Heroic Doctor, Tom Catena, Saves Thousands Amid Bombing Campaign--
Documentary filmmakers often set out to change the world but rarely accomplish more than evoking sympathy for their causes. By contrast, The Heart of Nuba by documentarian Ken Carlson helped end a genocidal campaign. The film even encouraged the arrest of the international war criminal responsible.
The story began with a 5 ton cargo truck, bearing a year’s worth of medical supplies from South Sudan toward the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains. On the way the the truck was highjacked and looted; its vaccines, food stuffs and medical equipment a total loss.
The rainy season would soon begin. The hospital, the only medical facility in the region, would be useless to the area’s approximately 1 million people—who were then under aerial bombardment by their own government—unless more supplies could be sent quickly.
In Los Angeles, Ken Carlson received a message through a network of Brown University friends that traced back to his days as a defensive lineman on Brown’s football team. “Catman needs our help!” read the urgent message.
Tom “Catman” Catena had played nose tackle alongside Carlson on the defensive line. He was now a medical doctor; in fact, the only doctor at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains.
Tom Catena had made himself into a quick, 240-pound, one-man strike-force of sheer muscle and will, often crashing through to their opponents’ backfield before a hand-off could be made. Named All-Ivy and All-American, Catena graduated with a degree in engineering. He seemed headed for a future working in the defense industry on nuclear related weapons systems.
Instead, he decided to become a doctor. He joined the Navy to save his parents the expense of his medical training, attended Duke Medical School, and then served his hitch of five years. Posted to various far-flung locations, he acquired a taste for adventure and living overseas.
Ken Carlson’s network of friends from Brown had kept up with each other, but when the message came through, Tom Catena’s exact circumstances still came as a surprise.
Tom had been a treasured teammate. He was fun-loving but more studious than most and known to be a practicing Catholic.
Ken might have foreseen Tom becoming a man of unusual achievements, but what exactly drove him to become a doctor serving a medical mission in the middle of a war zone remained unknown. The documentarian sensed there must be quite a story there.
Catman’s network of friends quickly put together the resources to send another truck—a bigger one filed with even more medical supplies. This one completed the journey.
Not long afterwards, Ken Carlson had the chance to meet with his old friend when Tom returned to the States to receive an award for his humanitarian work.
During their meeting, Ken learned about the bombing campaign that the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, was conducting against the people of the Nuba Mountains. He hadn’t known about it, nor did most, because of the world’s collective indifference to this genocide-in-progress. This was a huge story that was hardly being covered by the international press.
Ken began suggesting that he make a documentary about Tom’s work. At first, Tom wouldn’t hear of it; any attention that the story received should be directed to the Nuba people, not his own efforts.
Carlson explained that Tom would be the lens through which to tell the story—the whole story.
Tom allowed that if Ken could get to the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains, they might do something. Carlson would soon learn how difficult just getting there would be.
Before the last hop in a cargo plane from South Sudan into the Nuba Mountains, Carlson’s progress and life almost came to an abrupt end. Standing on the tarmac as the plane was being loaded, the filmmaker was surrounded by child soldiers, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen all carrying AK-47s. Not long before a previous party had been hustled away, taken to a corner of the airstrip, had their throats slit and were left to bleed out while wild animals ate them.
“I’m going to see Dr. Tom Catena!” Carlson yelled out.
The soldiers’ threats, which had been building into violence, waned into silence. It was as if he had invoked the name of the local Jesus. Speaking Dr. Tom Catena’s name had literally saved his life.
Over three weeks in 2014 and three more in 2015, Ken Carlson shot his documentary, The Heart of Nuba. He handled most of the camera work, the lighting, and the sound by himself, as all but one hired assistant ultimately refused to make the hazardous journey.
The Heart of Nuba finds Dr. Tom Catena, along with a handful of nuns and local workers, leading the care of a 480-bed hospital.
The paucity of staff came about in 2011 when hostilities broke out between President Omar al-Bashir’s government in the Sudanese capitol of Khartoum and some 50 indigenous tribes who call the Nuba Mountains home.
Bashir’s “ethnic cleansing” of the Darfur region had previously become an international cause celebre, leading finally to a plebiscite establishing South Sudan as an independent nation. The Nuba Mountain region had voted to be incorporated into South Sudan, but Bashir did not allow the region its freedom in the final negotiation as to frontiers.
