“I’m really into music – I’m not a musician, but I’m really into music.” says Hajooj Kuka. The director of the 2014 documentary Beats of the Antonov tells a hundred different stories in his film. But they all come back to one thing: the music played by the people of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. Hajooj Kuka lived and travelled within South Kordofan, its neighbouring province Blue Nile, and the new country of South Sudan for two years in 2012-14 while shooting the film. Together with musician and musicologist Alsarah, Kuka recorded the music and dances of refugees as they celebrate their survival.
The two provinces lie on the border between the two Sudans. This border, created by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, cuts off South Kordofan and Blue Nile from the new country to the south. The CPA left their status undefined although the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had fought there during thirty years of civil war just like in South Sudan. The Sudanese government remained in control of the provinces by means of a contested regional election. In June 2011, even before the independence of South Sudan, civil war erupted again in South Kordofan due to the SPLA’s unwillingness to concede. In September that year, fighting resumed in Blue Nile as well.
Since 2011, the Sudanese government bombed South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Residents of the Nuba Mountains know the sound of the old Russian cargo planes, called Antonov, as they approach. It is at the beginning of the dry season each December, around the time when farmers would be harvesting, that the Antonovs come. Fighting resumes on the ground, too, as unpaved roads dry up and become passable again. The bombing raids come on market days when many people gather together. Antonovs are not made for bombing and have no guidance system for bombs, instead they are used to drop improvised barrel bombs. The people know that each plane always carries 12 bombs; they count the bombs to know when to safely climb out of the self-dug bunkers next to their houses.
Between burning houses, Hajooj Kuka filmed the relief on people’s faces. He captured their stories, told next to heaps of grains still smouldering and a dead cow, its throat cut open by bomb shrapnel. He shows the way life goes on between the attacks: children go to school, a wrestling competition takes place, a musician builds an instrument. The music – high, yelling songs and rhythmic chants sung to different types of drums, string instruments, horns and sometimes bells tied to the ankles of dancers – runs through the film like its pumping bloodstream and makes one tap the feet along with the rhythms. Early in the film, someone observes that war has a good side. It makes people aware of their culture as they use it against the despair of war. Beats of the Antonov shows how music can bring hope. But it also shows how the minority tribes of Southern Sudan channel their generation-old frustration of being treated as aliens in their own country. Belligerent chants cheer on the SPLA troops as they move out for combat. The film explores the identity conflict that sits at the heart of the Sudanese civil war and finds clear blame: the central government equates being Sudanese with being Muslim and being a Muslim with being of Arab descent. All darker-skinned people of other religions are seen as “others” and their claim to a fair share in the national resources is seen as treason.
The current fighting season began in December 2015, when talks between the Sudanese government and the rebels failed. At the moment, 1.7 million people – or half of the two provinces’ population – are displaced. Many crossed into South Sudan, despite the new civil war which began there in late 2013. Hajooj Kuka found them in Yida, 14 kilometres across the border. Yida was a small town, but is now home to more than 70,000 Sudanese refugees who set up their own schools and a market. There is very little assistance from humanitarian agencies, as Yida is not an official camp. In December, refugee representatives accused the UN refugee agency of wanting to displace them again to unsafe areas. According to Nuba Reports, an activist online reporting platform, UNHCR has requested the resettlement of all Sudanese refugees to official camps at Ajuong Thok and Pamir by June 2016. These sites are only slightly farther away from the border, however, and refugees fear Pamir’s proximity to a Sudanese army base.
Beats of the Antonov points the finger squarely at the Sudanese government as it shows the suffering of the peoples in Nuba Mountains, blaming racism and brutal repression. But it also shows how people endure by drawing strength from their music, without romanticising their plight. They not only gain hope for an end to the war, they also express their rage – which also fuels the rebels’ relentless commitment to keep on fighting. The raw beauty of this film should motivate a broad audience to find out more about the never-ending Sudanese civil war and its complex, seemingly indestructible roots.
Beats of the Antonov, 2014, 1 hour 8 minutes. After touring film festivals in late 2014 and early 2015, it is now available on Vimeo.com (for a small rent).
The International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) provides detailed background information grounded in primary research in their report “Tired of war,” 2015.
Up-to-date reports and video clips from South Kordofan and Blue Nile can be found on NubaReports.org