The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) North is trying to return 86 prisoners of war to Khartoum, but claims the Sudan government is not making it easy.
Al Jazeera’s Callum Macrae met the POWs while filming The War The World Forgot, a People & Power investigation about Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir’s five-year war against his own citizens in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan.
Macrae described the encounter, which took place at a secret location in the Nuba Mountains, as “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
“This was not a typical POW camp; there were no fences, no watch-towers, and the prisoners, some of whom had been held there for four years, were very clear that they had not been mistreated. Indeed the relationship between the prisoners and their guards appeared to be one of mutual respect – almost friendly. But there was no escape for them nonetheless. The only way out would be across hostile country and over a very dangerous frontline.”
The rebel SPLA North had offered to return the prisoners to Khartoum, in an arrangement facilitated by the Red Cross. That process was due to start in June this year and the first group of 12 were taken to an airstrip in Kauda.
As Private Babeker Ahmed, one of the 12, told Macrae:
“We are sure we will go to Khartoum. And the political leaders and the military leaders say to us, ‘You are the lucky people. You are the first group to go to Khartoum, OK. Your miserable days will be finished, OK. You will go back to freedom. You will go back to see your family.’”
But then the 12 were told there was a problem and the flight would be delayed. The SPLA North claims Khartoum had blocked the transfer.
“The next day we are ready to go and they say we are sorry, but the problem is not finished yet,” said Ahmed. “The dream was destroyed. It was so, so bad for us. Many people in this group – the young boys – is believing. Their hearts are broken. What can we do?”
The prisoners told Macrae that although their life was very basic, they were free to organise their own time, to pray as they wished and to cook for themselves.
“The food is very simple, just grain, but that is no different to what the women and children eat here anyway because of the war.”
The SPLA North claimed Khartoum won’t acknowledge the prisoners, partly because they’ve told their families they’re dead and partly because they take so few prisoners themselves.
A spokesperson for the Sudanese government dismissed the claims as “fabricated allegations.” The Red Cross confirmed that a transfer of detainees scheduled for June had been “postponed” but did not attribute responsibility.
The prisoner’s most senior officer, Brigadier General Refaut Abdalla Ahmad, said he has been detained since 13 May 2013.
“The government of Khartoum says that it has no Brigadier called Refaut Abdalla here, who was captured. I am not here. That is what they have said.”
He refused to criticize Khartoum. “No, I am a military man. I am ordinary; the government know what he do. I accept anything done with me.”
But he had a message for the international community: “We need help. We want to go from here to our home, to our families, to our parents. The international community – we call on you. We are here. We need to be free. Where are you? Thank you.”
The War The World Forgot premiered on Al Jazeera English on August 24, 2016 as part of People & Power, Al Jazeera’s weekly investigative programme that looks at the use and abuse of power.
The full 25-minute documentary is available to watch and embed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTW-P_7yoQ8.
* Although known and regarded as “prisoners of war,” this is actually a civil conflict, and so the prisoners are technically known as “detainees.”
For more information, visit http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/ or follow @ajpeoplepower on Twitter.