Beats of Antonovs over the Sudans

It was last Saturday morning and I was wondering which place to go to.

‘How about something about a place that you missed?’ my wife asked. ‘Our neighbour from Sudan brought this video for us to look at – he works for the group that made it.’

The DVD is ‘Beats of the Antonov’, and it is about the conflict that was going on in the Blue Nile State of Sudan in 2013 – and I was refused permission to go there a couple of years ago. It is a Hajooj Kuka documentary and a Refugee Club/Big World Cinema production. It won the People’s Choice Documentary TIFF Award in 2014.

From the knowledge I had at the time I could well understand why travel to Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains was restricted. As the introductory text of the video says, since it got its independence in 1956 Sudan has been in an almost constant state of civil war. On 9th January 2011, driven by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the people of the South voted for separation from Sudan. Although rebels in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains also fought alongside the Sudan People’ Liberation Army (SPLA) of the South they remained part of the North.

In June 2011 the rebels from Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains refused to disarm and, now known as the SPLA-North, they entered into new conflict with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of Sudan.

The film begins with the drone of an Antonov, a menacing shape across a clouded sky. ‘The plane is coming!’ someone yells. ‘The Antonov!’ And people run for the underground shelter before the incendiary bombs hit the ground and the thatched houses go up in flames.

I have seen those shelters in South Sudan. They were there at the camp where I stayed for a short time in Rumbek before the peace agreement was signed with the North. They were there at the NGO compound where I was running a workshop in Upper Nile last year. But in Pagak they were not shelters against attacks from the North. Upper Nile was rebel territory, occupied by the SPLM-IO: the SPLM In Opposition. So they were shelters against anticipated attacks from the SPLM government in Juba. The peoples of South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, have turned to fight each other in a struggle for power and wealth.

But back to the video… It is not so much a film about war but more a film about the resilience of the people of Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains caught up in the conflict. And it is a fascinating study about what is essentially a clash of cultures, a fight to preserve identities, and a determination to maintain a dignity.

‘We are living in a milieu that doesn’t respect our culture and wants to kill it,’ says an African Sudanese ‘cultural organiser’.

But the issue is more complex than that. In the documentary, there is an interview with a tea lady in a village. She was sitting under a tree, where she had her jiko and her pans and enamel cups. I had taken tea in such places in Upper Nile. But the point about this lady was that she spoke freely about using a skin lightening cream. ‘I use it to get lighter,’ she says.

Albaqir Elafeef, from a civil society organisation, talks not about ‘fake news’ but about ‘fake identities’.

‘A fake identity is one that doesn’t know itself and adopts an identity other than its own,‘ he says. ‘The war is caused by the Northerners’ identity crisis. The war is against all the African elements in Sudan, be it in Darfur, Nuba Mountains or Blue Nile.’

This he calls the ‘external aspect’. But there is an internal aspect too: the war that is being waged in the sub-consciousness of Northerners. It’s as if they have an Arab father and an African mother. And so they have two insecurities: they want to kill the Arab father but also hide the African mother.

‘We are no longer at peace with ourselves,’ Albaqir says, ’And it follows that we can’t live at peace with others.’

The complexity is compounded when we meet a SPLA-N commander, Ibrahim Khatir, who is clearly Arab. He argues that the NCP categorises people on racial lines: Arab or Black – and then Arabs into first class and second class. He is looking forward to ‘a new Sudan that doesn’t have discrimination based on race, colour and ethnicity.’

It seems, then, that in Sudan – as increasingly these days in the United States, the United Kingdom, or many places elsewhere – national unity cannot easily encompass cultural diversity.

Since ‘Beats of the Antonov’ was released in 2014 there have been extended, at times broken, cease fires in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, but the issues that the film raises have a relevance across Africa and beyond. The documentary can be accessed via YouTube.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation