An interview with Dr. Tom Catena concerning the Nuba Mountains, and a humanitarian update on the region

By Eric Reeves

March 9, 2013 (SSNA) — Note:  Dr. Tom Catena has been offering medical services in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan (Sudan) for five years, including the past twenty-one months of brutal fighting in the region.  The outbreak of war came as no surprise to Dr. Catena, as he and his Nuba staff and friends watched the slow breakdown of any chance for a meaningful peace.  The "popular consultations" of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Juba and Khartoum (2005) offered no real promise of responding to the deep grievances, political and economic, of the Nuba people.  The election of Ahmed Haroun—wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur—as governor of South Kordofan in May 2011 ensured that there would be war.  Arms and troops in the region had been building substantially for several years (Julie Flint, January 2011), so for Dr. Catena there was no question about the scale of the fighting that would follow—or the need for the surgical skills that Dr. Catena possesses.

I spoke at length with Dr. Catena on March 5, 2013 during a break from his vital work in the Nuba.  His thoughts should be sobering for those who think that this is somehow a crisis that is being managed. 

Eric Reeves (ER):  Is there a "tipping point" in the humanitarian situation that continues to worsen throughout the Nuba?  A point at which we will see mass flight of an uncontrollable sort?

Dr. Tom Catena (TC):  My work is done in a hospital in the Kauda valley in the very center of the Nuba, and while there have been frequent bombings, we have been spared the worst of the violence on the ground, which has occurred in many parts of both the Nuba and South Kordofan more broadly.  But from this perspective, yes, we are building to a "tipping point"—those forces that could bring about mass flight have been set in motion. The sorghum crop this year was very poor—much poorer than last year, which was itself badly compromised—and we were already seeing hungry children in January.  Since the sorghum crop is harvested in November, this is very early to be seeing such malnutrition, and quite ominous.

Children and young people have had their educations interrupted, and this has also accelerated flight from the Nuba, as people seek education for their children in Yida [refugee camp, Unity State, South Sudan].

ER: The so-called Tripartite Agreement on humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile was jointly proposed on February 2, 2012 by the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations.  The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N) accepted the agreement within days; but it was only after many months of deliberate delay that Khartoum nominally committed to the agreement—and then reneged.  Have you seen anything of benefit deriving from this still merely notional "agreement"?

TC:  No, nothing at all.  There seems to be no political will by these parties to see their agreements put into action—Khartoum pays no price for reneging on this agreement, or indeed many others.  But no, there has been no improvement that I have seen in humanitarian access.

ER:  You have seen a great many military flights by Antonov "bombers," retrofitted Russian cargo planes that are without any militarily useful precision.  What is the result of these bombing attacks?

TC:  We’ve seen perhaps 150 victims of bombing attacks in my hospital alone, and despite our best efforts some of these people have died.  The wounds are horrific, and often threaten lives.  Without medical intervention, more than three-quarters of the people suffering such wounds will die.  And I see just the people who are able to make it to Kauda.  We hear the bombers all the time.

ER:  Is there any evidence that the targeting is of a military nature?

TC:  No.  Occasionally I will see an SPLA-N soldier wounded by shrapnel from an Antonov but he will have been wounded by accident, not because of his military location.

ER:  In any earlier conversation you mentioned the fact that Khartoum is no longer flying its real military combat aircraft, such as the Sukhoi-25 jet fighter. What is the nature of the aerial military assaults now?

TC:  Bombing by Antonovs has settled into a routine of sorts—frequent and irregular enough to keep people from tending their larger fields, or areas too distant from places of shelter.  This is the main reason the sorghum crop was so poor this year.  The vast majority of Antonov attacks occur against civilian sites, well away from the fighting. 

ER:  There are other ongoing reports of the situation in the Nuba, particularly Nuba Reports (, organized by the American relief worker Ryan Boyette.  How reliable do you find the information in these reports, coming as they do from a wide range of locations in the Nuba and suggesting intense civilian bombing continues relentlessly?

