I looked at the bomb craters and their shrapnel blast patterns. Dozens of metres away, rocks and tree trunks were spattered and split from daisy level upwards. I gulped. ‘Say we hear a Sukhoi jet. How many seconds do we have?’ ‘Little time,’ said our rebel guide. ‘Maybe you see them before you hear them.’ ‘So what do we do?’ ‘Take cover in a river bed or a foxhole,’ the rebel said, pointing at the utterly flat, exposed land around us. ‘Tuck your arms beneath your body to protect your limbs,’ said my producer Daniel. ‘No,’ said Ken the fixer. ‘Wrap your arms round your head to protect it.’ My instinct would be ‘run’. I didn’t get to reach 46 as a hack in Africa without being a coward. But the only thing we all agreed on was, ‘Hit the ground.’
After two weeks in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, almost completely surrounded by Khartoum’s military forces, we were racing down the last track held by Sudan People’s Liberation Army guerrilla forces to the outside world. If Khartoum cut the road, and that’s why its planes were bombing it, the rebels said we could walk out. Government forces supposedly wouldn’t stray into the bush. But it would take days. There would be landmines and ambushes. And it would be hot.
We had almost got used to Khartoum’s Antonovs. These circle Nuba’s skies daily like sharks, their propeller-drone the signature tune of this war. Our car was camouflaged with mud. We were forever stopping under trees, when the low throb became audible above the granite hills. When one circled our camp and bombed villages around us, we ducked into foxholes. We all knew they had the accuracy of doodlebugs but each one of us still pictured a 250lb bomb aimed right for our heads.
Khartoum’s Antonovs certainly do hit people: in Nuba’s one functioning hospital we saw children with their arms ripped off, their eyes gone, pounds of flesh torn out of tiny bodies by ragged shrapnel blasts. One teenage mother I met called Alawiya had her newborn baby ripped from her arms and killed. Medical staff at the Mother of Mercy hospital, part of the Catholic Church’s diocese of El Obeid, were running short of medicines and rations for patients — but American surgeon Tom Catena, Sisters Angelina and Rosio, together with their team of Nuba nurses, toiled on. In rural clinics we saw Nuba nurses work with no anti-biotics, no anaesthetics — just salt and water. They had to turn away mothers with starving babies at one clinic because there was no food. The Antonovs have driven farmers from their fields in a clear strategy to cause famine. The United Nations and all charities like Save the Children fled in mid-2011, abandoning Nuba’s civilians to Khartoum’s scorched-earth campaigns.
So, we were remembering those injured and hungry people (and each of us will never forget what we saw) as we hurtled for the frontier, marked by a village with the strange name of ‘Jaw’. Only minutes to the border. Daniel, a brave young lad, gave a stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra:
They call you Lady Luck, but there’s room for doubt,
At times you have a very unladylike way of running out.
I craned my neck out of the car window. All was quiet but for the cicadas and go-away birds. We stopped briefly at Jaw to film a drone aircraft the rebels had shot down. ‘Time to go,’ I urged. We were driving out of Jaw when suddenly I saw a rebel firing an AK-47 into the air. The sound of two jets ripped the sky above us. I didn’t hit the ground. I ran hard. So did all the soldiers, apart from a couple of Darfuris. I found a foxhole and Danny joined me in there just as several bombs exploded somewhere. Ken was hiding behind a tree. I saw a soldier using a grass hut as cover. The foxhole was just a foot deep but I squeezed in as the Sukhois circled back. A turbaned Darfuri sauntered by like Digby Tatham-Warter with his umbrella on Arnhem Bridge. I quavered, ‘Are they coming back?’ He shrugged and smiled. Just then several ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns opened up superfluously and again I buried myself in the hole. Suddenly the noise was gone again. Had the Sukhois aimed for a military target, or a family of farmers — or nothing?
Danny replayed the tape to see if he had got the pictures, and rebels gathered around to point and laugh at me running scared on camera. And I was scared, truly.
Aidan Hartley’s Unreported World on the war in the Nuba Mountains broadcasts on Channel 4 at 7.30 p.m. on 13 April.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 31, 2012