer. He said: “I became a Christian when I was twelve years old and I believe in Christianity. But I still believe that as Africans we have our own rituals.” As an example Nyerere told how his father – who was a chief, with a lot of wives of course – ordered him to go with one of the wives to the funeral of a relative.
Nyerere went with her, and when the funeral was over they wanted to go home. Now, in Africa, if your relatives are good, they will give you something to go back with – so they gave their daughter a goat. Okay? And Nyerere of course was the one to take the goat with him. But when he tried to pull the goat, the goat was actually pulling him. They were pulling each other until one of the relatives saw them. The man took some hair from Nyerere’s head; took some hair from the goat, rubbed them together and said some kind of spell. And the goat went straight to the house.
His belief in the African traditions actually gave me relief, because in the Nuba Mountains we have the Kujur. Sometimes they perform certain acts; you are looking at it, but you cannot explain.
Is there a specific event you have in mind?
When there is no rain for example, the people will tell the kujur to come. He will perform a certain ritual and the rain comes.
So the book showed you the possibility of combining Islam with African traditions?
Not only that: it really relieved me and gave me feeling that all religion is one. Whether it is Islam or Christianity or Judaism or whatever. The only thing is faith. This is one of the things that affected me. And of course we started to believe in African socialism at that time. (Which is not based on class struggle, but on the idea of the traditional African community providing for all its members. NotE)
What was the main issue you concentrated on, while you were in university?
I remember that I was studying during Ramadan. I went to the library of the university, to the section of Sudan. Suddenly a question crossed my mind: “What has been written about the Nuba?” Because from the intermediate school upto university we didn’t learn anything about the Nuba. We learned all about the Arabs: how they came to Sudan, how they made kingdoms here and there, how good they are and so on and so forth. But nothing about other tribes or civilisations. So I said to myself: “Why don’t you see what has been written about the Nuba Mountains?” Lucky enough, I found a very big book called ‘Nuba’. It was written by Nadel, the British, in 1947. (Siegfried F. Nadel: ‘The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan’, London 1947. NotE) And this was the first time I learnt to know about myself. About the different tribes in the Nuba Mountains, about a lot of things.
Before that, you had no idea of the diversity and the different customs and.?
It is one of the funniest things: when you were in the Nuba Mountains, you just knew your own tribe. We for example were Miri. So if we were asked: “Who are the Nuba?” we would try to say: “The other tribes – but not us.” Only when we came out of the Nuba Mountains, to the north or south or west, we learned that we are all Nuba.
Anyway: I found that book and it was very interesting to read, because now I had a chance to know more about myself. Every day, once I finished the lessons, I just rushed to the library. Sometimes I was to be told by other people that it was the breakfast of Ramadan, because I was completely absorbed by reading about the Kushite kingdom, the Meroetic and the Tigali kingdoms. There have been many good cultures and good kingdoms in the Sudan before the Arabs came, and I was asking myself: “Why did we never learn about these cultures?”
Did you discuss these issues with your fellow students?
In fact in 1977 we held a Nuba conference in the University of Khartoum, inviting all the Nuba students whom we thought were committed to their problems or to the Nuba Mountains.
You say ‘we’: was there already some sort of Nuba organisation?
There were a lot of Nuba students, but some didn’t care what was going on in the Nuba Mountains, some were frightened even to discuss these things. But others thought that this was about our rights. So we looked for students who had a feeling of loyalty to the Nuba Mountains and then we made a four days’ conference. Several people lectured us; I remember R. Stevenson happened to be there. He was a linguistic who had lived in the Nuba Mountains for twenty years or more. And there was Faris, the anthropologist and photographer, who wrote about Kau Nyaro. (James C. Faris, ‘Nuba personal art’, London 1972. NotE)
Was this conference held openly?
No, we only selected those whom we wanted to participate. I think we were around thirty or forty, I’m not quite sure now. We concluded that to help our Nuba people, we would have to participate politically. We had to be present; we had to be practical in the political arena. There were two things we wished to tackle, because they will always work against us: religious differences and tribal differences. Of course we have a lot of tribes. (Over fifty. NotE) And we have Christians, Muslims, non-Muslims and so on. The main result of that conference was the foundation of Komolo, or Youth movement, through which we wanted to work for the political rights of the Nuba.
Were the youth involved in Komolo from many different tribes?
Well, the main group was around Kadugli, and then Dilling. The Kowalib were with us, Heiban also, and we tried of course to penetrate other areas, but it was difficult. It was only the eastern Jebels where we were not present. Tagali, Abasya, and so on. Mostly we were in the University of Khartoum of course, so our activity was limited until we graduated. Then we started to operate in our areas, around Kadugli and other places.
Abdel Aziz al Hillu was already a member of Komolo at that time? (Abdel Aziz Adam al Hillu succeeded Yousif Kuwa as governor and commander of the SPLA area in the Nuba Mountains. NotE)
Yes, he was my deputy in the university. But not in the Komolo outside. I met him only in Khartoum University, but since then of course we were friends.
Were there no Nuba politicians at all?
In 1964, there was the General Union of the Nuba, or GUN. I remember we participated in lectures in 1965, when I was in the higher secondary school. Especially the students in the University of Khartoum were active in GUN. The party succeeded to have ten chairs in the parliament. The funny thing is: before 1964 there were these traditional parties, like Umma and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party. NotE). For every election they used to import candidates from Khartoum and El Obeid to the Nuba Mountains, who would come with things and ask for votes.
You mean that they gave people presents to vote for them?
Money or whatever, yes. They would take the votes, and then never appear again until the next elections.
They never did anything for the Nuba?
No, no, not at all. They didn’t even know who the Nuba were, because they came from different areas. So after the October revolution of 1964, and the establishment of General Union of the Nuba, the members of GUN decided that the Nuba should stop these import candidates; we had to elect our own people. And that is when the elections of 1965 came. GUN gained ten seats at the cost of the Umma and the DUP. Since then, there has been a lot of conflict between these parties and the Nuba.
How was your relationship with Father Philip?
Yes, Philip Abbas Gabboush! He was the head of the Nuba Union. I looked at him as a godfather at that time. He did a lot of good for the Nuba.
Did he teach you what politics is about?
Not in classes and so on, just by practice.
You went back to Kadugli in 1980?
Yes, I worked as a teacher in Kadugli Higher Secondary School. It was a chance for us to recruit the young intellectuals, because most of them were working as teachers at that time, especially in the Nuba Mountains. Usually they had no other ambition than to have a bicycle, a good pair of trousers and a shirt, to follow the parties and the girls and so on. No interest in politics, none at all. They were our first target, and we started to tell them: “This is our country: if we do not participate ourselves, who is going to work for us?”
It was all clandestinely?
And you met at houses of Komolo members?
Yes of course, we just saw who could be relied upon.
It must have been dangerous.
