More than two weeks have passed since the hit and run attack of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) on Um Rwaba in North Kordofan a day after of the collapse of talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) and the Sudanese government mediated by Thabo Mbeki’s African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) in Addis Ababa. The SRF combatants, mostly fighters of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) seasoned in the art of ‘Toyota war’, drove into sleepy Um Rwaba to clash with the unlucky policemen on duty that day killing seven, and withdrew after a few hours. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) has no presence in Um Rwaba at all but maintains a large garrison and military airport in neighbouring al-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan State. In the process, five civilians were killed, the town’s power plant severely damaged and according to government reports petrol stations ransacked and banks looted by the attacking liberation fighters.
On the return trip from Um Rwaba the JEM contingent reportedly passed through the road stops outside Allah Kareem and al-Simeih to refuel and then together with a force of the SPLA/M-N descended on Abu Karshola in the north-eastern end of South Kordofan. The small town is the centre of a horticultural zone where pastoral routes converge from northern Kordofan in the dry season bringing crowds of Bideiriya and Shanabla herders and their livestock. The June 2010 census in South Kordofan, the re-run after the SPLA/M contested the results of the 2008 count, registered 45,377 souls in Abu Karshola. Up to forty thousand people fled the town and surrounding areas since the SRF takeover to the safety of al-Rahad in North Kordofan, reported the United Nations (UN) a few days ago. When asked by a Khartoum newspaper why he thought the SRF attacked Abu Karshola, the chief of the Hawazma community in the town al-Nur al-Tahir al-Nur referred to results of the South Kordofan gubernatorial elections in May 2011. Out of a total of 26,010 registered voters 12,059 cast their ballot for the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) candidate Ahmed Haroun and only 7,433 for the SPLM’s Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, detailed al-Nur to support his claim that the SPLA/M-N assisted by its SRF allies targeted the town out of “electoral vengeance”.
Vengeance was the explanation given by the displaced in al-Rahad for allegations of extra-judicial killings committed by the SRF in Abu Karshola under the command a senior SPLA/M-N officer. In al-Rahad, the son of the Abu Karshola imam held a funeral for his slain father and three of his uncles who administered a khalwa, a traditional Quran school, in the town. Others reported the killing of several NCP functionaries and supporters. Sudan’s Minister of Information Ahmed Bilal Osman described the reported incidences as “ethnic killings” suggesting that the SPLA/M-N specifically targeted the Arab Hawazma. Two men were killed in al-Rahad on suspicion of being SPLA/M-N rebels by an angry mob in the town market, said one news report and by fighters of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) said another. The Hawazma chief al-Nur said the SPLA/M-N’s guns ripped apart the tender social fabric of Abu Karshola inhabited predominantly by the Arab Hawazma and the Nuba Tagali. The Khartoum press likened the SPLA/M-N takeover of Abu Karshola to the SPLA attack on the neighbouring al-Gardoud back in 1985. One hundred unarmed residents of the village, mostly Arab Hawazma, were killed in the raid often identified as the start of the first war in South Kordofan (1985-2002). Paraphrasing Mao’s famous dictum, a shrewd commentator wrote that the SRF offensive was an attempt to poison the water that sustains the NCP fish.
Abu Karshola abuts the Taqali massif, the geography of the Nuba Mountain’s unique attempt at state formation, spurred, challenged and eventually obliterated by the cataclysms that engulfed the riverine Sudan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Taqali’s highland communities surrendered long-distance trade and management of relations with the world beyond the massif to their mukuk (warrior-kings) but not their lands. This particular configuration of power, a precarious sovereignty, precluded the commoditization of land in the area. The mukuk were in no position to usurp land for themselves and shielded their highland subjects from disposing of land through a monopoly of trade with the outside world. The ‘one hundred hills’ of Taqali constituted a natural castle network that protected the kingdom from invaders as did the mukuk’s diplomacy in slaves and other forms of tribute. The patronage of the mukuk extended to herders of the plains below the massif, directly and through the mediation of itinerant traders and fuqara (Moslem preachers/holy men), although limited by the incapacity of the mukuk to grant land outside their domestic royal domains.