The Nuba Mountains are rich in minerals and its valleys fertile for agriculture. Bashir insisted on retaining the Nuba Mountains for its breadbasket and wealth creation potential.
China and other foreign actors backed local militias, who were willing to press the case for independence with fire and steel and blood.
Bashir responded by relentlessly bombing the Nuba Mountain peoples, hoping they would flee their ancestral lands. One of the first things we see in The Heart of Nuba is the silver flicker of a Russian-made Antonov bomber climbing higher after its bombing run as the ground begins to rumble. School children run screaming to holes in the ground—makeshift bunkers—that pot mark the hospital’s grounds.
As the war began, the local Catholic diocese, which had established the hospital, a school, and a church, invited the hospital staff to evacuate. The Church could no longer guarantee the workers’ safety and so organized a final flight out as a means of escape.
Dr. Tom Catena and two others decided to stay, despite the danger. He reasoned that by leaving he would be saying that his life was of more value than the people he served. The people of the Nuba Mountains were as important as anyone else: their lives counted as much as his. So, he stayed.
As a result, Dr. Tom became the hospital’s sole surgeon, its orthopedist, its gynecologist and obstetrician, its oncologist, its epidemiologist, its internist, etc. He submitted to a life of being on call night and day 365 days of the year.
There are many extraordinary things about The Heart of Nuba. Its stunning cinematography of the region, with its scattering of acacia trees over its light green and gold hills, finds a gritty complement in its brave depiction of the peoples’ terror as they are being bombed. We witness graphic and yet matter-of-fact depictions of Dr. Tom Catena performing surgeries, from the removal of a baby girl’s cancer-engulfed kidney to a C-section delivery; even the brutish business of screwing in steel pins into bone to aid in the recovery of a high femur break.
The story is told economically, with adept editing and well-placed interviews with Dr. Catena and those around him, like the hospital’s matron, Sister Angelina. We also hear from Tom’s mother and dad and other family members as ill-health forces a visit with his large family in upstate New York.
Most of what we witness is loud and graphic and horrifying. The greatest achievement of the film, though, resides in its quiet depiction of what drives Dr. Tom Catena.
We see him arise each day before 6 a.m. and make his way to the compound’s chapel to pray the Rosary. He says little about this except that it helps him prepare for the day ahead.
As he hangs his scraps of laundry on a clothesline. He recalls Jesus’ dialogue with a young man known in the New Testament as the Rich Young Ruler. When the young man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him: “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor and come and follow me.” The young man turns away in sadness, because, as the passage recounts, he has many possessions.
Tom Catena studied that passage as a young man and reacted differently. “Let me see if I can take some of that,” he says, letting us into his thoughts, “and as literally as I can I want to follow that teaching.” He stops to pump some water from the community’s well. Then he says, “Very powerful message.”
Back in upstate New York, Tom’s father says about his son: “He has nothing, and yet, he has everything.”
At the same time, we see that Dr. Catena is no plaster-saint. He curses under his breath as he labors to make a surgery go right. He makes no bones about his hatred for Bashir and his war crimes, or his disgust with the greater world for its indifference to the people’s suffering. How can a leader bomb his own people day after day without a word being written on anybody’s newswire? In sum, “I’m tired of this shit.”
It doesn’t help that he’s alone, craving the intimacy of having his own family. Or that he suffers from hallucinatory fevers as the result of malaria, or that his diet consists of rice and beans, and for variety, beans and rice.
Even so, he stays, and while he has despairing moments, he continues on in hope. A key to this seems what he says after completing a surgery for cancer on a little girl named Rita. He has to remove one of her kidneys entirely as it has become engulfed by a tumor, and a large part of her other kidney as well, leaving her just enough capacity, he hopes, to recover and perhaps even lead a normal life. He remarks: “We’ve done what we can. Now the rest is up to God.”
The film naturally raises the question how someone like Dr. Catena can believe in a good God who would allow such suffering. The only other Western worker at the hospital, an administrator, Ingrid Revaug, speaks about hearing the children’s terrorized screams during the bombing raids. She wishes, as the viewer may as well, that she had never heard that sound. There’s no attempt to answer the question of how faith can be maintained in the face of such evil. If there’s an implied answer, it’s only the life Dr. Catena lives. He’s there. He’s as real as the questions he provokes.
