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Sunday, June 18, 2017

20 Years ago today, we ran from war

June 18, 1997, was one of the most terrifying days in our lives.  We had been in Uganda 4 years, and were just hitting a stride with medical care, community health, a new training program for young nursing students.  Luke was 4, Caleb was 2, Julia was 8 months, and Jack was a yet-to-be-known-about few weeks in utero.  The other families had left for the summer, but we were settled in with newly arrived interns, two single team mates, and one young couple.  Rebel invasions were not on our radar.

Now 20 years later, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) still terrorize eastern Congo.  They raided a prison last week and freed 900 prisoners, many no doubt merely poor and unfortunate victims of injustice but some potentially dangerous.  They are a bit limited in scope these days, but certainly not gone.  Two decades ago, however, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the flight and pursuit of the Interhamwe,  ascension of Kabila, the ADF were on the rise and our home in remote Bundibugyo became a war zone.  Many suffered much more than we did, including our best Ugandan friend Dr. Jonah who lost his father in that time.  In honor of the principle that telling the story and grieving the losses and clinging to faith are essential steps in healing, I will copy below a chapter from our lives that both sent us into a grey zone of uncertainty and sorrow, and paradoxically bonded us to a place we continued to call home for many more years.  The way of the cross sometimes involves a very messy path.

(circa 1997, and in honor of Father's Day today)

(The incursion had begun a couple of days earlier, but we had been reassured by the presence of Ugandan military and the hope that the battles would stay distant from our home.  We were wrong) . . .

Weds June 18, 1997, 6 a.m.
Gunfire, loud, continuous, close. 

We roll out of bed to the floor in the clothes we had slept in, and crawl into the bathroom, the least-exposed part of the house.  It is the hour of dawn when one can just barely distinguish objects from shadow.  A clinical compartment of my mind finds the extreme physiologic effects of adrenaline shocking:  I would never have guessed that my mouth could feel so parched, my knees so wobbly, my stomach so dropped.  This is the end, I think.  We are about to be killed.

We pray.  In whispers.

Scott crawls to the front of the house, peeks out, as the arcs and flares of tracer bullets cross the yard.  No one is talking, yelling, crying, there is only the explosion of gunfire and the vacuum of fear.

We are in the thick of the battle now, no longer observers.

Somehow in the next half hour, we get the whole team to our house again, ducking, gasping.  Jonah and family are nowhere to be found (we had given them shelter when the battles began two days earlier), they must have already long run.  We get the kids out of their beds, put on their shoes with shaking hands, tying laces, keeping them quiet.  We grab our diaper bag back-pack and the satellite phone.  And then we run.  Staying holed up in the house is no longer an option in our minds.  These are Al-Quaeda trained rebels, who would be expected to search out and kill Americans.  These are desperate men who would hope to steal medicine or money from people like us.  This is not the edge of battle anymore, it is an attack, moving right into our yard.  One by one we slip out the back, climb over the fence, and run at a stoop into the shadows of the paths that twist away from town and into the bush.  I have 8-month-old Julia in a locally made front-pack type carrier, and the diaper bag with a few diapers, baby cereal, blanket, a change of clothes for the kids, on my back, and Luke holds my hand, running on his own 4-year-old legs.  I had stuck in their favorite duplo car and motorcycle, with little grey-haired duplo people they called Grammy and Grampy.  I thought we might be able to keep them quiet in a dangerous spot with that.  Scott carries 2-year-old Caleb, but just before climbing over the flimsy reed fence turns back to the house to get our dog, Angie, who was cowering on the front porch.

I run for a ways, then look back for Scott.  I can’t see him on the path.  I pull Luke into a clump of bushes and we hide, waiting.  The gunfire is still intense, surrounding us.  Luke and Julia are miraculously silent, sensing the danger. 

I pass the most excruciating moments of my life.  It feels like years.  Scott is not coming.  The others are ahead of me.  What if he or Caleb have been shot?  What if he is lying in the yard, wounded, or dead?  Should I run back?  Or should I stay with Julia and Luke, trying to keep them safe?  If I die, they would surely die.  How can a mother choose between children, husband?


Then he is there, with Caleb, with Angie our dog on a leash, and Rick bringing up the rear.  We move on in our crouching run, catching up with Greg and Beth, Heather, Rob and Jeremy.  Eleven of us, passing silent houses, no sign of the inhabitants. 

