BY FIONA Fox FR SIMON KHAMIS from Yei in southern Sudan is the only priest left in his diocese. His Bishop is trapped in a government-held town and all the other priests have fled with their parishioners to escape bombing raids by the government or interfactional fighting among the rebels.
Days after leaving his parish to travel to London for a Cafod speaking tour, Fr Simon learned that his village had been attacked by helicopter gunships and planes dropping cluster bombs. The bombing left five dead, 40 injured and his parish centre razed to the ground. All the victims were civilians, including a mother and son who were both decapitated by a bomb.
Far from deciding to abandon his visit to Britain, Fr Simon says that news of the bombing hack home strengthened his determination to tell politicians here and in Europe that something must be done to stop the war.
"When I get back to Yei I want to be able to give my parishioners some hope, and tell them that people did take notice, that they do care and that something will be done to bring peace."
For Fr Simon, as for many other people I met during a recent visit to Sudan, the fact that the war seems to go unnoticed in the West is a big cause of frustration and despair.
As I visited families barely surviving the harsh conditions of the desert camps of Khartoum, home to a million southerners displaced by the war, the sense that these people are forgotten victims of a forgotten war was palpable. Western aid agencies are not allowed to work in these camps; endless rows of children's graves marked only by mounds in the sand testify that many are not surviving.
Regina, a mother of four whose husband was killed in the war, had just been reunited with her children in the camp after serving a three-month prison sentence for brewing alcohol, in breach of the state's Islamic laws. Regina was at pains to tell us she had no option but to break the law. There was no work for her in Khartoum and brewing alcohol, a common pastime back home in the South, was her only way to make money to feed her children. As I went to leave her, she grabbed my hand with a terrifying desperation: "Why does nobody love us? Why doesn't anybody care for us?" I couldn't answer. The only explanation was that no one knew of her suffering. Yet the world does seem to have paid attention to other conflicts in poor African countries. Events in Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia have all been beamed into the living rooms of the British public. So why not Sudan?
The depressing truth is that Western politicians and the media have long since tired of this seemingly endless war. For some years now the international community has been content to substitute humanitarian aid for the search for a political solution to the war in Africa's largest country.
This week Cafod publishes a disturbing report which should shock MPs out of their
complacency. The Civil War in Sudan: A Threat to International Security shows the war is spilling over Sudan's borders, dragging neighbouring states into the conflict and threatening to develop into a major regional war. The report coincides with a lobbying tour in which Fr Simon will join Bishop Paride Taban from southern Sudan and Bishop Daniel Adwok, auxiliary Bishop of Khartoum, to meet Foreign Ministers, Church leaders and other policy-makers throughout Europe to persuade them to put this forgotten war back on the political agenda.
THE WAR IN Sudan has swallowed 30 of the past 40 years. It has claimed an estimated two million lives and forced as many again to flee their homes. The vast majority of people killed by both army and rebels have been innocent civilians. This war began even before Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, when southern rebels rose up against the threat of economic and political domination by Khartoum in the north. As with many colonies, Britain had employed a divide-and-rule
policy, deliberately fostering divisions between north and south to create a buffer against the spread of Islam in Africa.
Sudan enjoyed a brief period of peace during the 1970s but new tensions arose in the 1980s when the Khartoum government imposed Islamic sharia law throughout Sudan. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was formed and the current phase of the war blew up in 1983.
It has intensified since 1989, when soldiers loyal to the National Islamic Front staged a coup. The current government, led by General Omar al Bashir and Hassan al Turabi, has presided over a dangerous increase in international and regional tensions.
The government of Sudan is now in open conflict with many of its neighbouring states. Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia all accuse the Khartoum government of sponsoring rebel groups in their countries. The government, meanwhile, points to the support lent by these countries to the SPLA and toher southern rebels. I May this year the UN imposed diplomatic sanctions on Sudan, accused Khartoum of
harbouring the terrorists who tried to assassinate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in June last year. The US has put Sudan on its list of "terrorist states" and it is widely acknowledged that America is covertly providing logistical support to Sudan's hostile neighbours and the SPLA. Meanwhile Iran has described Sudan as a crucial ally in its struggle against American influence.
Bishop Paride Taban believes that the regional implications of the war are a new development which must be taken seriously by the international community: "Sudan is becoming the battleground on which opposing regional and world powers wage their fight for power and influence. The real tragedy is that it is innocent human beings who are the victims of these power games."
For Fr Simon, one sideeffect of the lack of political and media interest in Sudan is that the major powers are able to turn their backs on the innocent victims of this war: "In Bosnia at least people died in front of TV cameras and people are held accountable. Here in Sudan we die silently and no one has to account for our deaths."
The bombing in Fr Simon's parish was nothing new. Only a month ago a twomonth-old baby died after shattered pieces of a bomb ripped her stomach apart. Far from delighting in clear blue skies, Sudanese children fear that a clear day may bring another bombing raid.
Fr Simon will appeal to the politicians he meets to give him some sign of hope to take back. "I will be asking them what I should tell these children. Should I say that the bombs will come and they must dive for cover or can I tell them that the world is working for peace and soon the bombs will stop?"