|Serving the Persecuted in Sudan|
As the Frontline Fellowship missionary teams prepared for their thirty-fourth mission trip to Sudan, reports came in of a massive build-up of forces and a continuous bombardment by artillery and air attacks – in the very areas they needed to travel to and minister in. There were increasing reports of the use of chemical weapons by the National Islamic Front government of Sudan. Many Arab soldiers captured by the resistance forces had been found to be equipped with gas masks.
An offensive was considered imminent. In fact, the United Nations (UN) declared a “Level 4” (the highest security alert) and evacuated all NGO (non governmental organisation) relief workers out of the areas in Southern Sudan that we work in.
Amidst the understandable fears and concerns of our families and friends, the staff and field workers set aside extended times of prayer and planning to deal with the aggravated crisis engulfing Sudan and its neighbours in East Africa. The overlapping conflicts which had now sucked 12 nations into the wars in the Congo and Sudan were also a factor. With Angolan, Namibian, Zimbabwean, Central African Republic and Sudanese troops all in the Democratic Republic of Congo seeking to bolster the dictatorship of the Marxist Laurent Kabila (who seized power in 1997) and with Rwandese and Ugandan forces assisting the rebels; and with the NIF government of Sudan supporting terrorists groups fighting against neighbouring Eritrea, Egypt and Uganda – the potential for a continent-wide war was considerable. The escalating war between neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia further complicated the situation.
We didn't want to be irresponsible or reckless, yet after sombre reflection and serious prayer each member of Frontline’s Sudan team was convinced that God wanted us to continue with our mission to Sudan. So while others were being evacuated by the UN, we were travelling in the opposite direction – back into the largest country in Africa and the longest war of the century.
Sudan is generally recognised as one of the most remote, inaccessible and dangerous mission fields in the world. It takes our overland team ten days of hard driving (an average of 18 hours a day) to cover the 7 000 km from Cape Town to the border of Sudan. This involves crossing the borders of seven countries – some of which are at war. Some of the roads are in a shocking state of disrepair, with pot-holes covering more road surface than the tar. But even the worst stretches of Africa's roads begin to look good when compared to the often muddy, rocky and overgrown tracks that are called roads in Sudan. Sometimes we had trouble even finding (identifying) the road, let alone staying on it!
Air attacks by the National Islamic Front (NIF) government are another ongoing concern. Often during services or conversations everyone would suddenly go quiet and strain their senses to listen to the distant sound of an aircraft. Only once it was clear that it wasn't coming our way would everyone relax and continue. We treated, or evacuated by air (on our charter aircraft), wounded Nubans for emergency medical treatment.
Of course, there are also many other dangers, especially from parasitic diseases such as bilharzia, river blindness and guinea worm. All water needs to be filtered and boiled before being used for cooking or drinking.
On one occasion, while Steve and Tim were transporting visitors from Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) and Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), our vehicle got caught up in a flash flood. They were crossing a shallow stream when a flood of water suddenly engulfed the vehicle. While the visitors scrambled first onto the roof of the vehicle and then for the safety of dry ground and held an emergency prayer meeting, Steve swam with the cable to secure it around a large tree. The cable, at maximum stretch, held and saved our vehicle from being washed further downstream. But by this stage the vehicle was fully submerged, the engine was dead and the winch could not be operated. Only the top of the snorkel (which allows our engine to breath on deep river crossings) remained visible.
One can only imagine what was going on in the hearts and minds of our missionaries as they stood soaked and dripping on the river bank with all their equipment under water – with their vehicle! They were close enough to the battlefront to hear and see the aerial bombardments – and they were without transport. A sleepless night followed, tormented by mosquitos and a host of other flying, crawling and biting insects.
The next day, when the water had receded, they were able to recover the vehicle and begin the laborious task of cleaning all the mud out of all the kit and equipment. Some items, like the video camera, were ruined. It took three days to strip, dry out and reassemble the vehicle.
