A video reportedly taken from a mobile phone found in the pocket of a dead Sudanese army soldier shows a group of uniformed men gleefully burning down a village in the country’s South Kordofan region. Our Observer decided to find this village and investigate.
The uniformed men in the video refer to themselves as the “Match Battalion.” They wander around the edges of the village as it goes up in flames, and voices are heard shouting orders to set fire to more houses. Meanwhile, gunshots ring out.
Our Observer Ryan Boyette, an American living in the remote Nuba mountains, is the founder of a citizen journalism project called Nuba Reports. He and his colleagues – locals from the mountains - obtained the footage from a rebel soldier, and decided to post it online in early June. After examining elements in the video, he became convinced that the uniformed men belonged to the Sudanese Armed Forces, Sudan’s official army. While there have been multiple reports of soldiers burning villages in South Kordofan, they have never been filmed in action.
Confronted with these images, the Sudanese ambassador to Kenya told Al Jazeera he believed the video was fabricated: “They [the rebels] sometimes torch their villages to show the world that Sudan’s army is committing atrocities.”  [FRANCE 24 also asked Sudan’s interior ministry for comment, but has not yet received a response].
Boyette, however, decided to investigate the matter further. After asking around, he and his team were recently led to the village they believe was the one in the video, Um Bartumbu. They took photos of the burned-out buildings and interviewed numerous residents of the village, who were known to be sympathetic toward the region’s rebels. They also interviewed the rebel soldier who found the footage, who belongs to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). They released videos of these interviews Friday.
Tensions in South Kordofan boiled over in June 2011 after fighting between the SPLM-N and the Sudanese Armed Forces erupted in the region. Although now independent, the SPLM-N is an offshoot of the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which was founded in 1983 as a political and armed opposition to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
South Kordofan has been plagued by fighting between SPLM-N and government forces ever since. After the south officially seceded in July 2011, taking almost all of the country’s oil fields with it, South Kordofan became Sudan’s sole oil producing region, making it a highly strategic area to control.
According to a report published by the United Nations earlier this month, an estimated 520,000 people in South Kordofan have been severely affected by the conflict. The report also states that at least 205,000 people from South Kordofan and Blue Nile, another region in Sudan hit by ongoing violence, have sought refuge across the border in the south, or in nearby Ethiopia.

“It’s the first time we’ve caught Sudanese forces torching a village on video”

Ryan Boyette founded the website Nuba Reports, which obtained and posted the footage of the village being burned down. Boyette and his colleagues enlisted the help of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which provided them with satellite imagery of the village, taken before and after the attack, establishing that it was burned down during the Autumn of 2011.
It’s common for villages all over South Kordofan to be burnt to the ground, but this is the first time we’ve caught Sudanese forces doing it on video.
When we went to Um Bartumbu, we took a village elder with us. He walked around with us and explained how everything happened. We also talked to the SPLM-N soldier who found the video after her unit attacked the Match Battalion in a separate incident. The elder explained that the village had been razed in different stages.
What happened was that as the Match Battalion approached Um Bartumbu, the villagers heard the gun shots and fled. When the battalion arrived, the village was completely empty and they torched all the houses. They returned to the village two or three times afterwards to loot everything they couldn’t carry the first time.
They took all the remaining grain and food, roofing materials, as well as the doors and windows off of buildings like the grind mill and the local clinic. They even took the entire roof off of the village church.
“Every single person from Um Bartumbu was forced to leave their home”
By the time we visited the village there was nothing left. It looked like a ghost town. Every single person from Um Bartumbu was forced to leave their home – the place where they were born and had built their lives – to escape the Match Battalion. They fled so quickly they couldn’t take much with them, and they had to ask for food from neighbouring villages.
The Nuba people are farmers and work hard to provide enough for their families. It was shameful for them to have to ask others for food. They felt looked down upon, and as if they were a burden on the community.
"The woman who pulled the video was able to identify one of the soldiers in the footage because he came from her village"
We came to the conclusion that the Match Battalion is part of the Sudanese Armed Forces not just through our interviews but also by studying the footage. In the video you can see that the men are wearing uniforms that look like SAF uniforms, and they speak to each other in military orders. There’s clearly one person who’s in charge, who barks out commands and tells members of the unit to stop playing around – which could imply that they’re on a specific mission.
Secondly, if you look at Um Bartumbu’s recent election records, almost 100 percent of the people voted for SPLM party leadership in 2011 [before the unrest began, the movement’s political faction took part in state elections]. This seems to indicate they were attacked by government forces, not the SPLM-N. Why would the SPLM-N attack a village where they have an overwhelming amount of support? Also, when the village was attacked, its inhabitants fled to SPLM-N controlled areas, because they felt safe there.
Lastly, the woman who pulled the video found it on a mobile phone she had taken out of the pocket of a dead soldier and she was able to identify one of the soldiers in the footage because he came from her village. He is apparently known in the region as a member of Popular Defense Force, which is a branch of the Sudanese Armed Forces.
“The Nuba people believe this is an ethnic cleansing to move them off of the land”
In my opinion, the Match Battalion was acting on orders from higher up to burn the village down. There are several reasons why they would be instructed to do so. One is that the majority of people there and in the Nuba Mountains support the SPLM-N. The SPLM-N fighters grew up in the region, and that families still live in these towns. Another reason is that they want to demoralise the people.
Talking to the Nuba people, I often ask why they think these things happen. They call it an ethnic cleansing, intended to move them off the land. Recently, cluster bombs have also been used against the local population. We found four of them in the Nuba mountains.