Scene from a friend’s wedding celebration in al-Thawra, Omdurman, 2022. Photo: Kuna.

Scene from a friend’s wedding celebration in al-Thawra, Omdurman, 2022. Photo: Kuna.

View From the Nuba Mountains: An Interview with Kuna

Kuna (a pseudonym for her protection) is a Nuba diaspora returnee currently displaced within Sudan due to the ongoing war between the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces. We discuss how Nuba, Darfuris, and those who live in western Sudan are subjected to anti-Blackness: this anti-Blackness predates the current war and now continues to magnify the intensity of state and paramilitary violence. She also shares her experience with Muslim-majority Arab governments cynically performing solidarity with Palestinians in order to assuage domestic dissent while normalizing relations with Israel and/or refusing Muslim refugees from other places where occupation, genocide, and religious persecution persist. 

J. Khadijah Abdurahman: People often split Sudan into a simple binary of Black and Arab, or Northern Muslims and Southern (as in South Sudan)1 Christians without giving further thought or recognition to Indigenous Black sacred practices in Islam and Christianity, or the specific experiences of the Nuba, Fur, or Masalit people, for example. Where do you locate yourself within the social and political geography of Sudan? How has the war transformed or reinforced your perspective on this?

Kuna: Recently online, there was a discussion about what it means to be Indigenous, and how does an Indigenous person look, with people suggesting that North Sudanese are Muslims of a certain skin tone, and South Sudanese are Christians of a certain skin tone. And South Sudanese are Christian, and North Sudanese are Muslim. However, when we look back into the history of Sudan, the Arabization of [Sudan] is something that has been happening since the early seventh century, yet it is not necessarily something that we grappled with until post-colonization and post-independence from the British Empire. Prior to the independence of the South Sudanese state, the southern region of Sudan, Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, were all considered westerners and as one massive “other.” Within the education systems, children were being taught, “These are the other, and these are us. We are of a higher caliber, and they are of a lower caliber.”

Even within the Nuba Mountains itself—I can’t speak for the Masalit and for the Southern Sudanese—there are over [fifty] tribes and many different native languages. We have cultural overlap, but even our languages are not the same. So the harmful othering of non-Arabized peoples, their native religions, and Christianity created this giant mass of discriminatory thinking. This mentality was also taught to the people in those regions making them think they are other, they are lesser. On the government level, Nuba, Darfurians, and Southerners were not allowed to be raised above a certain level. The highest they could go was to become public school educators.

Most were only given jobs as cleaners or other low-level work, because that was their peak. When people simplify the narrative and say that this discrimination was simply because they were Christians, it doesn’t make sense; Sudan has always been an extremely diverse country in their way of religious thinking. My own brothers were educated in Christian schools when they were young, even though they are not Christian. But I would call it a way of further indoctrinating people and further pushing this sense of divisiveness, the notion that there are holy ones and there are disbelievers, and the disbelievers are dark skinned, the disbelievers have wide noses. And this way of thinking was perpetuated even amongst the western groups of Sudan.

Scene from a friend’s wedding celebration in al-Thawra, Omdurman, 2022. Photo: Kuna.
Scene from a friend’s wedding celebration in al-Thawra, Omdurman, 2022. Photo: Kuna.

Even among the Nuba, someone following their native religion or following Christianity can be told, “You’re the wrong one. You’re the one who’s the outsider. You’re the one who is creating divisiveness, and you are supposed to be of a certain religion. And if you are not a part of this religion, it’s bad enough that you are not Arab. And to flout Islam on top of that, you’re asking for trouble. You’re asking not to be socialized. You’re asking not to be welcomed into society. It’s bad enough you were born in the wrong tribe.” So, I think one of the questions you asked me was where I place myself in all of this. I won’t claim to be an expert. A lot of my experience, at least the first twenty-five years of my life, has been secondhand, from a distance, because I was raised outside of Sudan. I came back with my family and I had a very condensed sort of education on Sudan in the past five years.

