From a high ridge in Nimule, Sudan, I looked across a quiet valley to the Nile Riverthe source of life for thousands who pull their living from its muddy waters. In a patch of yellow grass a few feet from where I stood lay the tarnished casings of spent artillery shells, fired only recently at planes that droned above this peaceful valley on bombing runs to the surrounding countryside. On a trip full of insights, it was for me a poignant reminder that the people of Sudan live daily in a world of contrasta world where peace is measured in days and war is measured in decades.
I had come to Sudan as the leader of a delegation of American bishops and other representatives of the U.S. Catholic Conference, Migration and Refugee Services and Catholic Relief Services, of which I serve as chairman of the board. We were there to express our solidarity with the church in Sudan and with all Sudanese people, who have endured the bloody civil war that has raged almost nonstop since the country became independent in 1956.
That show of solidarity, we knew, would be the easy part. The real challenge behind our visit was to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities that have spawned 18 consecutive years of wara war fought with food denial and crude explosives, fueled by oil and perpetuated by the unflinching determination of its deeply divided countrymen.
Few conflicts in the world today are as complicated, or as brutal, as the war in Sudan. Pitting largely Muslim forces of the northern Sudanese government mainly against forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.) in the south, where the people are mostly Christian and animist, the war has cost an estimated two million lives. An additional four million have been displaced by the fighting. Despite the efforts of numerous humanitarian agencies that have been operating a large-scale food distribution effort from northern Kenya since 1989, tens of thousands remain at risk in the countrya tragic consequence of the Sudanese government’s practice of denying humanitarian access where and when it chooses. In an area as drought-prone as southern Sudan, such tactics have had devastating consequences: far more Sudanese have died from starvation than from bullets.
Our visit made it perfectly clear to us that the war in Sudan cannot be characterized in such simple terms. The issues at stake represent far more than the desires of a government to impose its religion on an unwilling people. In fact, they strike at the heart of a people’s right to define and govern themselves in peace and to ground themselves in a political and social system that acknowledges the universality of basic human rights.
Yet such rights continue to be ignored in Sudan. With the recent development of an oil industry that has tapped large reserves of oil in the south, the conflict in Sudan has taken on yet another layer. Millions of dollars worth of oil are now pumped each day from the south to refineries in the north, creating revenues that almost certainly serve to arm and supply government forces, despite government claims to the contrary. Worse, securing the pipelines necessary to transport this oil means clearing selected regions in the South of all civilian inhabitants. Thousands who lived along pipeline corridors have already been forcibly displaced.
Seeking a better understanding of such complex and devastating realities, we traveled first to the country’s capital, Khartoum. Located in north central Sudan, Khartoum is a city shaped, as is all of northern Sudan, by centuries of Arab influence. Most striking about our time in Khartoum were the many images we saw of displaced camps ringing the city, teeming with a non-Muslim populace relegated to menial jobs or, worse, dependant on humanitarian aid. These camps, far from the scenes of the heaviest fighting, hinted to us at the enormity of the conflict being played out in the trackless scrub of southern Sudan. For me, they served as a stark reminder that the dead and wounded are not the only victims of war.
While in Khartoum, we met with various government, community and church leaders and human rights groups to understand better the role that representatives from each body might play in bringing the conflict to an end. While government officials asserted that religious freedom was alive and well in Sudan, our subsequent meetings with church officials belied such carefully constructed assurances. Though we did visit some churches, we also learned that the Sudanese government has not granted any permits for the construction of new churches in more than 30 years, a telling example of the government’s steadfast intention to impose the rule of Islam.
While our time in Khartoum provided valuable insights into the government’s rationale for continuing the war, it was only by spending time in southern Sudan that one comes to understand truly the effect this war is having on the Sudanese people. Traveling first to Nimule, a town that lies directly on the Sudanese border with Uganda, we met with residents of the Mogali II camphome to thousands of Sudanese people displaced by the war. Welcomed as brothers, as we were throughout the South, we heard first hand about the realities of life in southern Sudan from the people of Mogali, who recounted descriptions of government bombings and detailed the hardships of life away from their homes. It was a message often repeated during our time in southern Sudan, where such large gatherings sometimes provoke aerial bombings by government planes.
But if the faces in these displaced-persons camps represented for me the reality of present day existence in Sudan, the young faces I saw at the Kocoa Seminary in the town of Adjumani represent Sudan’s future. Though many of the students have known war their entire lives, I saw that their common sentiment was the desire only for peace. Throughout the South it is the church that provides the only structure many have known, a structure burdened alternately with educating, feeding, nursing and sheltering an entire populace amid the ravages of war. With pride I noted the vibrancy of the church throughout southern Sudan, a haven for soul, mind and body in a country racked by violence.
Many have asked if the war in Sudan, after so many years of continuous conflict, will ever end. My answer to them is yesif the international community wills such an end. The United States in particular must play a central role, chiefly by mediating a U.N.-monitored cessation of hostilities and engaging all sides of the conflict in paving the way for long-term peace in the country. While the peace process, complicated by so many years of hostility, will be a slow one, real and vital negotiations can take place only when the guns fall silent.
Yet while such interventions must come from governments, the empathy, support and compassion of the international community must come first from individuals. Even placing aside all the inherent complexities of this conflict, we should care about the war in Sudan because those who are suffering are our brothers and sisters in humanity, a humanity I have seen threatened, ignored and abused in Sudan. In a world where such conflicts continue to consume lives, we must all ask of ourselves one question: if we are not our brother’s keeper, who will be?
In a small school compound in Nimule, a young boy named Lazarus read to our group a letter he had written in anticipation of our arrival. In clipped, animated sentences he recounted for us the day government planes attacked the compound, dropping eight bombs in and around the schoolyard. He described the sound of the explosions and the fear of the students huddled in their tiny schoolhouse. He thanked us for coming to learn about Sudan and for taking our message home. He affirmed his hope that peace would come soon.
After his presentation, I helped Lazarus and other young students at the school plant saplings in the bomb craters left behind from that day. It was a joyous moment, full of the unique passion reserved for people who live life in such close proximity to death. For those who wonder about the future of Sudan, I would offer the images of that school compound as we left: the green leaves of young trees rising up from the bomb craters, a potent symbollike the biblical Lazarus himselfof new hope, new beginning and new life.