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<p>Phtoto by Ella Rubeli.</p>

Phtoto by Ella Rubeli.

At a Nuba fundraiser in Blacktown.

A Little Bit Of Africa In Australia

When George Clooney jetted into Sydney, it was the city’s tiny Nuba population who had his eye. War is afoot again in southern Sudan where Australians have played a notable but hidden role for many decades.


It's a broiling summer day on Main Street, in suburban Blacktown at Sydney's edge. The noon foot traffic clings to the shade of trees and awnings. Blue-black and pale-white wraiths flit across the road between pay-day finance offices, kebab shops, and purveyors of fruit and Oriental spice. Blacktown is both boom town and blight town. In the past 10 years, Caucasian Australians have slowly drained from Main Street, leaving an outsized population of the elderly and the unemployed to occupy the street benches. But land prices are buoyed by the lower income housing available to immigrants. Blacktown is alive and on the move. The parade of gaunt-faced, pallid drug addicts with tattooed flesh forms a tapestry of wreckage against a vista of Arabic, Samoan, Filipino, Indian, and Sudanese shoppers.

Similarly spare, the blue-black figures are south Sudanese. Most are Dinka, tall and rugged pastoralists tattooed not with inky roses or Gothic letters but with ceremonial scars. They are refugees from one of Africa's longest and most deadly civil wars. Once a persecuted minority, their birthplace now lies inside the world's newest state, South Sudan, not yet one year old. But a small number of Blacktown's inhabitants - some 400 in Sydney - are the Nuba, who claim a link to one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa. They call Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah, their direct forebear. Contrary to any superficial glance down Main Street, the Nuba community believes that Australia is part of their prophesied biblical dispersion, and that Blacktown is as close to Zion for them as an angel's breath.

<p>Photo courtesy of The Makki Family.</p>

Photo courtesy of The Makki Family.

Yusuf Kowa Makki, SPLA commander.

"There are 99 tribes in the Nuba Mountains, one for each hilltop," says Hilmi Tell, the Nuba pastor of the 150-member Christian Hill Church, at Seven Hills. He lists a dozen just in Sydney. Each of the mountain tribes speaks a language largely unintelligible to the other. Most are Christian, but many are Muslim, or worship indigenous deities. "And we call Blacktown hill number one hundred," says Tell with a smile. Sunday service at Tell's Pentecostal church includes soaring renditions by the Nuba of traditional Christian hymns, sung in Arabic, the lingua franca for all Sudanese. " 'From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings,'" says Tell, who arrived here as a refugee in 2004. It's a quote from an Old Testament prophet, Zephaniah, and refers to the Cush who controlled ancient Egypt and Sudan. "God brought us here for a purpose, to be a blessing to this country," says Tell. "But Australians don't know who we are."

In a Blacktown shopping centre, a group of Nuba men gather around, eager to describe the glories and the current predicament of the Nuba people, as well as other African minorities now left even more isolated in the rump Sudanese state by the breakaway of South Sudan. An electronic advertising pillar hawks flashy snaps of army careers, love-handle liposuction, and easy finance, while they explain the recent outbreak of war.

"The peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the south was meant to include the Nuba Mountains, but the government cheated us," says 45-year-old Basim Jangul, who recently returned from the region. The Nuba Mountains straddle the political and cultural north-south fault lines between Arabic and Afro-Sudan. Many Nuba fought for the Southern People's Liberation Army that won South Sudan's independence.

“We grew up with an idea of Australia, and imagined it as a Christian country. But here, nobody goes to church. And nobody knew the Nuba.”

WHEN "ANNE," AN AUSTRALIAN NUN, listened last year to news of the celebrations surrounding South Sudan's declaration of independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, she says that she knew that the Nuba would be "hunkering down". Speaking from Melbourne, Anne doesn't want her name or religious order used in this story, for fear of retribution from the government of Sudan, which has been fighting the Nuba again since mid-2011. "There have been constant bomb attacks, Antonov aircraft. People are fleeing, sleeping in caves," she says. Some time this March, Anne will fly to Kenya and make her way by small plane, vehicle and then foot into the lush Nuba Mountains in Sudan's South Kordofan state which lies across the border from South Sudan. There she will tend to villagers who are being bombed in their homes by planes of the Sudanese armed forces.

Anne is the latest in a long line of Australian missionaries who have been ministering and proselytising in the largely Christian south of Sudan since the country's 1956 independence. In 1962 the Khartoum government expelled Christian missionaries, including Australians.

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Nuba fundraiser, Bowman Hall, Blacktown.

Aggrieved by discrimination, under-investment, and the increasing imposition of Sharia law, the African people of southern Sudan fought the Arab-dominated central government. It was a war between peoples rather than religions. Perhaps as many as two million people died in the south, the majority of them civilians repeatedly bombed, burned out of their homes, and driven into the bush where they perished from disease, thirst and hunger. Intent on imposing an Arabic hegemony, the government armed seasonal Arab nomads, who had traditionally shared land with the African tribes of Sudan, and set them on a campaign of marauding and killing.

