Battling Sudan’s Bombs With Videos
In the Nuba Mountains, Sudan
As Sudan tries to bomb and starve the Nuba people into submission, it faces an unlikely antagonist: an American man from Florida who married a Nuban woman, gets by on local foods like locusts, and is fighting mortars with video cameras.
Ryan Boyette, 30, is trying to get President Obama to do more to intervene to stop the bombing and avert a famine. He is risking his life to collect video of atrocities that the world frankly doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in.
It was Boyette who smuggled me into the Nuba Mountains, driving his Toyota Land Cruiser on a rutted dirt track from South Sudan, at one point just a couple of miles from Sudanese military lines. He has set up a network of local citizen journalists who use small cameras to document atrocities and starvation in hopes of making the world care enough to intervene.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan has presided over the killings of perhaps 300 times as many people as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Bashir hasn’t drawn as much scrutiny as Assad, in part, because many of his killings are in remote areas with no cameras — and Boyette is trying to change that.
I met Boyette here in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan in 2008, and even then he was a remarkable figure who had ritual scarring on his back and lived in a grass-and-mud hut. He had moved to the Nuba Mountains in 2003 to work for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid group, putting on hold his plans to follow his father into police work.
Boyette fell in love with the Nuba Mountains and its people. Then he fell in love with Jazira, 26, a Nuban woman whose high school education in Kenya he had helped to finance. Some 6,000 Nubans attended their wedding a year ago.
Their world shattered last June, when the Sudanese government mounted a vicious offensive to destroy an insurgency by going after the Nuba people who supported it. Aid groups evacuated, and Samaritan’s Purse ordered Boyette to board a plane to safety. Jazira, fearing that his white skin would make him a target, pleaded with him to flee.
Instead, Boyette — after much prayer — resigned his job and stayed behind. “To get on a plane and say goodbye to my friends and family, to say, ‘I hope you survive this’ — I couldn’t do that,” he explained.
The region has no electricity or cellphone service, so Boyette charges his laptop and satellite phone with a solar charger. So far The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera have used his videos or photographs, and he plans to post more on a Web site,EyesAndEarsNuba.org.
To pay for operations, Boyette is hoping for foundation grants, or public donations on an account he will be setting up on Kickstarter.com.
One challenge is his safety, for he believes that Sudanese intelligence learns from spies and intercepts almost everything he does and targets him. He hears bombs fall almost daily and has had some close calls. The night before he met with me, he said, a government spy was shot while snooping outside the building where he was sleeping.
Another challenge is that food is running out in the Nuba Mountains. The government has blocked food shipments into rebel-held areas, and I interviewed some families that were already starving. “Within three months you’ll start seeing people dying of starvation en masse,” Boyette told me.
To its credit, the Obama administration is intensively working diplomatic channels to try to end the food blockade in the Nuba Mountains. On a visit to Washington in October, Boyette spent an hour briefing White House officials on the situation. But he’s skeptical — as am I — that the measures under consideration will be enough to avert starvation.
An immediate priority must be to call on Sudan to stop indiscriminate bombings and allowfood aid, while seeking peace between the government and rebels. The United Nations Security Council could also seek a ban on offensive military flights in the area. If that doesn’t work, more robust approaches include airdrops of food or forcing open a humanitarian corridor from South Sudan. Boyette also argues for destroying a few Antonov bombers or the military airstrips that they use for takeoffs, so that the Nuba would again be able to plant crops and feed themselves.
Any humanitarian intervention, even the provision of food, could be seen as an act of war with uncertain consequences, and right now there’s no appetite in the United States or abroad for such a use of force. There are reasonable arguments against such steps. But the alternative may be the starvation of tens of thousands of people. If Boyette has anything to do with it, images of suffering will make it into American living rooms to soften hearts and build political will for action if famine arrives.
I’m hoping that Boyette stays safe and deluges us with images to prod our consciences.
Copyright 2012 NY Times. All rights reserved.