Pope Francis is reportedly considering a trip to South Sudan, after ecumenical pleas from religious leaders who hope that his visit might draw attention to the plight of the people there, suffering famine and genocide. Melinda Henneberger, editorial writer and columnist for the Kansas City Star, recently went to South Sudan, on a trip sponsored by the Sudan Relief Fund. She wrote several pieces about it for her newspaper as well as for USA Today. In this interview, she discusses what she saw during her trip.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What drew you to go to Sudan? Is that even safe?
Melinda Henneberger: For some time I’ve wanted to go to try to tell the story of what’s happening there, and it’s probably not that safe, no, but only because a bomb could fall at any time — and that’s what the people of the Nuba Mountains have lived with virtually all their lives. Otherwise, I’d have felt as safe as I do in my mother’s house, because the people I met were so warm and America-loving. Our car broke down late the night we were traveling there, so we were on the road for hours, almost until dawn, trying to get it started — well, I was watching the driver try to get it started, and then sleeping through some of it — and it didn’t feel threatening at all. Not one car went by, but only people on foot.
Lopez: Writing about Sudan isn’t exactly clickbait. Why should people read your series on the people of the Nuba Mountains and share the articles?
Henneberger: That’s for sure that it’s not clickbait! The Nuba people need our help; they have been persecuted — civilians bombed and raped, their water poisoned and crops burned — by their Islamist government, and they were not only ignored but vilified under Obama, I’m sorry to say, while we rewarded the war criminal who runs Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, because his government is supposedly helping the CIA with ISIS. No shock that he’d have plenty of intel on his fellow terrorists, but does that mean we should reward our enemies and punish our friends?
Lopez: If there were one person you wish you could have brought back with you to give testimony, who would it be?
Henneberger: It would be Ahmed Zackaria, the only Nuba-born doctor of the four physicians who serve the 1.5 million people in an area the size of Scotland. A lot of people. It took him eleven years to get through what should have been six years of training in Khartoum, not because he spent too little time in the library but because he spent so much time in jail, where he was tortured for opposing the Sudanese government. He got married recently, and in the ultimate act of hope in an uncertain future, he and his wife are expecting their first child. A former Muslim who says he’s given up on both politics — “the art of telling lies” — and religion, his inspiration is still the Christians who led the American civil-rights movement, whose example taught him that “despite the darkness you face and the darkness you live in, the light is coming. . . . The sun will rise one day.”
Lopez: What did people there tell you about Donald Trump? Did what you heard surprise you?
Henneberger: They absolutely love him, love his tough talk and his “America first” position, too, because that’s how they feel about the Nuba Mountains. Even though they tend to disagree with the travel ban, a number of them said they’d rather die where they are than leave, so they’re not looking to come here in any case, but they do think President Trump will show up for them, and they expect him to pressure Bashir into submission. It surprised me, yes, and it hurt to see them so sure of him, but I would love to see him justify their faith.
Lopez: What can the rest of us do to help these people?
Henneberger: Tell your elected officials that we can’t turn our backs on the people of the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile State, and Darfur in Sudan, where killing is still going on — or ignore the country we helped create, South Sudan, where a famine and undeclared genocide is in full swing. Forced starvation is the major cause of the famine there, and farmers who’ve been forced from their homes can’t plant their crops. The United Nations now says the situation there and in Yemen and Somalia and northeast Nigeria adds up to the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, with 20 million at risk of starvation, so the need is just enormous.
Whatever the U.N.’s problems — and yes, they are many — one thing they do better than anybody else is work with refugees, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is doing heroic work. Their people are sleeping in tents in the brutal heat, just like the refugees do, but UNHCR doesn’t have the resources to keep up. Other organizations doing such important work there include the Sudan Relief Fund folks, with whom I traveled to deliver 6.5 tons of medicine; Samaritans Purse, which digs wells and provides water; and the Lutheran Relief Services that offers counseling to refugees.
Lopez: On another topic, you’ve just made a move from D.C. to Kansas City. Should more people in media be doing the same? Leave the D.C.-New York-Los Angeles bubble, and make a trip to Sudan when they can?
Henneberger: I come from such a red, red county in southern Illinois that it was one of the few in the state that went for Alan Keyes over Barack Obama in the 2004 Senate race, so I have never considered myself too bubble-wrapped. Most of my family and friends that I’ve had since childhood supported Trump from the beginning, and even though I don’t always share their views, I do know where they’re coming from — literally, as Joe Biden would say. And I still believe what Barack Obama said about how we are more alike than different, even after what I call the “unfriend me now” election. It does seem like a perfect moment to be back in the Midwest, and I hope to go back to Sudan in a few months, too.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.