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Journalist speaks of experiences in Sudan

Ryan Sydlik | Friday, February 24, 2006

In front of a rapt audience and a C-SPAN film crew, author Gabriel Meyer spoke Thursday about his experiences with the faith and determination of the people of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, which he chronicled in his non-fiction book, “The Gift: War and Faith in Sudan.”

Law professor Jerry Bradley introduced Meyer as one of the first Western journalists to write about the war in Sudan, going where foreigners were banned and where few would dare go.

Meyer then took up the podium and began his part of the presentation with a traditional story describing the origins of the Nubian peoples. The mythical story told of a time when childbirth was believed to have required men with knives to cut the mother open. But then, a woman from above showed killing was not how one should give rise to the child and the violence stopped.

“This is how the Nuba came to be, when they stopped cutting the women,” Meyer said.

Meyer said he found himself in Sudan after interviewing Bishop Macram Max Gassis of Sudan during his visit to the United States. Meyer was moved by Gassis’ “remarkable relief effort,” which included setting up schools and training centers for women who had escaped slavery.

One year after the meeting, Meyer got a call from Gassis saying, “We are leaving on the 21st.” Ten days later, they were both in the Nuba Mountains, he said.

Meyer said Sudan was “a religious tectonic plate,” where Arab Africa meets traditional Africa. The Nuba Mountains happen to lie in the middle of this crossroads where the Christian and Animist south meet the Islamic north of the country.

Meyer explained the dangers posed by the area.

“In 1992, this area was put off limits by the government to all visitors for very good reason – the government was launching an extermination campaign,” he said.

“We were always on the brink of famine,” Meyer said. “We never knew when a tremendous crisis could occur.”

Meyer said his book is intended as “an elegy and tribute to a remarkable people.” He wrote not only about the Nubians’ horror and plight, but also their rich spiritual and faith life and their diverse cultural traditions.

Meyer, who was crucial in bringing the conflict into the eyes of the Western media, said he “always believe[d] that it is the goal of journalists to bring out what is hidden.”

Meyer said the conflict in Sudan has killed 2.5 million people and displaced half the total population of southern Sudan.

Meyer viewed the crisis as one of political identity.

“It is an irony that the result of the civil war is a result of its progress,” he said.

Meyer explained the unique position of Nuba in Sudan, where they side with the southern part of the country while being situated in the north. This stirred violence from the north, which led to the criminalization of Nubian cultural customs and the appearance of governmental death squads.

Meyer went on to speak about the children victimized during the Sudanese conflict – starved to death or bombed in their schools.

“Modern wars always turn out to be wars against children, for the death of children strikes at the possibility of hope,” he said.

Meyer ended his lecture by telling the story of Bishop Gassis’ catechist. The catechist was beaten, lashed and then offered money and a house to give up his way of life. He did not give in and was forced into a mock crucifixion pose as a punishment. Then, for reasons he cannot explain, he was released.

Years later, while doing work to codify tribal codes into a legal system, he was killed. But his mourners included both his fellow tribesman as well as Muslims, who joined together to mourn and praise the man’s life, seeing his death as a loss for all, Meyer said.