Well, not that much really. And our chance came soon, in 1981, when Sudan was divided into regions and there should be elections for the Regional Parliaments. Kordofan became a region, so that was a good opportunity for us. We concentrated our campaign on the youth. They didn’t care what was going on, but they were a big number. In each house you would find three to four, five youth. The older people already had their own orientation; if some of them were willing to participate or to help, we had nothing against them of course, but generally we just concentrated on the youth.
By youth you mean young men?
Young men, yes – and girls. We told them: there is no difference between boys and girls: this is our country, and all of us have to participate. It was really a good policy I think, because I won the election in Kadugli. So I went to El Obeid (The capital of Kordofan. NotE) as a representative of Kadugli constituency. There were other Nuba, three or four. I was elected Deputy Assembly Speaker in the Regional Body.
I understood you had many clashes with the governor?
From day one! In fact even before we went to the assembly body. In a meeting of all the representatives of Southern Kordofan we concluded that in the past Northern Kordofan used to take all our rights. We thought we had a chance now to have equality, or at least to have equal chances.
There were five positions in the assembly: the spokesman with the deputy, then the chairman of the assembly and his deputy, and then the government representative. So we said: “If the spokesman from the assembly body is from Northern Kordofan, the deputy should be from Southern Kordofan.” Okay? But then the assembly body chairman should be from Southern Kordofan and the deputy from Northern Kordofan. Of course, for the position of government representative, they had the right to choose whomever. That was what we agreed upon as representatives of Southern Kordofan.
But when we came to El Obeid, we were told that both the spokesman and the assembly body chairman would be from Northern Kordofan and only the deputies would be from Southern Kordofan. So we told them our position. Then I was called by the governor: “Ya agui, this is how we have decided to do it: why are you objecting?” I told him: “It is not me who is objecting; I am just saying what we have agreed to as a group. I think that if we could do it the way we propose, it would give us a good start – at least with a good will.”
First he plainly refused, and then he said: “We have to go for elections for that matter, in the assembly body.” We agreed; we made the elections, and the candidate of Northern Kordofan became assembly body chairman instead of me. I congratulated him and I told him: “Our objections should not be taken as something personal. That was our stand and we put it, but we’re ready to co-operate. The most important thing is the work for our people.”
Strangely enough, after three days, we discovered that we had been cheated. The assembly body met before the parliament itself. And in the elections, I remember, I had 24 votes, and the candidate from Northern Kordofan had 26. One, the spokesman was neutral; that made 51. On the third day in the parliament, the minutes of that assembly body meeting came out. And it showed that the first day one member had not been there – and that was number 48!
He made the difference you mean?
A big difference! How could there have been 50 votes when there were only 48 representatives, of whom one was missing? Of course peopled started to say: “Oh, we have been cheated, we ismudea, wowowo-,” they wanted to make a big issue out of it. But when they came to me, I said: “It is our own fault, we should have been more careful. Since the whole thing has gone, we have to work, no problem.”
But others continued, out of party motivations, and they wrote a message to the governor. They even included my name. So I was called again by the governor: “Oh, why are you making a lot of problems and troubles?” I asked him what was wrong. He said: “You signed with the people who are objecting!” I denied, and he said: “But your name is there!” I said: “Well, if my name is there, the question is: have I signed? I never saw this letter before.” And so on.
There were continuous problems, and we were always accused of being racialist and this and that and. a lot of problems. In 1983, when there was a re-election of governors, we fall apart with the governor and I went back to being just a representative of Kadugli constituency.
Was there any collaboration with other parties?
Well, there was some co-operation. But of course it was not so clear because all political parties were banned.
What were the objectives at the time?
We thought our area was backward – there was no comparison between Southern Kordofan and Northern Kordofan or any other part of the country. We wanted some equality, some services, so that people could feel that they were belonging to the same country.
Did you feel that is was possible?
It wasn’t possible, because whenever you talked, you would be – as I said – described as a racialist, a separatist, a this and that and always they would try to find something to condemn you for. And that is why we were enthusiastic to read the SPLA manifesto of 1983, which talked about fighting for a united Sudan, for equality and share of power, share of economy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of practising culture. That is what made us join the SPLA in 1984. We were disappointed with the situation.
You had to go somewhere to join, you had to have some contacts.?
Were there people, in Kadugli for example, who were involved?
In Khartoum. We had a meeting of the Komolo. After going through the manifesto, I was appointed to go and see the possibility of joining. I was told to go alone and report afterwards. And this is what happened. I went to Khartoum, there were people there who helped me to Ethiopia, and I joined the SPLA in Addis Ababa.
Did you discuss the matter with Doctor John Garang himself?
Sure. When I went there, of course I met him. I told him that we, as an organisation in the Nuba Mountains, had decided to join the SPLA, if there weren’t any restrictions or something like that. “And since you are calling for a New Sudan, a new united Sudan,” I said, “we from our side have no objection to join you.” And he welcomed us very much.
Would you say you are friends with Garang?
Ya, after that. Of course that was the first time I met him. But I think he is a friend, ya. Sometimes, when somebody has power, the friendship has. One has to be a bit cautious.
But I understand you trust him?
Very much – and he trusts me also.
Did you follow military training in Ethiopia after you joined?
My military training was in 1986, 1987. (In another interview he said it was from October1985 to December 1986, which is more likely to be correct. NotE)
So you did other things before that?
Yes. My first assignment was to represent the SPLA in Southern Yemen; I opened the office there. Then I was sent to Kenya, to tie relations with the Kenyan government. After that, I came back.
That was your assignment: to make contact with the governments of Yemen and Kenya?
No, the Yemen office was already established, I just became the representative. And actually my next assignment was not to make the relation with the Kenyan government, but just to go to Nairobi. At that time the tribal identity of the Movement was a big issue. Questions like Dinka Bahr al Ghazhal versus Dinka Equatoria, or the Movement being a Dinka movement and so on. Doctor John told me: “You go and make rallies, to explain that this is our Movement, that it has nothing to do with the propaganda of it being a Dinka movement.” And this is exactly what I did.
Were you successful?
Very successful, ya. Because I was from the Nuba Mountains people listened to me differently than to the others. And of course it was a matter of logic.
So after this campaign in Nairobi you went back to Ethiopia?
No, I went to Cuba: political school and military school. That was for the senior officers. (Yousif Kuwa was a member of the High Command of the SPLA. NotE)
Was it tough?
Not very. But it was good to see how the people were living there; it was a good experience. We moved around to other provinces during the holidays of political school. But during the military training we usually spent two weeks inside, only to go to another place for some entertainment every second weekend.
Did the political education influence you a lot?
Sure, sure. But it was mainly about the armed struggle.
You returned in 1987?
Well, we had some forces in the training centre, and I was given my first battalion: Volcano Battalion. I led it to the Nuba Mountains, together with Abdel Aziz, who was my adjutant.
Had it been Abdel Aziz who led the first task force that entered the Mountains in 1986?
No. In fact there were two battalions that went to penetrate the Mountains in 1986, but they existed of very few people. There were some Nuba people in the Abushok Battalion. They went with Awad Karim Kuku, Telefon Kuku and Yusuf Karra, and in the Mountains they found Yunis Abu Sudur. So when we arrived in 1987, they had already established a centre, and they had recruited some men. By the time we went in, the first group came out: almost one thousand men. They were from different areas, but the majority was from the Moro hills.