Worms and Scorpions
During this episode, Tim began to feel something moving under his eyelid and to experience severe pain in his right eye. As it was night time, Steve strapped his “Camel Trophy” headlamp to his head and peeled back Tim's eyelid. He discovered tiny black headed worms crawling around on Tim's eye!
Now Steve is a qualified mechanic and an ordained pastor. He also trained and served for six years as a parachutist in South Africa's Parabats. However, eye surgery was a completely new field for him. Nevertheless, stranded without transport far from any hospital, he just had to pray, improvise and do his best to save Tim's eye.
Using some tweezers, eye solution and a cotton swab from his First Aid kit, our mechanic-turned-eye-surgeon began the painful, precision bush-mechanics necessary to remove over twenty larvae worms from Tim's eye! He had to be very careful and patient because whenever he tried to remove a stationary worm it would start to suck into the eye and blood was drawn to the surface of Tim's eyeball! Only when a worm was actually crawling could Steve swiftly remove it before it could burrow in. After over two-and-a-half hours of this torturous procedure, Steve pronounced Tim's bloodshot eye clear of worms! By God’s grace Tim's eye completely recovered (and upon examination by an eye specialist months later back in Cape Town was found to be undamaged and healthy).
Steve later found himself treating a young local girl and a missionary nurse who had been stung by scorpions. To counteract the venom he used the electrocution method with a powerful 100 000 volt self -defence electric device!
For myself, I was bitten – on different occasions on this trip – by a hornet who somehow got into my mosquito net, by spiders (repeatedly) which also crawled in under the mosquito net and by a scorpion. I had just finished washing one morning when I reached out for the towel only to be bitten on my right hand by a small light coloured scorpion. Soon my hand was numb and I felt the poison throbbing up my arm. With all of the walking we had to do, in the intense heat, far from any medical help I began to fear for my aching arm. By God’s grace, in answer to prayer, it healed up after three days.
By then sunburn, heat exhaustion and dehydration was afflicting most of our team as we hiked up and down the Nuba Mountains.
Victims of the NIF
We learned of the murder of Simon Noah (34 years old) the co-ordinator of the Inter Africa human rights monitoring group. He had been ambushed by the government forces earlier in the year in the very area of the Nuba Mountains that we were walking through.
Women in War
The shocking fact is that women are suffering the most in the war in Sudan. With most of the men away fighting, the women have to assume the roles of the fathers as well as being the healers, educators, social workers and farmers. The mental and emotional anguish of having to care for the children alone, to avoid death and protect the children from the war, the fear of being raped while fetching firewood and water in the oppressively hot and dangerous Nuba Mountains, is a severe burden.
Life for women in Sudan is hard. The women are responsible not only for the preparation of the food but the provision of food as well. It is mostly the women who clear the lands, plough the soil, scatter the seeds, harvest the crops, pound and hand-grind the corn, collect the firewood and carry the water. Long distances need to be walked in order to fetch the water. Sometimes fights erupt between the women over access to the often limited supply of water at the wells or mud pools in dry river beds. Many mothers die in childbirth. Others are killed in the bombings or by landmines. When the mother is killed, the eldest daughter must take up the responsibilities of the mother.
Often the women are enlisted by the soldiers to carry weapons, ammunition and other military supplies to the battlefront. The women are often even more motivated to support the SPLA resistance than the men. It is the women who are most often killed and enslaved. They have lost children to the man-made famine and to bombings and abductions. We heard of girls mocking and asking some young men in their area to wear dresses because they hadn’t joined the resistance! Some men admitted that it was the pressure from their wives that initially shamed them into joining the armed struggle.
According to the UN, civilian casualties in wars in the 1800’s were 5% of total wartime casualties, whereas by the First World War civilian casualties accounted for 15% and by the end of the Second World War 65%. Now, in the 1990’s civilian fatalities in wartime account for more than 90% of total casualties! So in this century we have gone from where civilians were occasionally being caught in the crossfire to a situation where civilians now seem to be the main targets in war!
