“The Heart of Nuba”: A Heroic Doctor Fights Against Brutal Odds in Sudan

The Heart of Nuba opens like a Sudan travelogue — a chicken struts, a woman sifts grain, a plane flies overhead. That turns as small children panic and pack into an improvised foxhole, in fear of the anti-rebel Antonov about to drop its bombs over the Nuba Mountains.

The heart of the documentary is Tom Catena, the lone physician at a makeshift Catholic hospital and a sort of less cynical, less hard-drinking Hawkeye Pierce, who treats maladies from war wounds to infant cancer. “Doctor Tom” maintains a sense of humor and belief in humanity, reserving bile for Sudan president Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s terror campaign. What isn’t clear is why he’s been left there for a decade to labor without adequate help, a question never posed to the bishop who helped build the hospital and who acknowledges how onerous the job is.

If Catena has flaws, filmmaker Kenneth Carlson declines to feature them, perhaps because they’ve been friends since their Brown University days thirty years ago. Still, the doctor has earned the adulation, and a visit to a leper colony shows why. Amid a quick medical explanation, he grasps his patients’ hands. “It’s very important to touch these people,” he says. “[They] have been rejected by society, they watch their bodies disintegrating. You can come and touch them, shake their hands, pat them on the back and joke with them…they’re a part of the human race, like anybody else.”

The Heart of Nuba
Directed by Kenneth A. Carlson
Opens April 6, Village East Cinema


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The Good Lie Tracks Sudanese Immigrants to America and Explores a Culture Clash

Trailers for The Good Lie make it appear that a Spunky Nice White Lady (Reese Witherspoon) takes under her wing a group of young Sudanese immigrants who arrive to the U.S. via a humanitarian program, only to have culture clash lead to laughter, tears, and, finally, enlightenment. And all of that happens.

But the film, based on a true story, is also a bit — not much — better than its marketing hook suggests, largely due to fantastic acting and gorgeous visuals. Directed by Philippe Falardeau from a script by Margaret Nagle, The Good Lie kicks off in 1983 Sudan; children frolic as civil war brews. When violence finally reaches the village where Theo, Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital live with their families, the orphaned kids, along with countless others, are forced to walk 800 miles to a refugee camp. Violence and death trail them, cementing their bonds.

The half-hour first act, which carries the kids into adulthood, is the film’s strongest. After 13 years in camp, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are selected to emigrate to America, but Abital is sent to a different part of the country than her brothers. And because 9-11 happens shortly after they arrive, throwing their host program into chaos, reconnection seems impossible.

The Good Lie moves too briskly as assorted traumas (emotional meltdowns; simmering resentments) and triumphs (getting jobs; the act that gives the film its title) are checked off a list without real examination. Despite its weighty material and some moving scenes (much of the Sudanese cast are survivors of the war), this aggressive crowd-pleaser is slighter than its subject matter deserves.



With the help of Sudanese supermodel Nykhor Paul, New York–based photographer Mike Mellia hopes his latest exhibition, “Our Side of the Story: South Sudan,” brings attention to the current conflict in that region. This one-day show displays 14 stunning portraits of Sudanese immigrants who now live in the U.S., many of whom work in the arts, including Paul, who has worked for Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein, actor Ger Duany (The Good Lie, I Heart Huckabees), and artist and writer Amou Ajang. Each portrait comes with a narrative of the circumstances of their emigration.

Thu., April 10, 6 p.m., 2014


‘Red Hot + Fela Live!’

This promising live gathering precedes the release of Red Hot + Fela, the Red Hot AIDS relief organization’s second compilation devoted to the music of Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS-caused Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1997. Superhuman Happiness (which includes members of Antibalas, Tuneyards, and Iron + Wine) anchors the event, which includes appearances by Afrobeat co-creator and drummer Tony Allen, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, the Kronos Quartet, Congolese singer Baloji, and Sudanese singer Sinkane.

Wed., July 24, 7:30 p.m., 2013


U.N. Me

From its “Oil for Food” scandal in Iraq to its inaction in Rwanda and Darfur and its farcical human rights council appointments, the U.N. is slammed again and again in U.N. Me as an organization that has betrayed its founding values. Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz’s documentary is cut from the Michael Moore cloth, making its case through an episodic structure that’s light on depth but heavy on outrage and the usual combination of talking heads, archival footage, cartoons, and on-the-street publicity stunts—including handing out flyers at the U.N. with the Webster’s Dictionary’s take on “terrorism,” a term the U.N. itself has refused to define. The film’s censure is bolstered by galling facts about U.N. hypocrisy and ineffectiveness in the face of abuse, discrimination, and genocide. Unfortunately, mocking jibes and cutaways to Team America and Wonder Woman (among other movies and TV shows) establish a jokey attitude that weakens the overall case. That shortcoming is made even more pronounced by Horowitz himself, whose on-camera grandstanding involves trying to run through security gates, lambasting U.N. members from a council podium (and getting thrown out of the building), and interviewing the Sudanese ambassador to the U.N. with sarcastic questions that tip the proceedings into awkward Ali G–ish territory. Nick Schager



