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'We have nothing, but we have everything'

International | GOING INTO THE NO-GO REGION: Sudan's Christians are the most persecuted in the world today, but with only a "porous" line of defense separating these believers from their persecutors, hope can arise from the vilest pit

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

in Blue Nile, Sudan - Walking to church at Chali requires an armed escort: two rebel guards up front, one behind. The soldiers carry automatic weapons and scan the hills in the distance where government troops form a front line of battle just five miles away. More important than what is out there, however, is what is beneath a hiker's feet. Government forces landmined the area surrounding the church prior to losing control of Chali to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Walk single file, the SPLA bodyguards warn. Chali Station is in many ways not much different than it was when the first Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) workers arrived in 1939. The temperature edges to 100 degrees in the shade. The sound of flies buzzing can overwhelm conversations. Thick, green acacia thorns are as plentiful and menacing as ever. Black cotton soil, when wet, reverts to the same unnavigable muck faced by Americans Enid and Malcolm Forsberg, who drove from Khartoum in "a chassis with a windshield" and some plywood around the sides to contain the passengers. Six decades ago, SIM had recently been appointed by the British to oversee both church planting and education in this region. Other parts of southern Sudan were parceled to Presbyterians, Catholics, and Anglicans. The Forsbergs would build a home and later a compound that grew to include a church, several school buildings, and homes for additional missionaries-all completed in African colonial-style brick. Converts were harder to erect: They came one by one in the Forsbergs' early years from the surrounding Uduks, a tribe notable for substituting grease and red ocher for clothes, and for primitive agrarian habits. Subsequent SIM workers helped to grow a legacy of Uduk Christians that now number well over 15,000-over 95 percent of the tribe. Successive dictatorships tested SIM's staying power, and the last SIM workers were evacuated from Chali in 1964. Today, the intervention of mud and war make it important to walk the last three miles to Chali, past a burned-out army transport, through spent artillery shells, and emptied, rusting drums of diesel fuel. Chali, arguably, is ground zero in the ongoing 16-year civil war that pits the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum (400 miles to the north) against the Africans in southern Sudan. This ongoing war has earned Sudanese Christians the distinction of being among the most persecuted believers in the world. War casualties, mostly from the Christian areas of southern Sudan, number close to 2 million. By the time the government made the strict Islamic law known as Sharia the law of the land in 1983, the Uduks were a second-generation Christian tribe, with the church at Chali as their cultural center. Uduks refused to adhere to Sharia, a code requiring amputation for stealing and cheating and other prohibitive practices as well. They refused to send their children to the Koranic schools rather than the Christian schools they had been attending, setting up a confrontation with the government's forces in 1986. The signs of their defeat punctuate the landscape today. Government tank rounds have destroyed roofs across the former SIM compound. The school building is rubble. Houses are hard to find or impossible to visit because of landmines. The church is a roofless maze of destruction. One solid wall of it remains, the one with a stone cross, punctured by bullet holes. Government soldiers took the bombed church apart piece by piece. They ripped Bibles, page by page, from their bindings, and used the pages of Scripture to roll cigarettes. Other pages showed up later as food wrappers in local markets. The invaders burned Uduk houses and crops, and looted their livestock. They landmined the church building, to ensure that no one was able to rebuild it. According to Chali resident Bala Sidik, soldiers collected some Christian believers and placed them in one room of the church. The soldiers closed the door and set fire to it. Sex was "compulsory," according to another villager, who describes how soldiers gang raped women and girls in the church. Soldiers killed most of the men immediately, crucifying some. They carried others to prison. Paul Rasha, a favorite local teacher known as "Pastor Paul" and an important assistant to the SIM missionaries in translating the Uduk Bible, had to flee to Khartoum; he later died there. The attack sent his wife in the opposite direction, to the refugee camp in Ethiopia. She never saw her husband again. In the same way that Jewish people at Passover dip bitter herbs in charoset and remember tragic events, so survivors and their descendants in Chali recite what happened when the soldiers invaded. "The Uduks were particularly targeted because they are Christians," says Talib Al Fiel, the chief of the Uduk tribe. "The government wanted to get rid of them completely." Talib was 30 years old when the Forsbergs arrived at Chali.He has outlasted waves of persecution. After the 1986 assault, he was imprisoned and tortured by government soldiers, but escaped with other survivors to Ethiopia. At a refugee camp in the hills near Asosa, he and other Uduks carved out an exile existence with persistent help from SIM teachers. But now Talib and his Uduks are back. In late 1999 they began returning from Ethiopia, bolstered by rebel control of the area. SPLA fighters began retaking the Blue Nile Province in 1996. By 1998 they had recaptured most key towns. On a burnt red plain below the old Chali Station, a new Chali is rising, with a round hut called a tukul for each returning family. In the center stands a ribcage of a church, its sapling poles soon to be covered by grass walls and a thatched roof. Already the church has rough-hewn pews and an adult remnant of more than two dozen, plus children, who gather daily for prayer and worship. Church pastor Simon Mamud grew up in the Uduk refugee camp in Ethiopia. Now Chali is his Jerusalem. "We have nothing, but we have everything," he said of the growing settlement. Now, refugees and formerly displaced people who were chased away by government forces in the last 10-15 years are beginning to return to their homelands. "The land has been liberated," said Talib, "and we are coming back to rehabilitate." The chief says thousands more remain in Ethiopia, but will come back as the SPLA deepens its control. Meanwhile, newly displaced people from western parts of Sudan are coming into the area, too, pushed out by government forces but drawn in by rebel security. Churches are rising out of the persecution ashes at astonishing rates in Blue Nile. Those known collectively as Sudan Interior Churches (or SIC) have grown from 30 to almost 45 just since January. In one thatched-hut