Darfur in Sudan's east was much the same. Long-brewing tensions between Arabized nomads and settled African villages were exploited by Khartoum political factions jostling for power. They used pan-Arab nationalism and Islam to justify repression. The Sudanese government armed nomadic militias known as the Janjaweed, who began to systematically incinerate African villages around 2001 in an apparent campaign of ethnic cleansing. The conflict forced half the population of three million into refugee camps, and killed perhaps a 10th of the population. In 2009, the Sudanese government's complicity resulted in the indictment on war crimes charges of Sudan's current president, Omar Al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court. Hollywood stars including Mia Farrow and George Clooney drew attention to the killing with visits to Darfur. The UN sent peacekeepers.

“By the early 1990s, the Sudanese government was actively razing Nuban settlements hill by hill, driving whole tribes into “Peace Villages” and imposing Islam on captives.”

The pattern seems set to repeat itself in the Nuba Mountains and in the nearby Blue Nile state. The agreement that set South Sudan on the course to independence had provided for a referendum for the two states, in which they could choose whether to remain in Sudan or join South Sudan. The Nuba believe that the result was stacked by the government, which has vast oil interests in Kordofan. When pastor Tell moved to Australia in 2004, he thought that Australians would embrace the Nuba cause. After all, Australian missionaries were legendary in southern Sudan, and had helped the resurgent 20th century Christian movement.

"We grew up with an idea of Australia and imagined it as a Christian country," says Tell. "But here, nobody goes to church. And nobody knew the Nuba." Many of Sydney's Nuba believe that their dispersal is a retribution for the biblical Cushite invasion against the Israelites. In 2005, Tell led a delegation of Australia's Nuba back to Jerusalem to address the small matter of an "offering" in the Zephaniah prophecy. There they performed rites of atonement and were officially forgiven by Israeli religious leaders for the ancient Cushite intrusion into the Holy Land.

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

The Makki family, Rooty Hill.

IN 1975, A FORMER NAZI propagandist published a book of photographs that the Jewish American essayist Susan Sontag called "certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years." A brilliant product of the aged German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, a favourite of Hitler, The Last of the Nuba was a symphony of images of the near-naked Nuba wrestling, dancing, daubing their bodies with mud, and playing the lyre, "vivid encounters of nude male bodies and death," according to Sontag, and "consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology." The erotic primitivism, raised to a Wagnerian, mystical pitch by Riefenstahl in her pictures and text, was nevertheless a timely tribute to a fascinating and mysterious society already under threat.

The Nuba Mountains are a cluster of lush hill peaks and fertile massifs, interlaced with plantations of sorghum and maize, or orchards of apples and mangoes. Roughly the size of Scotland, the hills rise to 3,000 feet above the plains of Sudan's South Kordofan state. There are almost no roads, and travelers must make their way across a maze of ancient footpaths. But travel was once rare between the hundred or so distinctive tribes who make up the roughly million-strong Nuba, and each speaks a language that would make communication unintelligible to the other were it not for the use of Arabic. One theory for this babel of peoples is that the hills provided both farmland and defensible sanctuary for a variety of tribes fleeing from the north. But from what did they flee?

Anne is the latest in a long line of Australian missionaries who have been ministering and proselytising in the largely Christian south of Sudan since the country’s 1956 independence.

Early Byzantine Christian missionaries had converted the Nubian kings of the Nile basin, an area that now spans modern lower Egypt and upper Sudan and included today's Khartoum. After the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, Arab expansionism south from Egypt stumbled over fierce Christian Nubian resistance.

As a consequence, the treaty of Bakt was signed in 652, lasting for almost 700 years - but during that time, through inter-marriage, conquest and trade, Arabic civilization began to subsume Nubian rule, as well as the black Nubians themselves. Until around the early 16th century, the whole of present north and south Kordofan remained Christian Nuba. The story of post-independence Sudan is really about a return to the centuries-old glacial shift of frontiers between an Arab north and an African south.

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Hannan Makki, Rooty Hill.

Now the terms Nuba and Nubians have been used inter-changeably even in Sudan; both names have their origins in a word meaning 'black'. Ethno-linguists disagree about what came first: Perhaps Nuba (from Kordofan, in which the Nuba Mountains lie) moved into the Cushite kingdoms (occupying much of Sudan) around 2,000 years ago, and subsumed the Cushite language and ethnic group. Or perhaps the few tribes in today's Nuba Mountains whose language is related to the remaining identifiable northern Nubians, result from northern black Christian Nubians fleeing Arabic conquest.

Or perhaps both are true. Whatever the fact, the remaining northern Nubians were literally subsumed: In the 20th century, their traditional homeland on the banks of the Nile was swallowed up by Egyptian and Sudanese dam-building projects, including the giant Aswan dam, and the Nubians dispersed.

As many as two million people died in the south, the majority of them civilians repeatedly bombed, burned out of their homes, and driven into the bush.

Today, many Nuba like pastor Hilmi Tell claim a lineage stretching from the Nuba Mountains, to the great black Christian Nubian empire, back to the pre-Christian biblical Cushites. Their view, then, is that Sudan was once African and Christian, and Khartoum's modern rulers - the oppressors of today's Nuba - are interlopers.

