Sudan- cauldron of tragedy

Sudan is the largest African country- about a quarter of the size of the USA- and one of the most diverse on the continent. The diversity is not confined merely to the landscape, ranging from deserts to mountain ranges, swamps and rain forests, but it also extends to the inhabitants: Sudan's people comprise 597 ethnic groups who speak more than 400 different languages and dialects and represent various religions.

Catholic principles at work

This diversity is one of the factors accounting for the country's tempestuous history and the dramatic situations occurring there. More than two-thirds of the population live in extreme poverty. Living conditions are exceptionally harsh, with very limited access to potable water or sanitation. The mortality rate is terribly high: one child out of ten dies before reaching the age of 5. Sudan has the lowest rate of children attending schools - about 20%.The two regions of Sudan that desperately need help are Southern Sudan and Darfur.

"The human being is single, unique, and unrepeatable, someone thought of and chosen from eternity, someone called and identified by name"
John Paul II, Christmas message 1978


The north and the south of Sudan are very different. Historically, the north of Sudan had closer ties with Egypt, and the population was mainly Muslim Arab whereas the south was primarily black, with a large proportion of Christian and indigenous religions. These differences were augmented under British administration, when the two regions were governed separately.

An elderly woman prepares a meal.
Photo by Ruth Messinger/American Jewish World Service

The Southern region of Sudan with a population of around 15 million has suffered greatly during the civil wars that have been sweeping the country almost unceasingly since it became independent in 1956. Lack of infrastructure development, and major destruction and displacement followed the conflicts. This situation has cost the lives of more than 2 million, and more than 4 million are internally displaced or have become refugees as a result of it.

"Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events. It is a duty in solidarity and charity." Catechism of the Catholic Church 2439

To complicate matters even further, the region has been struck by occasional famines. The 1998 famine, which killed hundreds of thousands, was a humanitarian disaster, caused by human rights abuses and the war combined with drought and exacerbated by the failure of the international community to react promptly. Another food emergency was declared as recently as mid-2005 - around 90% of population suffers from hunger. Although peace talks were crowned with a longed-for agreement in 2005, the situation is still volatile and the region needs help recovering from the wounds of war- Southern Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed regions in the world.


For over five years violence has raged in Darfur, the western region of Sudan. More than 400,000 have been killed and over 2.5 million have been displaced since the conflict began. In 2003 several rebel groups from the Darfur region rose up against the Sudanese government citing the oppression of black Africans in preference to Arabs in the Sudan. (Although the blacks are the largest ethnic group in Sudan - 52% - the Arabs, who constitute a smaller group of 39 %, are in positions of power in the government.) The Sudanese government replied by repeatedly blanketing villages supposedly tied to the rebel groups with aerial bombs, burning homes, and killing fleeing residents.

Two brothers forced from their home, now at an IDP camp.
Photo by: Ruth Messinger/American Jewish World Service

Despite public statements to the contrary, the government in Khartoum has been sanctioning the systematic and brutal attacks by the Arab mounted militia known as the Janjaweed by providing money and assistance and participating in some of their attacks. This conflict is very different from the Second Sudanese Civil War, which ran along the lines of religion, with the primarily Muslim north fighting against Christian and Animist south- in Darfur most of the residents are Muslim, as are the Janjaweed. Relief efforts have been stymied by continued insecurity in the region and a lack of cooperation from the Sudanese government. As it stands today, one third of Darfur's total population of 6 million is desperately in need of aid.

The victims in this conflict, the citizens of Darfur, are among the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable. Children in this war-torn region have been forced into military service and lack basic needs like food and medical care. During attacks on villages and at refugee camps, women have been raped and killed. Both women and children have been abducted and used as slaves. Family members have been scattered, leaving many unsure where their loved ones are and whether they are alive. Water is a luxury: most people have to walk for miles before reaching the nearest well, and tragically many wells have been poisoned by the Janjaweed, so they can no longer be used.

"Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment." Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

People of Darfur also face the threat of starvation and disease as they struggle in impoverished conditions aggravated by the war. Even if safety could be guaranteed, they would still face likely death in returning to demolished homes and farmland without the prospect of food or permanent shelter. With some aid organizations limiting or even withdrawing their support because of the lack of security and funding, even those who stay in refugee camps face hunger.

Although humanitarian aid is urgently needed and very important, it is not sufficient. Since the African Union forces present in Sudan now have not been very effective, the main call is for generating world pressure to get the government in Khartoum to accept outside (UN) peacekeeping forces to stop the violence and let the people return home. Without extensive aid and support from the international community thousands and thousands more could die.

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