As we move further from Nyahuka, the gunfire becomes more muted.  We slow to a walk.  It seems ludicrous to think that the vines and elephant grass will protect us from stray bullets, but we feel safer in the closeness of the path.  Rob, it turns out, is a cross-country runner.  He offers to carry Luke, and he and Scott switch off between the two boys through the day. God’s provision for parents of three very small children, we could not have trekked the probably 20 kilometers of rough terrain we cover that day carrying all three of them ourselves.    We do not have the tents or provisions we had gathered two days earlier, we don’t have much.  But we do have the briefcase-sized satellite phone.

As the morning wears on, our path joins other paths, until we find ourselves walking down a dirt road in a proverbial tide of would-be refugees.  Exactly what you would see on CNN, tired bewildered people, focused on escape, hoisting basins of food and clothes and trussed chickens, yanking at reluctant goats, kicking up dust, sober.  We blend into the flow of forbearing Africans as much as a family with three small blond people can.  The sun is fully up now. I wonder how long we can manage on our small bottles of water. 

Advice and rumor spread.  Go to Congo, the UPDF will help you there.  Don’t go to Congo, the ADF are headed there.  Go to Bundibugyo town, the UPDF are back in control.  Don’t go to Bundibugyo town, the ADF are still fighting there. 

To our south, the almost 17 thousand foot peaks of the Rwenzoris, glacial, impassable.  To our east, the range stretches down to a potentially crossable 9 thousand feet, but this is the very territory where the ADF rebels had hidden, from which they had launched the attack.  To our west, a river, and then the Congo with its vast impenetrable rain forest.  Since the ADF came from years of hiding in Congo, this does not seem to be a good direction for us, and even without the ADF the Congolese could be nearly as dangerous.  Millions of people were later calculated to have died in this territory in the late 90’s.  So we veer away from the massive westward stream eventually, and head on obscure footpaths back northeast towards town, our only option.  Perhaps if we avoid the road, and stay as hidden in the bush as we can, we can slip past any ADF and reach the center of Bundibugyo town, which we think is probably back in Ugandan military hands.

We choose paths as best we can, having never walked this way before, stopping at a stream where Heather washes her feet, bleeding and blistered from all the miles. Luke on Rob’s back, Caleb on Scott’s, Julia nursing as we go.  Through dense bush, past deserted homes.  We are grimy, hot, filthy.  Our jeans tear where we fall.  Once an armed lone man in fatigues walks by us, silently.  I think now he was probably an ADF; we were each trying to escape each other.  We follow steep slick paths crossing ravines, then climbing.  Dense forest, palm trees, the occasional mud-walled compound, disconcertingly silent. 

By mid day we are exhausted, thirsty, tired. We stop in a church compound where some people are cooking.  I am offered use of a pan and their fire to cook up some porridge for our hungry kids, and someone shares their bananas with us.  For months we had struggled with illness and poor weight gain for Julia and especially Caleb, neither had any margin for hunger, and I don’t know if or when we can get them any other food.  For once the playing field is, briefly, level.  We have no car, no food, no money, no rescue, no plan.  We sit outside on the ground with others, stirring a pan over a fire, uncertain, with no protective barrier between us and the daily realities of survival for everyone around us.  We are far from any battle now, though people are cautious and edgy, they are not running.  We could hear and see helicopters, which seemed to be landing in Bundibugyo Town, our destination.  We take this as a good sign, surely only the UPDF has helicopters, not the ADF, so the town must be safe.  Scott sets up the satellite phone, with only a few minutes of battery power left.

He calls the embassy again, and tells them we are fleeing on foot, but if the town proves safe we would like to go there, and perhaps be put on one of those helicopters.  Then the battery dies, and we are on our own.

We can not stay on the exposed hilltop church compound indefinitely.  Rick and Greg volunteer to scout the final kilometer into town, while we wait, nervously, for their return.  If the town is not in government hands, we don’t want to walk into the middle of an ongoing battle carrying our kids.  The helicopter continues to appear and disappear, and since we are fairly certain these rebels have no vehicles or aircraft, we take that as a good sign.  It is nevertheless tense waiting for the two men to come back.

They return with a green light; we trudge onward, the final kilometer of steep ascent on little used paths, avoiding the main road.  Now we see dead bodies, mostly uniformed ones, presumably ADF.  As we clear the top of the ridge we pass the line of UPDF (Ugandan soldiers) with their tripod-mounted guns, lying in wait, aiming in the direction we’ve come from, protecting the perimeter of the town. The UPDF are indeed back in control.  They seem unsurprised to see our little parade of Americans emerging from the bush to seek safety behind their lines.  They are, however, unaware of the attack on Nyahuka, until we arrive, so our reports result in a flurry of action to deploy military in that direction.  We stop in the first place we come to, the Picfare “hotel”, hoping for something to drink and news.  From there we walk through town on the main road past the hospital to Dr. Moll’s house, the only other resident foreigners in the district.  Right in the middle of town a body lays in the middle of the road, the chaos of a situation such that a human body lying in a heaped angle, in the road, would not attract any action or concern.  I try to divert the kids’ attention, and we also simply pass it by.

