Eyes of Nuba

Armed with a camera, Ahmed Khatir sets out to tell the story of a war that hardly anyone has heard of.

Filmmakers: John Dickie and Will Sherman

For Ahmed Khatir, when the war broke out in June 2011, he watched, powerless, as Sudanese soldiers burned his family’s home.

But instead of taking up arms to join the rebels he decided to join a group of citizen journalists who are determined to make the world take notice as another African conflict unfolds.

This small band of self-taught journalists is based in the Nuba Mountains, on the border between Sudan and newly formed South Sudan. It is a place consumed by a conflict reminiscent of earlier regional wars.

Hoping his pictures will inspire action, Ahmed is now one of five Nuban reporters who roam the region recording the testimonies of those caught in the crossfire. They hope their work will bring the world’s attention to this tragedy.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and his government are waging a scorched earth campaign on their own people, terrorising all of Nuba because of the presence of the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) there.

Sudanese bombers randomly attack and burn villages, all in an effort to drive out the local population they suspect are in bed with the SPLA. Many now live in nearby caves, forced from their land and on the brink of starvation.

But this is a forgotten war. Few non-local journalists have ventured into Nuba, and little information comes out of there.

Ahmed and his team know that for the people living in Nuba, information and reaching out to the rest of the world may be their only hope of survival. Their aim is to prevent the region from descending further into genocide, to avoid becoming the next Darfur.


By John Dickie

At the start of the new century, the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur and the atrocities committed there made headlines. Foreign governments and humanitarian organisations, prompted by global news reports filled with graphic images of death and mayhem, finally took action. Aid and outrage poured into the region and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir subsequently became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court.

But the tragedy of genocide had not been confined to just this corner of Sudan. In the neighbouring province of Southern Kordofan, and particularly in the Nuba Mountains, a similar catastrophe is underway, yet nobody seems to know about it. How is this possible? This was one of the big questions that inspired us to begin this documentary film project.

Part of it is the geography of the area. It is extremely difficult to reach the Nuba Mountains, one of the most isolated and rugged environments on earth. Further, the UN and all NGOs abandoned the region when the war began in 2011 as the Sudanese government could not or would not guarantee their safety.

The Nuban population is cut off further as journalists are banned from entering by the Bashir government, so it is impossible to travel south to there from Khartoum. The only other route, from South Sudan, has its own obstacles. The best option is a relief airplane from the capital, Juba, to Yida refugee camp which sits on the border with Sudan. The next stage is the most risky, travelling overland in a 4×4 truck on a road which, suspected of being a supply route for the rebels, is often subjected to heavy bombing.

Will Sherman, my co-producer, travelled to the region in 2011 when the war began and was one of the first journalists to document what was happening on the ground. What made the strongest impression on him was how much of the violence was being directed at civilians.

Like in Darfur, the government’s reaction to rebellion was total war. Their aerial bombing does not distinguish between military and civilian targets. Instilling fear and forcing people off the land seems to be a conscious part of their strategy, under the guise of cutting off support for the rebels. It is hard to know precisely what goes on in the corridors of power in Khartoum, but on the ground it looked a lot like state-sponsored terrorism.

During that first trip to the Nuba Mountains, Will was stuck in the town of Kauda for two weeks after the relief plane flights he arrived on were targeted by bombs.

A chance meeting brought him into contact with the founders of Nuba Reports, a local journalism project. With nobody else reporting on the conflict, their goal was to document stories with photos and video, focusing on the atrocities committed against civilians, and publishing them online.

On another reporting trip to the region, Will met more members of the team and, as an experienced journalist himself, gave them tips on how to report, shoot and interview.

Inspired by the kindness and resilience of the Nuba people in the face of such a deadly situation, he organised further training. Knowing how few international journalists were able to make the trek to the conflict zone, he wanted to assist the project to make sure reporting would continue in the region. Out of this, an idea for a documentary film highlighting this remarkable team of local journalists was born.

Will, an old friend, first contacted me for advice about one of the early short feature videos the Nuba Reports team was finishing. I remembered the classic black and white photos of Nuban wrestlers Magnum founder George Rodger had taken in 1949, but had no idea a war was going on there today. After seeing these first video images and hearing from Will about the region and the personal story of the reporters we decided to join forces to develop a documentary film together.

Through 2012, the conflict continued to worsen. One of the main differences to the story of Darfur, however, was that the rebels in Nuba were now much more organised and better equipped to defend their land. They seemed to be the only thing preventing the Sudanese army from using the same genocidal tactics they applied in Darfur.

For civilians however, the ‘story’ had nothing to do with politics or war but with the basics such as food and shelter. Crops were failing; people were afraid to farm in the open; supplies were drying up; water wells fell into disrepair. Fear and starvation was driving hundreds of thousands of Nubans off the land and towards refugee camps in South Sudan.

One of those refugees was Ahmed Khatir. Will first met him in Yida refugee camp shortly after Ahmed had joined Nuba Reports and attended training. His humour and personality in such a difficult situation were infectious. He was also a quick learner with a distinctive style of filming. His powerful personal story of surviving the chaotic violence in Kadugli, the state capital, made him a good focus for our film.

After delicately negotiating permission with the rebel leadership to enter the region, we managed to hire one of the few vehicles available and set out from Yida refugee camp towards the border with Sudan with our intrepid driver Mohammed and translator Yassin. Were it not such a serious story to be chasing, the scene of our vehicle racing down the dirt roads, loaded with camera gear, a generator and cans of tuna fish, with diesel sloshing down all sides of the truck from plastic canisters on the roof, in 50 C degree heat, would have been comic.

But this rocky, dusty road to the border with Sudan is fraught with very real dangers. Local militias, South Sudan soldiers and aerial bombings all pose a threat. But once we crossed into Sudan we felt vaguely reassured as we passed each of the half dozen rebel checkpoints to reach Ahmed’s compound. All the rebel soldiers we came across were familiar with Ahmed and his work and were always cordial with us, pleased to see a foreign film crew there to tell the story of what is happening in Nuba.

In all, we spent two weeks with Ahmed in the Nuba Mountains. What has become his ‘normal’ left us breathless, drained and forever changed by the experience. I had worked in conflict zones in Latin America where I live but nothing could compare to this. The intense heat, the bombing, the lack of food and water, being incommunicado and far from any kind of support infrastructure made for the deepest test of mettle I had ever experienced. But the trials were offset by the kindness and generosity shown to us by the Nuba everywhere we went. I will never forget a woman who had taken refuge from the bombing in a cave who insisted on giving me, from her dwindling food supplies, a delicious pod of Baobab fruit.

When we finally returned to Yida refugee camp, miraculously unscathed, we felt almost ashamed. We were the lucky ones who could board an NGO flight and return to ‘civilisation’. Ahmed, his wife Khadija and young daughter Nidal and hundreds of thousands more Nubans will never have that luxury. All they can do is continue their struggle, their fight to survive and defend their rights. For Ahmed, his own personal battle is to show the world what is happening and ask why it continues and why no one has stepped in to end the tragedy unfolding in the Nuba Mountains.