IN THE MID-1980s, the war between the south and north reached a new level of intensity. The Nuba, who had remained on the periphery of the south's struggle, were drawn into the war. By the early 1990s, the fundamentalist Sudanese government - which had invited Osama bin Laden to call Sudan home - was actively razing Nuba settlements hill by hill. Whole tribes were driven into "Peace Villages", where captive populations were forcibly converted. One of the early Nuba guerilla commanders was Yusuf Kowa Makki, leader of the Nuba's Volcano battalion. A Khartoum-trained university graduate, Makki was one of the engines of a renewed Nuba consciousness pushing back against the Arabization of Sudan's Africans. In a 2001 interview in London, shortly before his death from cancer, the Muslim Makki said that in Sudan, "if you were black, you were always treated as a slave. We learned all about the Arabs: how they came to Sudan, how they made kingdoms here and there, how good they are and so on and so forth. But nothing about other tribes or civilizations."

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Marsha, manager at Guess Jeans.

Marsha Makki, a 20-year-old student of mental health care, and her 18-year-old sister, Sandra, manage the Guess Jeans store in Liverpool in Sydney's west. Far from the days when her father deployed thousands of fighting Nuba in the Volcano battalion, she spends her days arranging clothing. Her mother, Hannan, a feisty and dignified but disconsolate refugee, wakes at 4.30 each morning and leaves their Rooty Hill home to clean the toilets at a juvenile detention facility, bringing in just enough money to feed her other three, school-aged children. Hannan remains defiantly supportive of the Nuba struggle. On February 24 Hannan arranged a fund-raising dinner at Blacktown's Bowman Hall. Their freedom already won, few of Sydney's wider South Sudanese bothered to show up to raise money to aid the Nuba Mountain people. Marsha came late, held back by busy trade. "It's disappointing," says Hannan. But the Nuba might be on the brink of even greater disaster, so an unbowed Hannan intends holding another fundraiser in April.

The UN says recent fighting has forced 417,000 people from their homes, and 80,000 to flee across the border to South Sudan. Last year a Human Rights Watch investigator filmed Antonov aircraft bombing the mountains every hour. A US congressional committee reported what it called "evidence of ethnic cleansing in the Nuba mountains." An eyewitness saw on one hillside "more than a thousand… mainly women and children. They had absolutely nothing. They had been there for two months. They are living in this mountain, literally under rocks, in caves."

A small number of Blacktown’s inhabitants — some 400 in Sydney — are the Nuba, who claim their origin in one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa.

Aid workers are warning of famine this month or next. On February 14, the UN Security Council said that it was alarmed by reports of growing hunger and the inability of aid workers to reach the Nuba people. Speaking in response the next day, Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir told an audience in Khartoum that he would not bow to pressure: "We will not follow [their way] because our trust and belief in God is deep, we reject inferiority and we will remain superior." The present governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Darfur.

And what of George Clooney's recent Aussie sojourn? Avoiding most of the crowds of adoring businesswomen, the actor met with representatives of Sydney's Nuba community, including pastor Tell. Clooney, an outspoken critic and activist against the Sudanese government's campaign in Darfur, who has visited Darfur with his journalist father, is backing his pronouncements with cash. His whopping $600,000, one-night appearance fee was donated to a program that uses satellite to monitor the movements of Sudan's armed forces. Upon departure he told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper, "What I am trying to do is continue to keep a satellite that we've been using to monitor war criminals on the border between the south and north Sudan."

<p>Phtoto by Ella Rubeli.</p>

Phtoto by Ella Rubeli.

At a Nuba fundraiser in Blacktown.

Eric Reeves, a U.S.-based Sudan analyst says, "[This is] a looming catastrophe that will make Syria, in terms of total casualties, look like a gang war in the park." Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, and as you read this, the Nuba people are sheltering their children behind boulders and beneath enormous baobab trees, watching their fields and villages laid waste, and pondering where they might run next.

*On March 7, the former head of the UN in Sudan warned of a 21st century genocide against the Nuba.

5 comments on this story
by Jonas

Very interesting article and I really enjoyed the photos. I think the format of the global mail is particular attractive when the stories are companied by your own photos. Good work:)

March 5, 2012 @ 5:54pm
by Anthony

It is encouraging to read about George Clooney taking an active interest in a situation many of us know little about. All power to these people.
A very informative article and the connection with Australia made this article particularly relevant! Well done.

March 6, 2012 @ 12:03pm
Show previous 2 comments
by Tina

The photos , layout and the font complements the story. The article is very pleasing to the eye. Great work

Love reading refugee and immigrant stories from our own backyard. More of stories.

Thanks.

March 10, 2012 @ 7:26pm
by Ron

It's geat to get some background about the African people I see around Blacktown and Mt Druitt. I wish them well in their new country - and reckon the Federal Government put some pressure on the North Sudan government regarding the bombing of the Nuba people in their mountains.

March 11, 2012 @ 1:34pm
by David

Why do you write as if you are an American?

March 13, 2012 @ 11:43pm
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