Sudan in a Time of Violent Islamization
While millions in Sudan have struggled to live through extreme poverty, famine, and political instability, those who follow Jesus Christ in a nation governed by Sharia Law and Islamist leaders have long faced a much harsher existence. For three decades, the Sudanese government has targeted Christians, along with those who aren’t ethnically Arab, for extermination.
Since former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir rose to power in 1989 through a military coup and established a strict form of Islamic law throughout Sudan, his brutal regime intimidated, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured Christians. It also demolished and bombed church buildings, seeking to further Islamize the country.
In 1993, the United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism for harboring members of Islamic terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden. In 2005, the country’s long-running civil war came to a halt with a peace agreement that later resulted in southern Sudan becoming an independent country in 2011. To quell civilian uprisings, Bashir enlisted Arab militias to terrorize civilians in the western Darfur region. As a result, roughly three hundred thousand people were killed and four million more were displaced.
Before the country split, Bashir orchestrated the deaths of nearly two million Christians in southern Sudan, including the Blue Nile region and the Nuba Mountains. In the Nuba region, the Sudanese military dropped more than four thousand bombs on Christian villages, churches, schools, and hospitals to erase all traces of Christianity. Believers there have been treated as criminals and often arrested, tortured, falsely charged, and punished with the death penalty.
In March 2009, The Hague-based International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for sixty-five-year-old Bashir—the first warrant ever for a sitting head of state. He was charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including mass extermination, deportation, torture, and rape in western Sudan. The following year, a second warrant was issued, this time for masterminding genocide in the province of Darfur.
Despite the warrants, Bashir continued to lead Sudan and terrorize Christians until April 11, 2019, when the Sudanese military ousted the dictator following several months of protests.
This story takes place inside Bashir’s Sudan a few years before the despot lost his grip on the nation.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
The heavy steel door slammed shut, caging me inside the suffocating room. The door was speckled with dirty beige paint, and near the top was a window, no larger than five by eight inches. Sitting on the freezing cold floor tiles, I looked at the small rectangle of light and felt forgotten.
My mind darted to my daughter, Vanda—or “Váva,” as we call her. She’s a beautiful and intelligent young woman who would be graduating from medical school that week. But instead of being with her, celebrating one of the most important moments in her life, I was locked away within this cell. I felt a deep, throbbing sense of shame.
Suddenly, the walls around me began to blur, and the room dissolved into darkness. I felt my heart pounding relentlessly in my chest. Beads of sweat dripped down my forehead and pooled in my eyes, stinging them. I tried to move my limbs, but they didn’t respond.
But then I felt a soft sensation. Beneath me was a sheet, a bed, a familiar and comforting place. My arm began to tingle, and I extended it across the bed to feel my wife, also named Vanda, who was sleeping beside me. I saw her long, blonde hair glowing in the rays of the morning dawn. She was as beautiful as she was on the day I married her twenty-three years earlier.
I breathed a sigh of relief and let my head sink back into my pillow. It was all a terrible dream. But then the questions began to come. They were like waves lapping against my mind.
Was the dream a message from God? A warning? What could I possibly have done to warrant being arrested and imprisoned?
We crawled out of bed and dressed for church. On that particular Sunday, members of our church in Kladno, in the Czech Republic, were visiting a sister congregation in Karlovy Vary—a quaint spa town near the German border.
Vanda and I got into our car and, along with some friends, embarked on the hour-and-a-half drive west. I said little on the journey through the rambling countryside. My thoughts were filled with questions about my dream.
How did I end up in prison? Did I make a mistake on my taxes?
We arrived at the church early, and I stepped out of the car to shake hands with a church elder who greeted us in the parking lot. He saw that I was distracted.
“Petr, are you all right?”
“I’m all right,” I said. But everything inside me felt unsettled. No matter what I said or did, I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d had upon waking. I couldn’t get the clicking sound of the prison lock out of my head.
For nearly three years, this dream—the most vivid and disturbing of my life—would sleep inside me, waiting to be awakened once again.
Two and a half years later
It was shortly before 2:00 a.m. on December 10, 2015. I had been in Sudan for exactly four days, and I couldn’t wait to be back home with my family. I felt the familiar emotion of eager anticipation as I thought about my wife, her delicious cooking, and the softness of my bed. In one hour, my flight would depart from Khartoum, so I took a few minutes before leaving my hotel room to use Skype to contact Vanda, who was waiting for me back home in Prague. I smiled as she answered. The call was short, but I hung up anxious to see my wife and ready to begin the journey home.
