Donne Nuba

An indomitable group
Il genocidio dei nuba

Questo articolo e' stato pubblicato in Italia sul settimanale INTERNAZIONALE del 16 febbraio 1996.
L'articolo originale, che noi vi proponiamo e' invece apparso sul "Daily Nation di Nairobi - Kenya, del 31 gennaio 1996.
Il titolo originale e' An indomitable group.
Padre Kizito Sesana - diretto corrispondente di Peacelink for Africa - e' stato direttore di Nigrizia dal 1970 al 1977, ha fondato nel 1988 New People, la rivista dei comboniani nell'Africa anglofona, da cui e' stato costretto a dimettersi alla fine del 1994, per le sue critiche al sinodo africano.
Attualmente Kizito anima una comunita' di recupero dei bambini di strada a Nairobi: Koinonia e si occupa di progetti di emergenza nelle montagne Nuba, in Sudan.

"I am a Nuba, this is the place of my birth, and nobody will ever again come and give me orders in my land" says Martha Ousman indicating with a sweeping gesture the valley below. With a machine-gun across her shoulder Martha and a handful of other freedom fighters have the duty of protecting a mountain pass from incursions by the Sudan government army.

From Kenya you need to fly for more than three hours to reach the Nuba Mountains, in the geographical heart of Sudan. The runway is hidden among the fields, where the sorghum has just been harvested. From there on the only means of transport are your legs. Luckily enough the area offers one of the best and more diversified landscapes visible in Africa: fields with sorghum and sim-sim, high and slender palm trees, rocky hills with stone houses similar to fortified citadels, steep mountain paths with breathtaking views on the plain below, wide seasonal rivers, vegetable gardens carved out of the side on the hills, majestic baobab trees.

The Nuba Mountains are known for their beauty and for the culture of the people living in this vast area of about 50,000 square kilometers. World famous photographers have published books that celebrate the most striking visual aspects of the Nuba cultures: body painting, wrestling, dancing, architecture.

Evangelization here started only recently. Due to the difficulties created by the central Government in Khartoum and to the scarcity of personnel, the area was served only by a meagre group of missionaries in the last twenty years. In the area I visited during this trip in December 1995, under the control of the SPLA (Sudan People Liberation Army), people had not seen a priest for the last fifteen years, apart from another brief visit from me last August. They never had a Christmas Midnight Mass. Yet, in spite of being left on their own, Catholics have increased: fifteen years ago there were on the Nuba Mountains a handful of them, now they are many thousands. The three married deacons and the catechists have worked wonders. People, Christians and non-Christians alike, received me with extraordinary warmth. Everybody saw in the solemn celebration of Christmas an anticipation of the for longed peace, a sign that normal life is still possible. Amid much dancing and rejoicing the Nuba brought to me their babies to be baptized, offered me the first and best fruits of their harvest, decorated me with bead necklaces, straw hats, bamboo walking sticks. A few hours before I left a boy - 17 years, a shy smile and the physique of a true wrestler - took me aside and tying to my wrist a string of beads, told me:

"Abuna (father), promise me that you will come back before this string will break. Your presence makes us feel that we are truly members of the church".

The civil war against the cultural, religious and economic oppression of the Khartoum government started on the Nuba Mountains only in 1987, several years later than in other parts of Sudan. Since then the entire area has been cut off from the rest of the world. When the United Nations negotiated with Khartoum government the humanitarian intervention known as Operation Lifeline Sudan, this area was left out. No relief of any kind reaches the population living under the control of the SPLA, about 250,000 people in constant growth. The government does not allow even humanitarian or human rights observers to visit the area.

The publication in July last year of a book by African Rights entitled "Facing Genocide: the Nuba of Sudan", brought to the attention of the world, with a substantial and indisputable documentation, that the Khartoum government is bent on the complete annihilation of the Nuba cultures and peoples. Yet the Nuba are determined to resist. In the face of forced Arabization (even genetically, through systematic rape and forced marriages) and Islamization, the Nuba are not only determined to keep their cultural and religious identity, but they are uniting in a political resistance front. In 1992 a remarkable conference was convened in the centre of the non-government controlled area, and two hundred delegates from all parts of the Nuba Mountains openly debated whether the SPLA should be given a popular mandate to continue the war. It was a genuine debate, with prominent civilians and SPLA commanders arguing on both sides.

The final decision was to continue the war. This decision was shared by the Muslim Nuba who do not recognize themselves and their faith in the fanatic Islam that Khartoum wants to impose. Since then resistance against the central government has become more and more a fact of the whole population. Villagers have pressed SPLA leadership to institute a full range of civil institutions and social services. During my trips through the Mountains I have seen primary school with four hundred children hidden in the bush, without any exercise books or pencils, but all the same functioning. I came across courts of law operating under a tamarind tree, dispensaries where traditional remedies are used along with drugs smuggled from the government controlled areas, regular market days when people meet to barter their products, from the dress produced by hand starting from the cotton in the fields to agricultural tools made from bomb fragments. In the whole area of the Nuba resistance there is not a typewriter, nor a motor vehicle. Electricity, batteries, radios, sugar, coffee or tea are unimaginable luxuries. But the Nuba are not ready to give up.

Religion has become part of this culture of resistance. Not a particular religion, but all religions. Christians of all Churches and tolerant Muslims (the SPLA Governor, Yusuf Kuwa, is himself a Muslim) find in God the defender of their rights. Believers can easily come together since tolerance is part of the Nuba tradition. It is not unusual to find in the same family Christians and Muslims. I was moved when, as I was about to celebrate Mass in a village, the local Imam came to greet me and asked permission to attend the prayers, because, he said "I know the Our Father and I would like to pray it together with my Catholic friends". At the end I asked him to say few words, and he talked about our common childhood of God.

