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“The Heart of Nuba”

One doctor. One hospital. One million patients.

The power of one on display like no other in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

They come to him by foot, by cart or carried in their mother’s arms — the only surgeon within 200 miles.

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For American-born Tom Catena, medicine, faith and his love for these forgotten people are his life.

Always on call.

Some treatment is routine, but sadly, much of Dr. Catena’s work is utterly heartbreaking.

Innocent people targeted by a brutal dictator — the victims of indicted war criminal Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s relentless bombings.

With a lack of humanitarian and media attention, daily life was often interrupted by the sound of jets overhead and a sprint to a fox hole below.

But that’s all starting to change — thanks, in part, to an explosive new documentary called “The Heart of Nuba.”

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Director Kenneth Carlson spent three months in this remote area of Sudan risking his life to tell the story about a man some call “Jesus Christ.”

“Normally I get up around 5:30 and start off with a daily mass,” Catena told CNN’s Isha Sesay. “Then, I start hospital rounds at 7:30. I do rounds on all the wards and see anywhere from 300 to 450 patients. When that’s over, I often go to clinic and see 50 to 60 more in clinic.

“On operating days, I usually do an abbreviated round  on the ward and then go to the operating room where we have 15 or 16 operations for that day scheduled.

“And then, of course, seven days a week, on non-operative days, we have emergencies coming in all the time. So I’m always on call for emergencies that pop up.”

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He never stops.

And Dr. Tom has kept up this pace for ten years living far from his upstate New York roots in a hut with very few possessions.

For most of his tenure, Dr. Tom has lived through war.

“The fighting broke out on June 6, 2011,” Catena recounted. “After that, there was a lot of fighting close to us in villages that were maybe an hour from here.

“I think that fear that one feels when the Sudan Air Force bombers and jets are overhead — you can never explain to anybody unless you’ve been in that situation.

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“It’s terrifying. It’s traumatizing to see bodies torn to pieces by the actions of a dictator. It’s something I’ll never get out of my mind.

“I think it’s a combination of my personal faith and the resilience and the will of the people here is what keeps me and the rest of our team going here.”

So why not leave?

“Well, the way I see it — in good conscience I can’t,” Catena said. “I’m a medical doctor. My job is to take care of sick people, people that are wounded, people that are hurting, people that are traumatized. People here need it. I’m not saying this as a boast by any means — but if I leave, people won’t get that care… and I simply cannot do that. And I won’t do that.”

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“The Heart of Nuba” captures it all. Dr Tom’s soul. His unending drive. His love for the people of the region.

It also captures their terror.

Kenneth Carlson was filming as bombs rained down targeting the hospital. Villagers ran for cover, trembling in fear.

“I was in fear of my life several times,” Carlson told CNN. “But the Nuba Mountains has a strange way of drawing you in. When you’re there, I like to say that it’s calm, until it’s not.”

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“I was in the O.R. with Tom and you could hear this rumbling, the low Antonov noise, and we had to stop down and walk outside and, sure enough, they were coming by.

“We didn’t know if they were going to drop, circle or go somewhere else. It’s that tentative nature that you live in there. So you’re always living in fear — the entire population is… so you’re always looking for a foxhole.”

Carlson wanted the world to watch what he saw — what Dr. Tom and the people of Nuba experience every day.

But in a country rife with violence and a world weary from wars on the continent, there was concern that there wouldn’t be an audience for this documentary. In fact, many festivals and outlets initially turned Carlson down.

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“We’re changing that,” Carlson said, defiantly. “I am not going to stop until this part of the world is a household name and until President al-Bashir steps down or stops this.

“There is a cease-fire right now that has been called. And that’s great. But there still is this ominous cloud hanging over these people — because for years they’ve been bombed, threatened and the atrocities that have taken place are overwhelming.

“It’s a difficult subject. One, because it’s about Africa. Two, because it’s about a war-zone. And three, there’s a graphic nature to it. But I think we achieved a tipping point.”

In fact, buzz from the film reached Omar al-Bashir. He’s an indicted war criminal who has been charged with genocide for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his own people in Darfur.

Fearing global backlash for his actions in Nuba, the Sudanese president first agreed to a ceasefire in the region and then to a sit-down interview with Carlson.

