In the mid-1980s, it was Ethiopia. Next, it was Bosnia, then Somalia, and later Rwanda. In each case, as war and famine caused thousands of deaths, the media were on or near the scene, demanding immediate action.

Meanwhile, the plight of the Sudan, geographically Africa’s largest country, has been largely ignored. A brutal war has driven several million southern Sudanese Christians from their homes and caused the deaths of at least two million more, a calamity that experts say is actually worse than anything the world has seen since Pol Pot’s rampages in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The decade-long war is the latest battle in a protracted clash between two cultures in the Sudan-one in the north, the other in the south-the former Arab-dominated and Islamic, the latter African and largely Christian. By the sixth century, having first swept through Egypt and Ethiopia, Christianity advanced along the Nile Valley into what is now the Sudan-giving rise to the fabled Nubian kingdoms. In the centuries that followed, this Christian Nubian civilization laid out beautiful cities, constructed impressive brick monasteries and cathedrals, and long resisted repeated Muslim attempts to conquer it. Islam had reached North Africa by the seventh century and did at last conquer the Nubian kingdoms in the fourteenth century. Resisters were killed or enslaved. The rest accepted Islam or fled south, where for centuries the remnant has held off northern encroachment and its cultural marks of Arabization, Islamization, and slavery.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the colonizing European nations began a mad scramble to carve up Africa. By the 1870s, Britain had become involved with the Sudan. It was a fateful involvement, one that helped lead to the present conflagration.

From 1874 until 1879, the dominant British figure in the Sudan was General Charles George Gordon, nicknamed “Chinese” for his military exploits in China a decade earlier. A strong if somewhat eccentric evangelical Christian, Gordon was determined to stop northern Arab slave traders from raiding the south and to prepare the region for future economic development that could render slavery obsolete.

In 1881, with Gordon back in Britain, a Sudanese Islamic fundamentalist proclaimed himself the Mahdi (“expected one”) and, allied with the slave raiders, threatened the entire Sudan. Reluctantly, British Prime Minister William Gladstone returned Gordon to the Sudan with instructions whose meaning is still far from clear.

Whatever the case with the instructions, three things were clear: that Gordon had grown to love the Sudan and its people, including Muslims, and wished to save them from the Mahdists; that he needed reinforcements to do so; and that, once he saved them, he planned to set up a northern government while personally administering the south to protect it from northern imperialism. Arriving in Khartoum in February 1884, Gordon was accorded a hero’s welcome by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Month after month, Gordon held out against the Mahdi, all the while pleading with Britain to send help. At one point, when Gladstone ordered his general home, Gordon refused, replying, “I am in honor bound to the [Sudanese] people.”

Gladstone refused to believe that Gordon would actually die for the Sudan, and, trying to force him to return, denied reinforcements. Gordon, entrenched in Khartoum and willing if necessary to die for his cause, refused to leave. By this time, Britain was in an uproar; even Queen Victoria demanded that Gordon be reinforced. The last thing Gladstone wanted was for Gordon to be killed, and Gordon knew it. In this contest of wills, Gladstone finally succumbed. He sent the Royal Army up the Nile, but it was too late. It arrived on Gordon’s fifty-second birthday, but by then Khartoum was conquered and Gordon slain.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was a member of the tardy relief force. Viewing the death scene, he vowed never to rest until he defeated the Mahdists and carried out Gordon’s plan to save the Sudan by recognizing and strengthening its two separate cultures. In 1896, his wish was granted. Placed at the head of a British army, he flew up the Nile with ferocious speed and annihilated the fundamentalist armies at Omdurman.

For the next several decades, under Anglo-Egyptian (mostly British) rule, Sudan was administered as Gordon had wanted. Slavery was eliminated, economic development begun, and separate administrations governed the north and south. Proselytism by Christian missionaries in the north was not encouraged, while Arabization and Islamization of the south was effectively halted.

Matters remained relatively stable until 1945, when the British electorate threw Winston Churchill out of power. Churchill knew only too well what was at stake in the Sudan; as a young man, he had been part of Kitchener’s forces at Omdurman. The ousting of Churchill’s Conservatives spelled trouble for Sudan. In 1947, the new British regime betrayed South Sudan, agreeing to an eventually united Sudan in the hands of Khartoum.

Dedicated British civil servants in South Sudan were horrified. One regional governor declared that “the south’s future is being . . . decided by the wrong men in the wrong place,” by people without any understanding of the south. Strenuous protests notwithstanding, Britain effectively handed the reigns of government over to northern Islamicists in Khartoum in 1956.

The worst fears of Sudan experts in Britain and elsewhere came to pass. Arabization, Islamization, and slavery were revisited on the south, which exploded into a rebellion that did not end until 1972, when Khartoum (unable to conquer the Christian “infidel” in battle) agreed to grant South Sudan a measure of autonomy. By all accounts Khartoum went on to break the essentials of that agreement. In 1983, the regime swung sharply toward Islamic fundamentalism. Local administrators in South Sudan were stripped of what little power they had, and shari’a-orthodox Islamic law-was imposed throughout the country, including the Christian south.

William Ochan Ajjugo, then a high school student in Juba, South Sudan’s largest city, remembers when shari’a was first foisted on his people. “Soon I began seeing the results-people with arms and legs cut off for violating it.” In 1984, he helped lead a protest of Christians against shari’a. The government arrested him, breaking his fingers before hanging him from the ceiling while beating him. “They tried to get me to renounce my faith, but I refused. Then they suddenly released me.” Ajjugo fled the Sudan, eventually arriving in America in 1988.

