NEW YORK—A lethal Feb. 8 air-bombing attack on a group of Catholic grade-schoolers in Kauda, Sudan, has strengthened the commitment of a small group of Catholic filmmakers to help reveal the plight of the persecuted Nuba and Dinka peoples of central Sudan to the international community. Many Nubans and Dinkas are Catholic.
The producers of The Hidden Gift: War & Faith in Sudan first heard about the attack on Feb. 10, the day of the film's West Coast premiere at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
It made the event “very difficult,” said Ron Austin, executive producer of the film.
Austin was interviewed by the Register at the documentary's Feb. 13 East Coast premiere, held at New York's Fordham University Law School.
Some of the children, who were killed by forces loyal to the fundamentalist Islamic regime headquartered in the capital of Khartoum, appeared in The Hidden Gift, said David Tlapek, the documentary's director, producer and co-cameraman. The school the students attended was founded by Bishop Macram Max Gassis, the bishop of the central Sudan Diocese of El Obeid.
Bishop Gassis, a Sudanese national living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya, is the central figure of The Hidden Gift. The 84-minute documentary was edited from 37 hours of footage shot during two apostolic and relief visits he made under extremely difficult conditions to his embattled and isolated flock in the Nuba Mountains and the neighboring Dinka flat-lands. The first visit took place over Christmas 1998, the second over Easter 1999.
The Feb. 8 bombing attack killed 14 children and wounded 17, some critically. One teacher also died, and 10 students are still missing. The students, who were part of the only “well-established school” in the Nuba Mountains, according to Bishop Gassis, had been studying English under a tree when the shrapnel-laden bombs fell.
The Khartoum regime, which assumed power over northern Sudan in a 1989 coup d'état, defended the attack as a legitimate target of war. The regime has been ruthlessly seeking to stamp out non-Islamic religions in central and southern Sudan in the years since it gained control of the north.
A spokesman at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi also justified the attack, saying that it had been delivered to a Sudan People's Liberation military camp. The SLAP is leading a rebellion for autonomy in the largely Christian and animist southern Sudan.
Bishop Gassis, who spoke at the New York premiere of, decried the embassy spokesman's statement, asking, “How could a person get up to say that it's not an injustice to kill children?”
About 2 million people have been killed in Sudan since the civil war between northern and southern Sudan broke out in 1983 — more than those killed in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya combined, said Bishop Gassis. About 5 million Sudanese have been displaced since the war started.
Thousands of non-Muslim Sudanese have been sold into slavery, according to William Saunders, the executive director of Sudan Relief & Rescue Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit formed at the request of Bishop Gassis.
Many of the enslaved are Catholic Nubans and Dinkas; some were children and adolescents when they were snatched by the Muslim Arab slavers who have the support of the Khartoum regime. According to figures quoted by Gabriel Meyer, the writer and narrator of “The Hidden Gift” and a former National Catholic Register associate editor, the going rate for adolescents and young adults is $100; children over age 5 are sold for $50.
Several of the enslaved who escaped and returned to their peoples appear in the documentary. They tell Bishop Gassis how they were captured, the brutal treatment they endured, the attempts made to brainwash them into accepting fundamentalist Islam, and their sadness at being forcibly taken from their families.
The bishop heard some particularly poignant stories when he visited one group of hard-hit Dinka refugees. This was the first visit in 30 years that they had received from a bishop or a priest. Yet, in that time, they had remained deeply Catholic.
The refugees were highly excited by Bishop Gassis' visit. Despite their extreme poverty, they held a feast in his honor. They participated with great solemnity in an outdoor Mass that included scores of people making their first holy Communion or receiving confirmation.
The bishop was received with joy and respect everywhere he went during the two apostolic missions chronicled in The Hidden Gift. Great gatherings were held to recognize his visit; these included traditional songs, dances and oratory. Thousands attended his outdoor Masses, listening closely to his homilies of hope.
David Tlapek said he was “very impressed by the reverence and depth in the way they went about their religious ceremonies. It's as if they're so dear, rare and precious that they're embraced with enthusiasm.”
On one memorable occasion, Bishop Gassis was interrupted in the middle of his homily by news that planes were coming to bomb the gathering. The Nubans received the information with quiet, dignity and a lack of surprise. They waited until the threat had passed, and Mass was resumed. The bishop baptized 90 and confirmed 25.
Bishop Gassis is determined to remind the world of his forgotten countrymen. He has testified before Congress, the United Nations, and human-rights groups. He even asked Gabriel Meyer, who had interviewed him for a November 1997 Register article, to accompany him to Sudan. Their December 1998 trip served as the basis for The Hidden Gift.
When Meyer and cameraman Peter Salapatas returned from Africa, the two men, along with Ron Austin and David Tlapek, realized they had the makings of a compelling documentary. But they felt they needed more.
So Meyer and Tlapek joined Bishop Gassis on his Easter 1999 trip. Their new footage allowed them to make a more compelling case for the Nubans and Dinkas.
After careful editing and the financial and emotional support of many who were determined to bring The Hidden Gift to the public, the documentary was finished at the end of 1999. The filmmakers hope to show it to Congress; they're already planning a Washington premiere at Georgetown University. In June, they will probably take it to Europe.
Ron Austin believes that the Holy Spirit has been integral to “The Hidden Gift.” Before he heard about the December 1998 trip, the scriptwriter knew “nothing” about the Sudanese. He feels that the Holy Spirit grabbed Meyer and him by “the scruff of our necks” so they could help the Nubans and Dinkas.
“As Catholics,” he said, “we're called to recognize everybody, including the needy. Who are the most needy? The Sudanese.”
Loretta G. Seyer is the editor of Catholic Faith & Family.