Dr. Moll and his wife tell us their story.  They had been on the road near town Monday morning during the first attack.  They were captured by rebels and made to lie down, tied, on the floor of a mud house, searched and groped but otherwise not harmed.  When the UPDF responded to the ADF attack, they used the distraction and confusion of the ensuing battle to roll out the door, across the road, and down the hill, until the battle ended and the UPDF resumed control.  Now they are trying, like us, to get to a safer place. 

After a day of running through the bush, sitting down at the Moll’s neat German compound is an incongruous paradise.  Very soon the message comes that we should all report to the central town “square”, the large open assembly area used for public gatherings next to the administrative offices.  Our embassy has contacted the UPDF high command, and we are ordered to get onto the next helicopter evacuating wounded soldiers.  As we walk back through town and join the crowd of the curious, we learn that two high ranking church of Uganda officials have been trapped here on a visit, and four random young European hikers who had chosen the wrong weekend to cross the mountains (tourists were very rare in Bundibugyo).  The Ugandan government wants all of us OUT.  Nothing is worse for tourism, upon which many livelihoods depend, than the death of foreigners in a border skirmish. 

So we wait, bracing against the deafening roar and rushing wind of the landing helicopter.  The wounded are loaded first, on stretchers, then the unfortunate tourists, the stately church officials, and lastly our team.  Rick tells us as we wait that he will not get on, that God has put him in Bundibugyo for such a time as this, that he has no kids or wife to care for and he wants to stay.  We respect that, even though it is a hard decision for all of us to hear at the time, splitting our little fellowship of survival, casting doubt.  There is little time to react, we are being motioned forward, ducking, shouting above the noise, climbing into the darkness of the helicopter’s interior.  The kids are crying, finally, the frightening noise of the helicopter, the chaos and unfamiliarity, the stressful day catching up with them.  Scott brings up the rear, and there is some pause. 

Angie, the dog.  Of course we still have her with us, on a leash.  The UPDF draw the line.  Bajungu they will take, even their small children, but NOT their dog.  So Scott runs back and hands the leash to Rick, who is gracious even though this is not a burden he would choose.  Dr. Moll has, it turns out, intentionally taken the hospital truck to get “one more thing” and missed the flight too, though his wife is on board.  Like Rick he is glad to get us off, but not quite ready himself.  He will come out out a few days later.

Within seconds we lift off, the danger and noise of battle receding rapidly below us, swallowed in the dense green of the jungle, the deep crevices of the mountain.  From the sky the district looks calm, innocent.  And what is usually a many-hour harrowing jolting nauseating car ride becomes an effortless fifteen minute flight.  We cross over the lowest part of the ridge, hovering above banana trees and crater lakes, then eastward to the town of Fort Portal.  The helicopter touches down on a football pitch proximal to the hospital, we jump out into a normal day of sunshine and care-less people, incongruously unaffected.

Now what?  There we are, ten of us now, with no real plan.  Scott manages to get us rides in the back of a small pick-up.  We head for the Mountains of the Moon hotel, in those days about the only place in town to get a bed and dinner (it is now unrecognizably renovated into a luxury resort, but in those days it was basic cement and velor, unchanged since it was built in the 30’s I’m guessing, low quality and endearingly familiar).  On the way our truck stops for fuel, and a woman parliamentarian spots us as she fills her tank at the station.  She comes over to our pick-up to talk to Scott about the situation in Bundibugyo, and after one look at him gives him her free-with-a-full-tank T shirt.  Here, you need this more than I do, she says.  That epitomizes our situation.  We have nothing, we are filthy, we smell of fear and dirt and escape, and we are dependent upon the charity of others.

The Mountains of the Moon staff brings buckets of hot water, with the sweet charcoal smell of the open fire where it was heated.  We pour them into the nonfunctional bath tub and take off our filthy clothes and bathe.  The day behind us feels like a hundred years have passed.  Without clean clothes, or cribs, we just wrap up in the frayed sheets and all lay down on the bed together, exhausted.  And sleep.
(circa 1998, after the above events . . )


Anette Veldhuyzen said...

Wow! I'm glad the Lord had something different in mind than an immediate departure for greener pastures.

Hunter said...

Thank you for the memories. What a time of terror and rescue. So much sadness and relief. Thankful for you all.