TC:  They seem to me very reliable, judging on the basis of my own experience and seeing what they have posted on their website.  The reporting I find quite good.

ER:  On the basis of what you’ve seen, do you have any doubt that these attacks are ethnically motivated, given the absence of military targeting?

TC:  No. 

ER:  What is the make-up of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in the Nuba and South Kordofan?

TC:  Early on it was relatively high in Nuba conscripts, but this is much diminished. Nuba who fought with the SAF tended to be people from areas controlled by Khartoum during the North/South civil war.  Now, the conscript population in the army is much more heavily Arabic, and retention methods are brutal in light of the large number of defections, many of which left important military equipment for the SPLA-N to capture.  These have included tanks, which must be abandoned to be captured.

ER:  What is morale like among the people of the Nuba as you have seen them since the war began?

TC:  Among older people, in the Kauda area, there is a grim resignation—they are determined to tough it out, and many remember well what they had to endure in the 1990s.  But younger people, especially those who are well along in their schooling, are deeply dismayed that their chances to complete an education are disappearing.  They see their future in this education, and that future looks less and less promising.  From the Kauda area, the primary motivation for those fleeing to the refugee camp in Yida [Unity State, South Sudan] is to continue their education. 

ER:  Has the SPLA-N attempted to seize food coercively from the civilian population?  This was a serious problem in the North/South civil war.

TC:  No, there have been requests for a small portion of sorghum from civilians, but no coercion was involved.  There is a tremendous feeling of solidarity among the Nuba people as a whole, and it would be a mistake to underestimate just how committed they are to their land and way of life. 

ER:  Will they fight Khartoum to the death?

TC:  Yes, they will.  There is no way that these people can be subdued militarily. 

ER:  Have you seen any evidence of military support from Juba for the SPLA-N?

TC: No, even Dinka men are now rare.  There were some Dinka soldiers early in the war, but they are now quite rare in the Kauda valley where I work.

ER:  Was war in the Nuba preventable?  Was it foreseeable?

TC:  We could see for a year before fighting broke out that there was no real path to peace; election for governor of South Kordofan, the merely promised "popular consultations," and the military build-up—together they created insuperable obstacles. 

ER:  What will it take, then, to bring peace to the Nuba Mountains?

TC:  People have to see—a critical mass of people have to see how horrific the suffering of these people is.  Despite the many reports on conditions, there isn’t enough outrage to move international actors to action.  Khartoum can’t be bluffed with words or bound by more agreements; they’ve got away with reneging on too many agreements, and words are too often hollow statements. 

[end of interview]

There have been a number of recent accounts from others who have traveled into the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile on assessment missions.  Many of these bear out Dr. Catena’s first-hand account.  Particularly important recent findings have been compiled by Aegis Trust and HART (UK).  These findings follow an assessment mission in both Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains:

• "People suffering from hunger, bombing in two war-torn states" (Agence France-Press [Juba], January 19, 2013):

"A former top UN official in Sudan on Friday warned that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is going on in the southern part of Sudan, where the people are suffering from hunger, disease and bombing in two war-torn states. Just back from a trip to Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, where conflict between rebels and Sudanese government forces has raged for over a year, Mukesh Kapila called on the international community to come to the aid of the some 1.5 million people living in these states that border South Sudan.

"’The ethnic cleansing is largely complete…. Rebel areas are depopulated and largely empty,’ said Kapila, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan in 2003-2004. His comments came prior to the publication Friday [January 13, 2013] of a statement by anti-genocide charity the Aegis Trust, for which he serves as a special representative.

"In Blue Nile, where Kapila estimates 450,000 people are affected by the conflict, fields and villages have been razed, he said, and the population is described on Sudanese radio as ‘black plastic bags’ that must be cleared out of the area."