In honor of famous Chicagoan Barack Obama, this week we promise to eat only deep-dish pizza, stand outside when it’s windy, and go see the Chicago-based sketch-comedy duo Steve Waltien and Jordan Klepper perform their acclaimed show, Steve and Jordan, Respectively, which was ranked as one of the funniest moments of 2008 by Time Out Chicago. The two, who have toured the world for Second City and are faculty members of the famous iO Theatre, perform scenes and monologues that are both funny and honest, with diverse characters ranging from a couple of struggling actors to astronauts in space to a Sudanese farmer with a penchant for bestiality. And for just $5, you’ll have enough money left over for a Chicago-style hot dog, if you can find one.

Thu., Jan. 15, 8 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 19, 8 p.m., 2009


A Third Sudanese Genocide: General al-Bashir’s Final Solution

Years before Sudan’s General Omar al-Bashir began the genocide in Darfur, I was reporting on another genocide—also conducted by al-Bashir, the Sudanese army, and his vicious Arab Janjaweed militia—in the south of Sudan. While his later victims in Darfur were black African Muslims, the corpses in the oil-rich south were black Christians and animists. General al-Bashir is an equal-opportunity destroyer.

By June 2002—in the 17th year of that first genocide—I was citing a much-belated report by an American-led commission (with members from Britain, Italy, France, and Norway) about how the Janjaweed were still being sent south to “burn villages, loot cattle, rape and kill civilians, and abduct and enslave men, women, and children.” The slaves were then herded north to continue their bondage.

In October 2002, George W. Bush signed into law the Sudan Peace Act—passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House— which declared that “the acts of the government of Sudan constitute genocide as defined by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

General al-Bashir was not impressed. In May 2003, a Christian group, Servant’s Heart, with four medical centers and schools in southern Sudan, reported that the Sudanese armed forces attacked 10 villages in a nighttime assault: “Many of those killed were burned to death in their homes as they hid. Ten children and women were abducted” to be sent north into slavery.

At last, in January 2005, al-Bashir seemed to yield to international pressure, signing a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the south’s outgunned rebel armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM became the ruling party in the south, and al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) ruled the north. The south was given semi-autonomous status and, by 2011, would be able to vote on whether it preferred to become independent or remain under the Khartoum government in the north.

Of particular interest to al-Bashir was the town of Abyei, adjacent to the rich oil fields that account for almost half of Sudan’s daily production of 500,000 barrels of oil. The purported peace treaty soon began to unravel—violently—this May when al-Bashir’s government soldiers and Janjaweed turned Abyei into ruins.

On May 26, The Washington Post reported: “Sudanese government officials blame southern forces for the destruction, but southern officials, U.N. officials, witnesses and people who fled say it was a systematic campaign by the Sudanese government to depopulate the oil-rich area and take it by force.”

Roger Winter—the former U.S. State Department special representative on Sudan and, before that, the head of the Agency for International Development’s humanitarian bureau—says he was in Abyei on May 16 and 17. He adds: “The perpetrators were the men of the Sudan Armed Forces 31st Brigade that has been operating illegally in the area for months, terrorizing and displacing civilians—at least 106,000 of them.”

In the illusory 2005 peace agreement, there was a special Abyei Protocol on the sphere of authority in that area—which, Winter adds, “was written by the United States, which then basically disappeared on Abyei. The U.S. is culpable for having created the environment in which Khartoum realistically believed it could act on Abyei without consequence.”

What the hell! After all, al-Bashir has ignored, broken, or obstructed numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions throughout these many years. He feels he has nothing to fear from the U.N. or the U.S.

The first reports from the clashes in Abyei indicated that at least 22 people had been killed, and thousands more torn from their homes. But although both al-Bashir’s forces (in which the Janjaweed militia has increasingly been hidden and put into uniform) and the SPLM have since pulled back from Abyei, officials on both sides agree on one point, according to The Washington Post on May 26: “Perhaps the most dreaded scenario . . . is beginning to unfold—a resumption of the north-south civil war, which killed an estimated 2 million people, making it one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II.”

