WASHINGTON -- A story can be inspirational without having a happy ending.
Activist Jim Jacobson of Christian Freedom International is used to seeing suffering during his illegal visits to Southern Sudan, where war bands sent by Khartoum's Islamist regime continue to terrorize Christians, animists and even other Muslims. But his face still clouds over when he describes what happened this April to a tribal matriarch in the burned-out village of Akoch Payam.
It's not an unusual story. That's the problem. It's a frighteningly ordinary snapshot of life in the overseas twilight zones in which intolerance, violence, politics and big business are creating nightmares for many believers.
"Religious persecution is so widespread and the issue is so complex. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing that governments and bureaucrats can do," said Jacobson, a former Reagan White House staff member who now works in hands-on relief work. "There are so many stories to tell that you can end up leaving people stunned. I mean, everybody talks about Sudan and China. But this is bigger than that. Things are happening all over the world."
To cite one example, Jacobson noted that he has made nine trips into Burma during the past 12 months, leading "backpack medical teams" into areas in which the government is pitting Buddhists against Baptists, with tragic results. He's also watching events unfold here in the nation's capital, where the new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom - which grew out of legislation passed last year - is holding its first meetings.
Meanwhile, Sudan's hellish civil war is finally receiving attention because of a strong media hook - the renewal of slave trade. But, again, the story is more complex than that.
When Jacobson's plane landed, a family rushed out with the body of a grandmother named Anchor Ring. She had been hacked with a machete as more raiders rolled through the region on horseback, stealing the latest United Nations shipment of food and kidnapping new slaves to carry away the spoils. The head wound was so deep that Jacobson and a journalist traveling with him could see the yellow membrane around her brain.
Her tribesmen pleaded: Could the plane carry her to Lokichokio? A hospital there, just over the border in Kenya, offered the latest in Western technology.
"We radioed the U.N. compound, but we already knew what would happen," said Jacobson. "They asked if she had a passport and visa to travel into Kenya. Right! Does she have a passport and visa? First of all, we're hundreds of miles out in the bush. It's like stepping back 6,000 years in time out there. On top of that, we're in rebel territory in the middle of a civil war. Who has the power to give out passports? The government in Khartoum, that's who."
No, she didn't have a passport and visa. Then the hospital is full, said a U.N. official.
The tribesmen could see that the plane was half-empty and they struggled to grasp the politics of the situation. They didn't understand that, just over the border, bureaucrats were waiting with a book of regulations. They would make Jacobson turn the plane around and take the injured woman back into the bush, back into the war zone in which her grandchildren were being kidnapped and sold into slavery. It would cost nearly $10,000 to make the symbolic gesture of flying her to the hospital, knowing she would be turned away.
Jacobson did what he could, leaving behind medical supplies that might save her life.
Whenever he tells this story, listeners want to know if Anchor Ring survived. And what about the others injured in the raid? What about those who were kidnapped as slaves? What about the burned houses, the burned churches?
"I don't know what happened to her," said Jacobson. "There's no easy way to communicate with those villages, except to go there. We'll have to go back and we will go back. There's just so many places we need to go, right now."