How many men were with you in Volcano?
We had two battalions; around six hundred men actually, because there had been desertion of course, on the way to the South.
What happened when you entered?
We entered on the twenty-fifth (of June. NotE), during the night, to avoid contact with the enemy or anybody else. We came through a place called Tabuli and from there we marched upto a placed called ar-Rimla, where we arrived at six in the morning. By the time we were settling some people came to warn us that the army in Talodi took its water from here, and that they may come after some times – with a tractor.
We chose to decoy them; to run with an ambush, so that we could take this tractor. But unfortunately, they had learned of our presence. They came in a lorry with a big force, and they started shooting at us. That was the first battle in my life, in ar-Rimla. We fought, we fought, and we killed eleven of them, or something like that; the rest ran away. But of course, they left the lorry behind. After the battle we continued to Serif al Jammus.
How did the Nuba people respond?
Oh, I wish I had had a video camera at that time. No, no, no, no, no, no, you can not imagine it now. I just compare it with films about the Roman Empire, when the legions, after winning a battle, come to Rome in triumph. You see people come and.
Actually they were afraid at the beginning. But some of them approached, and then they realised that these were their sons. They told the other people and then everybody rushed to his house to take whatever: water, milk, marissa (sorghum beer. NotE), whatever. They came meeting us in groups, and we were marching and people came running from different directions. It was fantastic, just fantastic.
You went to Serif al Jammus?
Yes, we went to Serif al Jammus and from there I went upto Achiron. That was my headquarters. The recruits were there too, and we started to move the number of them to the South. We stayed for two months, and then our ammunition became a problem.
When we moved from our training centre in Ethiopia we were told: “You will have your ammunition in front.” We went in front, then it was still in front, in front, in front, until we reached Fariang. (Place just south of the Nuba Mountains. NotE) We waited there, but after a while we said: “If we stay here without ammunition until the rainy season is finished, it will be very difficult to enter the Mountains.” So we had to go in with only sixty bullets average and hope that the ammunition would come soon.
Of course Riek Machar was the SPLA commander of Bentiu at the time. He had promised to bring the ammunition upto Fariang, but for reasons I don’t know he refused. He never did it and he said: “You come and take your ammunition from Bentiu.” I had to go back to Fariang, and then send soldiers of Fariang to Bentiu. I couldn’t send my own soldiers, because the majority of my forces were from the South. they would have just continued home.
So I left Abdel Aziz behind with some forces and came down to Fariang. We stayed there while those of Fariang went to Bentiu and brought back the ammunition. And now, wickedly, Riek convinced Dr John that we should go and attack Higliga. It had nothing to do with my mission, but instead of asking me for my opinion Rik just gave the orders to attack Higliga. I told him: “I am going to fulfil your orders, but I don’t think it’s a good idea and I am sure the army will disperse.” And that is what happened.
As soon as we told the troops we were going to Higliga, everybody took his things; they all went. We remained with our Nuba guys. At the same time, Abdel Aziz already reached us with some recruits. After the first battle at ar-Rimla, of course the government tried to drive us out of the Mountains. While I was in Fariang, the army attacked Achiron with the artillery, forcing Abdel Aziz to evacuate. Since there was no way for us to go back to the Nuba Mountains, we continued, with the rest of the recruits, to Ethiopia.
How was that journey to Ethiopia?
I don’t know in what sense?
Well, it’s not like you walk from here across the street!
Of course! Ya. But actually, when we came, we had to take a much longer road. We came through Pochala, Pibor, Bor, Fariang, and then we went in the Nuba Mountains. Luckily enough, by the time we came out, there was an agreement between SPLA and Anya Nya II forces (a resumption of Anya Nya I, formed before the SPLA with which it joined forces in 1983, later to split again to join the government. NotE) to stop the hostilities. So instead of going the long way, we just went through Adok – this is in the Shilluk area – to Atar, Khor Fulus, we followed that route upto Ethiopia, and it took us one month only.
Were the recruits prepared for a walk of one month?
Of course some didn’t know where we were going, and others. Well, you know – they were told: “Oh, we will reach, we will reach.” until we reached, ya. But of course, the first recruits went that long way.
I’m interested to know more about the training in Ethiopia.
Well, there was a training centre in Bilfam where all the recruits were trained. From there they would be divided into battalions and divisions, and then they were assigned. So our people were trained there, and then, in January 1988, we started going back, with six battalions. This was the New Kush Division.
I heard from many soldiers that the training in Ethiopia was really severe.
Ya, sometimes it was. Discipline and sometimes this question of food – well, a lot of problems. But there was no way out of course, it wasn’t a matter of accepting the circumstances or not: they just had to do it.
What happened when you re-entered the Mountains in 1989?
Well, yanni: we came, we occupied some places, we fought, we started to establish ourselves in the Nuba Mountains. And this is what has been done upto now.
Surely, there must be more you can tell me about it?
It’s a long story of course. Abdel Aziz took five of the battalions in front and he entered the Mountains in March. I came behind with one battalion, but the first forces entered in March. Now the way they entered, from the South, they would have to pass through Lake Abiad. But at that time, the Baggara Arabs used to concentrate their cows around the Lake. We knew they were there and the soldiers had strict orders not to touch them, not to quarrel them – because we had nothing to quarrel them for.
So when our forces approached Lake Abiad, they decided to walk the whole night to bypass it. And they did bypass it until in the morning they reached a point of water, called Hafir Nigeria, where they wanted to have a bit of rest. But the Baggara militia had found their trace and they had followed it until they came and attacked our soldiers in Hafir Nigeria.
You see? This is one of the things we are always trying to say, because we are often accused of being against the Arabs and so on, while that is not true at all. When the militia attacked them, of course, our people fought. The Baggara went back with their casualties and our forces continued to Fama.
There, the government army knew that our forces were coming. It had two battalions, called Volcano One and Volcano Two. (Not to be confused with the SPLA Volcano Battalion that entered the Mountains in 1987. NotE) Volcano One, I think, was in Fama. It clashed with our forces there. Our forces fought them; they even destroyed a tank and captured an anti-tank gun. Actually they almost destroyed Volcano One.
From Fama our forces went to Korongo Abdallah. Korongo is two hours walking from Kadugli, so the government army didn’t like that. It started to collect all its forces. And then one day they started to shell Korongo. From five in the morning upto the evening: shelling from far away. With the one-twenty, with the Howitzer and so on. They were shelling the whole day. And of course, anybody who heard the shelling would say: “Oh, there is nobody left in Korongo.”
But that was not all: the government army went to the people of Kaylak – Kaylak is south of Korongo, there are Baggara Arab militias there – they went and told them: “Ya, Korongo is finished! You just go there and collect whatever you can find, whether cows or whatever is there. All the people of Korongo are finished!” But actually, in spite of all the shelling, nothing serious had happened.