"Previously, when I was outside of Sudan, I was very much like, 'I’m just Sudanese.' But now, I find myself more and more—I don’t want to say less willing—but I will say I feel safer identifying as a Nuba."

Initially, I came in with this outsider’s way of thinking, like, “I’m here. I’m among my people. It’s post-revolution. The stories that my parents would tell us—that can’t happen anymore. We’re a new generation. We’re not like that.” Very quickly, I learned that just because one man was toppled does not necessarily mean the systems in place have been dismantled. When I came, I worked for a government institution that had a long history of not employing people of my race on a higher level. I was the second female Indigenous Nuba person to be employed, and I quickly learned that I do not belong.

The institution was made by Arabs for Arabs, and while I don’t hold any grudges against Arabs, this experience made me completely aware of who I am, or where I’m “supposed to be,” in Sudan. They made it very clear that they did not consider me their equal. It gave me a very quick lesson on where the Sudanese people are, mentally speaking, in terms of equality. Even without my personal experience, the way that the Nuba rebels—I would call them rebels because they were rebelling against the government and the government’s subjugation of them—and the Darfur rebels were viewed, was very much, “How dare you rise up? How dare you, after all we’ve done?”

A major city in the Nuba Mountains is called Dalang [South Kordofan], and it is the second-largest city in the region after the state capital, Kadugil. “After all we’ve done—we’ve developed your city for you, and you have the audacity to rise up against us.” But what’s the point of developing us and not letting us move beyond that? Of setting up the seat of power in Khartoum and not letting anyone see it except your own immediate tribesmen? “You guys are rising up because you’re ungrateful” is also a narrative that I still see online amongst Gen Z. Some of them say, “Actually, you guys are the ones that started it. You guys are the aggressors, and you guys hate the Arab way of life. You hate us because we helped you discover religion.” It’s always this benevolent-leader complex and, “We have always given to you, and this is how you repay us.” And that’s the mentality that I personally got from my time in this institution, and I feel like that hasn’t changed.

I came in with the hope for a more unified Sudan, especially after I had gotten that job. I was like, Okay, it seems like things are changing. But then to see things exactly the way they remained in the past—the stories my parents told me of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s are very much in place. So rather than pushing me to feel a sense of camaraderie with my Sudanese brothers, this pushed me to be more insular, to be more isolated, and to having the mentality of looking out for my own; everyone is looking out for their own, which brings us to the larger issue of tribalism in Sudan. Everyone is out here looking out for their own tribes. Everyone advocates for their own person because once you try to step out of that, you are immediately informed of your place—either directly, by being told you’re not welcome, or indirectly, by being shown that you’re not welcome.

Previously, when I was outside of Sudan, I was very much like, “I’m just Sudanese.” But now, I find myself more and more—I don’t want to say less willing—but I will say I feel safer identifying as a Nuba.

Khadijah: Due to the legacy of the Save Darfur movement, the Western public easily identifies the Rapid Support Forces as the villain because they grew out of the Janjaweed. Like much of continental African politics, there’s a way that images of the Janjaweed rampaging Darfur are understood as a “humanitarian crisis” outside of politics, or at most “an ethnic conflict.” But, nonetheless, it is relatively easy for the West to understand that RSF is the “bad guy.” On the other hand, many marginalized communities from outside of Khartoum also raise that they’re equally terrified of SAF. What is your experience and perception of the Sudanese Armed Forces?

Traditional grass huts on the road from South Kordofan to North Kordofan. Photo: Kuna.
Traditional grass huts on the road from South Kordofan to North Kordofan. Photo: Kuna.

Kuna: Very negative. At the end of the day, if someone shoots me with a gun, am I going to be asking what uniform they are wearing so I know whether to hate them? I will admit at the beginning of this war, it was like, “The Janjaweed are back. They are here to take what they’ve always wanted, what they’ve always been seeking.” They’ve always wanted the seat of power, and they’ve always been—I don’t want to use the word “envious,” because it sounds petty—but I believe this war is a war of pettiness.