village of 4,000, an existing church has doubled in size this year, and another congregation has been added. That story is repeated as new church buildings-usually rectangular structures with grass walls topped with wooden crosses-arise in newly secured villages. A new church at Ulu, right now the front line of combat, is attended by both SPLA soldiers and local civilians, and is pastored by SPLA Commander Kitchener. Commander Kitchener likes to preach through the Old Testament because "it is composed of the fighting," he said. "You find the oppression of Israel by those in Egypt ["Arabs," he calls them] similar to what has happened to us." Sensing the resurgence, the Arizona-based Blue Nile Project of In Touch Mission International took in 1,000 Bibles last month, half in Uduk and half in the Mabaan language. SIM missionaries did the original translation, but ironically, SIM-with its headquarters in Khartoum-is no longer working here. The government in Khartoum would end the mission agency's work in other parts of Sudan if it ventured into rebel territory. That kind of intimidation is not affecting Blue Nile Project head Dennis Bennett, who sees his work among the growing churches as part of the SIM legacy. "Some days I feel like David Livingstone, physically having to reexplore and find out where these churches are," he said. With it comes frustration that many of the churches have gone nearly 40 years without new Bible materials. "Here we have a huge spiritual legacy, thanks to the hard work of American Christian pioneers like Malcolm and Enid Forsberg, yet American evangelicals seem unwilling or unable to grasp the spiritual and physical needs of these fellow believers." Mr. Bennett is also confident about the territory gained by the SPLA. This month three workers begin full-time ministry and relief work at a central compound in Blue Nile. By September, the Project plans to open a primary medical facility with a full-time Sudanese doctor-doubling the number of physicians in the province (there is now one). "If the villagers think it is safe enough to move back to Chali, then that is a big vote of confidence for us," said Mr. Bennett. In Kurmuk, the largest Blue Nile town, a church of Mabaan tribal people in 1999 took over an officers' mess that had belonged to government forces for 25 years. Uduk refugees returning from Ethiopia dedicated in Kurmuk a new, 40-seat church building on May 17, but by then the church body had ballooned to 120. Kurmuk is also the headquarters of Malak Agar, the governor of the province and commander of SPLA forces in Blue Nile. He says freedom of worship is one of the most important achievements of rebel control. "In this area since 1964 the church has been totally harassed," he said. "We have liberated them and protected them even. That is why you see them again." Mr. Agar has been fighting the government in Khartoum for 15 years, and is a man who knows his business. "We are a well-organized guerrilla movement. This is a decentralized system, with civil, military, and judicial authority spread over the region and at every level of government," he explained. Mr. Agar and other SPLA leaders go to great lengths to distinguish Sudan's rebel movement from rebel groups fighting in Sierra Leone, Congo, and other parts of Africa. "We don't want power just for power," he said. "We want power because we want to restructure ourselves. We want power because we want to use our resources for the people of this region." That kind of restructuring will require new government in Khartoum and a new constitution, he realizes. "We are not telling the Arabs in Sudan, 'You go to the Arab Peninsula,'" he said. "We want a Sudan that can accommodate all of us. It requires a new outlook, even a new conscience." Like the SPLA's top commander, John Garang, and others in the SPLA leadership, Mr. Agar received some education in the United States and is a student of U.S. military history. Early morning SPLA drills in the center of Kurmuk have the ring of U.S. marines in basic training. Despite the decades of ethnic, political, and religious conflict that have marked Sudan, these men believe it is possible to achieve American-style freedoms. For them, those freedoms chiefly include freedom of religion. Although most of the SPLA leaders consider themselves Christian, the movement also includes a significant number of Muslims, and Mr. Agar is one of them. He says Sharia is "discriminatory by nature," and other SPLA Muslim leaders also see Sharia as a political tool meant to subjugate southern Sudan. They say it is being applied more harshly to black Africans than to northern Arabs. "Even Muslims have seen enough of how the government of Sudan treats its African citizens," said one village Omda (chief). "The SPLA has liberated villages, while the government forces them to relocate." And yet, government forces surrounding Blue Nile outnumber the SPLA 10 to 1. Mr. Agar is unmoved by odds, saying, "There are no permanent odds. We measure our war with destroying the capacity of the fighting opponent. You have to count the man behind the gun-the determination." For illustration, he likes to tell how the SPLA retook this region, beginning at the southern Blue Nile town of Yabus in 1996. Rebel forces surprised government troops playing soccer. "I walked into Yabus and 45 minutes later rode out in the back of a brown Toyota truck," he said. In addition to the vehicles, the rebels captured three tanks and a convoy of men and materials moving into Yabus from the north. "We spent all we had to get that convoy," he said. "We were after their logistics." It was almost another year before the rebels took Kurmuk. Fighting today is only about 30 miles north and and 40 miles west of Kurmuk. But while the fighting continues, Mr. Agar, a schoolteacher before he became a soldier, is overhauling education. When rebels took Blue Nile, only two schools functioned in the province of 600,000. Now there are 32 schools. None of the schools extends beyond 4th-grade level, and all the teachers are volunteers, according to school coordinator Ndole Ndoromo. Local communities support the teachers, but even the most basic supplies, like pencils, go wanting. "In other parts of southern Sudan, UNICEF provides material and school resources, but not in this area, because it is a [UN] no-go area," said Mr. Ndoromo (see WORLD, June 10). So he crusades, right now lobbying whoever comes around for blackboards to supplement the 10 he has spread over 32 schools. Without more substantial political and military gains, the peace in Blue Nile will remain fragile. Mr. Agar acknowledges that his front lines are "porous" and some days shelling can be heard from his compound. At Chali, the menace is more palpable. Residents say that the commander of government forces who oversaw the gang rapes and church destruction at Chali is reportedly commanding the troops at the front lines near the new Chali settlement-barely five miles away.

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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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