It was hot. Extremely hot. Already 45° Celsius (110° F ) in the shade and we weren’t in the shade! The palm trees and occasional camels reminded me that we were in North Africa—at the southernmost edge of the vast Sahara Desert. The steep rocky mountain slopes that we had repeatedly traversed are part of the Nuba Mountains of Central Sudan. Our GPS (Global Positioning System) confirmed that we were inside the famed 10-40 window—at 11° latitude in fact.
Appointment with an Ambush
I was somewhat delirious and dehydrated from heat exhaustion, but I knew we were out of both food and water. Just to move was agony. My every muscle ached (even ones that I didn’t know I had). That wasn’t too surprising—-just in the past three days we had walked over 100 km up and down precarious paths over dozens of mountains and across a great open plain—between enemy garrisons. The previous day we had started out at 3 a.m. and climbed silently up and down steep mountains and walked for 12 hours. Then we had delivered Bibles, books, agricultural tools and seed to a village and showed the “Jesus” film in Arabic to the entire community.
We had barely fallen asleep when my alarm sounded at 2 a.m. and we started out on a five-hour climb and hike to an airstrip. Unknown to us, the radio message we were responding to was false. Our evacuation flight had not been diverted to this remote airstrip. Instead, Arab soldiers of the National Islamic Front (NIF) government of Sudan were heading to that same airstrip to ambush us.
It had already been a stunning mission trip of great extremes. Extreme terrain. Oppressive heat, unrelenting, mind-numbing heat. Yet some nights were quite cold. There had been vast distances to be covered—first by air, over 3 hours into Central Sudan, far behind enemy lines. Then many hours and days of walking up and down the jagged Nuba Mountains.
The needs we confronted were desperate. Many people were hungry, some starving. The NIF government of Sudan (GOS) has declared Jihad (holy war) and is waging a cruel and relentless scorched-earth campaign against the Nuba people. Most of the Nuba villages have been looted and destroyed. Most of their crops have been burnt. Most of their livestock have been stolen. Even wells have been poisoned in what the GOS calls “Tamsit” (combing). As one GOS official so ruthlessly put it; “We’re draining the sea to catch the fish!” Everything necessary to sustain life is a target to be destroyed by the GOS forces.
Most of the Nubans are dressed in threadbare clothes or tattered rags. Many are completely naked. They have fled up the mountains to escape from the fertile plains which are now dominated and devastated by the marauding GOS forces.
Rock of Ages
The Nuba Mountains cover an area of 50,000 square kilometers. Some of the mountains rise to 1500 meters above sea level. These mountains are natural fortresses with very steep slopes. A handful of men in key positions can (and do) easily protect the precarious paths that wind precipitously up through the rocks. Life and travel in these mountainous sanctuaries is extremely harsh. The heat is merciless. The terrain is severe, rocky, steep, and thorn-bush-covered. Every day the women have to walk up to six hours away from their village in order to collect water. They then balance the containers on their heads for the long, careful, steep ascent back to their village. Most Nubans are barefoot. The fortunate ones have some sandals. Shoes are rare.
The Nubans are black people who speak Arabic. They are geographically and culturally a frontier between the Arab north and the Black south. After the collapse of the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia, Aiwa and Dotawo, and the Islamic invasion of the North of Sudan around the fifteenth century, many of the survivors took refuge in the Nuba Mountains. Over the centuries, escaped slaves from the human cargo of Arab caravans en route from the heart of Africa to the Muslim world fled to the Nuba Mountains for refuge.
The architecture of homes in the Nuba reflect this diversity of origins. Some homes are built of dry stone reminiscent of the Zimbabwe Ruins, others of clay with circular doors similar to those found among the Dogon in Mali. There are more than 50 distinct ethnic groups in the Nuba.
The official government policy of Islamisation (carried on since 1922) has succeeded in persuading 40% of the Nuba to become (at least nominally) Muslim. But even these Nuban Muslims are united with the Christian majority in opposing the NIF government in Khartoum. Most of the Nuba churches have been destroyed. About one million Nubans have been forced into concentration camps. In these camps, children are separated from their parents and family and are indoctrinated into the fundamentalist brand of Islam adhered to by the NIF government. Later these children -will be brainwashed to wage Jihad against their own people. Nuba women have been methodically raped in these camps so that the next generation will be more Arab than Nuba.
