The Nuba people in Kordofan are once again attacked by the government of Khartoum, which does little to hide its dislike of free minded people. A missionary remembers his experience among the Nuba during the second civil war. Even though the Nuba are now fighting a renewed war for freedom, these words remain valid today.
I always felt uneasy to see armed people around me. They were there to protect me, I know, still I found it difficult to celebrate Mass, speak about peace, while my altar boys had a Kalashnikov idly waiting at their side. Whenever I could go to the Nuba Mountains I felt really happy for the extraordinary work done by the laity. My joy was somehow subdued by the constant signs of violence I saw all around me.
Two reflections always crept into my mind: violence, even when it is for self defence, becomes a habit that makes the heart tough; but also, love freely given has the power to change the most hardened heart. I went to the Nuba with the spirit of the Incarnation, the same of Jesus who, though God, accepted to be human to live amongst the people he loved. The Christian community is not called to get involved in the politics of power, in abstract intellectual discussions, nor in debates about laws and decrees. The Christian identity shines in the sharing and self identification with the poor. As a Christian I do not take the side of the just, the morally upright; my choices cannot be guided by a moral judgment. I have to choose the last ones: the poor, the pariah, and the oppressed. If they are poor and oppressed I must stay with them, without asking questions.
Even before preaching and administering sacraments, I need to share my life, live with the people. This is why the government in Khartoum can be sure that all the bombs, injustices, violence will not stop priests, sisters and lay people from taking the side of the Nuba. One of us, Father Mattia Bizzarro, had made his home in the devastated plains of Denkaland. A journalist who visited him when the priest was almost 70 asked him if he were not afraid of living in a miserable hut, in total poverty, at the mercy of military attacks. Father Mattia answered “If I do not do it now that I am young, when shall I do it?” For many years, not even these missionaries arrived in the Nuba region.
Yet, the few Catholics who lived in the Nuba Mountains before the war began did a marvellous job. Supported by three married deacons, the local community has grown with impressive speed. In 1996, after my first Christmas there, I wrote in my diary “the people welcomed me with great warmth. All see in the celebration of the Eucharist an anticipation of peace, a sign that normal life is still possible. With dances and songs they came forward carrying their children to be baptized. They offered the first and best fruits of their land”.
Another time, near Kerker, I was invited to a local contest of wrestling, a very old tradition among the Nuba. Some wanted to use the polished square where the church was built. The local catechist did not allow them. After the game, I asked the catechist why he did not allow the guest to use the square. He answered “last year, government soldiers came in the evening. They do this to make us fear. They come and burn the food we have. That evening they found Gabriel, the senior catechist, teaching to a group of children. To protect them, Gabriel remained behind and was captured. The soldier asked him if he was a Christian, he said yes, knowing well what will happen next. Usually soldiers tie and gag their prisoners, put them inside the church and then burn the thatched roof to kill them in the arson. But Gabriel was too big and strong to be gagged. They cut his throat and left him here in the square. This is why we do not allow this land, now sacred to us, to be used for a game. Here Gabriel poured his blood for Christ”.
I listened in shock to the narrative. The story seemed coming out of a martyrology of the first century. The Nuba are really committed in their faith. For them, choosing Christ is a life and death decision. It is a sign of how mature their faith is. As much as they like wrestling as a sport, they also fight for their faith, and the chance to live it in freedom.
Renato Kizito Sesana