No damage done at all?
No, not at all; very few shells hit anything.
Korongo lies on a U-shaped hill, okay? And our forces were up there, all along this U-shaped hill. To their surprise they saw the Arab militia coming, in a very big number, with their wives singing and… Some carried guns, others just spears – and they fell in that ambush: they were killed very badly.
When he entered Korongo, Abdel Aziz had found one of the Baggara Arabs there. He told him to go and tell his people that our forces had nothing against the Baggara, and that they should not support the government. The man went with his son, and according to the information we got, he talked to the people. He said: “These people, don’t undermine them. They are not against you, so there is no need to go and fight them.” Then they described him as a coward – if he didn’t want to fight he should take his children and his sons and go. He took his sons and left. And these people came to their fate.
Our forces in Korongo endured a lot of attacks from the government army, and each time they repulsed them. But because it was a continuous thing, they decided to leave Korongo. They wanted to go to the Moro hills, because our supporters there were larger in number and it is a bit far from Kadugli.
They needed support of the people for food, and shelter and things like that?
For everything, yes. So, they decided to go to Moro, and they moved. Unfortunately the government army was informed and our forces fell into a very big ambush. Of course they were dispersed but in the end they came together in the Moro hills. They reorganised themselves, and then they started to distribute the battalions to different areas. They took some places, like Regifi and Umdulu – Umdulu is Moro land, Regifi is in Otoro. They met little resistance, because except for Kadugli, there were no armed troops stationed in the Mountains. Only policemen.
After Abdel Aziz had retreated to Moro, the government responded very heavily on.
Korongo ya. Because, of course, it was near to Kadugli.
Did the people of Korongo blame the SPLA for their problems?
I don’t know.
You have no idea?
I have no idea. But of course, some people stayed, some joined the government and so on.
When did you come in?
Well, I came to Fariang in April, when there was no water between Fariang and the Nuba Mountains. I was advised not to continue, because the militia would make ambushes at the few places of water. So we stayed in Fariang.
Now Hamad Abdel Karim, the Nuba commander of Volcano Two (one of the battalions of the government army; see above. NotE), was ordered to attack me in Fariang. But since the fighting had begun, according to him almost forty percent of his forces were out of action. So he said: “Most of my soldiers are wounded and some have died – I cannot go to Fariang unless I have new forces.” Nevertheless they insisted that he should go, but he just closed his mind and went back to Kadugli. He was arrested and put in prison, but then the coup d’état of Bashir came. (30 June 1989. NotE) This is where he was released.
We were in Lake Abiad, at three o’clock daytime, when we heard that there was a coup in Khartoum, that Omar al-Bashir is the leader of this coup and so on. That night we entered the Nuba Mountains.
Did the coup divert the attention from the Nuba Mountains; was it an advantage for you?
Not at all. It didn’t change anything. Maybe it was good for the South, because when al-Bashir came to power they declared a six months ceasefire for the South. But that wasn’t extended to the Nuba Mountains; in fact we have been fighting all the time.
You met up with Abdel Aziz in Moro?
Ya, in Limun, where he had made his headquarters. From there I went to Changaro and I made my headquarter there. After some times, Abdel Aziz took a battalion, and he came to Korongo again. Then Ismael Khamis took another three battalions to the western Jebels, and he established himself there. That was still in 1989.
Was there a strategy of how to penetrate the Nuba Mountains, where to go first or where to.
Yes of course! We had supporters in the western Jebels, so we planned to go there. And they are there upto now, despite all the efforts of the Sudanese government.
Especially in 1992, when they recruited 35.000 men of the army, militia and mujahadiin, for the Tullushi battle. They gave us a very hard time, but our forces resisted. The government army stayed until May, when the rain started to fall. (The siege of Tullushi started in december1991. NotE) They saw the danger of being there during the rainy season, so they withdrew, after making a lot of noise: “Oh, we have cleaned the Nuba Mountains of the rebels.” It was a lot of lies.
The Tullushi battle is legendary among the Nuba; can you tell me more about it?
Well, it was very big ya, but I cannot give details, because I was not there. Mohamed Juma’a was the commander of Tullushi battle. Of course I was commanding from the headquarters, but I had other things to take care of.
The Tullushi battle took place after the break-away of those of Riek (In August 1991 Riek Machar and other senior SPLA leaders had turned against John Garang, causing a split within the SPLA. NotE), and we had been cut off from the South. As a result, our logistics were very few, and I had to be very economical. When they made noise, I just gave them two or three boxes. And they would go and fight with it, and sometimes, of course, they captured ammunition from the government. They captured a lot of armament in the Tullushi battle. And I remember we killed a lot of Iranians.
Did you see their bodies?
Well, I saw their skeletons.
Although you were the main responsible person for the whole operation, most of the military activities were carried out.
By the commanders Like Abdel Aziz and Ismael khamis With Mohamed Juma’a yes, and the rest. It is true.
How was the working relationship with these commanders?
Well, since we entered in 1989 the relation was very good. And we worked in harmony until the split of Riek, when some people started to change their mind, like Awad Karim Kuku and Yunis Abu Sudur.
Awad Karim Kuku had joined Riek Machar in 1986. He had come with him to the Bentiu area, had been with him all this time, and he fought a lot of battles at the side of the Nuer, Anya Nya II especially. Awad Karim believed that the Nuer were more courageous than the Dinka – they had no fear of fighting. Okay? So when he heard that I declared my support to Garang, immediately after the mutiny, Awad Karim wasn’t happy. But he didn’t discuss it with me. I think he went and discussed it with those of Abu Sudur.
Yunis Abu Sudur had a different attitude altogether: he didn’t want to fight anymore. He thought there was a chance for him to have a good position, because when he was in the government army, his commander was Omer al-Bashir. So these men came together. They wanted to mobilize officers and forces loyal to them, in order to confront me.
Of course our intelligence discovered it and they warned me. I did my best actually to avoid problems. Right at the beginning, I called them and I said: “This is a very bad situation and we don’t know the outcome. But the important thing is that we should stick together in all cases. We have to stick together and we have to treat our people well, because if we are cut off, or if the whole thing collapses there, we have to be with our people here until the day comes that we can make an agreement with the Sudanese government or whatever.” That was my advice to them.
But as I said, each had his own ideas. Awad Karim, I think, believed that Riek would take over the SPLA, and he thought he had a lot of supporters here and there.
Did they themselves have a lot of support?
No, they just chose some officers here and there and NCO’s (noncommissioned officers. NotE). In the end I arrested them and we arrested those who were active: officers or NCO’s.
What happened to them?
Well, I put them in the prison. Then I took them to Fariang, out of the Nuba Mountains, so that there would be no problems inside. From there other forces were to escort them to Bahr al-Ghazal; I wanted them to go to the South, to stay there. I sent their wives to join them and they were marched off.