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Sudan where the National Islamic Front government had declared Jihad (Holy War) against the Christian Black South and against the Arabic-speaking Nuba in Central Sudan. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, Dr. Gaspar Biro, the religious leaders (“publicly supported by the highest governmental level”) issued a Fatwa (a binding decree) declaring apostate any Muslim who converts to Christianity (or who resists the government as an insurgent) and even non-believers who resist the NIF are also declared apostate “and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them” [E/CN. 4/1996/62, para 97(a)].
To achieve this goal the NIF is pursuing a strategy of “tamsit” (combing) which is actually scorched earth. Everything necessary to sustain life is targeted for destruction. Crops are systematically burned, villages destroyed, livestock looted, wells poisoned.
When we visited the town of Kauda in the Nuba Mountains, we witnessed the result of months of aerial bombardment. Although the small town evidently had no military presence or significance it had been subjected to incredibly intense bombardments. The school, hospital and Bible College were the only possible “targets” in Kauda, yet over a hundred bomb craters pock-marked the village and schrapnel littered the landscape.
In Southern Sudan we learned of several hospitals that had been bombed and of the Marial Bai hospital in Bahr El Ghazal where almost all the hospital staff and patients had been massacred in a PDF (Popular Defence Force) attack. The hospital at Yei had been bombed six times. Evidently hospitals are being regarded as a prime target for the NIF.
For these reasons, Frontline Fellowship delivered a 4 wheel drive ambulance and a 10 tonne container of medical supplies and equipment to a hospital near the battlefront. To ensure that these life-saving supplies reached their destinations inside Southern Sudan became a mammoth epic of perseverance, ingenuity and intrigue.
Corruption and Obstruction
The container saga began as a result of a report by our nurse, Miriam, on the desperate need for medical supplies in Equatoria province. Miriam had conducted initial training courses for medics and nurses inside Sudan. My mother-in-law, Harriett Bathman is also a nurse. She took immediate interest in following up Miriam’s pioneer medical work in Sudan with a container for Sudan. As she had organised numerous such shipments to Eastern Europe the project moved swiftly as many other ministries helped provide vital equipment and supplies. But filling the 20 foot, 10 tonne container proved to be the “easy” part – at least compared to what followed once the container was off-loaded in Africa!
The massive relief aid industry has fuelled the most unbelievably widespread corruption, greed and dishonesty. Whole departments of African governments and layers of officials exist for the sole purpose of enriching themselves at the expense of those for whom the relief aid is designated. Grossly inflated “harbour fees”, “storage fees”, “taxes” and other assorted modern equivalents of highway robbery are liberally charged for every item – even those in transit to serve the suffering in Sudan!
Some observers have calculated that most of the funds designated to help the starving in Sudan go to Kenya – and stay in Kenya! Kenya has got rich taxing and overcharging and stealing from the missionaries, relief workers, NGO’s and UN officials who use Kenya as a base for their operations into war-torn neighbouring countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Kenya has actually made a major industry out of profiting from the sufferings of their neighbours.
Even after the container had overcome all the bureaucratic obstructionism and expenses of Kenya, our problems had only just begun. In Uganda, a relief worker who was meant to be helping us, abused our trust by recommending a company that he owned to transport our container! Months went by without the container being delivered. Promises made were routinely broken. Deadlines passed without delivery. New expenses and forms were regularly invented for us to complete. Then we were informed that the truck carrying our container had been involved in a head-on collision and was lying on the side of the road to Sudan!
Adapt and Improvise
Finally, in exasperation we realised that we were dealing with a dishonest individual with a serious conflict of interests. Derek was sent to extricate the container from the morass of red tape that it seemed to have been enveloped with and to expedite its delivery. Supported by some intense international prayer backing, Derek miraculously found an honest transporter who went well out of his way to assist. The road to where our container had last been seen, in Northern Uganda, was closed. Alternative routes through the mountains needed to be explored.