The African population of Blue Nile is described on Sudanese radio as "black plastic bags" that "must be cleared out of the area."  In trying to make sense of the savagery of the reports about assaults on civilians that continue to emerge from Blue Nile, as well as South Kordofan, we must keep in mind the deep racial animus defining this human destruction and displacement.  The same was true during the North/South civil war, in Khartoum’s seizure of Abyei from the indigenous Dinka Ngok (May 2011), and in conduct of genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur.  The campaign against the Nuba people in the 1990s is regarded, without dissent of which I am aware, as genocide.  There is simply nothing surprising about present racist characterizations of the people of the Nuba and Blue Nile.

It is hardly surprising that people continue to flee to South Sudan, both Unity State and Upper Nile State.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) declared recently that they are expecting a large influx in the coming months, before the start of the next rainy season:

• Concern about high number of arrivals in Yida [OCHA press release]

"Aid agencies are concerned by the high number of refugees arriving in Yida. With nearly 1,400 people registered in the past week, the population continues to grow and exacerbate conditions in the congested site. At this rate, the settlement could see upwards of 120,000 people by June, coinciding with the onset of the rainy season." [The refugee population in Upper Nile is much larger and is also growing rapidly—ER] (PRNewswire Africa [JUBA, South Sudan], 20 February 2013)

One source of this concern about the congestion is the high incidence of hepatitis E:

"The United Nations says an outbreak of hepatitis E has killed 111 refugees in camps in South Sudan since July, and has become endemic in the region.

"UN refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards says the influx of people to the camps from neighboring Sudan is believed to be one of the factors in the rapid spread of the contagious, life-threatening inflammatory viral disease of the liver. Edwards said Friday that the camps have been hit by 6,017 cases of hepatitis E, which is spread through contaminated food and water. He says the largest number of cases and suspected cases is in the Yusuf Batil camp in Upper Nile state, which houses 37,229 refugees fleeing fighting between rebels and the Sudanese government." (Associated Press [Geneva], February 15, 2013) 

Any uncontrolled new influx of refugees fleeing from Khartoum’s campaign of annihilation in the Nuba and Blue Nile ( will certainly exacerbate a deadly medical threat that is extremely difficult to eradicate.  And in fact assaults on civilians, on the ground and from the air, have been accelerating during the current dry season.  Yasir Arman, Secretary General of the SPLM/A-North, recently put the situation in Blue Nile in stark terms:

• Sudan Government Attacks Displaced Camps in Blue Nile, 8,000 on the Run

"The Sudanese army and their allied militia have re-started a military dry season campaign beginning February 14th up to this morning, February 17th, in a heavily populated area with internally displaced civilians at Muffa Village and the surrounding area, 21 kilometers southwest of Kurmuk. The fighting has gone on for the last three days with heavy aerial bombardment from Sudan’s air force on the displaced camps in the village that resulted in putting 8,000 civilian displaced populations on the run towards the Ethiopian and South Sudan borders. It is to be noted seriously that the aerial and ground bombardment of the Sudanese army and their allied militia resulted in the displacement of more than 70 percent of the inhabitants of the rural Blue Nile, and as of now, nearly 200,000 from the civilian populations are refugees in Ethiopia and South Sudan."  (February 17, 2013)

There are also continuing reports of military build-ups along the North/South border that could once again trigger conflict, perhaps all-out war.  The Abyei region continues to be an issue that festers, and it is clear that Khartoum wishes to keep it this way as a point of leverage.  Actions of the Sudan Armed Forces are reported by Sudan Tribune:

• Abyei community asks South to redeploy after UN force fails to protect them

"Members of the Abyei community called on South Sudan’s to redeploy forces to the disputed border area Wednesday as Juba accused neigbouring Sudan, of sponsoring the theft of 489 heads of cattle on Sunday evening. The status of Abyei is one of the main outstanding issues that Sudan and South Sudan have not resolved since the latter’s secession in 2011. South Sudan minister of information and broadcasting Service, Barnaba Marial said there had been ‘reports of Sudanese army building up troops and reinforcing the strength’ of their forces in the area.

