- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

NHIALDIU, Sudan It was to be a simple four-day mission.

In February, I was directed to travel to "New Sudan" as southern Sudan is known by the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and supporters of its long-running insurgency and arrange logistics and facilities for a medical training program funded by a humanitarian assistance grant from the United States.

Ten days later, I would emerge forever changed in my understanding of humanity and in my understanding of the terrible price paid for freedom and liberty.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, is split by a decades-long civil war pitting the Islamic government of the North against the animist and Christian South.

Oil reserves, now being exploited by the administration with help from a consortium of international oil companies, are giving the government an edge in this war that has already claimed 2 million lives.

And while there is wide-ranging sympathy in the West for the southern Sudanese, the NDA is quite likely the most meagerly funded insurgency in the world.

A government offensive against the town of Nhialdiu in mid-February upset my mission.

Using bombers, artillery, armored vehicles, helicopter gunships and mounted Islamic militia, the government captured the town from the lightly armed NDA.

The results were catastrophic. Three-quarters of the region's population, more than 25,000 people, dispersed, owing to the attack and straggled southward into territory firmly under NDA control.

Those who were unable to flee the sick, the elderly, pregnant women and small children were later killed by government forces.

With NDA supporters gone from the area, the military began a wholesale destruction of town and nearby villages, laying out strings of anti-personnel mines to dissuade NDA attacks.

Helicopter gunships patrolled the area constantly, shooting anything that moved. It was clear that their mission was to eradicate the civilian population from Nhialdiu and to create a defensive no-man's-land to protect their positions.

It was my second day in country, and I was working in Yei, a few hundred miles south of Nhialdiu, when my local contact, who worked with Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), learned of the attack.

We developed a plan to go there and evacuate by air the wounded survivors of the Nhialdiu attack.

But nothing is simple in Africa. The plane we had chartered was temporarily commandeered along with its pilots into yet another horrible African war: flying troops into combat in an unrelated civil war in eastern Congo.

My NPA contact worked one of his many miracles, and the next morning, we were aboard a Russian-made transport plane loaded with blankets, mosquito nets, bandages, antiseptic, IV bags, water cans and extra drums of aviation fuel necessary for the long trip back. We headed for a small airstrip less than 10 miles south of Nhialdiu.

This would be dangerous, with heavy enemy activity in the area and extremely limited fuel for our aircraft.

Nevertheless, we landed on the rough strip and immediately were swarmed by NDA soldiers and civilians.

The pilots, anxious to depart before government helicopter gunships appeared, supervised the off-loading of supplies while I went to find the wounded.

I was stunned to find none. When I inquired about them, a young officer informed me that they had not yet arrived, but that many were coming.

It would soon be dark, the aircraft was a juicy target for the gunships, and I understood that this would be a defining moment for me.

I decided to stay behind and send the aircraft back to Kenya for additional relief supplies.

The Sudanese looked at me like I was crazy. It was only my third day in country and I was the last Westerner in the war zone.

The local NDA commander would later explain to me why none of the wounded had been ready to leave politics.

When his wounded soldiers are evacuated to the medical facility in Kenya, which is run by international aid organizations, they never return.

Even if the soldiers recover fully, they are not allowed by those organizations to return to combat, so, effectively, the NDA troops are lost forever.

With this issue understood, we made an agreement to evacuate the wounded only to medical facilities within NDA-controlled Sudan.

I spent the early-morning hours of Feb. 25 with the commander who cared deeply about the welfare of both the civilian population and his soldiers.

I could tell it caused him great anguish and frustration to know they are suffering and dying, with almost no chance of medical aid.

I also became aware of the incredible difficulties they are facing. They have no medical equipment, facilities or staff. The nearest hospital is hundreds of miles away and they have no aircraft for evacuation.

Trying to move the wounded to a central location only prolongs the suffering and exposes casualties to even greater risk. Even basic medical care would have saved many of the sick and wounded.

Some men carried a wounded boy, no older than 15, into the camp. He suffered from festering bullet and shrapnel wounds. Wounded 10 days earlier, his face contorted in pain with each step they took.

I helped carry him to a church and then cleaned his wounds. Other exhausted and dehydrated wounded trickled in.

That evening, bright moonlight bathed the front.

The NDA said that any wounded civilians stranded behind enemy lines were left by the government forces to die and rot in the sun.

They had seen vultures and wild dogs fight over human flesh, leaving just scattered bones and shreds of clothes tangled in small bushes.

In our camp, three wounded boys lay side by side in a foxhole under a bush.

They had been caught in the open by a gunship two days earlier. It was immediately clear that two of the three, with serious head wounds and fractured bones, were not going to make it.

Their comrades had covered them with branches to try to keep them warm at night but no one had any medical training to treat the wounds.

We would only take the one with the more minor wounds to the rear of the front, as the rough trip back would only cause needless suffering to the two dying boys.

Soft shadows from the moonlight masked the wounds and misery of the two boys left behind. They could only wait for death.

The wounded continued to arrive the next day from as far as 20 miles away, filling one church and covering the shaded grounds.

Another church nearby was even more horrific. What seemed like millions of flies swarmed, and the stench of death permeated the air.

It was immediately clear that there was little or no hope for most of these wounded.

The wounded were young, reminding me of my own sons. Hopeful eyes followed me as I passed by, praying that I would select them for medical evacuation and life.

My nightmare continued; I was playing God in hell. Who gave me the right to decide who would live and who would die?

I am not a doctor, or a man of the cloth, but I was now both savior and executioner. Young boys like my own sons would die slow and agonizing deaths because I was unable to help them.

Those too badly wounded to be chosen for evacuation accepted their fate with silent dignity and closed their eyes.

They accepted it with more grace than I had at that moment.

I am not a religious man, but I knelt down in front of the simple altar of the most humble church I have ever seen. It was a church of mud, sticks and straw, furnished with rows of packed mud to form pews rising from the dirt floor.

I have been in magnificent and opulent cathedrals in my life, but never had I felt as close to God as I did when I knelt before this mud altar in what may be the most hellish place on earth.

I prayed. I prayed for the dying young boys who lay around me. I prayed they would not suffer. I prayed that they would forgive me for not selecting them for evacuation.

I prayed to God for the strength to carry out my mission to save the few that I could. I prayed that the world would come and save these beautiful people.

And I prayed that I would have as much dignity in life as these brave souls had showed me in death.

Few of the civilians fleeing the government forces escaped with anything more than the clothes on their backs. Starvation is a concern, since the cattle and livestock have been scattered and killed, and there have been reports of cholera.

Yet the people maintain a remarkable dignity and grace.

When our plane arrived the next day, we immediately began loading the most critically wounded on the aircraft, wary for the dreaded government gunships.

As we roared down the bumpy dirt strip, they smiled and cheered. They now knew that they would live.

While the United States has long supported humanitarian projects in Sudan, it has stepped up efforts to end Sudan's civil war with the appointment of former Sen. John Danforth as special envoy.

It is too late for those young boys lying in a moonlit ditch, but for the sake of New Sudan, I pray America can play the role of a savior.

Frank Norbury is a former U.S. Special Forces sergeant major with more than 20 years of military experience. He was on this mission as a part of a U.S. funded humanitarian program.

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