Four months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was widely praised for helping to orchestrate an agreement between Sudan and South Sudan that everyone said would help halt the economic implosion of both countries, then locked in a standoff over what share Sudan should have in oil produced in South Sudan.
But now, with South Sudan on Wednesday marking the second anniversary of the referendum that led to its independence, the country’s oil rigs still sit idle and Sudan still refuses to let its oil flow north to the sea.
The reason can be found here, deep in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, where Africa’s longest-running war still rages, largely out of sight. A charred tank smolders from a recent battle. Corpses, some baby-faced, dot the golden fields and rocky hillsides. The air stinks. A victorious band of rebels gloats.
First Lt. Ambani Silik Kafi, a weathered rebel veteran of Sudan’s civil wars, strolls to the edge of upturned dirt, where he says the rebels have buried Sudanese military officers. As for the rest: "There’s not enough time to bury them."
His face beams in a cascade of creases as he lists the equipment his men have captured. "Bashir keeps bringing us gifts," he said, referring derisively to Sudanese President Omar Bashir. "In the first war, they (army soldiers) fought hard. But this time, they just run away."
A besieged city, Kadugli, capital of Sudan’s South Kordofan province, can be seen in the distance. A rebel soldier, Deflla Kuwa, urges the driver of a white Land Crusier to go slowly. "If they see the dust from the vehicle, they’ll start shelling," he warns.
From the outside, the weary diplomatic scramble to right the sinking Sudanese and South Sudanese ships pivots incessantly around one issue: oil, shut off last year in a dispute over shipping fees and escalating tensions.
But the real cause of the ongoing diplomatic stasis is far more complicated than just the question of how much landlocked South Sudan should pay Sudan for allowing the transshipment of oil to the Port of Sudan for export. The old Sudanese civil war, the one the separation of the Sudans was supposed to end, continues on, truncated but more ferocious than before, say rebels. With the Sudanese government losing, diplomats admit there is no clear end in sight.
The final barriers to restarting oil production technically were removed in August, when Sudan and South Sudan agreed on a host of financial and security arrangements. The deal was brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, with U.S. officials crediting Clinton personally for an aggressive last-minute push on South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to accept the deal.
The deal included a demilitarized border, but thanks to the Nuba rebels and their allies in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, Bashir’s government only controls half of its side of the Sudan-South Sudan dividing line.
So now Bashir has levied an additional demand, to the frustration of diplomats and South Sudanese officials alike: South Sudan must disarm the rebels inside Sudan’s territory first.
The obsession with linking South Sudan to the insurgency strikes the rebels as odd. Their South Sudanese friends won independence. Now their own liberation war must continue, they reason, and their 20,000-strong Nuba rebel force has nothing to do with their new sovereign neighbor.
"I don’t know why Sudan is not ashamed when they are saying this. I’m surprised," says Maj. Gen. Jagod Mukwar, a heavyset man who is the Nuba rebels’ top commander on the ground. He spoke at his headquarters, accentuating points with a hearty laugh.
"I belong to Sudan,” he says. “I’m fighting because I need my rights. My people are marginalized."
Sudan’s demand, considered unreasonable by diplomats, is connected to the insignia still sewn on the sleeves of many rebels here: the South Sudanese flag.
For years, that was the flag of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the rebel group that won South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Most of its insurgents were South Sudanese, but a sizable chunk came from areas that remained inside Sudan after separation. Sudan’s Nuba formed the largest section of that group, and, as war lore has it, the best rebel fighters.
Under the 2005 peace accord, brokered by the U.S. government, the Nuba were part of the southern army for the six-year peace period, and, as South Sudan re-armed, they did, too. When South Sudan became independent, it allowed the Nuba to keep their arms and continued paying their salaries, even though they lived north of the border.
And that, the rebels say, is all they needed. Now, they capture most of their arms directly from the Sudanese military, though some fraction appears to be coming from Uganda.
Events here back up rebel rhetoric that they are winning this war. Sprawled under the shadow of hills and abandoned huts, in sight of Kadugli, were remnants of rebel victories. A mid-December government offensive lasted only a few hours after the rebels ambushed a flanking force, destroying one Soviet-made T-55 tank and capturing the other four. Two days later, the rebels counterattacked, pushing the government forces nearly back into Kadugli, capturing another tank and destroying another. Left behind were only trenches, scattered munitions and the dead.
The Sudanese government’s one clear advantage, air power, seems to be not much of one. The rebels whisked their captured tanks and other booty – including two white armored personnel carriers and several trucks – a few miles behind the frontline, parked under the sparse savannah tree cover.
For days, Sudanese warplanes, Soviet-era Antonovs, circled overhead attempting to destroy the lost equipment, but they failed. One day, an Antonov circled for more than an hour, bombing every 15 minutes. The bombs, dropped crudely from a back hatch, burst harmlessly into a mountainside more than a kilometer away.
Several days later, an Antonov could be seen circling again. The rebels opened fire with a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun. Smoke puffed from the plane’s tail, and it moved off without dropping a bomb. The plane later crash landed in the bush, said the rebels, who claimed to have found the wreckage site.
Sudanese officials accuse South Sudan of continuing to back the rebels.
The United States, South Sudan’s most important ally, has pressured South Sudan for more than a year to cut military ties to the Nuba Mountains rebels, fearing more instability in the region. On at least three occasions, President Barack Obama personally appealed to Kiir to end cross-border activities.
Both South Sudan and the rebels say South Sudan is no longer providing materiel or salaries to the Nuba rebels. But South Sudan has offered one ongoing gift, an open border that provides the rebels with their only link to the outside world. Juba, South Sudan’s capital, is a regular stop for rebel leaders.
There is evidence the rebels have a new foreign patron: near the frontline, four munitions crates carried the tag of the Ugandan Ministry of Defense. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudan’s Bashir share a long personal animus.
Sudan, too, is receiving outside help. Among the bounty captured by rebels were two sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles from China that, according to the package markings, were part of a recent shipment of 450. The rebels said it was the first time they had seen the missile.
Sudan seems desperate to counter the insurgency.
Sudan’s frontline force is increasingly young and inexperienced, and ID cards show some are college students, the rebels said. Along one boulder outside Kadugli, eight dead bodies lay crumpled in a row. One carried a certificate for a paramilitary government militia relied on heavily during the old war, the Popular Defense Force, which recruits by preaching jihad – even though many of the Nuba Mountains fighters are Muslims, also.
At the beginning of the war, the Antonov bombs blew massive craters. Now, the bombs are more deadly, blasting out shrapnel low to the ground and leaving only shallow indents behind.
So strong are the rebel positions, though, that life in the rebel-held countryside continues on now without much fear of the enemy, except for the incessant buzzing above – and, after a year and a half, even that effect is waning.
"We don’t fear. It’s normal for us now. It has been bombing all day," said Jalila Akamalam as she winnowed out the chaff of peanuts in the stuffy Sudanese wind even as a warplane hummed above.