"’We have received reports from the area that more than 400 heads of cattle have been raided. The government of Sudan is behind this activity. It is using the militia to raid the area while it continues to build up troops and reinforcing the strengths of those supposed to have been withdrawn. It is not respecting resolution 2046 of the Security Council of the United Nations which calls for unconditional withdrawal of the armed forces from the area, which we responded and withdrew our forces without any condition but it refused to observe.’" (Sudan Tribune, February 27, 2013) 

The international community—and the UN, the African Union, and United States in particular—failed badly in the months preceding the May 2011 military seizure of Abyei by SAF and militia forces.  There no guarantee that even with the present deployment of the UN Interim Force for Abyei (UNISFA) hostilities will not occur.  Barnaba’s statement comes,

"…following a visit [to the Information Ministry] by Abyei community leaders with a message calling on the government to consider redeploying troops to the area, claiming UNISFA was no longer providing protection to the citizens in there. ‘The situation remains tense and UN peacekeepers in Abyei are not doing anything at all to protect civilians and their properties. They allow Misseriya to come to the area with guns. They allow Sudanese armed forces to increase the number of their forces in the area and they allow cows to be taken away in their presence by militia groups sponsored by the government of Sudan. The whole intention is to discourage our people from returning home so that they can continue with their plans to settle Misseriya in the area.’ Acuil Akol said on Wednesday. Acuil is the leader of an Abyei community delegation currently visiting Juba."

There are more than a few echoes of assessments of UNAMID in Darfur here.  Moreover, it is unclear how long the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is prepared to support this third, very expensive peacekeeping mission in greater Sudan (in addition to UNAMID in Darfur and UNMISS in South Sudan).  No doubt at some point an agreement will be signed by Khartoum that will allow UNISFA (and Ethiopia, which has provided the force) to withdraw with dignity, able to claim that their mission has been accomplished.  And the agreement secured from Khartoum will be worth precisely as much as the scores of other agreements the regime has made and then disowned.

The United Nations and international community more broadly seem prepared to accept this appalling status quo, as suggested by John Ging, OCHA head of operations:

"UN humanitarian chief of operations John Ging told Inner City Press that despite a ‘Security Council resolution nine months ago calling for immediate access [to Blue Nile and the Nuba],’ no aid has since gotten into South Kordofan and Blue Nile States…. [Ging continued] ‘we have to stay focused on results, which have been failure. We have to be honest about prospects are… nil.’" (Inner City Press [UN/New York], February 26, 2013)

Let us be clear about the implications of Ging’s assertion that the prospects for access to the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile are "nil."  A useful and informed summary comes from the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN):

• Briefing: Humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Nuba Mountain

"The ongoing conflict in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states continues to present a major challenge to aid agencies in the region, which say access is urgently required to meet the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of people.  IRIN has put together a briefing on the humanitarian situation and prospects for peace in the region.  The fighting, which began in June 2011 in the Nuba Mountains area of South Kordofan, pits the Sudanese army against the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).  While South Sudan was able to hold a referendum on its independence, the SPLM-N says it remains marginalized by the northern government. SPLM-N also expresses frustration with the "popular consultations" offered to South Kordofan and Blue Nile states to determine their future, feeling theses did not provide a mechanism to guarantee their community’s rights. They have refused to surrender their weapons to government forces, which they see as hostile.  More than 200,000 people from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states have fled into South Sudan and Ethiopia, according to the UN. Of particular concern are accusations of continued "indiscriminate" aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force and shelling by the two sides in the two Sudanese states….

