Wife and children of church elder escape Sudan

The wife and children of a Presbyterian church elder escaped from Sudan 10 days ago, six months after the elder had fled southern Sudan for his life.

Chaplain Soma Jackson, 34, confirmed last week from a refugee camp neighboring Sudan that his wife, Mary Kidy, their four children and his mother arrived there to join him on November 9.

"He is praising God to be reunited with his family," a source confirmed in Sudan.

Jackson's wife had been under considerable pressure from Sudanese security forces of the Islamist government regime to reveal the whereabouts of her husband since he fled Juba last May. For five months previous to that, security police subjected Jackson to a series of harsh interrogations and torture, including an April ordeal that left him half dead.

Although employed as a mechanical engineer, Jackson also served as a Presbyterian evangelist and church elder in Juba, a city in southern Sudan controlled by the Khartoum government in the north. Few southern Sudanese clergy have remained in government-held territory during the second decade of a punishing civil war between the Arab Muslim North and the predominantly Christian/animist South.

Security police suspicions against Jackson were apparently triggered by his visit to Norway in August 2000, representing the Presbyterian Church of Sudan. Under the auspices of the Sudan Council of Churches, the 10-day trip to sister churches in Oslo had been organized in conjunction with Norwegian Church Aid and the Norwegian Council of Churches.

After his return in mid September, Jackson prepared a report about his visit and presented it to the local Inter-Church Committee in early November. Two weeks later, as he was returning home from a Sunday evening church activity on November 26, he was arrested by Muslim security police and taken in for questioning. He was also beaten.

When security officials released him early the next morning, they warned him they could return at any time to arrest him again. For weeks afterwards, he would see security authorities driving through his neighborhood and past his home.

Jackson was so disturbed by the arrest and surveillance that he began sleeping at night in his kitchen, so he could make a quick escape if officials returned for him.

Six weeks later, again on a Sunday, Jackson was arrested off the street and questioned, although not physically mistreated. On January 9, men on motorbikes, one armed with a pistol, came to his home, demanding that his wife tell them his whereabouts.

In April after three uneasy months, Jackson was arrested a third time, this time at 9 a.m. on his way to work. For two hours, the same questions were repeated, this time accompanied by shouting, beating and kicking. The physical abuse came after he asked why they kept asking him questions he had already answered.

"If you knew what this place is," they shouted, "you would not ask that kind of question!"

They then locked him into a metal container, a dreaded torture chamber that prisoners can rarely survive for more than five hours. Without any ventilation and reeking with dirt and urine, the container's walls were burning hot, making it impossible for the prisoner to lean against them for even a moment.

After three hours, Jackson's tormentors ordered him to come out of the container. But he was so exhausted they had to drag him out to continue their interrogations. When he proved unable to even reply, they drove him to an area near his house and dumped him out. "You can kill me," he mustered the strength to tell them before they drove off, "but one day, you will die as well."

After recovering from his ordeal, Jackson learned that his name was on the security police list in another city in the south besides Juba, effectively restricting him from getting on an airplane or trying to leave the area any other way.

Three weeks later, a friend risked his own life to arrange for Jackson's safe transfer out of Juba in early May to Khartoum. "If you are found again in this country," the contact warned, "your blood is not on my head."

Although able to remain relatively anonymous in the crowded capital city, Jackson was alarmed to learn by telephone that security officials back in Juba had visited his wife twice that next week, trying to find out where he had gone.

Early in June, Jackson managed to leave Sudan and take refuge across the border. From his refugee camp quarters, he kept in touch with friends trying to help his family leave Sudan to join him. From the Kuku tribe of southern Sudan, Jackson and his wife have four children, ages 13, 10, 9 and 2.

Until now, Jackson has been the recipient of daily food distribution. But as a trained engineer, he is actively trying to find work in the area surrounding the refugee camp. "He is struggling to get a church established in the camp where he is staying," confirmed a friend. He said Jackson and his wife had no plans to try to return to Sudan.

The Sudanese government, which has declared a "jihad" [Muslim religious war] against the southern non-Muslim rebels, has condoned the slavery, physical abuse and forcible conversion to Islam of thousands of southern Sudanese Christians since coming to power in a 1989 coup.