About 400,000 Nubans are holding out in the liberated areas controlled by the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) resistance movement. These Arabic-speaking Nuba people are an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam. These brave and resilient people have steadfastly resisted all attempts to subjugate or annihilate them.
Behind Enemy Lines
That is why we had traveled over 7,000 km from Cape Town, South Africa, to help these desperately needy and courageous people. Our charter aircraft had flown in 4 metric tons of Bibles, books, gospel booklets, educational materials, agricultural tools, and vegetable seed.
As we landed on the dry, dusty airstrip I could see armed men walking through the cloud of dust towards us. I fervently prayed that these were SPLA soldiers and not GOS troops! The intense Nuban heat hit me as I opened the aircraft door and climbed out to greet the soldiers. They welcomed us warmly. The officer in charge quickly organized a work party to off-load our aircraft.
The pilot was somewhat impatient to take off as quickly as possible. “This airstrip is within artillery range of the nearby GOS garrison. They’ve mortared this airstrip before,” he explained. As we watched our charter aircraft take off, we felt something like Cortes after burning his ships! We were far behind enemy lines in the midst of the longest war of this century.
Team member Steve pointed out to me where he and Scott had run for cover when the GOS helicopter gunships attacked the mission team last year. They had no sooner landed and off-loaded the Bibles and relief aid when two MI-24 Hind helicopter gunships came roaring over this very same landing strip pouring machine cannon fire and rockets directly into the midst of the crowd assembled to receive the aid. The gunships circled and made repeated strafing runs over the area. They systematically rocketed and shot wherever people were fleeing.
The team saw two Nuba women shredded by machine cannon fire. Missiles were fired. Huge boulders were blown to pieces. The ground was churned up by the machine gun fire as Steve sprinted for cover. Our men ran through a gauntlet of shrapnel and bullets and escaped up the mountain to a secure area controlled by the resistance movement. “You’re the first visitors we’ve ever had in this area. Nobody has ever brought us any aid before,” they were told.
When Steve and Scott returned to the Nuba Mountains later that year with over 5,000 Bibles and books, the local Christians were very surprised and greatly encouraged. “We thought you’d never come back; you have encouraged us with your return,” declared one church leader.
Body, Mind and Spirit
There was even more excitement this time as they saw Steve return yet again with more people and many more Bibles, books, (over 10,000 gospel booklets, books, and Bibles mostly in Arabic) and relief aid. They recognized that the materials we brought represented the sacrifices, love, and prayers of hundreds of others from around the world. To know that they are not alone, that they’re not forgotten, is a great encouragement to these suffering people. It was also clear that they appreciated the commitment of Frontline Fellowship to keep coming back.
Our ministry strategy in the Nuba is to minister to body, mind and spirit. For this reason we transported in and distributed: one ton of vegetable seed, farming tools (hundreds of axes, hoes, and machetes) and 100 water containers i20 liter jerry cans) for the desperate physical needs; one ton of school materials, school textbooks, exercise books, charts, blackboards and chalk—for the educational needs; and two tons of Bibles (1,400 full Bibles in Arabic), Christian books (over 2,000) and gospel booklets (over 7,000), as well as Gospel Recordings, Messengers, and the “Jesus” film in Arabic—for the spiritual needs.
Almost every day we walked to a different village. My brother, Derek, who coordinates our Love in Action ministry, personally distributed the agricultural tools, seed and other relief items to the leaders of 11 different congregations. I brought greetings, proclaimed the gospel and entrusted a library of books and a box of gospel literature to the local pastor. Steve presented Bible stories to the people using the Gospel Recordings Messengers (tough tape recorders that can be solar powered or hand wound) with flip charts. These audio-visual presentations always drew large crowds and held the people riveted as they heard the Bible message in Arabic and saw it illustrated in dramatic, colorful illustrations. As on previous trips, Steve entrusted these tape recorders, each with a full set of eight audiocassettes and flip charts (about 8 hours of Bibles stories with accompanying pictures), to trusted evangelists and pastors in remote areas.