In 1989, a coup brought an even more radical regime to Sudan-a full-blown, Iranian-style theocracy led by Lt. General Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Sheik Hassan al-Turabi, head of the National Islamic Front (NIF). The regime used the deepening crisis caused by the civil war as the pretext for decreeing martial law.

What has since transpired is the massive proliferation of human rights violations severe even by Sudanese standards. Combining the worldview of medieval Islamic theocracy with the tactics of a modern totalitarian police state, the new government put a stranglehold on the country. Human rights groups have confirmed the existence of “ghost houses” where the regime’s perceived enemies are subject to whipping and clubbing, electric shock, partial castration, rape, shackling and suspension by wrists, burning with hot irons, denial of food, water, and sleep, and mock executions. In 1993, government security forces tortured to death retired Brigadier General Camillo Odong N. Loyuk after first chaining his wrists and testicles to the bars of his cell window.

In the new regime, South Sudan faced an enemy more determined than ever to crush through any means its age-old resistance to the march of Islam. Its plight was rendered all the more desperate by a split in 1991 within its fighting force, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). One faction, SPLA Mainstream, favored replacing the Islamic theocracy with a secular democratic government. The other faction, SPLA United, sought to partition Sudan into two separate, independent states, reflecting its distinct Muslim and Christian cultures.

Armed to the hilt by Iran, Iraq, China, and others, Khartoum declared a jihad against the south. The result has been the escalation of one of our century’s greatest human tragedies. No southerner, it seems, has been exempt from its horrors. Women have been raped by the tens of thousands, their children torn from their arms and compelled to convert to Islam. Young men have been kidnapped and forced to fight against loved ones. Entire villages and towns have been burned to the ground, their people burned alive or taken into slavery. Jubilee Campaign, a Christian human rights organization, has noted “mounting evidence of the crucifixion of the male populations of entire villages.” When the Vatican protested in 1992, Khartoum replied, “The Catholic Church has become the enemy of the Sudanese government. We know how to deal with it.” What was meant was apparent. Last summer, according to Vatican Radio, four Catholics were arrested, flogged a hundred times, and then crucified.

Eyewitnesses detail the grisly consequences of Khartoum’s strategy of famine, bombings, rape, torture, kidnappings, and slavery. Cabling the State Department, an Ethiopian mission officer reported that “all [south Sudanese] arrivals were naked but for rags around their waists; all had the dull concentration camp stare of the starving . . . . They compared poorly with pictures of Nazi concentration camp victims.” Writing to Pope John Paul II, Philip Thon Leek, director of the Friends of African Children Educational Foundation, reported that “over 1.5 million [now almost three million] lives have been lost and at least four million have been internally displaced and over one million are refugees.”

Slavery too has reappeared. According to a 1993 State Department report, the “government of Sudan forces routinely steal women and children. Some women and children are kept as wives. Others are shipped north where they perform forced labor or are exported, notably to Libya.” In his scathing 1994 report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, special investigator Gaspar Biro confirmed that the north is kidnapping women and children and selling or using them as concubines or slaves. Biro also notes that the present regime allows the crucifixion of children as young as seven.

Outside of South Sudan, over a million south Sudanese remain trapped in refugee camps, primarily in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. While family members and friends have lost their lives, these survivors have lost their way of life. Those who once were self-sufficient and productive are now landless, homeless, assetless, and bereft of hope. Last year, William Ajjugo formed an organization called Operation Nehemiah for South Sudan to help reach these refugees. Ajjugo’s focus is on economic and spiritual development to help restore conditions necessary for self-sufficiency.

There is little question, however, about the long-term solution for South Sudan, and, indeed, for the entire country. Natural catastrophe is not what is depriving people of their homes, their lands, and their lives. The problem is war, and this particular one is about two cultures that are radically incompatible: fundamentalist Islam and orthodox Christianity. The former is willing to stop at nothing in order to realize its dream of an entire Sudan brought under the hegemony of a literally applied shari’a. The latter, meanwhile, proclaims death as preferable to conversion to Islam in any of its forms, which it sees as betrayal of Christ. Indeed, just as the north has in recent years become increasingly fundamentalist in its Islam, so the south has become increasingly fundamentalist in its Christianity. Last year, Christianity Today reported that over 75 percent of all south Sudanese consider themselves “born again.” Evidence abounds that within all Christian groups, ranging from Catholics and Anglicans to nondenominational movements, genocide has brought not abandonment of faith, but renewal. In South Sudan, Christian martyrdom has as well drawn Christians of all traditions closer together.

The long-term solution to Sudan’s troubles is to acknowledge that Sudan is not, nor was it ever, one nation. It was, it is, and it will continue to be two. As William Ajjugo says, “We are already separate culturally and spiritually. Why not politically?” In 1990, the Bush Administration unsuccessfully supported a proposal for a UN referendum regarding the issue of self-rule for South Sudan. Supporters of the referendum proposal hope to convince Congress to push the White House into taking up the issue once again. South Sudan has some friends in Congress, such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), but their efforts are limited by lack of grassroots American knowledge, let alone support, of South Sudan. The logical place to garner such support is among American Christians. But as Wolf told syndicated columnist Mary McGrory in 1993, while church people deluged his office regarding politically correct issues concerning Latin America and other arenas, on South Sudan, “I hear silence.”

It is time to break that silence.


Paul H. Liben contributed the article “Science Within the Limits of Truth” to the December 1991 issue of First Things .

Articles by Paul H. Liben

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