The following events occurred in June of 2013 in a corner of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains that our organization does emergency relief work in. Specific names and locations have been removed to protect the people who still make this harrowing journey today. The following photos were taken on the same path 344 people tried to escape on.
Five days. That’s how long it would take to get to the South Sudan border and the safety of the refugee camp. Despite living in desperate conditions for two years, this journey would be the hardest and most dangerous time in their lives.
For two long years, Sudanese government warplanes had hammered their homes and schools. For two long years, they watched helplessly as government militias burnt their crops and looted their livestock. Those that were caught by militamen were almost always killed. The majority of the 22,000 people living in this part of the Nuba Mountains had abandoned their homes for mountain caves or garrison towns underneath the command of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), the armed wing of the local Nuba government that is protecting civilians from Sudanese government attacks.
Now, things were worse than they had ever been. There was hardly any food left that could be scavenged for except poisonous roots. Water pumps were broken and there was no way to fix them. Survival had steadily been getting harder underneath the shadows of Antonov, Sukhoi, and MiG warplanes. Outside relief had never reached this forgotten corner of the Nuba Mountains.
It was June of 2013. Thousands of ordinary people stuck in this impossible situation discussed making a run for the border, where a refugee camp offered some safety from the war. The only way to get there was to walk, which would take 5 days. The road south was littered with dangers and no infrastructure to support life. Most people decided to stay, but 344 men, women, and children made the decision to take the risk. They would leave in the morning with what little supplies they could gather.
The next 5 days would be a living hell that 73 people would not survive.
Why They Left
This crisis in Sudan isn’t simply “happening.” It’s being committed with brutal abandon.
The crimes being committed today in the Nuba Mountains are not a new chapter in Sudan’s history. The same central government tried to kill off everyone living in the Nuba Mountains back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many battles during those dark days between the government and the local Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) rebels lasted weeks on end with round-the-clock gunfire. There were so many bullet casings in some towns that they were piled knee-high. Many people died, but many more survived in mountain caves.
As South Sudan prepared for independence in 2011, the two provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile faced a dangerous reality. Positioned on what would become the ill-defined border of Sudan and South Sudan, the people in these states largely sided with the southerners during Sudan’s long-running civil war that witnessed the horrific death of over 2,000,000 people.
While “provisions” were made for the people living in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to Sudan’s brutal civil war, they were weak at best and criminal at worst. Popular consultation votes were written into the agreement for these two areas that theoretically would have allowed the people to choose their own future. Sudan watchers and experts warned that those votes would likely be blocked due to the government’s unwillingness to lose another inch of land.
SPLA soldiers and SPLM political leaders in these two states tacked a “N” for “North” onto their name as their fellow fighters in the south moved towards creating a new government for the world’s newest country. While celebrations spread throughout South Sudan, the newly named SPLM-N began preparing for the worst. In June of 2011, the government of Sudan launched it’s final solution for the Nuba people in the form of aerial bombings, mass killings, and blocking humanitarian relief.
This is what these 344 people had been living through for two years. Now they were being forced to make a decision no human being should ever have to make.
Day 1: Saying Goodbye
344 People Alive
They set out early in the morning with sun’s first light. Local leaders begged them not to leave. Their argument was a strong one: they had no weapons other than basic farming tools. The government militias were heavily armed. There would be no armed SPLM-N escort because Sudanese government ground attacks in the area were imminent. They paused, but decided to continue moving on. Better to risk it all than to continue slowly dying here.
They walked down from the mountainside and garrison town and through their once thriving marketplace. All the shops were abandoned. A few were destroyed from bombing. It was an eerie place to be. A lone SPLM-N scout nodded his head as they passed by the last building. They were now in a no-man’s land.
It was blazingly hot. The sun rose high in the sky with not a cloud in sight. The group stretched further and further out as the stronger and determined moved faster. Mothers and fathers picked up their children who grew tired. They walked. A brief respite under a tree, a sip of water from what little they had. Nightfall. A warm breeze, but at least the sun had set. Slower members of the party eventually catch up to the front as they settle in for the night. A watch is set. A voice is heard in the distance but quickly disappears. All are hungry. Some sleep, but most don’t out of fear.
Day 2: Memories
344 People Alive
They begin moving again at dawn. Today will be a day of memories as many of the people will walk through the communities they used to call home before the war.
It isn’t long before the first peak of a tukul shows itself over the tall grass. They approach quietly. No one speaks, even the few infants among the marchers are absolutely silent. Does someone else live hear now? Does one of the militias now call this home?
Everyone knows the name of this community and it is exactly how they last saw it. Those that didn’t live here travelled through it two years ago when they headed into the mountains. The grass is tall, but the homes and community appear to be untouched. Time has been the enemy here. One home’s roof is caving in. A wall has collapsed on another. With no one to upkeep this place that was once highlighted by hard work and laughter, it is slowly being destroyed by the elements and time.
At the southern edge of town, a set of fresh tire tracks lies in the earth. Someone has been here, but who and exactly when is unknown. They move on, wondering what lies ahead.