Getting There Before Hollywood
Each night when the sun set, we rigged up a large canvas screen, cranked up the generator and showed the “Jesus” film in Arabic with the 16 mm projector. Many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of soldiers and civilians would come to see this two-hour gospel film. For the vast majority of the people it was the first time they had ever seen any film. (It is always good to get there with the gospel—before Hollywood!)
The Nuba people certainly could relate to the “Jesus” film better than most of us. They are a rural people dependent on farming and livestock for survival, whose only form of transportation is by foot. And under Islamic Sharia law. Christians are flogged and crucified in the Nuba Mountains. (GOS troops have even used live crucified Christians as target practice.)
Some may question the value of using films for evangelism. We warn the people that what we are about to show them is only a film with actors. Nobody knows what Jesus actually looked like—nor do we need to—it is what he taught and did that is important. And every word in the film is from the Gospel of Luke. It is impossible for us to appreciate the enormous impact that audiovisual presentations of the gospel have—especially on rural people in remote areas. This made the logistical challenge of carrying a 16 mm projector and generator up and down innumerable mountains in scorching heat well worthwhile.
There were nights when it seemed impossible to screen the film—in rain, shielding the projector during a dust storm, with the sound of heavy weapons in the background, with Arab forces’ flares lighting up the night. Yet we managed to screen the “Jesus” film in eight different areas of the Nuba Mountains.
In a war zone like the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, every trip is dangerous. Every day has its risks. A foreigner attracts intense interest and the GOS offers great rewards for any information on foreign visitors. Therefore, we have to keep moving to different villages under serious time constraints. How then can we clearly communicate as much of the gospel and discipleship principles to these suffering rural people in a language they understand, in as short a time as possible? We have found that a combination of gospel recordings, Bible stories and the “Jesus” film in Arabic are very effective communication tools. After these audiovisual presentations, we preach the gospel, distribute gospel literature and entrust a library of discipleship hooks to the local church.
The Gospel vs. Jihad
Over the last 10 years the Nubans have endured a cruel and relentless scorched-earth campaign. Bibles have been illegal. Missionaries have been banned. All flights, even relief-aid flights, have been forbidden. All contact with the outside world has been cut off. The Nubans have been isolated, persecuted and targeted for destruction. Yet these brave and beleaguered people have steadfastly refused to give up. They continue to survive and persevere—to fight for the Faith and for freedom. Yet they feel so alone—a hidden people fighting a forgotten war for survival.
By our threefold ministries of Love in Action, literature distribution, and leadership training we are strengthening the believers in Sudan to not only survive the severe persecution, but also to win their persecutors to Christ. We had the great joy of seeing people even from a Muslim background committing themselves to Christ during this mission trip.
Mutilations and Landmines
The harshness of the National Islamic Front (NIF) government of Sudan was very evident. We walked over the scorched earth, and passed burned-out homes and fields. We met people who had been mutilated by the Arab government forces. Under Sharia law, amputation of limbs is decreed for various offences. We spoke with amputees who had arms or feet cut off by the Muslims. One man, James Krma, a S2-year-old father of five children, and an Episcopal church member, related to me how the NIF soldiers had come and destroyed his village, Adudu, on February 26, 1997. The Arabs had accused him of supporting “the rebels,” and after a week of fruitless interrogation, they cut off his arm at the elbow.
Many others have lost limbs to landmines. As we were loading our charter aircraft in preparation to fly into the Nuba, two Nubans who had lost feet to landmines and had now recovered asked if we would please take them with us. Although they had lost limbs, they were cheerful and delighted to be able to fly back home—even though we were flying back to a war zone. Our aircraft risked being shot down as it violated the GOS flight ban and safely landed. These amputees would need to negotiate mountains on crutches. Once again, they would face the real dangers of landmines, slave raids and aerial bombardments. Nevertheless, they were eager to go “home” to the Nuba Mountains!
On landing in the Nuba we were asked if six wounded Nubans (most from landmines) could be evacuated by our charter aircraft. We were glad to see them airlifted to safety and medical treatment at the hospital in Kenya, yet it was sobering to be so forcibly reminded that we were about to walk many hours in an area where landmines (the devil’s seed) had been sown.