Not to reduce the seriousness or the impact of the war, but a lot of it is pettiness. All of this looting and humiliation of civilians, especially in Khartoum—it’s petty revenge for what they view as marginalization by the central government. But the army are the ones that propped them up. [Abdel Fattah al-]Burhan and Hemedti [Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo] were “brothers” working together since day one. A few weeks before the war broke out, Burhan was praising Hemedti. They were calling each other “brothers” in the October 2021 coup. Even in the early days of the war, Burhan was expressing his desire to keep talking, and he didn’t strip him of his titles until several months after the war.

To me, this indicates that he was still hoping to reunite with his “brother,” so I see them as two sides of the same coin. Who was supplying the Janjaweed with weapons? They didn’t get their weapons independently. Their weapons were provided to them. Provided to them by whom? There are many sources, of course, but among them were the central government of Sudan. Omar al-Bashir was the head of the army, and the army was providing weaponry to the Janjaweed at the time. And when we look at the rebellion in the Nuba Mountains, the bombs that are currently dropping on Khartoum, the gunfire, the fighting—it’s not new to the people of the Nuba Mountains. I have family members who have experienced the terror that the Sudanese Armed Forces have inflicted upon them.

When my nephew was a child, he had to flee because of the bombs that were dropping from the sky. During my visit to the Nuba Mountains in 2022, I saw mountains that were made black from the bombs that were dropped by the Sudanese Armed Forces—scorched. And with all of that in mind, I’m meant to believe that they are there to preserve the dignity of the Sudanese people, to fight against the enemy? They weren’t your enemy until many months after the war began. Hemedti became an enemy only a year after. I find it very hard to say that I support them. In the sense of them being the legitimate army of Sudan and the one army that we should be having, I will say, yes, it’s in the constitution. Our country needs an army to defend it, yes, as far as that—and the RSF is an illegitimate militia.2

I don’t think a lot of people are respecting the sovereignty of the Sudanese state, because the Sudanese state declared the RSF as a rebel militia. We can go into a debate on what the Sudanese state is currently. That’s also something ambiguous and up in the air, but that’s what has been put out, and I feel like that should be respected. As a body itself, I believe that even if the SAF do win and are declared the victors, and the RSF is completely wiped out and dismantled and whatever it is, the best that we can hope for is a return to the policies of Omar al-Bashir and Bakri Hassan [Saleh]. And the same policies that were subjugating and oppressing those groups will happen once again. And you can kind of see it in a subtle way based on their response to the RSF attacks in Darfur. The village-burning and the killing and the humiliation and the rape and the murder and the looting that is happening there is several times more violent and aggressive there, and the response from the army in that place is not as pronounced as it is in the capital—not as pronounced as it is in the other states.

View from a rooftop the day of the coup, October 2021. Photo: Kuna.
View from a rooftop the day of the coup, October 2021. Photo: Kuna.

Anti-Black racism in Sudan sounds like a misnomer; how is it possible that an African nation whose population are clearly phenotypically Black perpetuate anti-Blackness? I mentioned Arabization earlier, and how the dichotomy of the superior-Arab-versus-inferior-African tribalism is rife in Sudanese society, and how this plays a huge role in how the government operated under al-Bashir and those that came before him. People focus on the percentage of Arab blood one has; it is unfortunately the dynamic that Sudanese society was built on. It might not be immediately obvious to those who are not familiar with the racial makeup of Sudan, but we can definitely see this playing out even in this war, after Bashir was deposed.

In Khartoum, residential areas with an ethnically African majority (tribespeople, most of whom live in poverty) are more often aerially bombed by the SAF than wealthier parts of Khartoum. When we take a look at Darfur, cities and towns like El Geneina, Nyala, Zalingei are indiscriminately bombed by the army and its residents victimized by the RSF. Where is a civilian meant to go? Who is meant to protect them? There is no one on their side.