"Speaking at the UN headquarters in New York in January, the director of the coordination and response division of OCHA, John Ging, said many people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile were subsisting on roots and leaves due to a lack of humanitarian aid. According to OCHA, the NGO Save the Children Sweden has, since January 2012, screened 81,062 children under age five for malnutrition, registering 3,490 cases of severe acute malnutrition and 10,287 cases of moderate acute malnutrition. Describing the situation as ‘appalling,’ Ging blamed the continued civilian suffering and lack of humanitarian access on inadequate political will from both the Sudanese government and the rebels; he warned that unless humanitarian operations were allowed to proceed, more deaths and displacement were inevitable. Despite an August 2012 Memorandum of Understanding among the Khartoum government, the SPLM-N, and a tripartite mediation group of the African Union (AU), the League of Arab States and the UN, humanitarian actors in Sudan say the agreement’s three-month deadline lapsed with neither SPLM-N nor the Sudanese government allowing access or delivery of relief supplies to South Kordofan and Blue Nile." (NUBA MOUNTAINS/NAIROBI, 14 February 2013 [IRIN])

Of course Ging is being deeply disingenuous here in suggesting that there is any comparable responsibility for the denial of humanitarian access on the part of the SPLM/A-N: this is consistent with the official UN policy of representing Sudan’s crises in terms of "moral equivalency."  But it is simply not true that the rebel leadership in the Nuba and Blue Nile is without the "political will" to do what is necessary to gain humanitarian access for the regions. Nor does he adduce a shred of evidence that the SPLM/A-N is not "allowing access or delivery of relief supplies to South Kordofan and Blue Nile."  Not to assign responsibility accurately and proportionately works to hand Khartoum an extraordinary propaganda victory, and ignores the fact that the SPM/A-N leadership signed on to the original humanitarian access proposal from the "tripartite mediation group" within a matter of days of its original proposal on February 2, 2012—over a year ago. 

Given the UN posture, it is all the easier for Khartoum to forestall access by declaring, as IRIN reports:

"A senior Sudanese government official said in November 2012 that there were humanitarian needs in the two states, including water and health services, but denied that there was a crisis in the region."

And yet the UN estimate for the number of civilians in Nuba and Blue Nile in need of humanitarian assistance was "more than 900,000" in early January.  The Enough Project published in October 2012 a report based on evidence gathered from the ground by an International Nongovernment Humanitarian Organization (INGO) working surreptitiously in the Nuba; experts in health assessments in humanitarian crises at The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health vetted the assessment and found its research and methodology to be sound and its findings to be credible:

§ The food security situation in South Kordofan has dramatically deteriorated, with 81.5 percent of households surviving on one meal per day, compared to only 9.5 percent one year ago, and 0 percent two years ago.

§ The prevalence of malnutrition among children in South Kordofan is "serious" bordering on "critical," according to the World Health Organization’s malnutrition prevalence classifications. A "critical" classification for malnutrition is the worst or most dire classification possible.

§ This dry season’s harvest, which is currently underway, is expected to yield a significantly smaller amount of food than normal because farmers were unable to plant seeds due to persistent bombing by the Sudan Armed Forces. This means that civilians will require alternative sources of food immediately.

§  65.7 percent of households have less than one week’s food stock. This is particularly troubling because food is not readily available for purchase, the harvest is low-yielding, and incomes are scarce or non-existent.

§  96.4 percent of households report having less income than normal, and 73.2 percent of households currently having no income at all. This effectively precludes the majority of households from purchasing available food stocks.

§ The ongoing conflict has further limited access to and availability of commodities at local markets, which has fuelled widespread displacement in search of food.

For their part, leaders of the Nuba people declared in a November 2012 letter to the international community: "We do not have access to food, medicine, healthcare and other basic necessities. We look around at what is left of our homes, and see our family and friends weak from hunger and disease. Everywhere we look, we see children, the elderly and other vulnerable people lying on the ground helpless.  It is very hard for us to explain to our children what is happening when they ask us, ‘Does anyone in the world know what we are going through? Why is it that no one cares about us?’" (

The African Union, despite its professed concern, indulges in the same distorting account of what sustains the humanitarian embargo imposed on these desperately needy regions:

"’The situation is now too critical to allow civilians to be held hostage to further political intransigence,’ the statement, presented to the AU Peace and Security Council, read. ‘Only unified, sustained, high-level political pressure will break the deadlock in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.’  The AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, chaired by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, recently released a report urging the government of Sudan and the SPLM-N to ‘enter into direct negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.’