A state of war exists in Northern Uganda where government of Sudan supported LRA terrorists ambush hundreds of vehicles and murder thousands of civilians – every year. Travel in these areas is strictly with armed escorts in convoy. But as none were available, Derek pushed on – in faith. When the truck broke down, in “ambush alley”, emergency mechanical repairs were made and they then proceeded.
When Derek finally arrived at Koboko he had to thwart a hijacking attempt by criminals who had already loaded our container onto their truck and demanded “payment” before they would return our property! The atmosphere was oppressively heavy with the threat of violence if their demands were not met.
Feeling very vulnerable and alone, Derek withdrew and prayed for reinforcements. Unknown to him, at that very moment Steve and Tim were driving into Uganda to pick up supplies for a leadership training course we were about to begin in Equatoria. By God’s grace they bumped into one another in the nearby town of Arua! Together they returned to Koboko and confronted the hijackers. It was a tense and potentially explosive situation, but by God’s grace the criminals backed down and the situation was defused.
Now our missionaries faced the dilemma of how to off -load and re-load a 10 tonne container – by hand! There were no cranes in northern Uganda.
At this point, Steve demonstrated the ingenuity and improvisation that he is famous for. The “McGyver” missionary method of moving the massive metal monster involved parking the two trucks tail to tail. Then using his winch and cable – with pulleys – Steve slowly pulled the 10 tonne container off the hijacker's truck and onto our truck.
Then corrupt customs officials and threatening police needed to be dealt with. Finally, by God’s grace, the team managed to drive the container over the border. Once in Sudan the treacherously muddy roads, blown up bridges and flooded rivers made progress very difficult. On occasions the truck sunk up to its axle in mud so that the wheels were not even visible.
When the container ultimately arrived at the hospital, Steve again used the winch, cables and a chain to off-load the container from the truck. At one point in the process the huge metal chain snapped under the intense strain and flew at chest height right past Tim – missing him only by a few centimetres!
Finally, amidst much rejoicing, the stretchers, bandages, gauze, antiseptic creams, antibiotics, crutches and tonnes of other medical equipment and supplies were off-loaded. Within days, nurses throughout the district, even medics at the battlefront, were being re-supplied with medicines and equipment from the container. For each of you who had a part in equipping, financing or praying for this container – we are most grateful. If only you could have seen the joy of the nurses and patients and how many lives have already been helped, healed or even saved as a result! May God abundantly bless and reward you for your faithfulness, and may the Lord continue to use these medicines and equipment to heal many bodies and save many lives.
Body, Mind and Spirit
As these medical supplies were being delivered to, and used in, an area of Sudan where Frontline Fellowship has been intensively involved for three years, the overall spiritual impact was optimum. Unlike the standard UN/NGO relief strategy of air drops (rolling pallets of aid out of the back of C-130 transport aircraft), we personally ensure that any medical, agricultural or other relief aid is effectively used as part of an integrated ministry to body, mind and spirit.
Miriam had conducted Medical Training Courses for the nurses and medics. Steve and Tim had thoroughly evangelised the communities through film evangelism, Gospel Recordings audio visual Bible teaching tapes, preaching and literature distribution. Robert and I continued to conduct intensive leadership training courses for every section of society. We had conducted Discipleship Training Courses, Muslim Evangelism Workshops, Reformation and Revival Seminars and Biblical Worldview Courses for pastors and chaplains; God and Government Seminars for civil leaders and a Biblical Worldview Course for teachers.
The Bible distribution is always carried out by the pastors, chaplains and teachers who we had trained and the medical supplies were used by the trained medics and nurses. There is no doubt that the personal comprehensive ministry approach is more demanding and difficult, especially for our overland team, who spend months on the ground, but it is definitely the most effective.
During this three month mission, Frontline Fellowship delivered and distributed 19 metric tonnes of Bibles, medical supplies and relief aid to suffering Christians in Southern Sudan. This included 15 000 Bibles and Christian books. In addition we presented over 280 sermons or lectures inside Sudan.