There is an army presence in Darfur and Kordofan, but they remain in their bases. They completely abandoned al-Jazirah. The RSF attacks and burns villages, and the SAF bombs them from the sky. Sudanese can say they support the army, but they cannot pretend that they are attempting to minimize civilian loss of life in these areas. We cannot pretend the army is protecting us all. It is important to acknowledge the racist institutions and practices upheld by those in power to have a hope for us to return to the Sudan we deserve.

"Anti-Black racism in Sudan sounds like a misnomer; how is it possible that an African nation whose population are clearly phenotypically Black perpetuate anti-Blackness?"

When we look at how the army bombs targets, when we look at the difference in the way targets are bombed in al-Fashir and Nyala, and when we look where targets are bombed in Khartoum, there is a difference. It’s so much more aggressive. There’s so much less care for the sanctity of civilian life. There’s so much more of, “This is all just collateral damage. Their lives are more expendable.” And seeing all of that as a whole, it’s hard for me to accept if the RSF winning is completely out of the question. The SAF winning is something that has to happen, but at what cost? Either way, the civilians are the losers.

Civilians are being indiscriminately bombed in al-Jazirah and Khartoum as well—I don’t want to minimize that at all. I am just highlighting the aggression towards civilians as a whole, and ethnically African Sudanese in particular.

Khadijah: What do you have to say to people who ask why the genocide and war in Sudan isn’t as documented or as visible as Gaza?

Kuna: I grew up in a Muslim-majority country and attended an Islamic high school and university where there was a wide range of people from all different walks of life, but unified around Islam. When politicians in Muslim countries feel like their social capital has waned, the issue that they raise in order to get everyone back on their side is Palestine: “The Palestinians are our people. We must stand against oppression.” And of course, there”s an aspect of anti-Semitism and racism against Jews; “The Jews are our enemies, and the Palestinians are our friends.” And this is something, no joke, that I have seen in front of me happening since I was a child. It’s something I’ve seen consistently. For many people in the West, all of this boycott stuff is new, because they’ve never been told about what’s really happening in Palestine. But for us in the Muslim countries, every few years, or every few months, it would get a periodic revival.

This is not to say that there isn’t legitimate or sincere organizing in solidarity of Palestinian liberation within these Muslim countries. It’s that their respective governments cynically use actions like boycotts to garner political capital among their Muslim constituency. Their rhetoric is deeply anti-Semitic, emphasizing that they must stand up for their own against, not even Israelis, but the Jews. “We have a collective duty as Muslims. Our struggle and our test in this life is to uphold their cause and to free them from the Jewish oppressors,” is the line we’re fed. So when you have all that context in mind, when you talk about [places] like Sudan, Kashmir, Bosnia, and you can talk about the Rohingya as well in Myanmar, what all of these countries have in common is that the problems are internal. There’s no external oppressor. There’s no “evil Jew” coming in and taking your home. These are your own people doing this to you. “You can’t figure out your problems, so that seems like a ‘you problem,’ so solve it amongst yourselves.”

The war has made me so cynical, and it’s made me so bitter. And it’s made me just look around and be like, “What exactly are we doing here? What is happening?” And there’s something I do want to clarify. I mentioned fakeness and all of that. I really don’t mean the people who are supporting the Palestinians are fake. I truly mean it’s the governments—all of the Muslim countries say they support Palestine, but Malaysia doesn’t take any refugees, or they treat them badly. Bahrain has normalized relations with Israel, so when you look deep into it, the words that they are saying and the actions they are taking are not matching.

I’m sure the people themselves are working hard to make a difference for the Palestinian people, but it’s really sad. And it upsets me that that’s the case, but that is the case, and Sudan doesn’t even factor. Sudan doesn’t even make the list, because “You are another African country that can’t figure its shit out, that can’t figure out what it wants, and it’s another civil war. Oh my God, didn’t we already do this? Didn’t we already do the blue profile pictures in 2019? What else is going on with you guys? You still haven’t figured it out? You still haven’t solved your problems? Us paying attention to you—again, you guys are going through genocide? How many genocides? We only have the attention span to—every country just gets one genocide that we get to pay attention to. Other than that, we’re not going to give you anything more. We already solved this problem for you guys in 2003. We already took South Sudan away from you guys. What else could possibly be going wrong?”