Then there was the real possibility of an ambush or air attack.
We often heard Antonov bombers or GOS reconnaissance aircraft in the distance. Our eyes continually scanned the skies, the horizons, and the bushes for any signs of danger. The intense concentration of anticipating an attack, realizing that each step could be the last, makes one thoughtful and prayerful. From the tops of some mountains we were shown the Arab government garrisons. On some of our night hikes strict silence had to be maintained as we walked between enemy garrisons on the plain.
During our outreach to the Nuba Mountains we walked about 180 km with a 16 mm film projector, generator, fuel and film, with boxes of gospel literature, up and down the steep mountain slopes. Our initial column of volunteers to carry the four tons of Bibles, gospel literature, 16 mm projector, reels, generator, fuel, books, seed and agricultural tools up the mountain was over 250 strong including porters/carriers and military escorts.
It was an impressive sight seeing the long column of people briskly moving up the steep mountain slopes, snaking through the mountain valleys, cheerfully carrying the four tons of Bibles, books and relief aid. Most of the carriers were women. They explained that the men were away in the army fighting the Arabs. Yet it seemed that in their culture the women normally carried the heavy loads!
According to one history book, the longest human column was the Safari of President Theodore Roosevelt in Kenya in 1909. His column consisted of 100 porters, with an average of 60 pounds to carry. Our column consisted of 200 carriers and 50 soldiers (escorts). The average load carried was 25 kg (almost 60 pounds).
At one point of the steep ascent while sweating profusely, I noticed the one-legged Nuban woman (whom we had transported in on the aircraft) hop past me on her crutches! I was shocked and inspired to step up my pace accordingly! The harsh terrain and vicious scorched earth campaign being waged against them, combined with their tenacious faith, have made the Nubans incredibly tough.
At one point Derek exclaimed: “I run, swim, or go to the gym virtually every day of the week. I have run the Comrades and Two Oceans Marathons. How is it possible that these people can leave me in the dust?” Although I do not maintain the same level of fitness as my brother, I felt similarly impressed by our Nuban friends’ “mountain-goat” fitness.
Steve had represented South Africa in long-distance hikes and speed marches in the Swiss Alps. He did a lot better, but also had to push himself to keep up with their cracking pace. A lifetime of walking in the Nuba Mountains gave our hosts a natural advantage!
Each day I forced my body to climb and walk faster. Ignoring blisters on my feet, aching muscles, and the chaffing that seemed to rub the insides of my thighs raw, I pushed on. On one particular day I was up with the advance party of military escorts maintaining their pace for several hours. It was gratifying at the top of one of the highest mountains to have some of them compliment my efforts. “You are very strong, very fast, strong like a Nuba!” declared one. I felt half-dead at the time, but that encouragement inspired me to keep on keeping on! On another memorable occasion I was informed that we had walked in 12 hours what another team had taken three days to cover.
“Everyone can be a Missionary”?
During those long, hot days of walking I thought often of an article in a popular Christian magazine that I had read just prior to the trip. It was entitled “Everyone Can Be A Missionary!” Under the circumstances the title seemed more than incongruous. Of course, I believe every Christian should be missionary-minded and prayerfully support mission work. And naturally every Christian should be a witness to others. However, the tasks and calling of a missionary demands total lifelong commitment, dedication in training and perseverance in service. Can everyone be a doctor, an engineer, a pilot, or a mother? It seemed to me that the article had devalued the calling of a missionary. The writer of the article had apparently based her amazing conclusion that “everyone can be a missionary” on her two-week mission trip to Malawi.
Well, I have received first-aid training and have administered first aid to injured people but I would never call myself a doctor or a nurse. Everyone should learn how to handle basic first aid in an emergency, but we are fooling ourselves if we confuse what we dabble in, almost as a hobby, with the specialized training, experience and responsibilities of a career professional. This is the same in missions. Cross-cultural communication and church planting among Animists or Muslims is extremely difficult and requires thorough preparation and a lifetime commitment.
