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On assignment: Ann Curry's photographs from Sudan's Nuba Mountains

Photo credit: Ann Curry

By Ann Curry
NBC News anchor

Climbing into Sudan's Nuba Mountains I turned and saw her standing above me, in a dress so clean and white it seemed out of place with her surroundings.

Something about her seemed at once strong, even heroic and yet achingly vulnerable. She didn't move as I raised my camera to take a picture of her and the sleeping baby she carried: two children among thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands living in caves to survive the relentless bombing.

Photo credit: Ann Curry

Photo credit: Ann Curry

Even small children know to run at the sound of the government's Antonov warplanes.  Our news team had just sat down in at the mouth of a cave when the plane's "Whoooo woooooh" sound grew very loud. Suddenly children and adults started scrambling inside, tripping and falling on top of each other in a silent fear. It is odd, I realized, how quiet children are here, uttering not a word even at this moment.

All we heard was 89-year-old Cooli Kafi Darbar praying. Cooli is a former school teacher, who has been credited with translating the Bible into Kronga, the language of the Nuba people.

His quiet prayer translated, "The God of Isaac and Abraham, thank you for everything, for suffering and for blessings."

Hearing this, his 64-year-old daughter Hanna began to stare, seemingly at some memory, before she started to cry. Then she parted her lips and sang, "Why can't I find any comfort in this world," tears rolling down her left cheek and dropping off her chin.

It is a good question.

Photo credit: Ann Curry

The Nuba are being bombed nearly every day now by their own government that seems intent on clearing them from these mountains.

When the people of South Sudan fought for independence from the government of President Omar al-Bashir (the same President Bashir who the International Criminal Court has accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur), the Nuba fought with them. But when territorial lines were drawn, the Nuba were left on what they considered the wrong side of the border.

Photo credit: Ann Curry

Sudan's government says it is fighting an insurgency. We met Nuba rebels who showed us the artillery they said they'd confiscated from government troops, but they insisted their people were attacked first.

People say government military units called the "Abu Tiera," led by Ahmed Harun (also accused by the ICC of crimes against humanity in Darfur), went door to door, targeting only Nuba homes with systematic rape, murder and kidnappings while leaving Arabs untouched.

There are no accurate numbers of how many people may have disappeared, but some experts say satellite images are consistent with reports of mass graves.

Brigadier General Nimori Morat told us, "We are fighting just to live."

Photo credit: Ann Curry

The United Nations estimates that in the Nuba Mountains, and in the neighboring states that have also been attacked in the wake of South Sudan’s independence, 585,000 people have been displaced.

This seems to be a war over territory and, in one area, over oil, but it appears to have also unleashed ethnic cleansing.

"They say our skin is like charcoal," the elderly Cooli told us. Another woman who survived an attack said, ”They called us dogs and said we are the only people because we are Arabs and you are Nuba."

Photo credit: Ann Curry

Photo credit: Ann Curry

How could a war such as this be largely unknown to the rest of the world?

Journalists are not allowed into the Nuba Mountains. It was only because we snuck across the border that we reached the caves, and even then, we were wary of bombs and Sudan military units a few kilometers away. Ultimately we had to leave the same night because it was unsafe, we were told, to stay.

Sure enough, some of the places where we had been were attacked at sunrise and there appeared to be an effort to cut off the road into the Nuba Mountains completely. How will the people in the mountains survive this war, and soon, the potential famine that will result from being unable to plant their crops? Humanitarian aid has also been cut off from the mountains.

Photo credit: Ann Curry

While the international community wonders what, if anything, can be done, we saw a boy in a refugee camp wearing, of all things, an Obama t-shirt.

And we heard several people, including children, thank us for taking their picture. If they are going to suffer, and even die, they at least want the world to know what is happening here.

Photo credit: Ann Curry


Editor's note: Click here to watch Ann Curry's full Sudan report, 'The Man Who Stayed,' from Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Additional resources: Click here to learn more about humanitarian organizations helping Nuba refugees.