One moonless night I walked for three hours in almost complete darkness. We had to pass close to a government garrison and did not want them to see us. It was a stretch of thick savanna. The grass was burnt and the only thing visible was the path of whitish soil. The earth was black, the sky, when visible through the tree branches, was dark, glowing only with the light of the stars.

My guide, a few steps ahead, was always on the brink of disappearing into darkness. It was like walking on a white ribbon floating in darkness, suspended in time and space. After passing the danger zone and not too far from our destination a Nuba catechist started praying the Rosary. The small caravan, a dozen people between the armed escort and the youth people who had volunteered to accompany me throughout the trip, answered the strings of the Hail Mary. The two Muslim freedom fighters joined in.

Some days later, at Kerker, the local community received me in a simple chapel with dry stone walls and a thatched roof. The welcome from the hundreds of people packing it was warm and heartfelt as usual. Outside there was a large yard, hot under the merciless sun of the mid afternoon. There was also a huge tree and I took refuge under it, while the young members of the community, plus some spirited elderly women dressed with the traditional grass skirts, perform lively dances. At that stage many non-Catholics had joined the gathering, which was growing by the minute.

One hour before sunset it was time for the young men to show their wrestling prowess. The smiling faces of a few moments ago became fierce looking. They wore only shorts, their bodies covered with white ashes and yellowish dust. As they took their positions around the field the local catechist stood up and said: "Friends, let not forget that this is holy ground, we better move to the field down there". I was upset: first because I had already prepared myself with my camera in what looked to me the most advantageous position for picture-taking; second because I thought that the catechist was somehow declaring wrestling, the traditional sport of the Nuba, unfit to be performed in the church yard, creating an unnecessary opposition between tradition and Christianity. I was tempted to intervene but I restrained myself and grudgingly followed the wrestlers to the new location.

It was one of the most engaging wrestling matches I ever saw. Always in control of themselves, even when the physical effort and the strain of the competition would have justified minor breaches to the rules, the wrestlers behaved as true sportsmen. Losers and winners shook hands and laughed together. The public cheered and danced when their favorite wrestlers won. Women run into the arena to remove the bead necklaces from their men, not to break them. At the end there was general rejoicing, winners and losers and spectators sharing a dance.

Later, during the meal with the community elders, around a huge plate with kisra (unleavened bred made with sorghum), pumpkin sauce, onions with peanut butter and goat meat, while everybody was busy dipping the kisra into the sauce, I asked the catechist: "Why did you forbid the wrestler to perform in the church's yard?"

I am afraid there was a note of disapproval in my voice. The catechist said: "Last year during the dry season a commando of government soldiers arrived here by surprise. Usually the purpose of these attacks is to sow fear, to destroy the gathered harvest so that hunger will force us to go to the town controlled by the government, and also to punish the Christians. The government commando found Gabriel, the catechist my predecessor, here in the church while he was teaching the catechumens. Most people managed to run away but Gabriel, in his efforts to cover the catechumens' escape, was caught. He was asked "Are you a Christian?", "Yes", he answered firmly, knowing what the consequence could be.
Then they tried to tie his hands and feet. What usually happens is that the soldiers put the Christians in the church building, after having tied their hands and feet, and set fire to the roof, so that all of them are burned alive in the church. Gabriel, who was a powerfully built man and an expert wrestler himself, resisted having his hands tied. One of the soldiers, afraid that Gabriel might escape from their grip, took out his knife and slashed his throat. Then the soldiers ran away leaving Gabriel's body on the ground, just outside the church door. All this was witnessed by two catechumens hidden in the bush down there. That's why we Catholics consider the church area a holy ground. Gabriel here spilled his blood for Jesus."

I was left speechless. It looked like a story out of the Acts of the Martyrs, and it was recounted with a matter-of-fact voice, an everyday occurrence. My objections to his action had evaporated, and my respect for him grew. These are people for whom adherence to Christ is often a commitment up to death. Their wrestling is not only a sport; it is a sign that they are spiritually ready to wrestle in defence of their human dignity and of their belief.

We continued our meal. A young man who had bravely wrestled and whose marriage was to be celebrated soon, asked timidly a question: "Abuna, why isn't the Pope coming to visit us?" Butros looked at me with an open and expectant smile. He hoped I would answer: "That's a good idea, I wonder why nobody ever taught about it! Let's organize it for next month.".

It would have been better if the question had been asked as a challenge. I could think of a million reasons why the Pope should not come here. But the candid and disarming honesty of Butros made it a difficult question. How to explain to these Christians, who were silently waiting for my answer, all the subtleties of Vatican politics and the intricate entanglement of the Catholic Church in world diplomacy? I could not say that the Pope cannot come because he is afraid, it would not certainly be the case with Pope John Paul II. On the other side I could not say it is impossible, because I am here, and there is also a photographer in the area as they well know; it would be difficult for these people accustomed to the essentials to understand why this is possible for us and not for the Pope. Then I find a reason which is true and can be understood by Butros. "The Pope is over 75 years of age, and he cannot take the physical hardship of such travel. Yet, the fact that I am here proves that he, and the entire Church, cares about you."

I imagine that some Christians, living comfortable lives and seated in their armchairs, would ask a question opposite to the one of Butros: "Why at all visit the Nuba, why should a priest walk in the heart of Sudan protected by an armed party? Isn't this a contradiction with the Gospel of peace and non- violence?"

I think only that my duty as a missionary is of being close to these people, without passing judgment. How can I demand from them to be able to react to the Khartoum oppression and to affirm their human dignity in a non-violent way, without having experienced or at least seen the suffering and the exploitation that is their everyday lot? Before preaching and judging it is important to share life.

Father Kizito Sesana


PeaceLink 1997