Catholic Workers in Sudan
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Issue Date:  December 24, 2004

Justice needed as much as mercy in Sudan

Catholic Workers seek firsthand view of violence-torn Darfur

Editor’s note: Following is a first-person account of a trip to Sudan and attempts to visit Darfur refugee camps. Next issue Scott Schaeffer-Duffy writes of his encounters with the church in Sudan.

Khartoum, Sudan

Wednesday, Dec. 8: A recent NCR column by Sr. Joan Chittister criticized the United States for ignoring genocide in Darfur. Chittister, like Samantha Power in her book on the history of American apathy toward genocide, presents a challenge to all those who espouse both peace and justice. Reports of widespread attacks on African villagers by Arab militia armed by the El Bashir government in Khartoum are replete with horrific stories of rape and murder. Relief organizations confirm that over 100,000 people had become “internally displaced,” an antiseptic term for the harsher reality of refugees in a country with daily temperatures more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Like Tolstoy, quoted so often by Linda Hunt in the film “The Year of Living Dangerously,” I asked myself, “What then must I do?”

Other Catholic Workers were asking themselves the same question and expressed eagerness to form a team to go to Sudan. And so Brenna Cussen of South Bend, Ind., Christopher Doucot of Hartford, Conn., Grace Ritter of Ithaca, N.Y., and I constituted ourselves as a Catholic Worker Peace Team. We gave ourselves three goals: to gather information, to deliver relief supplies and to promote a nonviolent resolution of the conflict. Hundreds of other Americans who shared our concern entrusted us with more than $20,000 to alleviate suffering. Emboldened by this support, we resolved to go at the earliest date. Unfortunately, the Sudanese government was less eager about our goals than we were. Humanitarian and journalistic visas were being routinely held up. I called the embassy so often that I memorized its number and became well known to its staff. Finally, we managed to get tourist visas on the strength of reservations at a well-known hotel in Khartoum. We flew out of Boston only 24 hours after Chris Doucot flew to Washington to collect our passports.

Since arriving, we have encountered more bureaucratic efforts by the Sudanese government to keep internationals from reaching Darfur. One needs a permit for everything here, including photography and travel outside the capital. We are surrounded by journalists who have waited for weeks for these documents. Tales abound of government informants who are all ears for criticism of the Islamic state. Those who go too far, as did the head of Save the Children, get expelled. A negative report by a Pax Christi delegation earned them a permanent ban from the country.

Even more disconcerting, we met the American head of a Catholic relief agency who disparaged virtually all of our goals. With a hard-bitten cynicism, he refused to sponsor our applications for travel permits, questioned the urgency of need for relief, and described the conflict as essentially insolvable. Thankfully, Fr. Achille M. Tong, the assistant secretary general of the Sudanese Catholic bishops’ conference, had a different feeling. As a result of the enthusiastic help he and his staff have provided, we expect our permits to arrive within a few hours, nearly record time for Sudan.

Even more encouraging for us was a meeting we had yesterday with two Catholic leaders of the Sudanese Council of Churches. This woman and man had been arrested and jailed repeatedly by the government. (For this reason, I will not identify them here.) They espouse a vision of a tolerant Sudan where African peoples receive a just portion of the country’s resources and are not subject to brutalization. They enthusiastically endorsed our mission. “It is important to give food to those who have been uprooted, but we must also ask ‘Why have they been uprooted?’ ” Darfur is full of nongovernmental organizations, they said, but short on advocates for an end to the conflict. Sometimes it seems to them that “[nongovernmental organizations] want to make business out of war.” They recounted how a person from World Vision, who was in Darfur last week, heard gunfire at night, but was told by a relief worker, “Don’t worry. It’s just a generator. Go back to sleep.” In the morning though, a number of refugees were found dead.

We were told that the pattern in Darfur is similar to one that has been going on for decades in the Sudanese South where the government armed Arab militias to supplement army attacks on rebels. Essentially these militias were given a green light to attack African villages, “kill the men, and take cattle, women and children as spoils.” Over 12,000 people ended up in a “slave-like state.” In many cases, children had their knees and Achilles tendons disabled so they could not run away.

“Even today,” they said, “we have these slave-like practices, but you risk your life when you talk about this.” In Darfur, the pattern is being repeated, with rape taking precedence over forced slavery as the lot of African women.

And yet, the overwhelming international response to events in Sudan is humanitarian. While such emergency assistance is necessary, the Sudanese activists said, “It is not enough. … Bishop Paride Taban [of the southern Sudanese diocese of Torit] compared relief in southern Sudan to fattening the cow before being slaughtered.” They concluded, “The people of Darfur have lived too long without dignity. They deserve at long last to reclaim their dignity.”

When we asked how we could best combine the works of mercy with those of justice, they insisted that only pressure on the government will bring change. Our question “Would a protest by Americans at the presidential palace in Khartoum help?” yielded a swift reply, “The people would run away and you would be arrested immediately without a word of the affair reaching the press.” Ironically, they said that a similar protest at the Sudanese embassy in Washington would be front-page news here in Khartoum. Once again, the adage “Think globally, act locally” is reinforced.

Tomorrow we will see for ourselves what is happening in the area around Nyala in Darfur. We will deliver our assistance as directly as possible to those in need, and we will try not to ignore gunfire, not to sanitize atrocities into clinical terms, not to be silent to preserve our visas, and not to be complacent once we return home.

Chris Doucot told us that the Sudanese embassy in Washington is immediately across the street from a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. As Catholics who still look for roses from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, this seems like a pretty strong symbol of where we should go once we get home.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the Sts. Francis & Therese Catholic Worker community in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004

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