As Sudan’s government steps up the violence, a missionary doctor stays put

Dr Tom Catena examines a patient during rounds at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan (CNS)

'Even if we get shelled,' Dr Tom Catena says, 'I’m in it with these guys'

Dr Tom Catena has brought the beautiful but war-wounded culture of the Nuba Mountains to the attention of the world. A lay Catholic missionary from the United States, he stayed at his post in the Mother of Mercy Hospital when all the other expats left as fighting moved closer.

In May 2014 the government of Sudan brought its campaign of extermination to the very doors of the hospital. “I heard yelling and screaming,” the doctor recalls, “and I said: ‘Everybody down!’” The first bomb blew out all the windows of his house.

So what made the doctor stay in harm’s way? “I knew that if I left, people would die,” he says. “So I thought: ‘Let me stick it out. Even if we get shelled, I’m in it with these guys. I’m all in.’”

The British peer Baroness Cox visited Dr Catena in his hospital during the war and says she was profoundly humbled and inspired by his courage, faith and professional care for patients suffering from war injuries as well as inherent local health problems.

In January this year, they met again, this time in London, prior to Baroness Cox making a new foray into the Nuba Mountains. A few weeks later she and her team slipped across the border under the protection of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North (SPLA/N).

Here there is harmony between Christian and Muslim and, despite divergences over strategy, peace between the branches of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/North (SPLM/N). Yet the people continue to suffer and die, as the government of Sudan’s scorched-earth policy, long lamented by Dr Catena, continues unabated.

At a remote location in the mountains Baroness Cox met General Jagot Mukwar, deputy chairman of SPLM/N. “People cannot farm near the positions of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF),” he reported. “The SAF will shoot them. A couple of weeks ago they burned the people’s crops.”

Sudanese President Omar Bashir has publicly stated his aim of creating a “united Arabic Islamic nation”. It is a policy which implies ethnic and religious cleansing – not just of Christians but also of the many Muslims who do not endorse his Islamist agenda. And he has chosen hunger as the most effective weapon.

In 2017 the government of Sudan paused its operation of annihilating infrastructure from the air. However, bombers still haunt the skies, terrorising the people. “Just before you arrived there were Antonovs flying over,” reported the General.

In Juba, Baroness Cox met senior leaders from the SPLM/N. “We are advocating for a diverse state,” said the politician Malik Agar, “one which will keep everyone together.”

Abdul-Aziz Adam Alhilu echoed the same vision. “We are unionists,” he explained. “We are fighting for a secular, democratic Sudan. But Bashir always chooses sharia, and insists on imposing an Arab identity. He says he wants to see the country free of ‘black plastic bags’ or ‘dung’.”

With her risky venture over the border, Baroness Cox, like Dr Tom Catena, is “all in”. “It is unacceptable,” she commented, “that the British Government is supporting a regime which is using such genocidal language.”

Eldred Willey is Chief Operating Officer of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust