Understanding Conflict

Leading up to Sudan’s referendum in January, I traveled back to the Kauda radio station in the Nuba Mountains to help lead a workshop on reporting in times of conflict. Over three days of dissecting the local context and history with journalists, we discussed ways they could report to promote peace.

But as much as I had hoped that the journalists would learn something about reporting on conflict, I’m not sure I had prepared for how much I was about to learn about their experience of conflict itself. At the end of each day I felt as if I had been pounded into emotional oblivion by the stories the journalists shared of their region’s recent history.

Resting just north of the contested border that divides Sudan, the Nuba Mountains are home to a diversity of religions, languages and cultures – a diversity that has fought hard for its existence. In 1983, Sudanese president Gaafar Nimeiry declared all of Sudan an Islamic state, a declaration that lead to an uprising by the defiantly diverse Southern region and sparked the second civil war.

Throughout the decades long war, the Nuba people fought alongside the South until the peace agreement was signed in 2005. For many, the agreement symbolized hope for a peaceful future. But unknown to many at the time, passages within the peace agreement effectively abandoned the Nuba Mountains to the will of the Northern government, if and when the North and South regions separate.

So while the South now prepares for its Independence Day on July 9, the Nuba people are left with little to celebrate. Instead, they are once again being violently targeted by their own Northern government, a government that wants little to do with them.

Still, despite claims of ethnic cleansing in the region, international media reports seem a bit unclear as to the extent of the problem. Just yesterday in an interview with PBS, the U.S. envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, was asked, “Do you think that the Nuba Mountains conflict and the kind of ethnically targeted killings going on there has the potential to turn that into another Darfur, a new Darfur?”

Lyman answered, “I don’t think so.”

He gave two reasons why. One, the Nuba people are fighting back, so to him it is unlikely that the North will be capable of “dislodging” large numbers of them on an ethnic basis. “That’s the reality on the ground,” he said. Second, he couldn’t exactly be sure of the government’s motives to confirm them one way or another.

Online, the interview set off a stream of Tweets echoing the headline, “Sudan Envoy: Nuba Mountains Not in Danger of Becoming Another Darfur.”


At this point, I’m not at all sure what we gain from framing the conflict in this way. Where is the benefit in constructing a hierarchy of ethnic cleansings? Whether or not this is another Darfur, the fact is that people are being brutally killed and people are being displaced. That is where attention needs to be drawn, not to the fact that we can neatly put the Nuba Mountain conflict below Darfur on our list of things to take seriously.

In Lyman’s words, it is only clear that the northern government wants to “establish military control” in the region. When asked if atrocities were being committed against the civilian population, Lyman replied, “We certainly have reports of that,” but, “because we don’t have a presence there, we haven’t been able to investigate it fully.”

Lyman’s answers seem to do little more than contradict themselves. When asked if ethnic cleansing is taking place, he is able to say no citing “the reality on the ground.” But when asked if atrocities are being committed against civilians, he is unable to say yes because “we don’t have a presence there.” How is it that during a single interview he can say, “I don’t think the north is capable of dislodging large numbers of people,” but also claim that, “Out of the fighting, oh, more than 70,000 people have been displaced.”

These observations are not meant as an attack toward Lyman. It is meant to draw attention to the way in which the conflict is being presented in ways that make it difficult to understand and make it difficult to connect vague concepts of “military control” with their direct consequence, the deaths and displacement of innocent people.

What should be made clear is that bombs are being dropped throughout the Nuba Mountains. Two weeks ago, they hit the Kauda airstrip, a narrow stretch of sand that is meant to land planes packed with humanitarian workers and aid. More recently, a compound of homes and offices in Kauda was believed to be targeted, although the blast somehow just barely missed its mark. It was the same compound that is home to the community radio station and the same compound where I worked with the journalists on reporting for peace. Somehow I am not surprised to hear that despite the threats to their lives, the journalists are still going on-air for two hours in the late evening while they at least have the thin cover of darkness. In the daytime, they join others in the mountaintops in hopes of avoiding more blasts.

So while at some point it might make sense for us to ponder the relative severity of one systematic murder of a people over another, our efforts might be better focused on presenting a clearer picture of what is happening in the area and what can be done to mitigate an ongoing crisis. In the meantime, headlines that are able to push the words “Nuba Mountains” together with “Not in Danger,” to me, appear a failure to practice even the most basic concepts of decent journalism in times of conflict.

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