Where Eagles Fly on Christmas Day

A Personal Account

Register senior writer Gabriel Meyer traveled to the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan last month with exiled Sudanese Catholic bishop Macram Max Gassis of ElObeid diocese, in whose territory the mountains fall. The area in southern Kordofan province boasts a large African Catholic population, as well as large numbers of Muslims and Africans of traditional belief; it has been a particular target of Sudanese government reprisals since the mid-1980s, when the Nuba people joined the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA/SPLM) in their armed struggle against Khartoum's policy of forced Arabization and Islamization.

Isolated, subject to government-manufactured famine, and herded into government-operated “peace” villages, the ancient Nuba people face nothing less than the threat of extermination. Up to now, only the Church has been able to break through the government blockade of the Nuba to provide a measure of hope in their struggle. Along with Bishop Gassis, members of his pastoral staff, and a number of American human rights activists, Mr. Meyer spent the Christmas holidays in a Nuba village under the control of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). To protect the lives and safety of its people, the name of this village has been withheld.

The Nuba Mountains, Sudan—I woke early on Christmas morning, at first light, to the sound of distant drumming.

For days now, the small hamlets of haystack-shaped huts that cluster on these hilltops had been abandoned, in favor of the clearings in the bush where the Nuba prepare their festivals.

An ancient agrarian civilization that has lived in these beehive-shaped foothills since Neolithic times, the tall, muscular Nuba, with their legendary 99 mountains and 99 tribes, remain a people with a gift for celebration. Their love of music, dancing, mime, and the wrestling that is their traditional sport has survived more than a decade of war, famine, enslavement, and persecution—and, according to some estimates, the deaths and disappearances of nearly a million Nuba since the mid-1980s.

Precise numbers are hard to come by. In Nairobi, Kenya, Neroun Phillip is himself a Nuba and executive director of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Society (NRRDS), which represents the wartime civil administration back in the Nuba Mountains. Phillip told the Register that, out of a prewar population of nearly three million, not more than 500,000 Nuba still cling to a precarious life in these hills. The rest have either perished or been internally displaced by the grueling civil war between the north and the south—this a cruel irony for a people that the Austrian anthropologist F.S. Nadel, who traveled through Nuba territory in the 1930s, once hailed as “the most peace-loving people in Africa.”

Christmas in the Nuba Mountains: for a Westerner, a scene of gentle dislocations—no “bleak midwinter,” here so close to the Equator, but the dry season, with temperatures in the upper 80s, the semi-arid grassland made even more tropical to the eye by the fiery bursts of the wild pink roses that dot the scene.

“They're beautiful, but be sure not to pick them,” our guide said, during the long initial trek to our wilderness compound. “The sap's loaded with strychnine.”

Contradictions mark the plight of the Nuba, too, on this Christmas morning. The 1998 harvests were poor, leaving more and more Nuba vulnerable to famine and to the lure of the “peace” camps set up in the area of the Nuba Mountains controlled by the National Islamic Front (NIF)-led government in Khartoum. For years now the regime has refused to allow the United Nations and other relief organizations, particularly the U.S.-led Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) to deliver food in so-called “rebel-held” areas of southern Kordofan, but has operated its own “relief” centers there, where food is used as a weapon of war. According to many reliable accounts, including the latest report of Gaspar Biro, the special rapporteur of the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights, in these government-controlled “peace” villages, Khartoum's agents offer assistance only to those willing to convert to Islam.

“The people have no choice,” said Phillip. “They're already past the point of desperation by the time they reach these camps. Perhaps they've already watched a child or two starve to death. They'll do anything to save their children.”

Biro's 1997 report also charges that Nuba women are frequently raped in these camps and used as soldiers’ concubines, that children are sold into slavery, and that the able-bodied are forcibly conscripted into Khartoum's militias to fight against their own people—charges confirmed at every point, even by Nuba Muslims, in the areas we visited.

But if the perils the Nuba face are growing, so, too, is Western interest in the Nubas’ plight, particularly among international human rights and religious persecution activists. The one man uniquely responsible for that development is a 60-year-old Catholic bishop who, after his recovery from cancer eight years ago, dedicated himself full time to the “forgotten” people of his diocese, and time and time again, has managed to defy Khartoum's blockade to bring a measure of hope to the Nuba.

Despite a December upsurge in fighting in the area between government and SPLA troops, this Christmas was no exception.

For Nuba Catholics, Muslims, and followers of traditional African religions alike, “the bishop had come”—Bishop Macram Max Gassis, ordinary of the ElObeid diocese in central Sudan, now living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya. For the past decade, the indefatigable churchman has spoken out against the NIF regime's human rights abuses—which, not surprisingly, has made him persona non grata in the north, where his diocese is located. Even more, he has braved Sudan's chaotic civil war to charter flights, several times a year, into a remote corner of the Nuba Mountains. These bear sorghum, salt, agricultural implements—and above all the personnel who serve this outpost Church on the fault lines of one of the world's deepest cultural and religious divides, where Arabia and Africa converge.

Morning breezes swept over our compound, as the starkly beautiful hillscapes flushed with rose light. The air was tinged with the smell of grass fires and distant snatches of the songs Nuba sing as they work—religious songs taught them by the Comboni missionaries who came to these mountains a century ago, traditional Nuba romances to the vigor of bulls or the baobab tree, or the songs they make up on the spur of the moment, on everything from the soldiers who protect them to the story of the Three Wise Men.