Unfortunately, there was this disease in Fariang: kala azar. (Visceral leishmaniasis; transmitted by sandflies; fever, weight loss, swelling of spleen and liver, anaemia; deadly if untreated. NotE) A lot of officers died of kala azar while they were walking to Bahr al Ghazal. Those who did reach Bahr al Ghazal, were put in the prison there. After some times Dr. John said: “We have to forgive them, whatever happened.” So those who had survived were released and they went to the South, to Kaya and so on.
Later, I think those of Awad and Yunis involved themselves with somebody called Abu Khazim, from Darfur. There were monitors between Uganda and Sudan, and they were trying to take them hostage or to drive them away. I think the security knew this and took them to prison. When I went to the convention (the 1994 SPLA convention in Chukudum. NotE), I was told that some people had broken out of prison. They had wanted to escape to Uganda first, but they ran into our forces and clashed with them. Some died on the spot; the others changed their direction to Zaire. But our forces there had closed the road and they clashed with them also. And this is where I knew Awad and Yunis were killed.
Could you describe the situation in the Nuba Mountains in 1990 and 1991?
In those years, the hunger was the most dangerous. Actually it convinced me that hunger is the most dangerous enemy. Yanni, we can fight with our enemies, against tanks, against what, but we cannot fight hunger.
What caused the hunger?
Shortage of rain. It was really a very bad time; a lot of people were suffering. And then some said that they wanted to go to the government.
They were expecting food from the government?
Well of course, on the government side there were relief camps from the UN. Meanwhile the government was refusing any relief to come to us.
What did you say to these people?
I told them it was better they went, instead of dying of hunger.
So they went?
Of course they went.
At some point you entered into negotiation with the government, is that right?
Well, actually it was initiated in 1990 by one of the ministers called Mohamed al-Amin Khalifa. He sent me a message, trying to tell me: “Yes, you have a problem, but this problem has nothing to do with the South. We are ready to sit with you as Nuba and solve this problem alone, without being part of the South,” and so on.
I replied to him that this was really the policy of the colonial powers: divide and rule. We are not claiming anything specific. Yes, it is true, we have our specific problems, but the problem is general. If we can solve the whole problem, then our problems automatically will be solved. I don’t think we can solve the Nuba problems without the Southern problem. And if we don’t want to fight the government, what do we do if the South is still fighting? That would mean we have to fight the South – either way we keep fighting. So, that was the first message from him and I replied.
Then, when those of Riek broke away, they tried again. A test of course; my reply was the same, but this time they also came through the governor of Kadugli. We exchanged a lot of messages, and he sent some of our people, who told me: “Oh, this is a good governor; he’s better than the previous one; people can make a deal with him.” I told them that I didn’t believe that, because he’s a governor, not the president. If one of my officers somewhere wouldn’t go along with my policy, I couldn’t leave him to his post.”
But they insisted: “No, he is good; let us try,” and so on. So I said: “Well, if that is the case: we have our grievances with this government. When this government came to power, they declared a ceasefire for six months in the South. They didn’t do it, even for a day, in the Nuba Mountains; upto now they are allowing relief to go to the South, they are not allowing relief to come to us. So how do I trust such a government and how do we deal with such a government? At least we need to know that they really mean what they are saying. If they mean it, then, at least they have to let the relief come. ” And they said: “Okay, let us sit and see whether the relief comes,” and so on and so forth. This is why we had the Tabanya meeting.
Representatives of Khartoum and of the governor of Kadugli came to Tabanya and met with our people. One of the issues was to allow free traffic between the government area and our places. The representatives agreed to it: everyone could go and come back freely. The people in our area had a lot of problems: they were lacking salt and so many other things, so they rushed to the town to buy whatever they needed – and then they were forbidden to leave. We stopped the whole thing at once.
When did the population start to abandon their villages in the plains or down the hills to flee up the mountains?
On their own, or when they are forced?
When they were forced.
Of course this is during the attacks and during the military burning of farms and so on.
The years following 1989, there were a number of attacks from the government and the Popular Defence Forces on villages throughout the Mountains: how did the SPLA respond to these attacks?
Well, actually the attacks on the villages didn’t start in 1989. At the beginning they used to come and fight us wherever we were, as SPLA. But the Tullushi battle in 1992 made them realize how difficult it would be for them to dislodge us. Then they started trying to take the people away from us, to drain us from the population. That is the policy they have been using upto today. Instead of engaging the SPLA forces directly, they go to undefended villages, surround them and take all the people to what they call ‘peace villages’.
How would you describe these peace villages?
Well, I didn’t see them, but what I heard is that they are places where people are collected. Sometimes the women are chosen to work in the houses, and men are taken to the agricultural schemes to work there. Children are taken to Koranic schools, so that they become Islam-oriented and so on. This is what I heard – beside the other abuses that are committed inside these peace camps.
There’s something called ‘peace from within’.
Ya, from 1992 also, they started to call an-Nafir as-Shaabi (literally ‘the co-operation of the people’. NotE). This meant that they were trying to persuade certain chiefs to go to their tribes and tell them: “Oh, you better come to the government.” They would give them some salt and sugar and other things that we lacked at that time, so they could attract people to follow them to the government areas or to the peace camps. That has been the policy of the government ever since they felt that they couldn’t easily finish the rebellion in the Nuba Mountains.
Has it been a successful policy?
To some extent, yes. First of all: since we entered the Nuba Mountains, until 1993, there was no tribalist attitude among the Nuba. But due to this policy, feelings of tribal rivalry were revived among the SPLA soldiers and the population. The government targeted almost every village. They would send a chief or somebody from the elite to go and talk: “You are this tribe, why do you follow of X or Z? The war is not good, we should stop it, and so on.”
What did you do to address it?
Nothing, except talking to the people: that this is the government policy of tribalism, of divide and rule and so on.
You travelled a lot to meet the people?
Sure, sure. Since 1989 I used to travel from place to place, to tell the people why we are fighting and what is our goal. I don’t think there is a place where I did not go. Maybe a small village, but. Sometimes a lot of villagers gathered in one place so that I could address them all at once. This way I have been visiting the whole area that was under our control.
You’ve been quoted saying: “I have always been more involved in politics than in fighting.”
Well, first of all, I do believe a politicised soldier is far better than just a normal soldier. And politicised people will know why they are fighting; they know why they have to resist or why they have to face these difficulties and so on. You can say I am rather a politician than a soldier. So I make rallies with the army and with the people.
And since 1990 we have been organizing the people so they feel participants in the struggle. We started in Nagorban, where I was staying. The people chose their representatives on a village level, payam (group of villages. NotE) level , and county level. The first year was a test, and when it proved to work very good, in 1991 we started to establish it in other places we controlled. One year later we held a census: not less than 400.000 people were living under our administration.
Is there a relationship between the hunger you talked about and setting up a democratic administration?
There is no relation. I thought we had to make people participate, especially the citizens. That is why we were trying to organize them: so they would feel that what was going on is not a military thing or an SPLA thing; it is our thing, our SPLA. That was the idea behind organizing them, and it had nothing to do with hunger, hunger is a different issue altogether.
How were the representatives chosen?