When I asked Winter if he believes the north-south war has actually begun, he confessed that he does see the return of those horrors: “Bashir’s government has produced one of the largest civilian body counts since the Holocaust”—referring to the two million killed in the north-south war, as well as the half-million or so killed thus far in the Darfur genocide.

Soon after becoming president, George W. Bush—reading a report on how President Bill Clinton and the U.N. deliberately avoided intervening in the Rwandan genocide—wrote a pledge on a page of that report: “Not on my watch.” Later, he was the first world leader to publicly call al-Bashir’s holocaust in Darfur a “genocide.”

On May 28, IRIN (a United Nations news service) quoted Ashraf Qazi, the special representative in Sudan for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as saying that the inability of thousands of people to return home after the devastation in Abyei “could lead to political instability” throughout the Sudan—and then in adjoining regions.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement is not composed of pacifists. Its secretary general, Pagan Amum, says of the 31st Brigade’s attack on Abyei: “This is a clear indication that he [al-Bashir] may be thinking of ‘a final solution’ to the Abyei problem by killing the people and displacing them.”

Another SPLM official, Musa Malei adds: “We are not desiring to go to war— we have been forced to fight.”

But once that “final solution,” conducted by many more forces than al-Bashir’s 31st Brigade, obliterates Abyei and its people, who would stop him from finishing up the job in Darfur—and then neighboring Chad? The U.N. Security Council? (Which, by the way, the United States takes its turn to head this month.) Or is the answer to be found in John McCain’s commendable vision of an alternative to the feeble U.N.: a band of free nations—”a League of Democracies”—to intervene when a sovereign government commits atrocities against its own people?

And what of George W. Bush’s chance to at least partially transform his presidential legacy? A May 27 Washington Post headline read: “Bush Straddles His Hard Line in Engaging Sudan.” Mr. President, how about taking a bite out of al-Bashir?


Zimbabwe’s Slow-Motion Horror Show

According to official results by Zimbabwe’s electoral commission on May 2, the great African liberator, Robert Mugabe, lost that country’s March 29 election to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, by 43.2 to Tsvangirai’s 47.9 percent. Since the law requires a runoff, Mugabe, who is the law, had the second round delayed while his thugs terrorized those ungrateful Zimbabweans who dared to vote against him. (Or, at least, those suspected of doing so.)

As the supreme enforcer told the BBC on May 16: “We will not allow an opposition backed by Western imperialists to win.” The opposition is forbidden from holding rallies preceding the runoff.

On May 8, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights reported that in the capital of Harare alone, “[s]o many victims [of Mugabe’s enforcers] have come in with broken bones in the last 24 hours that hospitals and clinics . . . are running out of plaster of Paris” (The New York Times, May 10).

And in rural areas, where the Movement for Democratic Change did well, the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union said that at least 40,000 farm workers and their families were driven from their homes on suspicion of having voted against the Liberator.

A doctor in Harare, submerged in the wounded, said of one night’s carnage: “What came in on the trucks was too pathetic for words. They can’t walk. Their feet are beaten. Their buttocks are rotting. Their arms are broken. They’re trying to walk on their knees.” In the Economist‘s May 10th bloody summation: “Following the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s presidential election is like watching a horror film in slow motion.”

Have you heard a word of protest from Nelson Mandela, the one African whose voice could awaken the world to these horrors? I asked someone who knows Mandela about his silence on the genocide in Darfur and Zimbabweans seeking real liberation. He told me: “This liberator cannot turn against this fighter who won the independence of his country from the British.”

As of this writing, nearly a hundred suspected wrong voters in the March 29 election have been murdered by Mugabe’s forces, which include his loyal “war veterans” of the liberation and his merciless youth militia. More than a thousand people—including children—have been badly battered by these goon squads, and over 800 homes have been burned down.

But Mugabe is so ferociously intent on staying in power (and finishing the grand palace he’s been building) that, as Doctors for Human Rights cautions, all of these figures, nightmarish as they are, “grossly underestimate the [actual] number of victims,” many of whom never made even it to a hospital or doctor.

Amnesty International, raising its voice back on April 25 against the storm that was gathering even before the election, declared: “The actions taken by the police today are unacceptable. The Zimbabwean police must stop harassing political and human rights activists immediately and act to protect victims of post-election violence.”

