SOUTHERN SUDAN (BP)–To even be in Sudan is to suffer. Death and misery are on every hand. Worse still, Sudan is regarded by most experts as the most hostile environment for Christians anywhere on earth.
The largest country in Africa — one-third the size of the United States — Sudan stretches from the blistering deserts of the Sahara to the equally hot equatorial brush and rocks of southern Sudan.
As uninviting and adverse as it is to a Western mind-set, it is all the more so to many of its inhabitants due to an unending civil war between the militant Islamic government in power in Khartoum and the predominantly Christian and animist southern Sudanese.
Since Khartoum is hostile to any aid to the southern Sudanese from Christian sources, entry must be made secretly. To reach a mission hospital operated by the Samaritan’s Purse ministry, my wife, Ramona, and I were flown into Sudan by light plane to a remote dirt landing strip.
Scattered at random across the vastness of Sudan are clusters of grass huts, called tukuls, which are home to thousands of Sudanese caught between near-Stone-Age primitivism on the one hand and 20th-century weapons of war on the other. Ramona and I had been warned about the remoteness and the heat, but the cautions had done neither justice. From the moment our feet hit the rust-red soil of the dirt strip, an oppressive wave of 100-degree-plus heat enveloped us.
As a nurse, Ramona had medical skills to offer the beleaguered mission hospital staff. My contribution would be to observe and to write about the mission effort and the civil war. Because of the danger of retaliation by the Khartoum government against this remarkable group of mission volunteers, we were asked to keep our exact location secret.
The mission hospital was established in late 1997 by Samaritan’s Purse. A Christian relief group headed by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, and headquartered in Boone, N.C., Samaritan’s Purse has a reputation for tackling tough jobs in dangerous places regarded by other aid groups, secular or Christian, as too risky. I had seen their work in Somalia in 1993 and later in Bosnia during the worst of the ethnic wars. They take their faith and biblical commands to “go ye therefore into all the world” quite seriously.
We were met at the airstrip by Ken Isaacs, Samaritan’s Purse’s director of operations, Mike Van Ryoen, a volunteer doctor, and Doug Crockett, the mission director. Ken was the paternalistic figure who had nurtured and sustained this outpost of compassion. After a brief greeting, we piled our gear into Land Rovers and drove between minefields to reach the mission.
The adversity the medical staff faced was immediately apparent. There was no electricity, no running water and, therefore, no refrigeration and no lights, except those powered by batteries kept charged by solar power cells. The implications for the staff in simply trying to keep patients alive were daunting, not to mention their own physical comfort. But each was a volunteer, committed to serve a three-month stint or longer. Their spirits and enthusiasm were unfazed by circumstances that would send most Americans scurrying for the nearest airport. “We are,” as Marian Gibbon, a nurse anesthetist, proclaimed to us with a convincing grin, “happy!”
Ramona spent much of her time at the hospital, an old masonry building accommodating 65 patients. We glanced into the operating room and were greeted by smiling eyes peering over the surgical mask of. Bill Greiser, a Colorado Springs, Colo., surgeon who was busy cleaning gaping wounds in the thighs and hips of a Sudanese woman. The five-day journey needed to get her to the hospital explained the strong stench of decaying flesh. Most of her hips and the back of her thighs were now gone, the result of bombs dropped by a Russian Antonov cargo plane-turned-bomber of the National Islamic Front (NIF), the Khartoum government’s official name. We saw patient after patient without limbs, the result of bombing or minefields.
Many war wounds and the lethal diseases common to equatorial Africa made it painfully clear what the mission staff faced. Greiser and fellow physician Maria Rantanen of the Patmos Foundation of World Missions provided care for all patients. Samaritan’s Purse staff treated everyone with a need, even POWs of the Khartoum army.
In 1994 the UN Human Rights Commission released a report on Sudan documenting indiscriminate killings and torture as well as the kidnapping of children for sale as slaves. Largely because of these circumstances, Sudan is rated by international monitors of human rights as one of the five countries with the worst scores on the “human suffering index.”
Khartoum would not tolerate the practice of Christianity or any religion, save Islam, anywhere in Sudan, and the people suffered for it. At the hospital, nurses Helen Liko of Arizona and Etta Cooper of Indiana showed us an eight-month-old baby girl who had been shot, along with her entire family, by NIF forces. The high velocity bullet had torn through the child’s back. Her only hope was surgery to reroute her bowel to a colostomy. When we left Sudan the little girl was still alive, and the staff had sent for colostomy devices from the States.
The child’s experience was a metaphor for Sudan. The victim of religious hatred and intolerance, her life was saved by Christian faith and love. But her continued survival, certainly with any prospect of a meaningful, fulfilling life, is bound up in an end to the former and far more of the latter. Such too is the future of Sudan. Christ is their one hope, but it will only be realized if we Christians make that hope our sacrificial cause.
Scarborough is a member of West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, Tenn., who writes a column on legal issues from a Christian perspective carried in several state Baptist newspapers.