"It also called on the UN Security Council to reiterate previous calls for immediate and unconditional humanitarian aid to affected communities in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  The report warned that ‘if either of the two parties persist in failing to permit such assistance, it will not be possible for [Security] Council to discourage any other mechanisms for humanitarian assistance that are not necessarily in full conformity with the preferred principles of impartiality and transparency.’ The panel also called on both parties to ‘enter into direct negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.’" (IRIN, February 14, 2013)

The suggestion that the SPLM/A-N is refusing to permit humanitarian assistance is simply an expedient lie, and can only lessen the pressure on Khartoum, which is fully responsible for the denial of humanitarian access.

Mbeki and his diplomatic team have repeatedly failed Sudan and South Sudan.  Few seem to remember that the title for his diplomatic initiative—"AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan"—referred originally to the "implementation" of a "roadmap for peace" in Darfur that Mbeki proposed several years ago.  The roadmap led nowhere and Darfur is again exploding, largely because of the abysmal failure of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, the result of yet another diplomatic process into which Mbeki attempted to insert himself.  Mbeki failed again in attempting to negotiate a referendum for Abyei in 2010-2011, and he is one of those within the diplomatic community most responsible for Khartoum’s decision to seize Abyei militarily in May 2011.  Mbeki’s response was feckless and irresponsible, and it is the people of Abyei who are paying the price:

• Abyei: Food scarcity hits thousands of displaced people

"A member of South Sudan’s ruling party (SPLM) has accused the United Nations of allegedly failing to provide relief assistance to thousands of displaced people in the disputed Abyei region. Luka Biong Deng, the co-chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC), also expressed fears that the population in the region were facing likely death should the situation remain unaddressed. ‘The UN coordinator in Abyei is [not] only unable to act, but he is unwilling to act. Food and non-food items are in abundance in Abyei, but returnees may die simply because of lack of food and shelter. People of Abyei may be better off without [the] UN system that is unable to act,’ Deng told Sudan Tribune Saturday…. It is apparent that no humanitarian assistance is being provided to the returnees despite availability of such assistance in Abyei. Despite good efforts by USAID and [the] Dutch and others to assist, the UN system in Abyei will not deliver such good intentions to the people of Abyei who have suffered [a] great deal."  (Sudan Tribune, February 9, 2013)

In an effort to divert attention from the African Union’s continuing failure in its self-appointed diplomatic role, Mbeki has gone so far as to suggest that the SPLM/A-N is "failing to permit [humanitarian] assistance" into the Nuba and Blue Nile.  This is false, and again the effect of such mendacity is to encourage Khartoum to believe that it will triumph by virtue of an expedient "moral equivalency."  Mbeki’s panel calls "on both parties to ‘enter into direct negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.’"  But this is precisely what the SPLM/A-N agreed to do in a Memorandum of Understanding signed on June 28, 2011; the agreement was also signed by Khartoum’s politically senior Nafie Ali Nafie.  Three days later it was President al-Bashir (July 1, 2011) who renounced the agreement and called for a "cleansing" of the Nuba Mountains (the assault on Blue Nile did not begin until September 1, 2011).  Mbeki never refers to this critical three-day period in Sudanese history.

Re-writing history, moral equivalence, and political cowardice: these are ultimately the reasons that Dr. Catena will continue to perform surgeries on the most innocent of victims in the Kauda valley of the Nuba Mountains.  Children will continue to lose limbs—overwhelming losses in predominantly agricultural communities; they and other civilians will continue to be grossly disfigured, suffer agonies of pain, and lose loved ones.  And they will continue to ask why the world does not stop the planes from bombing them, and allow food and medicine to reach them.

There is no answer in sight.  The moral cowardice and shameless expediency on the part of any number of international actors of consequence, certainly including the U.S. and the European Union, is beyond disgrace.  Individuals like Tom Catena are heroic but slim buttresses for any vestige of the once much-touted "responsibility to protect."

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, is author most recently of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012;

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