The bishop, I noted, was up and about even at this early hour—probably searching up raw materials for something that might pass for a cup of coffee. The young seminarians—Dominic and Francis, with Brother Isaac, a Nuba—were already at their chores. As Bishop Macram proudly observed, “It's not an easy life out here for my priests. They work from morning to night, on everything from construction projects to the training of catechists. Few comforts, no vacations. Isolation. Danger. I tell you, they're my heroes.”

And well they might be. Virtually all of the pastoral staff in this part of the Nuba Mountains—Father Solomon, the priest in charge who hails from the Sudanese state of Western Equatoria; young Father Abraham, ordained just last year; Father Sylvester, the Ugandan, along with the seminarians—volunteered for these hardship posts. Many are or were associated with such dynamic new African religious orders as the Apostles of Jesus, founded in the mid-1960s to aid in the evangelization of the continent. Earnest, hardworking, and prayerful as they are, these priests have had to come to terms with the unique challenges of serving in a remote and difficult land, where life is hard, where help is far away, and where malaria, disease, and the perils of war are very, very close.

“I could have chosen a different life,” the 25-year-old Father Abraham told me one night, “but I chose this one. I want to be with these people.”

When asked what it is that he prays for, he said simply, “That my health holds up. You can be in a place like this if you're strong.”

This sentiment is worthy of Blessed Daniel Comboni himself, the late 19th century Italian missionary often called the founder of the modern Catholic Church in Sudan. Blessed Daniel revered the Nuba, and issued this stern admonition to his collaborators: “No one is to leave the Sudan—ever!”

A Christmas Eve Mass under the stars the night before brought to the compound representatives of more than 70 full- and part-time catechists, or Catholic lay leaders, whom the bishop has trained to help nourish the faith of Catholic Nuba. Many had traveled up to six days on foot to celebrate Christmas with the bishop.

These, too, are Bishop Macram's heroes.

Some, like the veteran catechist Musa (Moses), have labored among the Nuba for decades, at a time when the dioceses could not spare priests for such isolated parishes.

Attached to more than 70 “chapels” set up over a large area—some as simple as a grove of sycamores—the bishop's catechists teach the fundamentals of Catholic faith, and lead non-Eucharistic prayer services in far-flung Nuba villages, few of which have ever seen a priest.

They also mediate disputes, survey needs, solve practical problems, and share of the privations of their people.

Full-time catechists earn about $100 a year, although costs are compensated in more precious commodities, such as blankets, soap, and salt. Increasingly, they are the “shock troops” of the bishop's ambitious plans for emergency aid, food storage, agricultural development, and water conservation in the Nuba Mountains—efforts in the hope that thousands of Nuba will, in the coming years, be able to avoid starvation and build a viable, if lean, life for themselves and their families in the midst of war.

“The Church could not have survived in this part of the world without these catechists,” says Bishop Macram. This point has not been lost on the mujahadeen, the “Islamic” paramilitary groups who have tortured and killed many catechists in the course of the past 15 years.

One evening before Christmas, the bishop told a story that captures something of the poignancy of their situation.

“I once went to visit a catechist in his village,” Bishop Macram related, “and discovered pieces of kishrik, the Nuba sorghum bread, in the tabernacle.”

“‘What's this?’ I demanded angrily, fearing that I'd stumbled upon evidence that a poorly formed catechist has been conducting some sort of ersatz (and invalid) Communion service.”

“‘Please, your lordship,’ said the catechist, shamefacedly.” ‘We understand that the kishrik is not the Eucharist. Please don't be angry. It's just been so long since we've had Communion, and people begged me to put “something” in the tabernacle, to be reminded that the Eucharist was possible.’”

“I had to set the people straight, of course,” said the bishop, “but how could I not be moved as well?”

He told another story, over tea one balmy evening, of a catechist who once tried to discourage the bishop from paying him a visit.

“He was naked, you see. He had no clothes, and was ashamed to have the bishop see him in his poverty,” Bishop Macram said. (The man was sent a package of used clothing.)

The Nuba drumming had started up again, louder this time, laced with the sound of women trilling with their tongues—the characteristic ululation that women make in times of victory or happiness throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Not Hark the Herald Angels, surely—something much closer to the real world of Bethlehem than that, the world of mangers and shepherds, the world of the biblical poor, for whom religious faith is not a matter of sentiment, but a prayer for the birth of justice. “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:51-53).

I smiled. Did the Virgin make that unforgettable sound, too, that exultant cry when she greeted her cousin Elizabeth, or when, as an ancient antiphon says, “at midnight, the Child leapt down”?

As I looked beyond the compound toward the tree-shaded clearing some half a mile away, from whence the sound of drumming came, and where Christmas Day Mass would be celebrated later on that morning, I notice for the first time that there were eagles circling low over the grassland. I had no idea what role the eagle might play in Nuba folklore, whether such a sight would be considered a good or evil omen, but I knew that, in the midst of that joyful morning, the circling eagles made me uneasy.

Only a few miles away and but a week before, a hilltop village had been hit by a Sudanese air force bombing raid on the Nuba Mountains. That had only been the latest in a series of civilian bombardments that had started last August, the local people said. And, despite the festivities, people were jumpy about the growing and unpredictable threat from the skies.

[This is the end of part one; Mr. Meyer's report will continue next week]