Through gunfire, malnutrition and constant danger, Sudanese Christians grow closer to God

Father Jacob Thelekkadan decided to remain in Sudan during the civil war to support the Salesian religious sisters in Dar Mariam to provide shelter and basic aid to the displaced. Despite the bombings and extreme shortages, they maintain an atmosphere of faith and serenity thanks to the Eucharist and daily prayer gifting hope in the midst of the conflict.

Fr Jacob Thelekkadan, a Salesian priest, was the director of the St. Joseph Vocational Training Centre, in Khartoum, when the terrible civil war broke out in April 2023. He and his colleagues had to leave the training centre because of heavy bombing. While the others left the country, the Indian-born priest decided to stay behind to support a group of Salesian religious sisters at the Dar Mariam residence, in Shajara, seven kilometres outside of the capital, Khartoum. He is one of the few priest to have remained in Sudan.

Fr Jacob speaks to residents of Dar Mariam who have sought refuge in the centre
Fr Jacob speaks to residents of Dar Mariam who have sought refuge in the centre

The area has been badly affected by the “tragic and unfortunate war” which, he says, continues to cause “massive displacement of people, heavy casualties, pitiable and unimaginable destruction”, and “psychological and physical trauma”, as well as “fear, hunger, thirst, loneliness and sickness in the hearts and lives of people” in the country.

Daily life in Dar Mariam has also been badly affected. Hundreds of residents of Shajara have been taking refuge at the centre, where the sisters provide what little food and basic care they can.

In a message sent to the International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Fr Jacob explains that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain fuel for the generator, which is essential for providing electricity and for working the water pump. Outside of the two hours a day the generator is connected to obtain water, the residents have to try to survive the merciless heat, reaching over 43°C, resorting to more rudimentary techniques, such as using wet towels and sprinkling water on the floor, to keep temperatures bearable.

“Our daily food is porridge made from flour or lentils, or ‘keezra’ (a kind of pancake) made of ‘shorgum’ flour or rice, without the availability of any vegetables, including onions and potatoes, without any type of fruit, without meat or eggs”, the priest explains, everyone is “malnourished and weak”, but especially the children.

Residents at Dar Mariam survive on a very simple diet, and malnutrition is a major concern
Residents at Dar Mariam survive on a very simple diet, and malnutrition is a major concern

Being so close to Khartoum, Dar Mariam has often been caught in the crossfire between the opposing forces in the civil war, and on at least three occasions, bombs have actually exploded in the building.

On 3 November 2023, as reported at the time by ACN, “a deadly bomb exploded in the residence of the sisters, destroying three rooms and other properties”, and wounding “one sister, a volunteer teacher, three children and their mother”, though none were killed. On 5 November, “another deadly bomb destroyed the classrooms on the first floor adjacent to the sisters’ residence causing no injuries” and on 3 January, another explosion “caused a heavy fire and burnt to ashes all the rooms and what was inside on the second floor. Once again, Divine Providence did not allow any harm to anyone in Dar Mariam.” Earlier, on 10 December, a planned evacuation had to be cancelled after a truce agreed by both sides of the conflict broke down in a shooting incident, condemning the sisters and those taking refuge at the centre to remain in the hot zone.

Currently, with the danger of sniper fire and further bombings, all residents are confined to the house, with the exception of courageous volunteers who occasionally venture out to collect firewood for cooking. On top of all the suffering, the small community in Sudan feels that the rest of the world has forgotten about this conflict and their pain.

Fortunately, many of those taking refuge in Dar Mariam have managed to escape to safer areas. According to Fr Jacob, in June 2023, the sisters were helping to feed over 300 people, Christians and people from other religious groups, but the number had halved to about 150 by December. At the moment, approximately 80 people are staying in the centre and receiving food assistance.

Many of those who initially took refuge in Dar Mariam have since managed to leave, but a few dozen remain with the sisters and Fr Jacob
Many of those who initially took refuge in Dar Mariam have since managed to leave, but a few dozen remain with the sisters and Fr Jacob

The terrible description of the situation endured at Dar Mariam, without any comfort or safety, only makes Fr Jacob’s closing words even more surprising: “With the experience of the nearness of God to all in Dar Mariam, especially in these months of war, some of the people, including children and young ones, have come closer in their relationship with God! This has brought a serene and peaceful atmosphere! Thus, they participate daily in the morning Eucharist, the rosary service and the half-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with the recitation of the chaplet to the Divine Mercy in the evening.”

The priest, who remains in regular contact with ACN, conditions permitting, adds that “only two of the thirteen parishes in Khartoum have the Eucharist celebrated every Sunday. Dar Mariam, one of the centres of St. Joseph Parish, is one of these two. Thus, though suffering on many accounts, in Dar Mariam there reigns an atmosphere of peace, joy, contentment and cheerfulness! Almighty God, thanks a million for what You are to us in Dar Mariam! May your Will and your Glory always prevail!” 

ACN continues to call for peace in Sudan and stands by to restore the projects it had in place before the civil war started, to help sustain a small but energetic Church, that serves the people in the country.

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.

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