Eye on Sudan

When exiled Sudanese Bishop Macram Max Gassis introduced the documentary The Hidden Gift: War and Faith in Sudan at its premier at Fordham University Lincoln Center last month, he said the eighty-four-minute film was "an eye opener to the catastrophe that is happening in Sudan." Last July, ABC’s "Nightline" ran a half-hour segment on Sudan, "Making a Difference." It concentrated on the work of Dr. Susan Nagele, an Illinois-born Maryknoll lay missioner who has spent the past nine years working in remote outposts in southern Sudan. Sudan is Africa’s largest country, and for the past seventeen years its 28 million people have been engulfed in civil war. The conflict pits an Islamic fundamentalist regime in the north, intent on imposing strict Islamic law on the entire country, against black African Christian and animist tribes in the south. The main rebel fighting contingent is known as the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army). Two million people have died-more than in Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Somalia combined-and 4 million more have been displaced. ABC’s cameras vividly conveyed the plight of one southern tribe, the Dinka, a herding people, among whom Nagele has ministered. The Dinka and their civilization are being systematically destroyed by aerial bombardment, famine, and enslavement. With fresh discoveries of oil in the south, the government in Khartoum has intensified its drive to crush the Dinka and other rebellious tribes. The Catholic bishops of East Africa, in a joint statement last year, described the Sudanese war as one of "truly genocidal dimensions." In February, days before Bishop Gassis addressed his New York audience, BBC News Online carried live footage on its Web site of the immediate aftermath of a February 8 government bombing of a Catholic-sponsored primary school in Kauda, in the SPLA-controlled Nuba Mountains. Fourteen children, some of them Muslim, and their twenty-two-year-old teacher were killed; seventeen others were critically wounded, and Reuters reported ten were still missing. Immediately after the bombs struck, a student grabbed a battered camera and microphone and recorded the scene. In its commentary, the BBC stated: "The government of Sudan...wants investors for its potentially lucrative oil industry, and it would rather that people didn’t know about places like this and the crimes that are committed." The Hidden Gift is a compelling film. Some of the color footage assembled by director David Tlapek is as vibrant as the photographs of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher in their stunning two-volume African Ceremonies (Abrams, 1999). Tlapek couples live-action shots-some of them made at the very school that was later bombed-with exquisite black-and-white stills by James Nichols. The documentary was made on location during two surreptitious visits by the exiled Bishop Gassis to rebel-held areas during Christmas 1998 and Easter 1999. It follows Gassis, a native of Sudan who speaks fluent Arabic as well as idiomatic American, as he is welcomed home. Throngs greet him with drums and dancing; calves are slaughtered; the bishop converses with priests and catechists, a local SPLA commander, moderate Muslims, and ex-slaves he has helped free from bondage in the north. The camera rolls as Gassis unloads supplies at a clandestine airfield, and as he baptizes, confirms, and witnesses the marriages of scores of people, some of whom have not seen a priest in thirty years. During the joyous Christmas Mass, held beneath a panoply of shade trees in a dry riverbed, government bombers are reported to be on the way. The bishop informs the congregation to remain calm and the Mass continues. The sense of controlled terror is palpable. The camera records the people’s resolute dignity. It also captures-for the last time-some of the students killed in last month’s attack. When Bishop Gassis introduced the documentary in New York, he told his audience that the school had been the only one operating in the entire region: "This is our life," he said, "this is the reality of our children." Then he added: "This heart-breaking incident is yet another piece of evidence...that the war in Sudan is a religious and ethnic war launched by Khartoum and aimed at the destruction of my people." The catastrophe in Sudan is as complex as it is bloody (see, Commonweal, December 16, 1994; January 17, 1997). The SPLA, no shining peace force, has repeatedly split into fratricidal factions, skimmed off relief supplies, held aid workers hostage, and kidnapped young boys, forcing them into armed service. In calling for a negotiated settlement, the East African Bishops’ Conference condemned not only the Sudanese government but the SPLA for sponsoring military groups "whose target of operation is usually the civilian population." Is there hope for an end to the war? It will have to come from a combination of outside pressure and internal change. Both are in short supply. Last December, Khartoum seemed to be moving toward a more moderate stance. President Omar Bashir ousted longtime radical Speaker of Parliament Hassan Turabi. But since then they have made overtures of reconciliation. For its part, the SPLA remains unpredictable and divided. Some of Sudan’s neighbors have turned from working on a solution to fighting among themselves (Ethiopia and Eritrea). While the United States maintains sanctions against Sudan as a terrorist state and cozies up to the SPLA, Canada declines to restrain its Talisman Energy firm from extracting Sudanese oil. The funds flow to Khartoum, enabling it to prolong the war. This month its planes bombed a hospital in the south, killing two and injuring a dozen, and also the compound of an Irish aid group. Thus, the importance of voices like those of Bishop Gassis and Dr. Nagele, and of films like The Hidden Gift and "Making a Difference." They open eyes.

Published in the 2000-03-24 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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