Alone And Forgotten, One American Doctor Saves Lives In Sudan’s Nuba Mountains

Alex Perry | TIME | April 25, 2012

At the Mother of Mercy Hospital, deep in rebel-held territory in southern Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, 14-year-old Daniel Omar describes how, on a bright clear day in early March, a bomb dropped by his own government blew off both his hands. “I was at El Dar, taking care of our cows,” he says. “I heard the sound of an Antonov so I lay down. Then I could hear that it had released a bomb and it was coming down on me. So I jumped up, ran behind a tree, and wrapped my arms around it.” The bomb landed a few yards away. The tree, a hardy desert thorn with a thick trunk, protected Daniel’s body but his hands were exposed to the blast. The explosion ripped them clean off. “I saw blood,” says Daniel. “I saw my hands were not there. I could not even cry. I stood up, and started walking, then I fell down. A soldier came and picked me up and put me in the shade. Then he got a car. And they washed and bandaged me, and brought me here.”

There’s generally little truth to those stories of Africa — a continent of more than 50 countries and a billion people — which contrive to lionize Westerners. But in the case of Daniel and hundreds of others, the only reason they are alive to tell their stories is because of the attentions of a single American surgeon, Dr. Tom Catena, who has lived in the Nuba Mountains since 2008.

Catena, 47, from upstate New York, had already been working in the Nuba Mountains for three years when the government of Sudan in Khartoum launched an attack on the Nuba rebels last June. What began as an assault on the guerrillas quickly became an all-out ethnic assault on the general population. In government-held areas, civilians were likely executed en masse: the Satellite Sentinel Project, which monitors atrocities and troop movements in Sudan from the air, says it has found what look like a total of eight mass graves in and around the regional capital of Kadugli.