Steve and Tim showed the two hour Jesus film (in Arabic) to over 12 000 soldiers and civilians near or on the battlefront in Equatoria and the Nuba Mountains. These film showings in the evening were major social events when everyone in the district would turn out for what – for many – was the first film they had ever seen. There was a great response. Even in predominantly Muslim villages many made public commitments to Christ.
Tindelo Still Stands
The logistical challenges of getting to the various battlefronts were daunting. The tracks over which we had to drive more often resembled swamplands and muddy rivers than roads.
Just before travelling to Sudan, we heard on the international news that the NIF government forces had overrun Tindelo and annihilated the SPLA garrison there. We were quite sad to hear this news because Robert, Virgil, Tim, and Steve had ministered in this base, even showing the Jesus film to the garrison. We knew many friends and brothers in Christ in Tindelo.
But Chaplain John assured us that the SPLA base at Tindelo still stood. When we finally managed to reach the frontline at Tindelo we saw shot-out T-54 tanks, decomposing corpses and skeletons of the Arab attackers and other debris of war that evidenced the ferocious battle that had raged in Tindelo during the previous attacks. We also learned of a GOS Mig-23 fighter bomber that had been shot down nearby. The Mig had been straffing SPLA positions in support of a ground attack.
There was no doubt that the international news reports had been reflecting the false propaganda of the government of Sudan. The SPLA were firmly in control of Tindelo. We delivered Bibles to Chaplain John Billin and conducted a church service that was enthusiastically attended by the commander and the entire garrison (only excluding the pickets on guard duty).
As the sun had already set, we prepared to return to the hospital in the dark. The commander warned us of the danger of ambushes and insisted on a truck of SPLA troops escorting us. Unfortunately, the truck had no lights so they requested we lead the way. Then their driver added that we had better not stop because the truck didn't have brakes! It was a tense trip. I don't know what we feared more – the possibility of a landmine explosion and an ambush, or our escort's truck crashing into the back of us!
We were assured that there were no SPLA patrols on the road and any armed individuals on the road challenging our vehicle would be the Arabs. So when assault rifles were levelled at our windscreen by screaming soldiers in the middle of the dark road it led to a tense exchange. It turned out that they were SPLA soldiers and we proceeded. By this time we had lost our escort, which was perhaps just as well otherwise our vehicle would have probably been flattened by the unstoppable juggernaut.
It ultimately took us over 12 hours to drive the less than 75 km to the hospital! Under normal circumstances we would not have taken the enormous risks involved in night travel near to the battlefront, but I had two preaching appointments the next morning and in 18 years of ministry I've never missed a ministry commitment. To enable me to make the scheduled hospital service and church service required extreme determination and innovation by Steve. As our vehicle repeatedly got stuck or broke down on the unbelievably bad, nuts-and-bolts jarring, nerve-racking, bone-rattling roads, Steve improvised and utilised “spare parts” from broken down, blown up and abandoned vehicles along the “road” to repair our vehicle – especially after the chassis was severely damaged.
Finally an engine fire and the loss of the clutch completed the challenging “camel trophy” drive through the night. It was 6.30 a.m. the next morning when we arrived – just in time for a wash, shave and change of clothes before taking the 7.30 a.m. hospital service and then the 10.30 a.m. church service.
Chaplains to the Forces
Robert and I gave most of our time in Sudan to leadership training. Pastors and chaplains from all over came to participate in a two week Biblical Worldview Course. For some chaplains this was the sixth Frontline course that they had participated in. At a special ceremony attended by the civil, military and church leaders, those chaplains who had completed their basic Bible training with Frontline were awarded their “New Sudan Army Chaplains” badge. It was gratifying to see the rapid growth in Bible knowledge of many of these chaplains – as evidenced in the discussions and in their written examination at the end of the course.
Chaplain John Balaga reported on some of the encouraging developments in his sector: They had established three primary schools for the children of military families and refugees near the battlefront. In a recent “Week of Witness” 307 soldiers had been counselled to salvation in Christ. They had also baptised 381 soldiers in recent months.