We called al the villagers together in a village congress, so that they chose their committee. The committee is a matter of eleven members, which should include the chief and a women’s representative – the rest they can choose freely. This is how each village chooses their representatives.
Then ten villages compose a payam. The representatives of these ten villages compose a base for the payam, and they too will select eleven from among them as payam administrators and representatives. Put it in mind that here also there should be a representative for women, and that the chief of the people’s court should be there. So, that is the Payam.
Five payams compose a county and the representatives of the five payams of course elect the county council from among them.
It must have been difficult; there were not many educated Nuba in the Mountains.
Of course, upto now there are only few educated people, but I don’t think it was that difficult. First of all, we wanted them to feed the army. And this had nothing to do with education. We wanted to try if they would be able to see and to tackle their problems themselves. If not, they could always hand it over to others and so on and so forth. It didn’t need any intellectual thinking, just common sense really.
But the people had little experience with ideas like democracy?
Ya, well, no. I think most of the Nuba had experience with a more traditional type of democracy. In the past, when there was any problem in the village, the elders of the village would come together to discuss it, and they would come out with some decision – which the village would follow. So it was not that strange.
The difficulty actually came as a result of the fear of the citizens from the soldiers. When the soldiers first came they were a bit harsh; they solved things with force and so on, so that was the difficulty at the beginning. But we encouraged the civilians and we always supported them, until they became more self-confident.
You say the soldiers were harsh: how did they behave?
Well, as soldiers. Most of them were okay, but soldiers always look down at civilians: even if they are educated, they are just civilians. And this was always the problem: when a soldier wanted something and someone wouldn’t give it to him, he could just take it. But mainly they were okay, especially in the Nuba Mountains. Some of course tried to use their weapons to steal and -, yanni, we executed them.
You said the people were suffering, and hunger drove them to the government side. Was this one of the developments that led upto forming the Advisory Council?
Once again: the hunger had nothing to do with governance or organisation. The Advisory Council met in September 1992: there was no hunger.
Hunger was no issue in 1992?
Not at all, ya. The hunger was in 1990, 1991
I had the impression that.
No, no, no, no, no, nothing at all. What led to the Advisory Council was a completely different issue.
I told you there were people who wanted to make a coup – or whatever you may call it. I had to arrest them and take them to the South. But of course I said: “If our people do not want to fight, it will be very difficult to push them. So it is better I take their opinion and see whether they want to continue fighting or not, after this period.” That was the idea behind the Advisory Council.
In 1992 we had all the organisations formed, including the different counties, so all county members were members in this Advisory Council; all the task force commanders; all the chiefs; representatives of the Christians and Muslims, and so on. We had around 200 members, and that is how we held the first Advisory Council. The meeting went on for four days.
The first two days actually I did the talking. About the history of the Nuba since the Kushite kingdom, all along, until the independence. How, after independence, the General Union of the Nuba was established and then how Komolo came, how people looked at the SPLA manifesto and how we joined the SPLA. I talked about what we gained all this time, and what we lost.
What had the Nuba gained – and what had they lost?
Taking up arms had given the Nuba a status they didn’t have before. They became more respected than before. Each government would try to have a Nuba minister – this had never been seen before. The Nuba people had even started to feel some self-confidence, they no longer feared being Nuba, and so on. Which was a very big gain. And of course, the losses were this war, the destruction, the death and so on and so forth. But this is the price of freedom.
So, after finishing I told them: “I am responsible for all that happened before, upto this day: I can take the whole responsibility. But from today on, it will be us to decide. Either we continue fighting, and this would be our responsibility – or we stop fighting, and this would be our responsibility also. And after that, we will let the individuals take their decision: If we decide to fight and some prefer to go to the government, they are free to do so. And if we decide to surrender and some want to go to the South and fight, they are also free to do so.” With that, I opened the discussion, and it went on for two days.
A very hot discussion, because some suggested that we should make peace with the government, and others did not want to stop fighting.
What were the arguments in favour of peace with the government?
Well, that there were a lot of dead, that there was hunger, that people were dying, they were naked, there were a lot of diseases, and so on. But I remember there were two women, who really stood up and argued against this.
They said: “Well, if it is a matter of death: you can die on your bed. If it is a matter of diseases: diseases have been always there, whether in peacetime or in war. If it is a matter of nakedness: our people usually were naked before knowing the clothes and so on. But we have been fighting for a goal. We’re halfway down the road: it is better that we continue instead of just leaving our goal halfway down. And this actually turned most of the people around. Especially men felt ashamed. And on the end the Council voted for continuation of the fight.
These ladies: were they members of the Komolo?
No, they were members of the counties, the women’s representatives.
They can be both, I mean.
After joining the SPLA, we didn’t tackle this question of the Komolo’s. Those who were Komolo’s were Komolo’s, those who are not -, we are all treated the same. It depends on what work you are doing.
One of the people who were for peace with the government was Telefon Kuku.
Ya, Telefon actually was the leader of our delegation to the Tabanya peace talks. I was receiving reports saying that he had several meetings with the head of the government’s delegation – whom I knew by the way – without having anybody with him. But what they discussed and what was going on exactly was not clear, so I couldn’t do anything as long as we didn’t have any evidence.
He only came out with his ideas during the Advisory Council. Actually, nobody was angry, it just gave a good discussion. But when the people voted for continuation of the fighting, Telefon got angry. Of course he had no right to be angry, because this was the people’s will. I think from then on, he started to have his own way of thinking.
In 1993 I was told to go to the Abuja peace talks (in Nigeria. NotE), so I went out. And of course, by then we had a lot of problems. As I told you, from 1992 onwards we had a difficulty of logistics. So when I went, I was trying my best to have some logistics to the Nuba Mountains.
The only possibility to get it there was by plane, but at that time, no plane had come to the Nuba Mountains or to Fariang. There was no airstrip in the Nuba Mountains, and whenever I would tell someone about the Nuba Mountains, he would think this was a government held area, and so on and so forth. Anyway, I had great difficulty in convincing some pilots to take these things to Fariang.
Once actually we agreed with somebody: he said it was okay; he was going to do this and that. So because Telefon was in Buram and Buram is near to Fariang I sent a message to him, that he should send forces to Fariang to collect the ammunition. At the last moment we made a mistake: the ammunition should have been covered, but it wasn’t. When the pilot came and he saw what the cargo was, he refused to bring it to Fariang.
Of course the soldiers went there, they waited and nothing was brought. We tried another pilot, he agreed. And then I think the first one came to the second one to tell him: “You are going to take ammunition,” and he too refused. We had a lot of difficulties. I remember we had even bought a small plane ourselves, that we had wanted to use to take at least a little, so that the soldiers in the Mountains would feel we were doing something for them. Unfortunately that plane came down and burned. A lot of difficulties.
Then he started to blame me: saying I am cheating them, I’m deceiving them, we’re deceivers, a lot of things.
That was Telefon?
That was Telefon.
Then, there was the SPLA convention, which we wanted to hold in Chukudum, in the South. We asked for some representatives from the Nuba Mountains, but Telefon discouraged the people to come, especially from his county. He said: “If there is a plane, we will go. If not, people shouldn’t walk all this way,” and so on.
