Muslims and Christians living together in peace, and even making sacrifices to better each other’s lives. It’s happening in the Nuba Mountains of South Sudan. But instead of the Nuba people being celebrated and emulated for their interfaith cooperation, they’ve been targeted for extermination.
The Catholic humanitarian organization Sudan Relief Fund and other groups are facing an uphill battle helping victims of the violence, as well as the refugees escaping to neighboring Uganda due to the civil war within South Sudan. However, they persist in doing the work to which they feel God has called them.
As part of her job with the Kansas City Star, veteran journalist Melinda Henneberger (The New York Times, Washington Post), recently traveled to South Sudan with the Sudan Relief Fund in order to raise awareness about the famine and near-genocide going on there.
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” she explained that it is “the youngest country on earth,” and wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the help of the United States, specifically President George W. Bush and former Missouri Senator John Danforth, who helped broker a peace agreement in 2005 that ended the persecution of the South Sudanese by the Islamist government in Khartoum, Sudan.
Henneberger described the 2011 independence of South Sudan as “such a hopeful moment, but unfortunately there were a number of things that went wrong almost immediately,” including the death of Vice President John Garang, “who had an amazing ability to bring people together in a place that is still very divided along tribal lines and other lines…Then, you have seen this situation where the abused become the abusers…What began as a personal conflict between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Machar went into a more general tribal struggle between the Dinka, which is the main group there, and the Nuer. Now it’s devolved from there. As somebody from South Sudan said, ‘It’s everybody against everybody.'”
One and a half million people have fled the country already, while others are forced to live under constant threats of torture and death. Churches are doing their best to help, but there is no true sanctuary.
Henneberger said, “The UN has called it ethnic cleansing, and you see mass starvation, forced starvation, mass rape. I talked to a Catholic bishop who said that in seven of his 22 parishes in an area of the country that was formerly one of the most peaceful, Yambio, they now have in some places tens of thousands of people coming to live around the church, thinking that the church can be a protection to them. We remember from what happened in Rwanda that people also fled into churches and they were not safe. You’re seeing that here, too. I talked to a priest who said that [attackers] came into the area around the church and kidnapped a couple of women, were shooting, [and committing] brutal, senseless acts, [like] ripping the surgical bandages off an elderly woman. One of the attackers told the priest, who was trying to block the path to the people, ‘Get out of my way or I’ll nail you to that tree like Jesus.’ One of the attackers was killed and the rest fled.”
Acts of nobility and self-sacrifice are present as well, though. For instance, a Catholic missionary from New York, Dr. Tom Catena, is beloved by the Nuba people because he genuinely loves them. He is one of only four doctors to care for 1.5 million people, and he is the only surgeon in a hospital built by the Sudan Relief Fund.
Considering the area has no electricity, internet, phone service, roads, or indoor plumbing, conditions for medical treatment are not ideal. Plus, there are foxholes around the hospital so everyone can take cover when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir sends planes to drop bombs on the locals. Why?
“There is a religious aspect to the violence,” explains Henneberger. “There is a racial one and there’s a question of resources because the Nuba Mountains are very fertile. They have minerals including gold that are mostly untapped. The religious aspect is very interesting because the Nuba Mountains is a place where most people are Muslim also, but they have a more liberal interpretation. They don’t want sharia law, they get along very well with their Christian neighbors, many families are mixed families. For example, Dr. Tom’s wife, her mother is Christian, her father is Muslim, and this is just not an issue for people there.”
A similar example of Muslim-Christian understanding is present in northern Uganda, where 700,000 South Sudanese refugees have fled since last July to escape the violence in their homeland. 272,000 of those refugees have moved into a settlement near the tiny village of Yumbe.
Henneberger says, “Everyone who comes to Uganda gets a free plot of land and working papers. There are no walls or fences in these settlements, which is why they call them settlements and not camps. And the generosity of the people there! [Consider] you’re living in your village. 272,000 people move in down the road and a drought is going on. And you share your water. Food is now more expensive because there’s more demand for it. Not all the land is coming through the government. There have also been a number of private donations, many of them inspired by this Catholic radio station called ‘Radio Pacis’ that has been promoting peace between different faith groups. In this one corner of Uganda where I visited, it’s mostly Muslims living there – and all of these people they’ve welcomed are Christian…Person after person said, ‘They need help. They’re welcome here. They have nowhere to go. They’ve done nothing wrong.’ They also feel that they owe the Sudanese a debt of gratitude because when there were refugees from Uganda decades ago under the dictator Idi Amin, in what’s now South Sudan, people took them in. They really remember that.”
Considering how far away South Sudan’s problems are from the life of the average citizen in the United States, it might seem an impossible task getting Americans and the U.S. government to help end the violence and push for peace. But Henneberger says there are ways to make a difference.
She concludes, “I wish we would get involved in terms of a humanitarian intervention. I think you can definitely call the White House and call your representatives and say you care about what’s happening there. On the humanitarian side, the United Nations is rightly criticized on a number of fronts, but something they do very well is take care of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [is] only 45% funded for what they’re doing in Uganda. They can’t keep up with the need…That’s one place to donate. Also, the Sudan Relief Fund, a Catholic group, does wonderful work there – helps fund bringing in water…bringing in medicine…helps train nurses and teachers, and funds churches that are working with their people inside South Sudan as well as in Uganda.”
(To listen to my full interview with Melinda Henneberger, click on the podcast link):