To whom are Mugabe’s atrocities “unacceptable?” The United Nations, of course, is useless, as it has been for five horrifying years in Darfur. The members of the African Union confer among themselves, with only Tanzania and Zambia being openly troubled. South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki—still the main negotiator on Zimbabwe—calmly said, in the days before Mugabi’s government unleashed its scorched-earth approach to the runoff: “It’s just an election. I see no crisis there.” Now Mbeki admits there may be one—but he remains as ineffective as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Meanwhile, some of Mugabe’s terrorists are preening about their success in intimidating opponents of the deadly regime before the June 27 runoff. One of them, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 14, “showed off a written log of victims and their ‘confessions’ that they had voted for the opposition.”

But that runoff election could be delayed for months—until Mugabe feels certain that his voter re-education program has secured a sufficiently overwhelming victory for him. The BBC predicts that on that day, “people coming to every polling station will see ‘war veterans’ in police uniforms” waiting to check off their ballots. Untold numbers of Zimbabweans will be too scared to show up.

Meanwhile, in Darfur’s endless slow-motion horror show, the ghastly present scene is captured in the headline of a March 20 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “No One Is Counting the Dead.” This Associated Press story quotes Jan Egeland, former U.N. chief of humanitarian operations, as urging the media to stop using the ubiquitous Darfur death count of 200,000: “It’s two and a half years old. It’s wrong.”

Now a special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Egeland does not doubt that thousands more have been killed or died of unintended diseases in areas that humanitarian workers can no longer reach. The A.P. report grimly adds that the United Nations doesn’t support the new large-scale mortality survey that Egeland insists is necessary, “because Sudan’s government doesn’t want one.” Sudan, you see, is a sovereign state!

A new mortality survey would include the seven children killed on May 4 when—as reported by the Paris-based Sudan Tribune‘s website—”Sudanese government planes bombed Shegeg Karo [in] Northern Darfur.” The raid’s targets included a primary school. General Al-Bashir’s Antonov plane (a retrofitted Russian cargo plane) destroyed kids in the second, third, and fourth grades—plus five-year-old Yusuf Adam Hamid in the kindergarten.

The names and ages are in a report by Eric Reeves, the most authoritative historian of Darfur’s genocide, in the May 12 Christian Science Monitor. He asks a question that some of you may find uncomfortable: “How would Americans respond if terrorists—acting on behalf of another country—deliberately killed, with complete military impunity . . . children in one of our nation’s schools? Outrage would bring the country to a halt. It would change the very nature of the presidential campaign. News coverage would be unending.

“Washington’s response against the offending nation would be swift and destructive. . . . The whole world should respond vigorously to a nation that barbarously bombs kindergartners such as Yusuf Adam Hamid. Instead, we lamely bow in deference to Sudan’s ‘national sovereignty.’ “

Next week: Only intervention by force into Zimbabwe and Sudan will put an end to these slow-motion horror shows.


It’s Only Black Muslims

If you haven’t been thinking about Darfur lately—which would come as no surprise, given that the newspapers and television news shows are mostly silent about it—here’s a recent report by Eric Reeves, an international authority on the genocide going on there and a constant recorder of the death toll (now more than 450,000 and counting):

“Typically they begin very early in the morning, before people are awake. . . . A bomber flying at high altitudes will push out barrel bombs designed to terrorize and kill civilians. As the civilians flee from their huts the Janjaweed [the government’s Arab militia] will sweep in, killing all the men, raping women.

“We have many reports of babies, male babies being killed, sometimes having their penises sliced off so that they would bleed to death in their mothers’ arms. . . .”

Reeves, a professor of English at Smith College in Massachusetts, has leukemia, but that hasn’t stopped him from spending many long hours into the night helping to keep the world aware of its passive complicity in these ceaseless horrors (go to

Reeves made an appearance on a Frontline documentary about Darfur, On Our Watch, which aired on PBS on November 20 and was brilliantly produced by Neil Docherty. For most of the four and a half years of these mass murders and rapes, American television has hardly noticed, but repeated and stinging criticism from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—who, at much peril, has often been a witness in Darfur—pushed the networks to briefly give the carnage some space.

But this recent edition of Frontline—still available at —equals the very best of the CBS Edward R. Murrow exclusives that I used to faithfully watch in wonder and in anger.

“The people of Darfur,” Reeves says emphatically, “feel that they have been abandoned: ‘Where is the international community? Can it be they don’t know? And if they do know, why aren’t they here?’ ”

Remember that it took just 100 days to murder 800,000 people in Rwanda. And, needless to say, if these mounting atrocities were taking place, day after day after day, in Belgium, Spain, or Poland, correspondents and television crews from across the globe would be there.

