Sudan watchers are warning of rising tension in the central Nuba Mountains region. Most members of the Nuba ethnic group allied themselves with the southern breakaway group the Sudan People?s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during its bitter 20-year war with the government in Khartoum. In 2005, a peace agreement ended the conflict and gave the southern Sudanese the option of seceding from the north in a referendum in 2011. But the Nuba were excluded from this part of the deal. Now, their concerns are growing that they?ll officially be under Khartoum?s authority in the near future and will ultimately not be part of a new Sudan.

Analysts, community leaders and aid workers in Sudan say Nuba resentment of the SPLM is building, as many feel the movement has ?betrayed? them. They warn that the Nuba once again seem to be preparing for war, in anticipation of the southern Sudanese voting to separate from the north in the forthcoming referendum. This, the Nuba fear, will deliver them into the hands of their enemies and subject them to the ruling Islamic National Congress Party?s harsh legal system, sharia.

?I don?t know for how much longer we leaders can keep the people calm. We are in a disarray here,? says Suleiman Rahhal, of Nuba Survival, a group that?s advocating for Nuba rights.

The Nuba live in a mountain range in the eastern part of Sudan?s South Kordofan region, where they mainly eke out a living as subsistence farmers.

?During the war, we joined the SPLA (the Sudan People?s Liberation Army, the SPLM?s armed wing) because Khartoum was oppressing us with sharia (Islamic law),? Rahhal explains. ?People were stoned to death, whipped, for minor offences. They hated us because we were black; they didn?t see us as real Muslims. We fought many battles, much Nuba blood was spilt for the cause of freedom for all Sudanese.?

Says Roger Winter, a former United States Special Representative to Sudan, ?The Nuba were under a declared jihad (holy war) by the government.?

Rahhal says the government of President Omar al-Bashir has perpetrated ?ethnic cleansing? in the Nuba Mountains, a charge the authorities deny. But Rahhal continues, ?They did the same as what?s happening in Darfur right now ? only very few independent people came into our area to witness what was happening here. The Nuba suffered in isolation.?

According to Rahhal, his people sided with the SPLM because they saw in its then leader, John Garang, an ally who in the future would free them from Khartoum?s yoke and allow them to one day form part of a new, democratic Sudan. It didn?t seem to matter, Rahhal says, that most Nuba were Muslims and most southerners were Christians.

?When Dr. Garang came up with the idea of a united, liberated Sudan, we wanted to join that fight. This was also our desire, the same as Dr. Garang?s. We wanted self-determination. We were united with the SPLA not in religious faith, but in faith of common humanity.?

But now, says Rahhal, much of this confidence has been eroded by the consequences of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the al-Bashir administration and the SPLM in January 2005 in the Kenyan town of Naivasha.

?The CPA was good for Sudan, but mostly very bad for the Nuba,? Rahhal says.

'Thrown to the wolves'

?My heart really goes out to the Nuba people. They?ve suffered disproportionately in this war. They really were the targets of a quiet genocide, a silent genocide,? says Daniel Jok Deng, who manages an aid organization operating in the Nuba Mountains. ?The CPA put the Nuba in a kind of no man?s land. They didn?t win the same rights that the south won through the struggle, although they engaged in the same struggle.?

According to the peace deal, the people of the Nuba Mountains do not have the option of voting for self-determination and separation from Khartoum in a referendum scheduled for 2011, as do others who live in southern Sudan and marginalized areas of Sudan who previously allied themselves with the SPLM, such as those in the Abyei region.

A clause in the CPA, entitled ?popular consultation,? says political leaders in the Sudan must merely ?consult? with the Nuba to gauge their desires ahead of the referendum. Sudan analyst and veteran aid worker Peter Moszynski explains, ?Just before he died, I asked John Garang what was the difference between self-determination and popular consultation. He said self-determination is something that?s enshrined in the peace agreement and it can?t be altered. If the people vote for it, it?s going to happen. Whereas popular consultation just means people have the right to be consulted ? but that whatever the people say, their desires are not necessarily going to be taken into account in the near future.?

He adds, ?There?s therefore a good chance that the Nuba Mountains will officially be assimilated into the north.?

This, states Rahhal, is anathema to the Nuba, given their previous persecution at the hands of Khartoum?s troops and militias.

?To my understanding, this (popular consultation) doesn?t lead to anywhere. It doesn?t give the (Nuba) people a full right to determine what they want. If they want absolute autonomy, they don?t have that (right). It is just ambiguous terms that doesn?t lead to anywhere.?

Deng says, ?The Nuba feel that the SPLM leadership sacrificed them in order to secure the signing of the peace agreement and a future for southern Sudan, in the midst of huge international pressure, that they were in effect thrown to the wolves to pacify Khartoum.?

Rahhal points out that the Nuba never had any official representatives at the CPA negotiations.

?Therefore we had no one to fight for our rights. We just had to trust the SPLM.?

But Rahhal adds that ?burning resentment? is now the order of the day in the Nuba Mountains.

?We hear that Juba (the capital of southern Sudan) is being built up, that the south is being developed, but we are seeing nothing here, we are just going backwards. The CPA has meant nothing to us. The Naivasha agreement never addressed (the Nuba?s) grievances or their aspirations and demands.?

