By Brad Phillips My Thanksgiving holiday was celebrated rather quickly here in Nairobi with my family because within a few days I was headed back up into Sudan. Destination: The war-torn Nuba mountain region. This area has been under siege since the SAF forces and NCP militants began carrying out Bashir’s instruction to “clean up all the rubbish” (referring to the Nuba people) on June 5, 2011 – targeting all of the indigenous Nuba based on their ethnicity and religious faith.
From then until now, the Nuba have endured almost daily aerial bombardment combined with ground assaults forcing the majority to flee their homes in the valleys and towns and to seek refuge in the rocks and caves. Dictator and war criminal of note, Omar al Bashir, has banned all aid groups from visiting this "contested region" (i.e. the areas he doesn't control) and all humanitarian assistance. The result has been a manufactured famine affecting half a million people.
More than 68,000 Nuba have fled south to the refugee community of Yida, across the border in South Sudan. But more than 500,000 Nuba remain internally displaced in the Jebel Nuba, living on less than one meal a day.
Among the team assembled were representatives from PPF, The Voice of the Martyrs and Living Waters International. Below is a brief account of our journey.
Before heading to the Nuba, we visited a place virtually ignored by the international press. Northern Upper Nile State of South Sudan, in Maban County, has become home to more than 120,000 refugees from the Blue Nile State of northern Sudan. The Blue Nile is next door to the Nuba mountains and a territory inhabited by another marginalised community in Sudan, the Funj people. In August 2011, the Blue Nile was invaded by forces from Khartoum and the democratically elected governor, Malek Agar, was forced to flee for his life. Agar has since joined forces with former Nuba Governor Abdelaziz Adam Al Hilu and co-founded the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a union of marginalised and persecuted people groups in Sudan seeking the right to the self-determination they were promised under the CPA and calling for the ouster of Dictator Omar al Bashir. But for now, the Blue Nile is overrun with SAF troops, and entire communities have been transplanted to Maban County in the border area of South Sudan’s northern Upper Nile State.
We visited Doro, one of the four refugee camps in Maban and were amazed by the number of people we saw -- and the number of churches. Although the Blue Nile State is mostly Muslim, there are several tribes among the Funj with a substantial Christian population, in particular the Uduk people which comprise 25% of Blue Nile’s Funj community. Among the Uduk almost 100% identify themselves as Christian. Not surprisingly, Uduk is one of the major language groups that have a translation of the Bible. We had the opportunity to visit with representatives of more than 20 transplanted churches from Blue Nile currently living as refugees in Maban County.
As we drove through Doro, we were greeted by singing and found one of the displaced churches holding Christmas choir rehearsal -- under trees. We met with the elders of the church and were introduced to the team working on translating the Bible into the local language. Muslim evangelism is a big priority for these Blue Nile churches, and they are having a large measure of success as war has soured Blue Nile Islamists towards their spiritual leaders in Khartoum. The number one request we received was for scriptures and Christian literature. We were thrilled to be invited by SP and SIM to participate with them in efforts to reprint and distribute copies of the Uduk Bible.
Our primary purpose in Maban was to visit the Bunj State Hospital (which is the only referral hospital in Northern Upper Nile) where we had just delivered a very large consignment of medicines donated by VOM. The story of this hospital is remarkable.
Although it is a State hospital, it has been handed over by the South Sudanese government to a Christian ministry for its operation. Samaritans Purse under the direction of Dr. Atar has been administrating this hospital since war broke out in the Blue Nile, causing a flood of refugees to cross into Maban County.
Dr. Atar is a South Sudanese from Torit who has worked as a surgeon with Samaritan's Purse for a number of years. Until November of last year, he worked at the SP hospital in Kurmuk, in southern Blue Nile.
When SAF forces invaded the Blue Nile, SP ordered the evacuation of all its personnel, but Dr. Atar refused to leave his post – hanging on for two months until Kurmuk was completely overrun by SAF. Dr. Atar was there alone until the enemy was literally at the gate and his escape was miraculous. During our visit with Dr. Atar, he shared with us the story of how he made his retreat through the bush performing surgeries under trees by tying bedsheets between them- saving many lives along the way but also watching many other innocent civilians die. It is no wonder Dr. Atar is the most highly regarded southerner among the Blue Nile people, who know him as both a servant and a hero.
When he finally escaped to Maban in November, 2011, Dr. Atar was immediately called to take up the position at Bunj to serve the host community as well as the Blue Nile refugees. His Christian witness is leading many Funj Muslims to Christ.
After our time in Maban, we boarded our AIM AIR charter and traveled due west to an adjacent refugee community in South Sudan - Yida. Yida is located in Unity State and along the North-South border. It has become the gateway from the Nuba Mountains into South Sudan and is now home to more than 68,000 Nuba refugees. There are more than two dozen churches serving this community. Approximately 30% of the Nuba identify themselves as Christian, making it home to Sudan's largest Christian population.
We recently completed a combined medical, blanket and action pack distribution for Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), so we took time to meet with representatives of the local church leaders to assess how the distribution went and find out what needs the church has at this time. One of the VOM team members shared a word of encouragement from John 14:
"Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (Vv. 1-6)
This scripture really impacted everyone as we considered that in spite of all the material and human loss represented there in that Nuba refugee camp (lost homes, lost possessions, lost health, lost loved ones, etc.) Jesus told us not to despair, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” because He had gone ahead to prepare a heavenly home for us.
