YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon –A Catholic priest in Sudan has detailed the disturbing story of survival amid the country’s raging conflict.

Father Jacob Thelekkadan is trapped inside Dar Mariam, the residence of the Salesian Sisters in Shajara, just outside Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Fighting broke out between two rival armed factions in the capital in April 2023. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo began fighting over the control of the state and its resources.

Describing it as “a forgotten war,” Thelekkadan said it has led to “widespread starvation, destruction and death.”

Johan Viljoen is the Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference.

“The war continues to rage in Sudan after more than a year, with hundreds of thousands displaced and exposed to famine, disease and death, as well as frequent aerial bombardments,” he told Crux.

According to the Center for Preventive Action, the civil war has so far triggered the deaths of almost 15,000 people. More than 8.2 million have been displaced, about 2 million of the displaced finding refuge in equally volatile environments like Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The United Nations says more than 25 million people need humanitarian assistance, and deteriorating food security risks triggering the “world’s largest hunger crisis.”

“It is very difficult for Christians to live out their faith under these conditions. In fact, it is very difficult for anyone to live under these conditions, full stop,” Viljoen said, even as he pointed out there was no evidence Christians were being targeted.

However, for the Comboni Missionaries and Salesian Sisters who have been sheltering at the residence of the religious sisters inside Dar Mariam, surviving armed attacks and aerial bombardments remains a daily experience.

For instance, the community was first bombed on November 3, 2023.

“With the experience of the nearness of God especially in these months of war, to all in Dar Mariam, some of the people including children and young ones, have come closer in their relationship with God!” Thelekkadan said in his May 28 statement.

“Thus they participate in the daily morning Eucharist, the daily evening rosary service and to crown it all, the daily half-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the evening with the recitation of the Chaplet to the Divine Mercy,” the priest said.

He disclosed that out of all thirteen parishes in Khartoum, only two continue to celebrate Mass every Sunday. Dar Mariam, the community of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (FMA) – also known as the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco – is one of these two.

“The experience of Dar Mariam inmates of the nearness of God has brought a serene and peaceful atmosphere within! Thus, though suffering on many accounts, in Dar Mariam there reigns an atmosphere of peace, joy, contentment and cheerfulness!” Thelekkadan added.

The priest is not however a member of the order. He served as the director of St. Joseph Vocational Training Center in Khartoum, but when the war broke out, members of his community were forced to flee.

However, Thelekkadan made a different choice. He decided to remain in the country and sought refuge at Dar Mariam. According to him, the Salesian Sisters at Dar Mariam had already engaged in “a prophetic and remarkable mission” to serve the poor, and he wanted to be part of it.

“I offered my service to them which they kindly and gratefully accepted,” he said.

The priest said as the war spread, fleeing people saw Dar Mariam as a sanctuary. That sanctuary, however, eventually came under attack.

“A deadly bomb exploded in the residence of the sisters, destroying three rooms and other properties of the inmates. But the Providence of God reigned even at this tragic moment. One sister, a volunteer teacher, three children and their mother sustained injuries from this bombing though not life threatening,” the priest said.

A subsequent attack took place two days later, destroying a classroom adjacent to the sister’s residence. The continued attacks prompted an evacuation process, which was halted by yet another attack.

“Once again, Divine Providence did not allow any harm to any of the inmates in Dar Mariam,” Thelekkadan recalls.

He said that at the close of December 2023, Shajara found itself surrounded by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), leading to the closure of markets, shops, pharmacies, and other essential amenities. The resulting hunger crisis struck Dar Mariam, where the sisters struggled to provide sustenance for those seeking refuge within the community.

This followed the complete cutoff of electrical power from May 2023. With no access to charcoal or cooking gas, some generous individuals ventured outside the safety of Dar Mariam, risking their lives to collect dry branches from trees for firewood to cook food.

Viljoen told Crux he was appealing to the warring factions “to stop the insanity immediately.”

“If the scale of destruction and killing continues, whoever wins will have won a pyrrhic victory. There will be nothing left to rule,” he said.