The Nuba Mountains region in southern Sudan is a land the world has largely forgotten, except for the Catholic Church, which for more than three decades has stood with the people as they endured hunger, bombing and neglect.
“There was nothing in the Nuba Mountains, no salt, no soap, no clothes. Then Bishop Macram started coming, bringing supplies, helping the people survive,” said Father Thomas Tiscornia, a Maryknoll priest from Hoboken, New Jersey, referring to Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid, Sudan, who now is retired.
“Then he started bringing in books and began a primary school in Kauda. He dug wells so people would have clean water. After that came the hospital and the clinics. Bishop Macram brought dignity and life to the Nuba people,” Father Tiscornia told Catholic News Service.
Church workers in the Nuba Mountains, southern Sudan, have endured bombing assaults and hunger in order to serve in the war-torn region.
Since June 2011, conflict between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, who now control the area, has resulted in severe food shortages and aerial bombardment.
“The whole ministry of the church has focused on being present, on saying to the people, ‘You’re important. You’re loved,’ said Fr Tiscornia. “We were there to be with the people and share their fate, even if it meant diving into foxholes when the Antonovs appeared overhead.”
Fr Tutu Kuku, a Nuba himself, is a priest in Heiban, where he survived years of bombing.
“The job of the priest is to stay with the people, to gather them, to pray with them, to encourage them. If we run away, what good are we? We have to die with our people, on the ground. Not to run away. We are not cowards,” he said.
Comboni Sister Angelina Nyakuru has served for a decade as head nurse at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel.
“The children have better hearing, so they hear the planes first. If they hear the bombs falling before I get to the foxhole, they yell at me, ‘Sister, lay down,’ and I hit the ground,” she said.
Sister Nyakuru, a native of Uganda, said the children convinced her to wear her grey habit rather than her white one during periods of bombing, claiming it makes her less of a target. A partial cease-fire since early 2016 has stopped the bombing of Nuba communities.
John Ashworth, a former Mill Hill missionary priest who serves as an adviser to the Catholic bishops in Sudan and South Sudan, said the church is in a unique situation to help the Nuba people.
“The United Nations and most international agencies only go where it’s safe. When it gets dangerous, they declare level four and evacuate. If the government pressures them, they leave. We in the church don’t work under those restraints, and we accept the risk that comes with maintaining our presence in difficult settings,” said Ashworth, who ministered as a priest in the Nuba Mountains in the 1980s.
In 2011, when Bishop Gassis ordered all non-nationals working for the church to evacuate. Sister Nyakuru was one who refused, even though her Comboni provincial superior ordered her out. She called the order’s superior general on a satellite phone.
“I told her that if I had to leave, to not let me return because it would be bad to leave and then, once the situation got better, to come back,” Sister Nyakuru said.
Her appeal worked, and she remained at the hospital with Dr Tom Catena, a US lay missionary who also refused to leave. Several other priests and religious brothers also stayed despite the bishop’s order.
Bishop Gassis said he was moved by the refusal of some to leave.
“I wanted to evacuate them because I was afraid for their lives. But they said to me, ‘Bishop, do not take us out. We are with the people. If they take shelter in the caves, we will accompany them. We share their lives and their fate, so please don’t take us out.’ That was the biggest lesson I learned as a bishop,” he said.
The evacuation of so many foreign specialists, however, left the hospital in particular short of qualified staff. The evacuation flights were kept secret ahead of time to keep Khartoum from attacking the planes, and on the morning of June 16, 2011, several inexperienced Nuba nursing aides came to work at the hospital. They were informed that, in the absence of the foreign staff, they had been promoted to heads of departments. As those wounded by the bombings started arriving in droves, Sister Nyakuru and Catena instructed them in basic nursing skills.
In the years since, many of those aides went on to study nursing at a school in South Sudan run by Solidarity with South Sudan, and they’ve come home to the Nuba to assume responsibility for running much of the hospital. Sister Nyakuru said she is slowly working herself out of a job.
“This is the strategy of Comboni, to save Africa with Africans, to save the Nuba Mountains with Nuba, to empower local people so that they can run the show and you can move on,” she said.
“We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve made progress in fulfilling the dream of Comboni. The church has grown deep roots among the Nuba people, all because we insisted on staying with the people during their difficult moments.”