We all began to weep and to really praise the Lord for the mercy He has shown and for the promise of our heavenly home which will far exceed anything we can live in here.
We closed our meeting in prayer for each other, then headed back to camp to prepare for our journey to the Nuba mountains in the morning.
Into the War Zone
Our team rose before dawn, slugged down some instant coffee, piled into two land cruisers, and drove due north. Since December, 2011, no relief flights dare enter the Nuba mountains, which are patrolled by the Sudan Air Force. So the only way in is by road... a long, dusty, and bumpy road. After several hours of scrambling our brains on the lonely road north, we finally began to get into the mountains.
It had been more than 5 months since the commencement of the wet season shut all road access up into the Nuba, so we were eager to get up into Nuba and see how the people were doing and what had changed. The first thing I noticed was a lot fewer people. We saw a lot of empty houses. But even though many had left, the majority were there scattered and hiding out among the rocks and caves. Our whole team was encouraged by the number of pastors and evangelists refusing to leave. We met one team from a local theological college. They told us that they sent out evangelistic teams every week to their Muslim neighbors-- and they were having incredible success.
During the first few hours of our journey, we visited a town which had been completely decimated by aerial bombing and artillery fire from Bashir's forces. We found the local commissioner at a desk under a tree, and we inquired about the last time the town was bombed. He responded "last night at 6 pm." He then showed us the craters and the damage to a nearby building-- one of the few left standing.
The SPLM-N (opposition forces) control most of the territory in Nuba with the exception of certain SAF garrison towns. But the towns and rural areas are completely under the control of the SPLM-N. This made getting around surprisingly easy-- aside from the numerous check points along the roads.
We were encouraged to see signs of civilization still in the Nuba mountains, as people have tried to adjust their lives around the constant terror of the aerial bombing campaign. There are some supplies trickling through from the South and from defiant Arab traders in the north who run the blockade for a chance to make good money selling their goods during the middle of a war.
But it would be easy for me to relate the most important event of our journey. After making quite a long tour around the country, we decided to take a break and stretch a bit. We saw a little church in the distance and decided to park there. Under a tree next to the church sat an old man-- but not just any man.
The old man sitting under the tree next to the church was Pastor Kallo* (please note: changed for security) and the church was his church. However, Pastor Kallo had planted many more churches. In fact, dozens of other churches in his county and many neighboring were planted by him. I had actually met Pastor Kallo on my visit a year before. However, time and security had not allowed me to really spend any time with him and get a grasp of his testimony.
Pastor Kallo told me he was converted by a western missionary family in the 1950s. When the government in Khartoum chased away the missionaries in the early 1960s, Kallo took over their work and began working as an evangelist in his community.
Over the years, Pastor Kallo's ministry was very successful. So successful that the government took notice of his work and decided to make an example of him. He was imprisoned twice for a total of eight and one half years. He endured horrible torture and persecution.
Frequent beatings, starvation, electric shocks placed in his ears and some other unspeakable tortures were devised to get Pastor Kallo to renounce his faith. He was moved from prison to prison after multiple trials, interrogations followed by mock executions and other tortures. Ultimately he landed in the notorious Kober prison.
He was offered money and positions of power if he would just relent and embrace Islam. Pastor Kallo refused. In fact, he became very effective at converting Muslim prisoners.
Pastor Kallo's ministry was so effective the authorities were afraid to kill him, because they didn’t want to make him a martyr. And they could not keep him in jail, because he kept converting Muslims. Finally, they released him, and he returned home, bruised but not broken.
Most of Pastor Kallo’s testimony was related to us by others in his church. His family’s and community’s love, esteem and honor for him is infectious. There were two other pastors present who had been imprisoned along with him and suffered, but they emphasized their tortures were small compared to what Pastor Kallo endured.
What impressed me so much was to see this man in his mid-70s who remained faithful despite so much hardship, temptation, loss, torture and persecution.
An entire language group in the Nuba claim him as their spiritual father.
How do you respond after hearing such a testimony? I was speechless, teary-eyed, and amazed at the privilege to meet a modern hero of our faith. As the time approached for us to leave, we asked Pastor Kallo to pray for us. He then stood up and began to pray in his mother tongue, and there was not a dry eye under that tree. One of Pastor Kallo's daughters then stood and began to sing a hymn, and Pastor Kallo and the men around us joined in. Here we were in a battle-scarred country where sharia law is the order of the day, and we were worshipping together. I wish you could have been there.
I have been doing this work for 15 years now, and after this one meeting, I was reminded how privileged I am to be doing my job. And I was also filled with gratitude for your generous giving and compassion that has allowed me to bring you stories like this. These are the people we want to help. These are the brothers and sisters we seek to minister to-- but they always seem to minister more to me.
Please pray for Pastor Kallo, whose real name will one day be revealed to you when he passes over the river and rests beneath the shade of Christ's love in heaven. Until then, we lift him up, and we redouble our efforts to exercise active compassion for the persecuted.