Clips from their discussion were shown publicly for the first time on CNN.

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Carlson asked al-Bashir, “Are you familiar with Dr. Tom Catena in the Nuba Mountains? Have you heard of him?”

The president responded: “I’ve heard about him and his efforts in the Nuba Mountains.”

Carlson followed up, “You’re the commander-in-chief. You know what’s going on militarily and in other parts of government. Are you aware of the fact that a hospital, the Mother Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains, was bombed?”

His answer: “Of course, no human being would ever target a hospital. But during the war, mistakes take place and this is known as a military term — ‘friendly fires.'”

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The answer did not sit well with Carlson. “I found the situation to be surreal,” he told CNN.

“I had been building a case against the president of Sudan for many years, at that point. He is my antagonist. The villain of my film. To be presented with an opportunity to actually meet with him, it was in some ways daunting, but it was exhilarating — the thought that I actually had a chance to get answers.”

Omar al-Bashir has refused interviews from countless other Western journalists over the years. So why Ken Carlson?

“Because he knows the impact of this movie,” according to Omer Ismail, Senior Policy Adviser with Enough Project.

Ismail told CNN, “He knows that this documentary is going to air and the world would see. Bashir doesn’t care about the Nuba Mountains or what Dr. Catena is doing down there. All that he cares about is that this is an opportunity for him to say what he wants to say to the world.

“That is why he is denying that his army targeted the hospital and he’s saying that that is just collateral damage.”

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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written extensively about the crisis in Sudan. He is concerned that in today’s 24-hour hyper-political news cycle, important stories like “The Heart of Nuba” gets squeezed out.

“I think that there are two things going on that are very unfortunate,” Kristof told CNN. “One is that the Trump Administration has retreated from what had been a bi-partisan commitment to human rights and the State Department is much less staffed and aggressive on these issues that it used to be.

“But we in journalism can’t simply lay the blame on the State Department or the Trump Administration because we essentially have dropped the ball, as well.

“The controversies over President Trump have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. As we in the media struggle for a business model, and as we discover that if you put two talking heads in a room and have them yell about President Trump, people will tune in — while it’s a lot harder to get people to pay attention to what is happening in South Sudan, in the Nuba Mountains, in Darfur, in Yemen, to the Rohingya in Myanmar.

“We in the news media claim special privileges, describe our role in society — we have to be held accountable as well for providing a spotlight on humanitarian crises around the world. And that’s exactly what Ken’s documentary does.”

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Dr. Tom says it’s hard not to feel forgotten as he continues to heal the sick and injured and push for change in Sudan. “Certainly now we are way off people’s radar,” Catena said.

“My hope is that this (documentary) will help bring things back into focus a bit to say that there is still a conflict here, we’re nowhere near a peace resolution — not only us here in Nuba but in Darfur and Blue Nile, the place is still a mess.

“Bashir’s feet need to be held to the fire to really make a durable peace for the people of Sudan.”

Catena was awarded the Aurora Prize For Awakening Humanity for his efforts in the Nuba Mountains. True to form, Dr. Tom donated all of the money to his hospital and other causes to help his adopted country.

George Clooney, Academy Award-winning actor and Co-Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, commended Dr. Catena by stating, “As violence and war continue to threaten people’s spirits and perseverance, it is important to recognize, empower and celebrate people like Dr. Catena who are selflessly helping others to not only survive, but thrive. Dr. Catena is a role model to us all, and yet another example of people on the ground truly making a difference.”

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The ceasefire that his story helped inspire has made a real difference on the ground. “That sort of grinding, everyday fear and anxiety is not there — and you can see it with the people. We don’t have the fear of the Antonov flying over head or the Sukhoi flying over head. So things are definitely better.

“The problem now is that we’re just in a state of limbo. We’re in a sense waiting for the fighting to start again because we know that there’s not a peace agreement. We know both sides are very far from an agreement. We don’t expect any humanitarian aid coming in. So we’re sort of waiting for the sparks to start flying again.”

To support Dr. Tom Catena’s efforts at Mother Mercy Hospital — visit heartofnuba.com.

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Written and produced by: Ben Bamsey with Isha Sesay and Alex Meeks for “CNN Newsroom L.A.”

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