They walk through two more communities today, both of them destroyed. The burn marks of the bombs and fire have almost disappeared. All that remains are some walls and silence. They move quickly despite being hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. No one wants to dwell in places tht remind them of how things used to be.
They’ve made good progress today and not run into any physical danger. Besides themselves, they haven’t seen another living soul. Nightfall. Another warm breeze. A watch is set. More people fall asleep than the night before. But they’re all wide awake early in the morning when the screams begin.
Day 3: In Enemy Territory
342 People Alive, 2 People Missing
The sun is barely rising when a woman’s scream wakes everyone up. It’s not coming from within their group, but it is very close. Someone is yelling that their sister is missing. Another man is crying out for his daughter. What few farming tools they brought for protection are grabbed but it’s already too late. In the distance to the east, two armed Arab men in military fatigues throw the woman and girl into a Technical that has a third man in it. They quickly jump in behind them and speed off. These two women will never be seen again.
One of the milita units must be close by. Everyone grabs what little they have. If they don’t move now they may not be able to escape. They begin walking quickly south. There will be no respites today even though it is the hottest day yet and they are almost out of food and water.
The rest of the day is highlighted by mounting fear. Vehicle engines are frequently heard from nearly every different direction at some point during the day. A Sudanese government Antonov bomber flies overhead twice. It is patroling the path to the border. They are being hunted like animals.
Exhaustion is overcome by adrenaline. Night is beginning to fall but they keep moving south with relentless determination. The vehicle sounds faded away a few hours ago and the Antonov has not been seen again. It’s possible they escaped the hunt. No one breathes a sigh of relief though.
The 342 men, women, and children only stop deep into the night when their adrenaline begins to fade. The last of the food and water is consummed, but there’s only enough for a few people. It’s still very warm outside, but cooler than the previous two nights. A watch is set. They will search for food and water in the morning as they continue heading south. They will eat grass if they have to. Many people fall asleep out of pure exhaustion.
Day 4: Murder & Hunger
271 People Alive, 4 People Missing, 69 People Dead
The attack begins at sunrise and is a complete surpise. The vehicles must be parked far away because engines were not heard. Those on watch grab their makeshift weapons as bursts of gunfire are heard from the north. The government militia found them, but the fighters made a crucial mistake and attacked before the entire group could be surrounded.
Those asleep are instantly on their feet. Everyone begins running south, away from the gunfire. A brave few stay behind to buy what precious minutes they can. They will never be seen again.
As the gunfire fades away in the distance, the real threat becomes clear: hunger, thirst, and time. There is no food or water left. At the rate they are moving they will be at the border by nightfall and in the refugee camp the next day. All they can do is keep moving and hope that a miracle will happen.
Underneath the blistering hot sun they do not stop. Some have not had water for two days now. Adrenaline can no longer give them the strength they need. One by one, starved, exhausted, and literally dying of thirst, they collapse. Those that straggle behind to help are quickly grabbed by those still moving. The fallen must be left behind if they are to survive. The majority of those who cannot march anymore are children. Mothers who have no tears left to shed quietly keep moving. A few stay behind, refusing to let their children die alone.
As they keep moving, sporadic gunshots can be heard in the distance behind them. The government militia who are in pursuit are murdering those that could march no longer.
Vehicle engines are heard only once the rest of the day and the Antonov did not make an appearance. The gunshots eventually disappear. They know they have arrived at the border when they meet a heavily armed group of SPLM-N soldiers. Upon seeing them, the soldiers move quickly to help them the rest of the way. Those that cannot walk are carried the rest of the way.
The soldiers ask if they should expect more people. No, the militia are on the road and close behind. The commander orders most of his men to move up the path and search for survivors. They drive off in their trucks. The survivors are given a little food and plenty of water from a pump nearby. They will spend the night there and then be escorted further south to the refugee camp in the morning.
Under the watchful eyes of the SPLM-N and their AK-47s, the majority of the people sleep through the night. The soldiers who were sent to search for survivors return at midnight and report to the commander that they found no survivors. The only thing they found were lifeless bodies. It looked like some were still alive when the government militia found them as they had been shot in the back of the head.
40 of the corpses they found belonged to innocent children.
Day 5. No more gunshots, no more war planes, and no more running. The only thing to be heard was the deafening silence of missing voices that can never be replaced.
I first heard about this story shortly after it happened when one of our local partners reached out. There were few details available at the time. All he knew was the number of people and where they came from. It took 4 more months to confirm some of the horrifying details.
There are still things we don’t know and will probably never know: the names of some of these brave individuals, the aspirations of the children who didn’t make it, or what they thought about in their final moments. What we do know is that they are all people, and they deserve to have their story told. Please share it for them.
What’s happening in Sudan today goes well beyond the enormous statistics of destruction. It’s about real people enduring tremendous suffering. They have names. They experience realities like the story above. They deserve a chance for something better. Believe it or not, we have the power to help them get to that place.
— Mark Hackett, Executive Director, Operation Broken Silence