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A Rain of Bombs in the Nuba Mountains

Father and Child.jpg

Osman Shanta with his son, Abdullah. During bombings, they now take shelter in caves.

Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

By Nicholas Kristof

April 18, 2019

IN THE NUBA MOUNTAINS, Sudan — THE eight children in the Shanta family lived in a village of grass huts and had never turned on an electric light or worn a watch, never ridden a car or even a bicycle, never spoken on the telephone.


Their first real interaction with the 21st century came one February night as they huddled in a foxhole while the Sudanese government shelled their hut. If you want to understand why President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, the Shanta family offers a reminder that Bashir’s atrocities will continue as long as he remains in power.


The shell landed near the huts of the extended Shanta family, instantly killing a female cousin, Amusa Shanta, 18.


Inside the foxhole, the children survived the initial blast. But the explosion set fire to a nearby hut, and its grass roof slid into their foxhole while aflame. These foxholes are deep earthen pits beside almost every home, school and building here in the Nuba Mountains so that people can crouch for protection when the government bombs them — as it does almost daily, in one village or another. The depth offers protection from shrapnel, but it also makes it difficult to escape in cases like this when they become fire pits.

“They screamed,” recalled Osman Shanta, the father of five of the children in that foxhole, who was frantically throwing water on the blaze. “And then the screaming stopped.”


Two of his children — Diana, 12, and Bashir, 9 — were immediately burned to death, but his three other children survived, along with three cousins. A car rushed the six children four hours over a dirt track to a hospital; even that can be perilous, because Sudan also bombs both vehicles and hospitals in the Nuba Mountains.


So why was Sudan shelling a village filled with grass huts?


This was not an accident of war. It reflects a deliberate Sudanese scorched-earth, counterinsurgency strategy here in the southern end of Sudan.


A rebel army with many thousands of soldiers, seemingly strongly supported by local people as their protector from the national government, governs the Nuba Mountains. The Sudanese government bombs the rebels and periodically attacks them, but the majority of its attacks seem to target civilians, apparently to make the area uninhabitable so that no one is left to support the rebels.


This is my fourth visit to the Nuba Mountains all surreptitious, because Sudan bans journalists, aid workers and just about everyone else from this area. I slipped in through the rebel lines in a vehicle smeared with mud so that it would be harder for bombers to spot.

The staff at the hospital alerted me to the six burned Shanta children. “They were burned horrendously when they arrived,” remembers Dr. Tom Catena, an American who is the lone physician at the hospital. A 3-year-old girl, Ayat, almost half her body charred, died within a couple of days.


A sister, Hosana, 10, looked as if she might make it, but then the wounds became infected with tetanus and she died as well.


Dr. Catena focused on trying to save their 8-year-old brother, Shanta, who persevered for weeks. But flies were laying eggs in his wounds, and soon the burns were crawling with maggots. Dr. Catena says that he would cut out the maggots, and the next day more would return. The boy showed extraordinary courage, Dr. Catena remembers, but he would scream every day from pain as his dressings were changed.


Eventually, he, too, died.


I reached the Shanta family’s village after driving through a no-man’s land of bombed homes, and I found traumatized villagers staying near caves where they shelter from bombings. The three surviving Shanta children are literally scarred for life; one girl, Rhoda, 6, can’t extend her arms because of the burns.


Osman Shanta and his wife, Sadia, grieve for their lost four children, as well as their nieces. They comfort their surviving son, Abdullah, when he has nightmares.

On the day I visited, the village was bombed yet again. The rainy season is beginning now, which means that the caves are wet, so the children are often sick.

A few groups — Nuba Reports, the Enough Project, Human Rights Watch — call attention to the suffering here, but the Nuba Mountains have no strategic value and neither the United States nor other governments have made much of an issue of the bombings, or of the lack of humanitarian access. As a senator, President Obama criticized President George W. Bush for acquiescing in Sudanese atrocities, but the Obama administration has done less to pressure Sudan than the Bush administration did.


That single shell killed six cousins in one family, and left three children disfigured. And these bombs and shells continue to fall, day after day after day.

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The New York Times since 2001.


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A version of this article first appeared in The New York Times.

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