When Frontline first began to work in Sudan there were no chaplains at all. Now there are four ordained Chaplains and 90 Chaplain's Assistants. Providing these men with sufficient Bibles, books and Gospel Recordings Messenger audio visual kits, in all the necessary languages, is a great challenge, but a most urgent and important priority. The chaplains to the SPLA have proved to be some of the most energetic and dedicated evangelists in Sudan.
Whenever faced with difficult circumstances, Chaplain Peter would proclaim without hesitation: “God is greater!” And with that fervent faith in our all powerful sovereign God, the chaplaincy continue to serve God in the frontline.
Robert also conducted another God and Government Seminar for the civil leaders – to follow up on earlier ones that I had held. After Robert had taught on the practical implications of the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life, especially in areas of civil government, one civil administrator announced that “all Sudanese civil leaders need to hear this message!”
In the Nuba Mountains I conducted a Muslim Evangelism Workshop for about 60 pastors and Bible students. Most of these men walked over 100 km (across enemy occupied territory) risking death or injury from landmines or ambushes or capture by the Arab forces – just to attend this course! Afterwards they walked many hours to escort us to the airstrip for our extraction flight. Then, laden with the Bibles, books, clothes, blankets, seed, salt, tools and other aid that we had delivered, they began the long and dangerous walk back across the mountains to their homes and congregations. Their joy was infectious and their dedication to serving the Lord and their people was inspiring.
As always, ministry in the Nuba Mountains was difficult, dangerous and demanding. The terrain is severe, the heat oppressive, the distances one needs to walk are considerable and there is the very real danger of landmines, ambushes and air attacks at any time. As we were slogging and sweating up innumerable steep slopes and mountainsides, I was regularly asked by our escorts for my backpack and other kit slung and strapped around me. They wanted to be good hosts and seemed deeply concerned that a foreign guest should carry his own luggage. I was equally determined to carry my own weight and always declined – politely.
On quite a few occasions I was actually tempted to give in and share some of my load, but I held out and persevered. The Nuban men seemed quite distressed by my stubbornness, but I felt that it was imperative that I back up my teaching on the Christian work ethic and the need for men to be chivalrous – bearing the heavier burdens. In the Nuban culture the women carry the heavy loads. Typically the men will only carry a rifle or a hiking stick while the women carry all the boxes of Bibles, bottles of water, sacks of food and equipment. I knew that if I let a man take my haversack he would only give the load to some poor overworked woman to carry! It became a battle of wills, but towards the end of our visit I was gratified to see several Nuban men helping the women by carrying some of the loads.
Reaching the Unreached
While presenting a lecture on Muslim evangelism to the pastors and Bible students, I mentioned the need to reach the Krongo people with the Gospel. To my surprise, several of the students identified themselves as from the Krongo tribe! This was remarkable because according to the Global Guide to Unreached Peoples of 1997, the Krongo are listed as one of the least reached people. In fact, when I was a delegate to the Global Consultation on World Evangelisation (GCOWE) in Pretoria, in 1997, I had been assigned to take responsibility for reaching the Krongo people.
In their siege economy everything is recycled. Schrapnel from bombings are converted into agricultural tools. Deactivated mines are converted into guitars or other musical instruments.
Despite the starvation and intense suffering caused by the GOS scorched earth policy, the UN and the Red Cross have failed to visit or assist the Nuba. Despite regular cease fires called for various reasons in the South of Sudan – at no time have any cease fires been observed in the Nuba Mountains. Government terror bombings of civilian centres in the Nuba continue regardless.
This makes it even more imperative for Frontline Fellowship to continue to serve the persecuted in Sudan. Please pray for the Frontline team in Sudan at this time.
“Remember the prisoners as if chained with them – those who are mistreated since you yourselves are in the Body also.” Hebrews 13:3
Dr. Peter Hammond