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Friday, Oct 31, 2014

World

One man's fight to shed light on plight of Nuba people

AFP | Friday, Oct 31, 2014

Children play in the mountains outside of Tess, South Kordofan, Sudan, on April 24, 2012. Thousands of people from the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan have been living in caves in order to escape airstrikes by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF)

WASHINGTON - Ryan Boyette is a man of extraordinary courage.

Far from the comforts of home in America, he is helping shine a light on the plight of the Nuba people trapped in one of Sudan's remote and forgotten conflicts.

In June 2011, following disputed state-level elections, violence erupted between government forces and rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, in South Kordofan state.

As the war raged and his aid agency pulled out of the region along with almost all other non-government organisations, Boyette refused to leave.

And thanks to US$45,000 (S$56,000) raised on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, he equipped and trained a small group of local citizen journalists.

Now as Khartoum has closed off access to the remote, mountainous area, Nuba Reports (nubareports.org) has become almost the sole source of credible information from inside the region for foreign governments and aid agencies.

"We want to do the best we can in proving what's taking place because the Sudan government a lot of the time denies our reports," Boyette told AFP on a visit to Washington this week.

Boyette, from Florida, admits that when the first bombs came he wondered why he had stayed.

"But seeing the community and their faith, and them taking care of each other, it encouraged me.

"Despite the bombing they'll lay down, they'll get back up and they'll continue farming," Boyette said, praising their resilience.

Relentless bombing

The group has documented a total of 1,969 bombs dropped on civilian targets by government planes since April 2012 as Khartoum accuses them of supporting the rebels in South Kordofan.

Each image is GPS tagged and dated, lending credibility to the videos uploaded onto a website and then distributed to news organisations around the world.

The government's Antonov planes, bearing their load of cruel shrapnel bombs, "have a very distinctive sound that everyone knows, even young children," said Boyette.

"And everyone will either hide, or lay down, some people have dug holes to ... protect themselves from the bombs."

That includes Boyette, his wife Jazira, a local Nuba woman he married, and their two-year-old son.

"My wife was born in war, and she's been in war her entire life," he said.

Now he lives alongside the Nuba, sharing their daily struggle for survival, to scratch an existence from the mountainsides.

The UN estimates that about 700,000 of the 1.3 million people in South Kordofan have now been displaced by conflict, many taking refuge in caves deep in the Nuba mountains.

"Before even the war started life was difficult... no paved roads, no mobile network... hand pumps for water are very far," Boyette said.

"Everyone farms for food. So that part of life continues with the complexities of the war now."

When he returns from his trip to the United States, where he was awarded the 2014 Human Rights First Award for his work, Boyette fears what he may find.

Rainy season over

The rainy season, which annually marks a lull in the fighting, is over.

"The rains fell, and the roads became muddy and the soldiers could not move," Boyette said.

"I'm worried that now the roads are dry, and that means that this fighting season is going to start again."

Even more people could be displaced this year, into areas where there are already precious few resources to support the refugees.

The State Department agrees, issuing a new travel warning for Sudan on Thursday urging Americans not to travel into the South Kordofan area.

But undaunted, Boyette will soon fly back to the Horn of Africa, entering Sudan through a refugee camp in a rebel-controlled area to rejoin his wife and son.

They'll then have a 12-hour hot, bumpy motorcycle ride back to their home deep in the Nuba mountains.

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