Khadijah: Why do you feel like the 2019 revolution was ultimately betrayed? I’m also asking this remembering how you expressed that the Nuba Mountains are the heart of Sudan. As an outsider, when I speak to people who are from Khartoum, it feels as if the revolution is this utopic moment from which the timeline begins in order to understand the present. Whereas I know that’s not the experience of a lot of other people outside of the center—so yes, why do you feel like that revolution was ultimately betrayed? Where do you situate that relative to everything else you’ve described?

Kuna: The revolution was betrayed because no one influential actually has the interests of the Sudanese people in mind. No one has actually put the Sudanese citizens or Sudanese civilians in mind. No one has actually thought, “How can we develop our country?” No one has actually viewed Sudan as a country—no one in power at least. Twenty nineteen was not the first time there was a revolution against al-Bashir. The earliest one I can remember is—the movement was called Girifna, which translates to “We’re disgusted.” Of course, there were many, many, many before that, but that’s the one that I remember the most because I thought that was the one that would topple Omar al-Bashir. And they were working in the revolution, and they were trying to get rid of him, but the people in power were not interested.

The people financing Omar al-Bashir were not interested in the 2019 revolution, I believe—not to say that the people did not make a huge impact. For people to say that Omar al-Bashir was toppled because of the people rising up in Atbara [a city in River Nile State]—that’s not necessarily true, because people have always been rising up against him. People have been screaming from the rooftops, as you’ve mentioned, in Darfur and in South Kordofan for years, but it wasn’t viewed as revolutionary to do so. It was viewed as rebellious. The language changed when the people rising up changed. When the racial makeup of the people changed, the language became more positive sounding. “These aren’t rebels; these are revolutionaries. These aren’t terrorists; these are freedom fighters.” And to the rest of us, it was very obvious. I think, too, a lot of people who came up in the 2019 revolution were young folk, and I can’t blame them for not having historical context or not knowing; because, like I mentioned, they were subjected to a lot of propaganda. TV, shows, movies, everything—education taught them to think a certain way. 

Not to say that they are not responsible for not educating themselves, but I feel like it’s disingenuous to take full credit for the toppling of Omar al-Bashir; because Omar al-Bashir also was successfully toppled after the UAE [United Arab Emirates] saw it was in their interest to withdraw funding from him. He was holding on for dear life, but after his funding was withdrawn and Hemedti also rose up against him, and Burhan too—they decided not to carry out his orders They were with him almost to the very end, until they jumped ship at the last moment, when they saw things were not going his way. And when he was deposed, guess who came back? Hemedti and Burhan. I’m not surprised; I’m saddened that things went the way that they did, and they seized power, and they did the coup. And they let people pretend that things were going well.

I will put [Abdalla] Hamdok’s name on the table as well. He sold the Sudanese people the pipe dream of a free and liberated Sudan ruled by a civilian government, but he also sold Sudan. He sold the Sudanese civilians to Burhan and Hemedti. He agreed to hand over power to them. He agreed to it, so I won’t say that the revolution necessarily failed. But there are people who exploited the vacuum of power before we even had a chance to breathe. Immediately, they swooped in like vultures, and every day that this war continues, they continue to sell Sudan down the drain and to spit in the face of the Sudanese people who died in the recent revolution and revolutions past. It makes no difference to them. They’re in it for the money.

1. South Sudan became an independent state in 2011. See “South Sudan Country Profile,” BBC News, April 18, 2023.

2. Though the 2019 constitution reflected the regularization of the Rapid Support Forces as part of the national army, the outbreak of fighting in April 2023 was accompanied by the Sudanese Armed Forces’ designation of the RSF as a rebel group.

Khadijah Abdurahman is the editor in chief of Logic(s).

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 21, "Medicine and the Body." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.