For more than a decade, I had led the work of The Voice of the Martyrs in Africa. Because my work required me to travel to dangerous places—hostile countries whose Christian citizens endure terrible persecution—Vanda and I established a simple method of communication involving a combination of text messages, phone calls, and Skype video conversations. We also had a series of code words to use if we needed to communicate secretly through letters. My wife and children knew that every trip I took came with a certain measure of risk and that I might encounter any number of perilous situations in the places I visited. But I also tried not to worry my family unnecessarily. I didn’t want them to feel scared every time I left home.
On this day, because Vanda would be asleep as I traveled, I would send her a text before my flight departed from Sudan, when I landed in Nairobi, as I departed Nairobi, when I landed in Amsterdam, and as I departed Amsterdam. If everything went smoothly, Vanda would receive a final text as my plane landed on the runway in Prague. She would then drive to the airport to pick me up, synchronizing her arrival to pull the car up to meet me at the exact minute I stepped out of the baggage claim exit.
Since I was traveling as a tourist on this trip, I was wearing casual clothes: a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. A hidden waist belt, one my wife had fashioned, hid my money and second passport. Since my flight left so early, I hadn’t slept during the night, but I had showered, and my head was freshly shaved.
I folded my clothes into my carry-on suitcase and opened my laptop bag. It contained my regular passport, driver’s license, camera, sunglasses, cell phone, USB drive, external hard drives, and my laptop. A micro-SD chip with encrypted accounting data sat snugly in an interior pocket of my wallet in case my laptop was ever stolen.
The laptop was a state-of-the-art machine, barely a month off the assembly line. My life, and the lives of the persecuted Christians whose stories were documented on the device, depended on my ability to protect it. Between internet sessions, I cleared the browser’s cache and deactivated the Wi-Fi to minimize my digital footprint. The laptop never left my side. If someone managed to get their hands on it, they’d only see tourist photos from my recent trip to Nigeria.
But the Nigeria photos were just decoys. The sensitive information—the pictures I had taken the previous night—was encrypted on the laptop’s partitioned hard drive, which would be nearly impossible to access.
For the past four days, I had been conducting secret meetings at the Ozone, a bustling open-air café located just opposite the Paradise Hotel where I was staying. With large tan umbrellas shielding the tables and couches, the Ozone had been the perfect place to hold my meetings—one over breakfast, another over lunch, and a final meeting at dinner. Surrounded by expats, including students and professors who taught at various international schools in Sudan, my presence as a white person hadn’t appeared unusual.
Before I left the hotel room, I encrypted the remaining photographs and, after erasing them from my camera, transferred the images onto the encrypted partition of my hard drive and took a final sweeping glance over the room. With my carry-on bag in hand and my laptop bag over my shoulder, I walked down the hall and through the lobby. This was just another routine early-morning departure from another hotel for another flight; at least this one would end with me being home.
Fortunately, the roads would be relatively free of traffic at this early morning hour. It would take no more than three minutes for the hotel shuttle to drive me from the hotel to the airport. I scheduled the driver to meet me at precisely 2:00 a.m. to allow one hour for me to check in and clear passport control before my flight departed.
But it was already 2:05, and I was standing outside in the dark. There was no sign of the driver. A few minutes later, I returned to the lobby to ask the receptionist about the delay.
“Someone else is going with you,” she said. I walked back outside and waited. Each passing minute felt like a small eternity. No other guest appeared. Was the receptionist trying to stall me?
I returned to the reception desk, and she finally summoned the driver. He offered to take my bags, but I handed him only my carryon suitcase. We climbed into the shuttle, and the driver closed the door behind me. The shuttle lurched into motion.
Just as expected, we arrived at the airport in minutes. I walked into the sparsely populated terminal and headed toward the Kenya Airways desk. The attendant handed me three boarding passes—one for each leg of my trip. I slid two of the boarding passes into my laptop bag and turned toward the line of travelers waiting at passport control. By this time the next day, I would be home from Africa and asleep in my own bed.
Just as I began to move, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.
“Sudanese security,” a man said in stern, broken English. “Please come with us.”