Tabanya was his home area?
Buram, yes. So a lot of his people didn’t come, although the rest came, walking for seventy days to reach the area and so on. Instead Telefon wrote a very bad letter to me, describing the Movement (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM. NotE) as a weak movement and a lot of other bad description. I felt that he couldn’t have said this unless he had a pact with some government forces.
It sounds as if he were very disappointed?
Well, I don’t know for what he would have been disappointed – unless because people didn’t go along with his ideas, or because of this question of ammunition and so on. That can not justify what he did. After a while, we heard of the army attacking and even occupying Buram. And Telefon was not serious about fighting them. So I gave orders to arrest him and put him in the prison.
He was known to be for a peace accord with the government, didn’t you keep a very close watch on him?
At the beginning I didn’t, but when he started to send these messages, actually I said that people should watch him. But of course the one who went there could not. he kept anything.
He was very clever at hiding what he was doing?
I think so.
You left in 1993, to attend the Abuja Conference.
The Abuja Conference, ya. And when I came back, I was assigned to prepare for the First National Liberation Council Meeting of the SPLA. I chaired the committee which was preparing for that, and then, I think the beginning of April 1994, the people came from different areas under SPLA control, whether Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile or the South. Then we had the convention in Chukudum.
Did you also chair the convention?
Yes. After chairing the committee, when we started I was elected as the chairman of the convention.
Would it be fair to say that what you managed to achieve on a smaller scale in the Nuba Mountains, was now going to be applied for the whole of the liberated areas?
Well, almost, this is what has been adopted. Of course, this question of forming self-government there, was going to be adopted as a law in the liberated area.
After the Chukudum convention, you didn’t go back to the Mountains?
Well, I couldn’t go without solving the problem of finding ammunition and getting it there. So we were trying this and that, until at last I managed to get five tons, which we took to the Mountains by plane; this was in May 1995. It was the first time, or the second time -, anyway, this is where we started to have planes going to the Nuba Mountains.
While you were outside the Nuba Mountains, Ismael Khamis was in command?
Ismael was in command, yes. He was responsible for all the current affairs; we only had contact if there was something to go there or to come out. We used long-range radios.
During the same time a new organisation was formed: the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society.
NRRDO, or NRRDS yes, at that time. The Sudanese Government was still refusing any relief to the Nuba Mountains. The situation was really bad. We only managed because we made a peace agreement with the Missiriya (one of the Baggara tribes. NotE). In 1993 they started to bring some items like salt, sugar, clothes, and shoes. Although it was very dear, because of the need people rushed to buy.
Did they pay with money?
No, it was in kind of cows, whatever. There was no money.
So when I went out in 1993, I met those of the OLS (Operation Lifeline Sudan. NotE) in Nairobi, and I told them about the situation in the Nuba Mountains. They said they believed there was a need for relief there, but they couldn’t go to the Nuba Mountains unless the Government allowed them. Without permission they couldn’t do anything. But they were going to do this and that. Nothing happened.
While they were delivering relief in the South for.
In the South, in the North: OLS was delivering relief everywhere, except in the Nuba Mountains. To deliver relief, there had to be a triple agreement, between the SPLA, the UN and the Government of Sudan. Since the Government was refusing, they couldn’t do anything. Then I remembered those of African Rights: Alex De Waal, Yoanes and others. They came to Nairobi and met with some organisations, they convinced them that they should help the Nuba people clandestinely.
They had already been in the Mountains at that time?
No, not yet. But they collected some money and they made a forum, called NEAR. (Network for East Africa Relief: Norwegian People’s Aid and Christian Aid, African Rights, Medicins Sans Frontieres and New Sudan Council of Churches. NotE) This was the time we thought about making an indigenous NGO (Nongovernmental Organisation. NotE). Because the organisations in NEAR couldn’t go and stay in a situation such as ours, we had to have our own people, who could deliver whatever is brought, and implement it there. This is how NRRDO was formed.
In fact, the idea of forming an indigenous NGO existed before the formation of NEAR. There was a father from the Nuba Mountains – Beshir Ad-Dow; he’s now in America – who suggested it. I told him, “Well, let’s do it.” And I remember we had some Nuba people who wanted to participate in setting up the organisation, but of course they decided that they couldn’t continue with the SPLA. (This is later, after the founding of NRRDS: some members, like Mohamed Haroun and Yunis Domi, joined the government, others went for resettlement abroad. NotE) I told them: “If you want to help your people, this is the place you can do it.” Anyway, they made the constitution.
After the convention I had to come to Nairobi, in order to register the organisation. But there should be a committee of course. Since Beshir had left to America, to continue his studies as he said, I formed a committee, headed by Mohamed Haroun Kafi. In fact all members were people already in Nairobi, so that they didn’t cost us anything – there was no money at that time. After that they became part of NEAR, and it attracted a lot of donors, who gave money and so on and so forth.
So now there was money for NRRDO, but the committee was not elected: it was appointed. So I wanted those of NRRDO to go down to the Nuba Mountains, explain to the people there what NRRDO is and how it works, and ask them to elect the committee that runs the organisation. Mohamed tried to dodge his way out-, actually the majority did so. Only Kodi went down to meet with the people in the Mountains.
In the end they said the Advisory Council should elect the committee, and it was elected that way. Mohamed was assigned to Nafir, so we put Yunis Domi in his place, until. Then, of course, they assigned Neroun (Neroun Philip, present day executive director of NRRDO. NotE). Actually I was told about Neroun; his character and his career, so I advised them to appoint him as the head of NRRDO. This is how Neroun came to take over.
After some times, Mohamed Haroun went over to the Government, followed by Yunis Domi.
Sad story, that one.
Ya, well, not very sad. It’s normal. At least he didn’t take a lot of people with him. They were really only a few people – five or six – who were generally useless. Most of them were in Kakuma, others were in Nairobi. So it wasn’t sad. It would have been sad if the whole population had been divided or something like that, but five, three, four people wasn’t so terrible. They made a lot of propaganda out of it, but there was nothing.
In 1995 you managed to bring in a lot of logistics. Did it help that Abdel Aziz was head of logistics at that time?
Not necessarily, although he was head of logistics, it had nothing to do with Abdel Aziz. At that time he was almost handing over to go to eastern Sudan. And the main problem was transportation.
Meantime, in the Nuba Mountains, Kaluka was making the airstrips. (Osman Jagub Kaluka. NotE)
Kaluka said so?
Yes, he told me that he prepared the first airstrips.
Ya, he wants to make something for himself, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t at all. He was an officer, who was appointed to NRRDO, but I don’t think he was involved in preparing the airstrips. (Kaluka was SRRA secretary at the time, and probably was involved in some way or another. NotE)
We made an airstrip in Karkarai – I think, mainly I was the one. Was that the first one we made? No, the first one was in Tebari. And who did it? But of course: those of Ismael. And then there was Mohamed Kambal, who said he knew a bit about airstrips because he had been working on the airport and so on. So they were the ones who helped. Ya. The first airstrip we used was in Tebari; the second one in Karkarai and then, after that, in so many places.