The technological advantages our generation has over previous generations of missionaries is astounding. It took David Livingstone many weeks by boat and over four months by ox-cart to reach his first mission station at Kuruman. It took him years to walk across Africa, journeys that we can now complete in hours by air and days by four-whee;-drive vehicles. However, while it is infinitely easier to reach the mission fields today—it is also all too easy to leave.
This modern mobility is therefore both a blessing and a curse. Fast, easy travel has also led to the problem of superficiality and shallowness in missions. The hectic schedules and packed programs of short-termers cannot measure up to the impact of a dedicated career missionary couple settling among an unreached people and investing their lives in discipling a community.
Have we sacrificed quality for quantity? Relief aid for reformation and revival? We have not been called to make converts, but disciples. Patrick Johnstone’s conclusion is that we should only invest in short-term mission workers when they are being used in an ongoing ministry for long-term goals.
So, can anybody be a missionary? No, most people aren’t even Christians. Can every Christian he a missionary? No, because many Christians are selfish, hyper-sensitive to criticism and unwilling to suffer discomfort, let alone danger and diseases. All Christians are called to be faithful witnesses evangelizing their neighbors and colleagues at work. All Christians are called to support missions but each of us have different life callings and responsibilities.
The “Glamor” of Missions
Another phrase that was discussed at length by our mission team in the Nuba was “the glamor of missions.” Some people express the view that missionary work is glamorous! As you can imagine, this became the brunt of many a joke in the Nuba Mountains.
Glamorous? Missions is exciting, yes! Challenging, definitely! Glamorous—hardly ever! Yes, we do sometimes have singing choirs welcoming us to remote villages, and large crowds at services. But, in between there are sweltering heat, dust storms, flies, dysentery, boils, sunburn, backache, blisters, and malaria.
There is seldom any privacy since the children, in particular, find strange foreigners like ourselves fascinating. They crowd around, touching, pulling, examining and peeping at every opportunity. Nights are mostly sleepless—either because of mosquitos and other flying, crawling and biting insects, or because of the disturbing noises, particularly gunfire, but also dogs barking and roosters crowing (sometimes from as early as 2:30 a.m.)—right in our huts!
Then we could mention howling dust storms, dust in our hair, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, in fact in everything—including the 16 mm projector causing endless jams! The microorganisms in the water are too small to see with the unaided eye, but they can certainly cause great discomfort, pain, and sickness. In Sudan every drop of water we cook our food in or drink needs to be filtered and boiled. However, it would be rude not to accept any food or water offered by any local host. So inevitably, on every field trip, we end up sick with some form of dysentery, or worse. We pray never to suffer from the lifelong diseases caused by guinea worm or “river blindness.”
Some of the other “glamorous” aspects of missions which we experienced on this trip included: walking all day to an empty church only to find that the organizer had not organized anything; sleeping amid the goats in a corral covered in cow dung and goat droppings; and being put up in a cave where all the men crowded in to have a meal in our “bedroom”—spitting bones onto our floor and packs while dogs and chickens raced in to pick up the scraps of food littered over our sleeping area!
One night we were plagued by rats. They scurried all over the walls, roof, floor, and our packs. (My one canvas bag still has all the holes made by the rats as they sought to reach our food.) Steve and I batted them away with machetes. Yet they still came on. When we finally went to sleep it was with a machete in one hand and a flashlight in the other. As Steve warded off rats climbing onto his bed, I quipped, “While you’ve got your hands full—with the machete and flashlight—do be careful of swatting any mosquitos that land on your nose!”
On another occasion, Derek and I were caught up in a chaotic riot when we attempted to distribute gospel tracts in a marketplace. The people literally fought to obtain a tract.
Time and space preclude me from describing all the problems caused by cross-cultural confusion, miscommunications, deceptions, thefts, bureaucratic obstructionism and other man-made disasters.
Maintaining a Sense of Humor
Of course, it is essential to maintain a good sense of humor in the field. The Nuba Christians do. James, whose arm had been amputated by the Arabs, picked up one of our machetes from the selection of farm tools I offered him. With a glint in his eyes he exclaimed: “Jalabas!” (the nickname for the Arabs). Another man who had lost his leg smiled as he extended his right arm and his forefinger: “At least I still have my trigger finger!”