Taqali’s most celebrated mak (pl. mukuk), Adam Um Dabbalo, whose reign extended between c. 1860 and 1884, received Sudan’s most influential faqeer (pl. fuqara), Mohamed Ahmed, sometime in the dry season of 1881. Mak Adam instructed his Arab Kawahla allies of the plains below to provide the holy man with grain and livestock. Mohamed Ahmed went on to become the Mahdi declaring revolution against the Turkiyya in Aba Island on the White Nile only weeks later. Unlike his predecessors, Adam Um Dabbalo also known as Adam al-Arabi (the Arab) was bound to the plains by blood. He was the son of an Arab Kawahla woman, Halima Fadlalla, and following royal tradition was critically dependent on his maternal kin for support. The kingdom that resisted the torments of the Turkiyya could not withstand the convulsions of the Mahdiyya though. Adam Um Dabbalo himself died a captive of the Mahdi on the victorious march to Khartoum.
The Anglo-Egyptian colonial regime completed the Mahdist pacification of the hills with the superior terror of the state- raid while conscripting able Nuba into its army. It was the predominantly Nuba 11th Sudanese battalion stationed in Talodi that mutinied while attending military exercises in Khartoum in 1924, the central episode of the White Flag League revolt. In response, the British authorities decided to disband six hundred of the battalion’s soldiers. Two hundred were confined to a cotton-growing colony close to Kadugli. The colonial authorities introduced mechanized farming to the Nuba Mountains but wide-scale expropriation and commoditization of land was the accomplishment of the post-colonial governments. Established in 1968 upon request of the World Bank, the Mechanized Farming Corporation (MFC) facilitated the expansion of large-scale mechanised agriculture into South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Loans provided by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development empowered the elite clients of the MFC, often retired army officers, civil servants and well-connected businessmen, to acquire some of the richest lands in central Sudan displacing countless small producers. The ‘development’ policy devastated the natural and communal ecology wherever it was enforced. Conflicts erupted between title holders and evicted peasants and pastoralists, between pastoralists and peasants as the former were forced out of their grazing routes by the expansion of state-guarded private schemes, and between the state as the major supporter of the scheme-owners and the peasants and pastoralists reduced to squatters and trespassers.
Abu Karshola lies one hundred kilometres west of al-Abbasiya, the historical centre of the Taqali kingdom. Supporters of the SPLA/M-N spoke the language of indigeneity to argue for the rebel takeover of the area. The town is one of the oldest in the eastern Mountains inhabited historically by the Nuba Taqali, wrote al-Shazali Tira, dismissing in the next sentence its Arab Hawazma residents as recent immigrants. Tira noted that the battle to liberate Abu Karshola was led by the SPLA/M-N commander Hassan Adam al-Sheikh, a native Nuba Taqali born to a prominent family in Abu Karshola. The officer was appointed military governor of the town and as such is burdened with the allegations of deadly vengeance made by its displaced population in al-Rahad. The SPLA/M-N brushed off the allegations of “ethnic killing” as hollow NCP propaganda, lumping the accusation with claims made by officials in Khartoum that SRF and SPLA/M-N chief of staff Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu was mortally wounded in an air-strike carried out by the SAF against a convoy of six cars that carried him and other senior commanders of the SRF. The daily al-Intibaha, as expected, offered a particularly imaginative version adding that al-Hilu was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in South Sudan’s Wau where he eventually died and was hurriedly buried. The rumour backfired in a sense and the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) issued a statement affirming that al-Hilu was indeed alive and continues to lead the SPLA/M-N operations in the eastern Nuba Mountains. On Monday 13 May the Sudanese al-Ray al-Aam reported that al-Hilu had been flown two days before to Brussels for treatment. The SPLA/M-N and SRF top military commander suffers from severe head injuries and multiple fractures, it said.
Whether in Um Rwaba, Abu Karshola, al-Simeih or Allah Kareem the SRF guns dodged the coercive apparatus of the state to shoot at the ‘subject to be liberated’. Hassan Adam al-Sheikh captured the geography of Abu Karshola but lost most of its population. Mao would have sneered.