But in this case, the victims are “only” black Muslims that Sudan’s National Islamic Front government despises as inferior human beings. It is already resettling Arab Muslims onto much of the land that two and a half million of the black survivors have been torn from—and because of the constant violence, some humanitarian organizations that provide food and medicine to these people are leaving to save themselves. Others have been expelled by the government.

It would be hard to find any survivors in Darfur with a single remaining hope of help from the pinnacle of the international community—the United Nations. So far, there have been 21 U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that action be taken by the commander in chief of this holocaust, Sudan’s maximum leader, General Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir has broken every U.N. agreement he has signed. He basks in the knowledge that under U.N. rules, no member state can be forced to accept U.N. peacekeeping troops without that state’s permission—no matter what barbarisms it is inflicting on its own people.

Meanwhile, the various rebel tribes fighting this government for their own reasons have splintered into often brutal factions that attack not only the Janjaweed and uniformed Sudanese forces, but also one another and the remaining humanitarian workers.

The first well-known international public figure to tell the naked truth about the ferocious leaders of Sudan—and charge them publicly with genocide—was Secretary of State Colin Powell. Then George W. Bush became the first world leader to say that the U.N.’s term for the Darfur crisis—”ethnic cleansing”—was nothing more than a euphemism for genocide, adding that “on my watch,” there would never be another Rwanda.

For a time, Bush was passionately involved, actually thinking of using force to deal with the humanitarian crisis. In Michael Abramowitz’s recent Washington Post report (October 29), “U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions,” he cites Bush’s keen interest in late 2005 in using the American military’s helicopter gunships to shoot down Sudanese planes bombing villages.

But his main advisers, including the war vice president, General Dick Cheney, got him to cool down. Then, as American forces became even more mired in Iraq, Bush decided that he couldn’t be targeted around the world for “invading another Muslim country,” say sources who ask not to be named—and, in any case, where would he get the additional troops? With the Democrats pushing hard to get the U.S. forces out of Iraq and now trying to cut the military funding for our occupation there, a U.S. intervention in Darfur will not happen while Bush is in office.

And though the president had, at one time, harbored a genuine desire to stop the killing and raping, there is another complicating factor in our relationship with General al-Bashir. There has long been close cooperation between the CIA and Sudan’s intelligence forces, which purportedly provide us with leads on Al Qaeda and other terrorists operating in Africa. As I’ve written in a previous column, the head of Sudanese intelligence was flown to Washington for a secret strategy conference with CIA chieftains as the genocide devoured more victims. I wonder which high-end Washington restaurant has been graced with his presence.

That cozy relationship continues to this day. It is not surprising, therefore, that after the House passed a bill authorizing individual American states to divest their assets, including pension funds, from companies doing business with Sudan, and the Senate Banking Committee approved a similar bill by Chris Dodd on October 17, the State Department (as reported by Reuters) urged the Senate to delay the legislation because it “interferes with presidential foreign policy.”

So, though we are still on Bush’s watch, Frontline reports that during a recent raid on a village in Darfur, a woman appeared “astride one of the Janjaweed camels . . . dressed all in black.”

A female villager recounted: “She had a bowl and put it on top of a sack and was drumming on it and singing, ‘Let’s burn the property of the blacks so they find nothing to eat or drink.’ And she was calling on Allah: ‘Please provide more bullets.’ While she was singing, a helicopter was shooting us from above . . .

“I was carrying my little baby on my back, and they shot him dead. After the child died, they pulled him away and they raped me.”

Next week: Can anything be done before the world hears—and then promptly forgets, as it has already done with the Rwandan genocide—about the Sudanese government’s final solution to its black Muslim problem?


Darfur Now

Can-do pep is the resonant key in this profile of six individuals, spread across three continents, working to provide relief in western Sudan. Featured are a sheik displaced by internecine warfare, International Criminal Court prosecutor Dr. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a young L.A.-based activist, and . . . Don Cheadle. The film tarries briefly on outright atrocity, moving through an abridged history of Darfur, then lets its subjects explain what regenerating the region means to them, and why it should matter to humanity as a whole. But where the right images could be profound, incontrovertible, and traumatic, testimony is only worth so much (and the film will severely test the average viewer’s threshold of forbearance for righteous Californians). If you evaluate Darfur Now against the goals it sets for itself—as a stirring call to action—it must be considered lacking. The filmmaking is undistinguished, and the images taken from the conflict, though tragic—dust-blanched refugee camps, an AK-47 in every other pair of hands—will be difficult for the theoretical average, uncommitted viewer to distinguish from the familiar picture of endangered sub-Saharan Africa. The argument can be made that the subject’s urgency excuses the need for artfulness; the opposite, of course, is true.