In April, I crossed into remote central Sudan's Nuba Mountains and found a land back on the brink of a forgotten war. Since then, the war has returned, and reports from the ground indicate mass atrocities repeating themselves. With the world preoccupied with dividing Sudan into two new countries next month following South Sudan's January referendum for independence, international leaders are understandably reluctant to become involved in yet another crisis in Sudan. But the world might not have much of a choice.
Unlike the Darfur conflict of the past eight years, which targeted rebellious Muslim non-Arabs in the western portion of the country, those in the crosshairs this time are the Nuba people, a religiously-diverse group of African tribes that dot the bouldered slopes of central Sudan's Nuba Mountain range with mud hut villages. Roaming the surrounding plains are their longtime neighbors, Arab cattle herders. Normally, these two groups could co-exist peacefully. But in north Sudan's political cauldron, this arrangement has proven toxic.
The Sudanese government's Arabist policies and conservative political Islam serve as potent tools for keeping power in the hands of a small few tribes. But marginalized non-Arab groups in north Sudan the Fur and Zaghawa in Darfur, the Funj and Uduk in Blue Nile, and Beja in the East, and the Nuba in South Kordofan have fought back. After the loss of the south's oil reserves, the stability of President Omar al-Bashir's regime and its grip on power could be severely weakened. If the past week is any indication, the end result could be an implosion of north Sudan from the edges.
Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, has reportedly transformed from the quiet, albeit tense, town I visited weeks ago to a hellish battlefield of tanks, craters, and body limbs. According to the U.N., most of the 60,000 resident population has fled, with some 6,000 camped outside a United Nations peacekeeping base hoping for protection amid reports that government forces are going to door-to-door hunting down opposition. Dilling, another town I stayed in, was also emptied, according to U.N. accounts. The British Ambassador to Sudan, Nicholas Kay, reported on his blog that he witnessed bombs loaded into the back of Soviet-model Antonov airplanes in Khartoum and MIG war planes returning from action sources on the ground confirm to TIME aerial bombing campaigns across the state in civilian areas, and the U.N. has confirmed bombings in 11 of the state's 19 districts. Retired Nuba rebels have been reactivated, and Arab paramilitary militias activated during the war but mostly dormant the past few years are back on the prowl, say sources in Kadugli.
Communication to sources within the maelstrom is difficult, but the one civil institution with actual networks across the ground the Sudanese church is ringing alarm bells as loudly as they can. "The reports being received from various quarters point to a deliberate process of ethnic cleansing," said a statement from the All Africa Conference of Churches. The Sudanese Council of Churches gives an even more graphic description: Fleeing Nuba "are being hunted down like animals," it says. The violence is religious, too: church officials report church buildings being burned and looted. What makes even more painful for longtime Sudan observers is the sickening feeling of watching a sequel to a past nightmare: long before Darfur, ethnic cleansing came here first, when few were watching. "The war in the Nuba Mountains is horrifically reminiscent of the genocide in the 1990s, which claimed the lives of up to 500,000 of the Nuba peoples," warned Ulrich Delius, Africa head for the Society for Threatened Peoples.
The latest clashes erupted on June 5, but the friction had been rapidly escalating since state elections in early May. That poll pitted Ahmed Haroun, handpicked for governor by Bashir after both men were indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, against opposition challenger Abdulaziz al-Hilu, a Nuba-backed former rebel leader. After a drama-filled vote count, Haroun was declared the winner by a slim margin. Al-Hilu who told me in the lead-up to the vote that he feared Haroun was readying to unleash the tactics of Darfur on the Nuba once again rejected the result as fraudulent. After weeks of rising rhetoric on both sides, the northern army attempted to forcibly disarm al-Hilu's Nuba fighters, who resisted and the firefights began. Tanks and heavy artillery rolled in from the north, and reports of ethnic violence soon followed.
Like al-Hilu, many Nuba soldiers fought on the side of the southern rebels during the long civil war, and technically still carry the name of Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), also the official name of South Sudan's ex-rebel military. But when Sudan divides next month, these Nuba will be northerners, and this is now a battle for their homeland and, as they see it, cultural survival. "We will not disarm after July 9th," said an aide close to al-Hilu.
High-level talks began in Addis Ababa on Sunday. President Bashir and his southern counterpart at the talks, Salva Kiir, have much to negotiate oil and the disputed border district Abyei, for starters. But with the South Kordofan conflagration adding to an already destabilizing north-south border, the situation there can not be ignored. Ceasefire negotiations are underway, but an aide to al-Hilu tells TIME any truce must include provisions for power-sharing. "Otherwise, we have other options," he said, a likely euphemism for a protracted, more organized, war with goals of regime change. Al-Hilu is being represented at the negotiating table by Malik Agar, the governor of Blue Nile and a fellow former SPLA commander left in the north. Together, they carry enough political weight to be a constant thorn in the side of Bashir and his allies. If their alliance grew wider by perhaps allying with rebels in Darfur and the East or with restless urban youth then it could mean serious trouble for Sudan's regime.
Meanwhile, as politicians negotiate, the humanitarian situation on the ground seems to be turning graver by the day. International aid groups have mostly pulled out, and the northern government has been blocking humanitarian access. Nuba now view the U.N. peacekeepers, the only major international presence now on the ground, with shades of deep suspicion and anger for failing to keep any peace. Said one local church official collecting reports from across the state: "People are getting hopeless. There is no food, and no where to go." It seems even splitting Sudan up might not be enough to keep the nation from falling apart.