Features

The UN vs. Christianity?

International | Christian relief workers charge that UN efforts are prolonging war and famine in Sudan

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

Teddy Roosevelt's safari in Kenya's savanna in 1909 boasted 100 porters carrying, on average, 60 pounds each. Peter Hammond likes to say he has bested Roosevelt's expedition. On a recent trip into Sudan-his 30th-the director of Frontline Fellowship watched as a line of 250 volunteers unfurled itself and snaked across the rocky Nuba Mountains at the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert. His porters, too, carried about 60 pounds, on shoulders or above their heads. These were no Victorian indulgences, however; the load was entirely made up of Bibles, other books, and relief aid. And the porters were mostly women. The men, they told Mr. Hammond, were away fighting. Human caravans are only one way groups like Frontline get into the remote areas of southern Sudan plagued by both a long civil war and a famine the experts say could claim 2 million lives. Barges of foodstuffs floated on the Nile and C-130 cargo planes stuffed with supplies of grain and beans also make it through under an umbrella program run by the United Nations and known as Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The UN is looking for good publicity as it struggles to raise more than $100 million-which it says Sudan's crisis will require-from member states. Its officials cheered recent news that Sudan's Islamic government will allow more aircraft to fly in relief material. Until May the government in Khartoum allowed only one plane to fly humanitarian missions, then it raised the number to five, and by early summer, 12. With greater access from the government, the UN's Sudan coordinator, Carl Tinstman, boasted, "We are going to be able to prevent this famine." But when the UN speaks for Sudan, relief workers like Peter Hammond scoff. Humanitarian organizations with hardy records of service in other famine- and war-torn spots-like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia-express mounting frustration with UN officials who oversee the distribution of supplies in Sudan. Rather than preventing the famine as promised, the groups say UN efforts are prolonging the war and worsening famine conditions. "Organizations have to get permission for everything they do from the UN. They have to register with the UN. The UN in turn gives veto power over everything to the Islamic government in Khartoum," Mr. Hammond told WORLD. "The government of Sudan is using Operation Lifeline to get what it wants." What the government of Sudan wants is to dominate southern Sudan. The predominantly Arab north is fighting to impose its Islamic regime in Khartoum on the predominantly African south, which is Christian and animist. The U.S. State Department routinely condemns the government's tactics, which include slavery and forcible conversions, as well as the government's sponsorship of terrorism. Ironically, the UN itself has made the same complaints in annual reports endorsed by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Despite those actions, Khartoum predetermines UN supply routes into the country. In southern Sudan, flights into Bahr El Ghazal were restricted after government troops created famine conditions there by burning homes and farms. In one instance, when relief was flown into a refugee camp, government soldiers attacked the camp and stole the food. Relief workers told WORLD that half of the aid transported by the UN is going to government-controlled areas, places where there are no direct reports of starvation. They also say UN food at the Nile port of Juba is being diverted to feed government troops. "This famine is caused by politics, not weather," said Ken Isaacs, project director for Samaritan's Purse. "It does not meet the technical definition of a 'complex humanitarian situation' like Somalia, Rwanda, or Bosnia, as we are being led to believe." Samaritan's Purse, the North Carolina- based relief organization headed by Franklin Graham, was a member of OLS until 1993, when UN officials said the organization could not take Bibles in along with its privately funded food and medicine. "We as an evangelical organization cannot work with the UN because they will not let us take Bibles in," said Mr. Isaacs. Nairobi-based Association of Christian Relief Organizations of Southern Sudan (ACROSS), one of the largest groups working in the region, also ran afoul of UN watchdogs. ACROSS workers smuggled Bibles onto one UN-sponsored flight, knowing they were frowned upon. When UN officials discovered the contraband, they cancelled every ACROSS relief flight for a month. "The UN is not against religion, it is just against Christianity," said Frontline's Mr. Hammond. Christian relief groups have been among the most determined to assist southern Sudan. Churches have multiplied in spite of the fighting, and the Christian population has doubled since the 1950s. Christian groups see southern Sudanese as victims of persecution at the hands of an illegitimate government (it took power through a coup in 1989), rather than as equal combatants in a civil war. To help people in the south without the UN's endorsement, Christian groups employ human caravans to undisclosed locations, like the one Mr. Hammond organized on his most recent trip. They rely on line drawings of airstrips-delineated by nearby water and tukuls, or grass huts-available on the Internet. These guide adventurous pilots who fly in supplies at low altitude to escape detection. Sometimes they come under fire. That happened to Frontline Fellowship flights twice last year. In March 1997, two helicopter gunships attacked the group's chartered DC-3, along with 500 Sudanese who came to meet it. Two women from the Nuba Mountains were killed in the attack. In May, according to Mr. Hammond, "We came within a hair's-breadth of being blown out of the sky" when fighter aircraft were sent against another unauthorized Frontline Fellowship flight. Mr. Hammond believes UN officials informed the Sudanese government about the flights. He said he received that information from "lower-echelon UN officers" working in Sudan. For those reasons, groups working outside the UN umbrella keep quiet about where they work. Samaritan's Purse will not disclose the location of a 60-bed hospital it runs with the support of rotating American physicians. Frontline Fellowship supports a clinic and a school, and is earning a reputation for distributing thousands of Bibles throughout southern Sudan, but won't say where. In spite of the difficulties, Mr. Hammond says he is not discouraged. "The situation is immeasurably better," he says, compared to when he made his first trip to Sudan. Three years ago, he says, Sudan was "a 100 percent closed field." Mission groups kept their operations in Kenya and "worked" in Sudan almost entirely through airdrops of literature, medicine, and food. "You hoped they didn't crush the people or their homes," he said. "We were told it was impossible to work in Sudan. Everything we have done is illegal, but we went, prayed, and the Lord guided us around obstacles," he said. Tactically, the work has been helped by a successful offensive on the part of the southern rebel fighters, known as the SPLA. Starting last year, the SPLA liberated dozens of towns and two concentration camps. Wasting no opportunity to provide spiritual food as well as material needs, Mr. Hammond showed the Jesus film to government soldiers-Muslims-taken captive by SPLA. With reporting by Ivy Scarborough in Sudan

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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