?Mixture for violence?

The CPA also makes provision for Sudan to hold national elections in 2009. But Rahhal says the polls will be ?meaningless? to the Nuba. ?What is the point of the Nuba voting when we are going to be given to northern Sudan anyway he asks.

Deng says ?disenchantment is everywhere? in the Nuba Mountains these days.

?If the south separates and leaves the Nuba (people) behind in a Sudan that still follows the policies that they rebelled against, the concept of betrayal (by the SPLM) becomes very relevant,? he comments.

Moszynski explains the situation in more cynical terms.

?Unlike Abyei, the Nuba Mountains doesn?t have much oil; they don?t have many resources. They?re also mostly Muslim. They will be left on the northern side of the border again if the country separates.?

Moszynski says the Nuba invested all their hope in Garang and essentially trusted that he would never ?sell? them to the al-Bashir administration ? no matter what the contents of the CPA.

?Dr. Garang was dedicated to the concept of a united Sudan, a Sudan that would embrace the Nuba and give them a measure of autonomy in their own territory. However, post-Garang, the SPLM?s separatists have risen, and Sudan now seems bent on a course of secession. The future is looking bleak for marginalized people like the Nuba.?

Following Garang?s death in a helicopter crash a few months after the peace deal was signed, says Moszynski, Nuba hopes faded fast.

?The recent actions of Khartoum have further cemented the likelihood that southerners under the present conditions, with ongoing conflict and atrocities in Darfur and the destruction of Abyei by government troops, would vote to secede, hence leaving the Nuba in a very vulnerable position.?

Deng is convinced that the Nuba Mountains is fast building towards an ?explosion.?

?Although people may not be focusing on Nuba Mountains right now, it definitely is a flashpoint. If the rights of the people of Nuba Mountains are not recognized and upheld, then I think we can fear the worst in Nuba (Mountains) as well.?

Winter agrees, saying the Nuba Mountains ?has the mixture ? ethnic, religious and otherwise ? that sometimes tends to be fodder for violence in Sudan. It?s a vulnerable place, which is clearly geographically in the north, although the population is culturally southern (Sudanese) and African.?

SPLM: ?We?ll never abandon the Nuba?

Ezekiel Gatkuoth, the SPLM?s mission chief in the United States and one of its negotiators with Khartoum, agrees that discontent is simmering in the Nuba Mountains but blames most of the tension on the Sudan government. Khartoum, he maintains, ?has not been serious in implementing the peal deal protocols that pertain to the area.?

He says the main reason for ?bad feelings? in the Nuba Mountains is that civil servants from Khartoum are ?treated better and paid better? than local civil servants allied to the SPLM.

?These two (branches of) civil service have to be harmonized so that it can be integrated and people treated fairly. Then things will improve,? he says.

The gist of Gatkuoth?s argument is that it?s the Sudan government?s failure to implement key conditions of the CPA in the Nuba Mountains, rather than any SPLM actions, that?s inflaming emotions in the region.

?Of course the Nuba Mountains is a flashpoint. We need to be very concerned. It is just like Abyei because it is on the borderline; anything can happen at anytime,? he acknowledges.

But he denies that the SPLM is set to ?sacrifice? the Nuba to the north in order to gain self-determination.

?There is no such thing as betrayal from our side. The SPLM is not a southern party; we are a national party. We care about the Nuba. They are our people,? he emphasizes. He also denies that the SPLM is ?selling out? the Nuba because they are Muslims, and live in a poor area with little wealth.

?The SPLM is a party of marginalized people. We are for Nuba Mountains, we are for Southern Blue Nile and we are also for Abyei. We are for Darfur and we are for Nubia and also we are for eastern Sudan. And we will never, ever abandon anybody who is marginalized in Sudan. Whoever is analyzing that we are betraying the people of Nuba Mountains is clearly not assessing the situation correctly,? he says.

To this, Rahhal responds: ?I can?t trust SPLM?. They are not taking the issue of the Nuba seriously.?

Preparation for war

Rahhal points out that another source of bitterness in the Nuba Mountains is that the area doesn?t have a ?single representative? in the SPLM administration. ?Even the NCP has some Nuba in its government in Khartoum,? he says.

Gatkuoth responds that ?some? Nuba do have positions in the southern government, although he concedes that they don?t occupy top posts ?at the moment.?

Moszynski warns that many Nuba who previously fought against Khartoum?s troops in the past did not surrender their weapons after the peace agreement was signed but instead hid them.

?I don?t doubt that some of these people, if things don?t go their way, will resume a guerilla war, even though the SPLA won?t support them,? he says. ?In a way you have to worry more about these areas with regard to geography and topography. The Nuba Mountains, as its name suggests, is very mountainous. Now one thing about mountains ? it?s very hard for tanks and artillery and soldiers to operate there. So it?s very easy for the rebels to become ensconced in the hills. It?s hard to defeat them there, which is why they were able to hold out for more than two decades in the civil war.?

Rahhal adds, ?What I see among some Nuba leaders is preparation for conflict, not preparation for elections or peace.?

Some Nuba, he says, feel their ?true war? is only just beginning.