Did the airstrips attract the attention of the Government army right away?
I don’t know.
I mean: now any airstrip is a target for government offensives.
This is a recent development, of the last two or three years; from 1997 onwards. They said: “Well, we can work out an arrangement with the South concerning its self-determination, but this can’t include the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. But the SPLA said: “No, we can only agree with self-determination is for all of us,” and so on.
Then, the Government took to the strategy of trying to re-occupy the Blue Nile and to close the airstrips in the Nuba Mountains, so it could declare that these areas were no longer part of the rebellion. The Government army fought the SPLA very severely in Blue Nile, but it was repulsed and defeated badly. So they came to the Mountains.
Actually, they sent seven convoys; they were repulsed. Then they started using long-range artillery to shell the airstrips from a safe distance. This is how they closed the airstrips of Tebari and Karkarai. We moved to Gidel – we had I think two airstrips there, or even three – until 1999, when they succeeded in closing down those airstrips too, with the long-range artillery. But of course we made other airstrips.
You came back in 1995 after an absence of one and a half, two years; how did you find the situation?
Well, I don’t know what I can say, but people were happy that I was back. They thought they had missed me while I was out. A lot of administrative matters and so on.
[I turned of the recorder to go through my notes. Actually I didn’t have many questions left. Maybe there had been events or developments I had never heard or read about, but Yousif couldn’t think of anything he wanted to add to the long story he had told. Instead he talked about his disease and I asked him whether I could record this part of the conversation as well. He had no objections.]
Actually, in 1997, when I came to Holland to talk with Novib (a Dutch NGO. NotE), we passed through London and I had a medical check-up. It was good, but the doctor told me: “You try to have your PSA measured from time to time too,” without telling what this PSA is or what it indicates. So from time to time I went to a doctor for a PSA – he didn’t tell me what it was either, nor what the results indicated or something like that, so I took it to be just a normal routine. (PSA: prostate-specific antigen. PSA blood test results are reported as nanograms per millilitre or ng/ml. Results under 4 ng/ml are usually considered normal. Results over 10 ng/ml are high, and values between 4 and 10 are considered borderline. The higher the PSA level the more likely the presence of prostate cancer. NotE)
In July 1998, I was told to go to Addis Ababa for peace talks. This is the time I started to feel pain in my back. I thought it was only a result of not covering my back during the cold evenings in the Nuba Mountains; I would just take a hot bath to feel a bit of relief and so on. I went to Nairobi, to Addis Ababa, went to Egypt, I came back: the pain was still there. I went to see a doctor to have the PSA measured.
That was in October, and before I had the results I was told to go to Norway. So I went to Norway, and there the pain really became hard to bear. Back in Nairobi the doctor told me: “Oh, it seems that you have cancer, but you have go to a specialist. So I went to the specialist and he told me: “Well, I need to make an operation, and then we will see whether it is cancer or not.”
When he said this, I sent a message to the doctor in London who had done that medical check-up in 1997, and he advised me I’d better come to London. Financially it didn’t matter so much, because in Nairobi they were asking a lot of money for an operation to see whether I might have cancer. In London they made a blood test and an X-ray scanning, and then the doctor told me it is prostate cancer.
I told him: “If it is prostate cancer, can we make an operation? He said: “No, because the cancer has already spread from the prostate,” and he showed me the dots on the X-ray. If it had been just in the prostate, it would have been a bit less problematic, but now that it had spread. So, he told me: “We are going to give you some injections (hormonal drugs to reduce testosterone production. NotE); if it works, that will be good. If not, then we try the alternative: radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”
So, I got the first injection and then was told to go and have another one every three months. I think the response was very good, because at the time I left London, the PSA level was 241, and when I returned after six months, it had dropped to 2.6. I was very pleased and I thought the whole thing was over. But unfortunately, it came back.
In July 1999, when I came to the peace talks in Nairobi, I started to feel my back again. I went to the doctors and I asked them whether it could have anything to do with prostate cancer. All of them were telling: “No, it has nothing to do with that.” I worked with this pain from July upto November. Then I said: “Ya, this is nonsense; let me go to London.” Here they discovered that the prostate cancer had returned.
Again, the treatment started well, and the injections controlled a lot of the cancer cells. Then I think some of these things went out of control. (The cancer was becoming androgen-independent. NotE) For example: if there were ten cells, at least four could no longer be controlled by the same medicine. The doctor gave me some other tablets and injections, but he also discouraged me a lot.
He said: “Oh, I believe the end will come soon. I doubt whether you could live for another one and a half year.” Besides he said: “There is nothing more I can do for you.”
And that was in.?
That was at the end of 1999 and the beginning of the New Year. On my way back to Nairobi I came through Holland – my body was too fat and.
Anyway, I went back in March, but in May I felt I was not all right, and I had a lot of pain. So I came to London again, and this time I changed the doctor. I turned to Norwich, this cancer centre, where I met with the doctors. Of course, they gave me some treatment. Radiotherapy, and they gave me injections that were hoped to stop the pain for some time. It wasn’t that successful though, but they thought the second treatment would be. They asked me to return after six months, and that is why I am here now.
Did they give you some more hope?
Yes, they have given me a lot of hope. Someone was telling me that I will have another injection that will control the rest of the four uncontrollable cancer cells. And they will use radiotherapy at the places of pain, so that it stops. Then there is another injection, which they hope will stop this pain at least for the coming six months.
[The recorder is turned off again. Yousif says that the past few years fighting the disease kept him away from the Nuba Mountains too often. It gives me the opportunity to ask a few more questions.]
I’ve been in the Mountains a few times, (in 1997, 1998 and 2000. NotE) and since you were outside, I saw the situation.
Deteriorating, yes. Things like discipline, moral. Do you have an explanation?
I think mainly the leaders are to blame, yanni. I don’t know why, but. Ismael (acting Governor Ismael Khamis Jelab. NotE) used to concentrate on personal things. He never gave too much attention to the military and the administration, that is why people disagree with him. And in fact, when I came out of the Mountains, I tried whether Mohamed Juma’a would be a good substitute, before Ismael came back.
But Mohamed also proved not to be a good national leader, so they lost trust in them – the people I mean. The an-nahim and sometimes the army. And when Ismael came back, there were constant clashes between him and Mohamed and-, of course this gives problems. This is the story. officers and the NCO’s and the soldiers. I think this is part of it.
Is it the length of this war, which wears people down in the end?
Maybe. You can’t be quite sure, but. No one knows exactly what is the problem, but this is what happened.
There will be a new commander: Abdel Aziz al Hillu.
Hopefully, ya. He will go there, and we hope things will change.
You’ve been fighting together with him, and he has taken large parts of the Mountains in the past. Do you think he is capable of doing it again, with the conditions so drastically changed?
Well, as I told you, he has a lot of military experience. So military, I think he can do a lot, ya.
[End of interview.]
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