Book: 'Sudan’s Nuba Mountains – People Under Siege'

By: Rebecca Tinsley

'Sudan’s Nuba Mountains – People Under Siege' edited by Sam Totten
McFarland & Co Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, 2017

If you are discouraged by the state of the world, this collection of essays may restore your faith in the capacity of individuals to make a difference. American activist and academic Sam Totten has brought together the stories of unsung heroes, mostly doctors and nurses, who volunteer in a Catholic hospital, Mother of Mercy, in a war zone on the south-east edge of Sudan. There are also chapters by Westerners who, guided by their Christian faith, risk their lives to bring much-needed food and medicine to the Nuba people. The stories of these “accidental activists” are not a matter of history: the ethnic cleansing, bombing and bloodshed continues, unreported and unnoticed.

Since 2011 the Islamist Arabist government, based in Khartoum, has been bombing its own black African citizens in the Nuba Mountains. The regime excludes charities and journalists, so anyone venturing there risks life and liberty. The Sudanese air force bombs fields daily to stop farmers tending their crops, thereby using food as a weapon of war. Why? The Nuba refuse to give up their faiths (Christian, animist and moderate Islam) in favour of the joyless and extreme Muslim identity the regime insists they adopt. The deeply corrupt Khartoum officials also want to clear the land of black African farmers so they can have the oil beneath it.

The UN and the international community know all about this, but avert their eyes because Khartoum occasionally hands over intelligence of dubious quality to the US, saying it is on our side in the war on terror. Consequently, in an area the size of Iowa, more than a million people are being bombed and starved to death. Their mistake is being so resilient, as is clear from the stories in Totten’s book. Perhaps if they were more obviously starving, rather than coping by eating grass and leaves, the world might care more.

All around the Mother of Mercy hospital, run by a remarkable American, Dr Tom Catena, there are fox holes where patients and medics throw themselves when the Sudanese drop their bombs - a regular occurrence. Catena sees as many as 400 wounded people a day, amputating children’s limbs, treating burns from incendiary bombs, and repairing flesh that has been devastated by shrapnel. The Sudanese regime deliberately tries to hit the hospital – the only one in the Nuba Mountains – just as it targets schools and markets, aiming to kill as many Nuba as it can.

The journey to reach the Mother of Mercy hospital is hair-raising enough, traveling through South Sudan, a country now gripped by a vicious civil war, then across the border (illegally) into Sudan, and along appalling roads, avoiding land mines, driving without lights at night, and constantly watching the skies for Sudanese air force bombers. Once at the hospital, the daily discomfort of working in stultifying heat with few resources would be enough of a challenge. Add to that the scorpions in your shoes, the limited diet, the isolation, and, of course, the bombs.

The most powerful chapter is by a Catholic doctor, Corry Chapman, who has visited several times for a month at a time. She is honest about her fear and inability to stay there permanently, unlike some of the staff who, she says, work: “….for years on end with no publicity, no fanfare, no expectation of reward. Missionaries who had spent five years in the Congo, then three years in India, now possible two or more years in Sudan. Women and men in their 60s and 70s, sweating, cleaning up filth, risking death from disease or violence for no pay, the work not a stepping stone to better things but rather the only thing they would ever do, until they become too old to do it or die doing it.”

Totten’s book is life-affirming, but will also leave the reader bewildered that a regime can systematically murder its own civilians in such a media vacuum.

For more information about the Mother of Mercy hospital, and to support their work, visit:

'Sudan’s Nuba Mountains – People Under Siege' edited by Sam Totten
McFarland & Co Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4766-6722-5

See also ICN 9 December 2017 - Film: The Heart of Nuba

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