It was a mission trip of extremes. Extreme heat, extreme exertion, and extremely good opportunities for ministry. Many thousands made public commitments to Christ in response to our 63 evangelistic and teaching messages in the Nuha.
Now we were walking in the dark to a remote airstrip for our evacuation flight. “We’re very close now!” said our guide. Yes, they had said that several times in the last few hours. I mentally checked through the list of “gems”:
“It never rains this time of the year.” (That night our open air film showing was washed out in a rain storm.)
“The Arabs never operate at night and they never try to come up on the mountains.” (That night we were awakened by heavy gunfire close by as the SPLA fought off an attempt by the Arabs to come up the mountain.)
“It’s okay to drink. The water is safe.” (I got terribly sick from that one cup of water.)
“It never gets cold in the Nuba.” (In fact, we did get very cold on a couple of wind-blown nights, but I had left my sleeping bag behind to save weight.)
“It cannot get worse.” (Yet day by day, conditions did deteriorate into ever greater challenges!)
Evading the Enemy
A breathless soldier startled me out of my thoughts. “Security alert!” he shouted. “The aircraft is not going to this airstrip!” It turned out that we’d awakened at 2 a.m. and hiked five hours to this location in vain. The radio message we had received at 10 p.m. the previous night had been false. At that very moment GCS forces were moving into the area. Only by God’s grace did we escape an ambush laid by the G C S at the airstrip.
That night our military escort laid ambush positions around our camp. We knew the GCS forces were nearby. Our kit was packed. We slept fitfully, waking at every sound. We were ready to sling our backpacks and run at a moment’s notice. Suddenly at midnight we were awakened by furious bursts of machine gun fire—very close by. We scrambled for our kit and prepared to move.
“Everything is under control—you can rest,” the leader assured us.
However, he related to us news of a build up of enemy forces not too far away threatening the village where we had ministered and showed the “Jesus” film the previous night. “That could also threaten the other airstrip!” It was pointed out that our evacuation flight could be in danger. We prayed. I realized that it was my 9th wedding anniversary (and the 3rd consecutive one I’d spent in Sudan far away from Lenora). It was hard to know how to celebrate it since even water was scarce.
Walking to ministry gives one energy. Walking to nowhere because of human error or maliciousness makes your feet feel as heavy as lead. Yet we used our delay to show the “Jesus” film to another village. Fortunately we had just enough fuel for the generator for one more showing!
The next day we began at 3 a.m. walking to another airstrip rendezvous. Once there, we checked the airstrip and a soldier walked over the landing area with a mine sweeper. It was a tense wait, but a couple of hours later our aircraft came roaring in at tree-top level and made a bumpy landing. Goodbyes were said and we gave some of our water bottles and kits to our escorts. Then we were racing down the strip and hurtling into the sky. After so many days of walking it seemed incredible to suddenly cover so much distance so quickly. My mind was racing faster than the aircraft as I pulled out my writing pad and began to plan the follow-up projects to this, our thirtieth mission trip into Sudan.
Prayer, Praise and Planning
Please pray for more missionaries to join us in establishing a permanent mission base in Sudan, and in conducting further leadership training courses for teachers, pastors and farmers. We need trained, experienced, dedicated missionary volunteers who are committed to a lifetime of service to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission.
We praise God for the sixteenth anniversary of Frontline Fellowship. The Lord has wonderfully guided, provided for and protected our missionaries in so many dangerous and difficult areas. Just in the last three years, in Sudan alone. Frontline Fellowship has delivered over 90,000 Bibles and Christian books in 21 languages to 11 different regions. We have also conducted over 1,000 meetings inside Sudan, including four Pastors Training Courses, three Medical Workshops, one Biblical Worldview Seminar for Secondary School Teachers, a God and Government Seminar for civil leaders and a Reformation and Revival Seminar for chaplains. We have also restored or established three clinics, delivered tons of medicines and delivered an ambulance.
Not everyone can be a missionary, but we should all pray for and support the work of missions worldwide, particularly in the Muslim Middle East. And especially in Sudan where the church is suffering the most severe persecution.
Soon we will report back on the exciting developments in Western Equatoria.