Christmas in the Nuba Mountains: A Day of Celebration and Potential Death

Passage and photograph by Samuel Totten

Written on December 9, 2016

Two years ago I entered the war torn Nuba Mountains on Christmas Day in order to truck food to civilians in desperate need as a result of their farms having been bombed by the Government of Sudan (GoS) during the ongoing war (June 2011–today). It was bittersweet for a lot of different reasons. While I was pleased to be giving instead of receiving, as it were, I also greatly missed being with my family—and particularly my wife, Kathleen.

And then, when I called her on my Sat phone Christmas Eve (Christmas morning for her), as I stood the dark in 90 degree plus heat in a region of the desert scattered with palm trees and scrub brush, I felt a bit bad that she seemed uninterested in talking and abruptly got off the phone following what I felt were a few perfunctory comments on her part. (Later I was to learn that she feared that the Government of Sudan (GoS) might hone in on the frequency I was on and dispatch a fighter jet to take me (and my team) out.) I am now preparing to head back to the Nuba for the sixth time during the current war (June 2011–today) between the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army-North and the Government of Sudan, and it brings back a lot of disturbing memories of GoS’ aerial bombings and death.

Of course, I could choose not to go. No one, I am sure, would criticize me should I remain at home for the holidays. But it is not something I can do. Knowing that there are people—hundreds of thousands, civilians all—hunkered down in the Nuba Mountains fearful of being killed by either bombs from Antonov bombers or missiles fired from fighter jets and largely without enough food to even guarantee that they will have at least one meal a day—I’d consider myself some sort of coward (and a selfish coward) at that if I didn’t return to the Nuba Mountains with food for those in most desperate need. As a longtime human rights activist, I have attempted to lead my life according to a simple dictate: one’s awareness of a people in dire straits demands action, and a lack of action equates to losing a piece of one’s humanity. That may sound like ramped up hyperbole to some, but I assure you that it’s not.

Now that the rainy season is over and roads in South Kordofan (the state in which the Nuba Mountains is located) are no longer impassable the war has resumed in full force. Once again, Nuba civilians not only have their empty bellies to worry about but their very lives for pilots are once again flying daily sorties over the Nuba Mountains for the express of dropping them on peoples’ farms, tukuls (traditional homes of the Nuba with walls crafted of rocks or tree branches and roofs made from dried sheaves of sorghum), schools (the few that still exist in the Nuba), and suqs (open-air market places), and, yes, mosques and churches. The bombs fall every day of the year, including Christmas. And thus it takes not a little courage for the people to worship in their churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, for pilots know that the churches will be filled with parishioners and thus make an easy target.

No hero, I plan to get in and out of the Nuba as quickly as I can. More specifically, I plan to haul up as many tons of food as I can possibly load on the Land Cruiser I shall be renting from a fellow I know in the Nuba, racing over the rutted dirt paths (there are no paved roads in the Nuba) to those regions and IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where I have been informed by rebel leaders, local community leaders, and expats in the know, where those in most desperate need of food reside. I will quickly unload the food, purchase another truck or two load of food (sorghum, dried beans, cooking oil, salt and sugar) either in a suq which has food for sale or back in South Sudan, and then race to other areas of the region where people are in desperate need. I will then hightail it back to the Yida Refugee Camp in South Sudan, where I will hop a flight on a UN, UNHCR, World Food Program or cargo plane to Juba.

Each time I make it out of the Nuba I feel exhilarated having accomplished what I set out to do, but with exhilaration comes the realization that I am leaving behind people who have little to no choice but to remain in the war zone—either because they are too weak, elderly or sick to make the long trip to a refugee camp where they would at least be fairly safe from bombs and have access to both food and medical aid. So, in the end, each departure is bittersweet: I can hardly wait to see my sweet wife back in the States, but have a heavy heart for those who remain in the Nuba and continue to face potential death each and every day of their lives, either from bombs, rockets, or severe malnutrition, if not starvation.

Addendum: After planning and booking his return trip to the Nuba Mountains this Christmas, Mr. Totten was informed by the office of the SPLA-N (rebel group) that it would be closed upon Mr. Totten's arrival and unable to issue him a pass to travel to the Nuba Mountains. Mr. Totten traveled instead to Erbil and Dohuk, Iraq to conduct interviews with survivors of the ISIS-perpetrated genocide against the Yazidi people and to provide assistance to Yazidi refugees.

Samuel Totten, Professor Emeritus, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, can be reached at His most recent book is Genocide by Attrition: Nuba Mountains, Sudan. In January a new book, Sudan’s Nuba Mountains People Under Siege: Accounts by Humanitarians in the Battle Zone (McFarland) will be published.