As director Ken Carlson wrapped the documentary, he began showing it to selected people, including one of his neighbors in Santa Monica. The neighbor turned out to have a friend, who, for twenty years, served as a liaison for the Catholic Church to the Sudanese government. She thought a Sudanese political leader, the Chairman of the Parliamentary group of the National Congress at the National Assembly, Mahdi Ibrahim, should see the film.
Carlson could only wonder how someone close to Bashir would react. The director screened it for him, though. At its end, Mahdi Ibrahim literally dropped to his knees and wept openly. He insisted that Bashir himself must see the film. Ibrahim claimed that he had no idea such things were being done in his country.
Not long after, Carlson received an invitation to interview Bashir himself in Khartoum. He had seen the film and wanted to tell his side of the story.
Ken Carlson knew that interviewing Omar al-Bashir might prove the worst decision he had ever made. He did his best to ensure his safety, recruiting the globe-trotting New York Times reporter, Nicholas Kristoff, to go with him. (In the event Kristoff cancelled, as he had been summoned to interview North Korea’s Kim Jung Un–an interview that would never actually take place through no fault of Kristoff’s.)
In order to go, Carlson had to send a letter to Bashir’s administration admitting that he had entered Sudan illegally several times. Carlson would be exposing himself to the tyrant’s merciless caprices, having already confessed to breaking Sudanese law.
Waiting in a palace hallway before seeing Bashir, Carlson realized he could be taken at any moment and tortured and killed. He thought his only protection was that the Obama administration had recently lifted economic sanctions of Sudan provisionally. The government might not want to harm a US citizen before the incoming President Trump could lift the sanctions permanently.
Carlson was invited into a sitting room where he interviewed Omar al-Bashir on camera at length. This was the first time Bashir had been interviewed in this way since Ann Curry in 2007.
After pleasantries, Carlson asked Bashir if he prayed.
“Yes,” Bashir said, “as a Muslim I pray five times per day.”
“What do you pray for?” Carlson asked.
The tyrant’s returning glare showed the practitioner of genocide within. Then Bashir was off and running into his practiced spiel about state sovereignty, things done without his orders, the problems with the local militias, etc.
If you are going to lie, as Hitler observed, lie with abandon and keep lying—a policy Bashir strictly observed during the rest of the interview.
Nevertheless, Carlson was given to understand by Ibrahim Mahdi that the bombing had been ordered stopped after Bashir viewed his film. Carlson had no way of knowing how much truth there might be to this, but he could only be grateful for whatever role his documentary played.
This meant that Dr. Tom could stop picking shrapnel out of bombing victims and amputating limbs. It also meant that the hospital cold spare him for a time, as other medical personnel might volunteer on a short-term basis.
Carlson and other friends arranged for Dr. Catena to be properly treated before returning to his duties. The local bishop had commented that Dr. Catena had begun to look like a “walking skeleton.” When he finally received care, his doctors found two forms of tuberculosis, as well as malaria. Even then, Dr. Tom Catena did not rest but kept going on an international press junket for a humanitarian award he had been given, the Aurora Prize.
Dr. Catena then returned to the Nuba Mountains. With peace in the region, he started a family, marrying a local woman, Nasima, whose name means springtime. Nasima presently works as a nurse at the Mother of Mercy Hospital. The doctor and she have an adopted son named Francis Gene Catena. His long-delayed desire for a family of his own finally came to true.
On April 11, 2019 Omar al-Bashir was arrested by the Sudanese military (known today as the Forces of Freedom and Change), who installed themselves as a transitional government. The new government signed a Cessation of Hostilities Treaty with all the militias in the Nuba Mountains and another area of conflict, the Blue Nile region.
After being tried and convicted in Sudan for money laundering and corruption, Sudan’s transitional government agreed in February of 2020 to hand over Bashir to the International Criminal Court to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity in Darfur. As of today, however, Bashir remains in Sudan.
While a full transition to a peaceful Sudan has yet to be made, the cessation of hostilities has held, and a corridor for medical, food, and other humanitarian supplies to the Nuba Mountains is being considered.
The Heart of Nuba is available on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and iTunes.
You can read more about the story here. If you wish to donate to Dr. Tom Catena’s work, go here.