War in Africa is often condensed to a headline that is not very large or to a minute or less of video on TV. There are photos of anonymous troops and anonymous refugees. Each war becomes small number of pins in an oft-folded map.
David Law, a Christian lay missionary, sent this letter this week by electronic mail, offering a different, more personal view of the civil war in Zaire. Law works in a village outside the city of Kananga, in the country's south-central region; he is the master mechanic and an administrator at a large hospital and school, maintaining the cars and airplanes that bring in supplies.
Law, who is 52, has worked in Zaire for 25 years, following the example of missionary parents. His letter tells of government soldiers' unruly retreat. He has no plan to emulate them; he is staying.
The names of colleagues who might be in danger have been dropped from the text, but the people and their fears are real. This is their war.
Friday afternoon while I was working around the hospital, we began to notice a pick up in traffic on the road and that the vehicles were full of military. Naturally everyone became excited and nervous and began to car count. When the count topped 15 in an hour we knew that something major had happened to the east of us.
Sometime mid evening I was called to the door by one of the sentries. There was a load of troops wanting fuel. I went up and served them and got back home and into bed about 11 p.m. Around 2 a.m. I was roused out again and pretty well tied up with various demands for fuel, oil, brake fluid or repairs the rest of the night. I learned that one can mount a 15 inch tire on a 14 inch rim if one wants to bad enough.
The story told by these early visitors was that their colonel had gone out in a helicopter to scout for rebels and then sent a reconnaissance platoon out.
In any event this group ran into an ambush. The captain and those with him in the Landcruiser were killed by a "rocket." Probably a grenade launcher. The following trucks were racked with fire while it tried to turn around and most of the men were killed. I was told that they "stopped to pick up any that could talk," but I saw no evidence of anyone that would stop for anything.
Just after noon Saturday a white, low slung Toyota came in with a wounded soldier. He had a bullet hole through his foot. Two of the doctors here worked on him to clean up the wound and bandage it.
Once the patient was back up, folks begin to disperse. About this time a pickup showed up at the front gate with a patient who had been operated on earlier who needed his incision looked at. In the back of this vehicle was an armed officer who had been with me earlier in the day.
When they drove up I noticed that he very casually shifted his position to bring his weapon to bear on the patient and his partner. As casually as I could, I went for cover trying to get something solid between me and his gun.
After a few minutes the tension left the air and I tried to get a ride for the folks that had been left with the patient. He and his buddies would have none of it. That was when we realized we were in for some trouble.
They had seen the vehicles and their commander had gone to get reinforcements. Most of us began to try and move to the station but when a couple of the soldiers began to follow us, I decided to go back up and try to keep them with the vehicles, which was what they really wanted.
Once I got back up there things began to heat up. One of the guys with a bayonet on his gun began to work himself up into a froth asking for the keys and demanding that I start the vehicles. If I told him once, I told him a thousand times I did not have the keys. Then he was going to shoot all the cars, then he was going to shoot me, then he was going to stick me with his bayonet. Couldn't seem to make up his mind what he wanted to do.
Finally he made up his mind to attack one of the cars. After numerous bayonet holes he broke in the window and got in. One of my colleagues had tried to incapacitate this car by removing the filter and letting the air out of the front right tire. This did not improve their disposition. I was ordered to start it at bayonet point.
Imagine trying to hotwire a car, you know won't run, in the dark with a bayonet in your back. They alternated between hitting me in the back with their fists, waving a bayonet in my face, sticking a gun to my head and asking me for the keys. I never prayed so hard for a car to start in my life. Fortunately, there just enough fuel in the lines for it to fire up and they shoved me out of the way before the fuel ran out and it died again. It ran just long enough for them to think that the driver had killed it.
About this time their commander showed up with a bunch more soldiers and every thing got more confused. One would make a demand and when you started to do that someone else would grab you a shove you another direction to do something else.
Some time in the midst of this I was told to lay down to be shot. I was grabbed and forced to the ground. At this point I was convinced that it was over. I prayed for my family and waited to hear the crack of an AK-47. I don't really know what happened but suddenly someone grabbed me and demanded where the fuel was. I started to explain, and he said, "Show me."
I went to the door of the depot and pulled out my keys only to find that the key was not there. My heart sank and I thought again, "This is it!" The commander was there and I told him that I had given the key to one of the doctors earlier in the day, but I would get a hammer and break the lock. He immediately said 'take me to [the doctor]," and didn't want to entertain the suggestion that we break the lock.
We walked down to the station to try and find the doctor. The commander and three soldiers followed me down. I really felt terrible leading them to someone's house but didn't feel I had much option at that point.
We found the doctor's wife at home, and the doctor had gone "looking for me." I then told the commander that we check at another house and left. After getting away from the doctor's, I began again to argue that we were wasting time looking for someone that was looking for me and would wind up running in circles. He seemed to accept that and we started off.
As we walked though the very dark part of the road before PTC getting to the lights of the guesthouse I had a continuous chill up my spine. The clatter of grenades, bayonets, belt buckles and gun straps further added to my uneasiness. About half way up the road after once again praying for my family, I began to feel a clear sense of peace and calm.
A soon as I go back into the fence the "Go here, go there" routine started again. Again I was laid out but frankly didn't worry about it this time. I was more concerned that one of the guys starting the cars was going to driver over me laying in the middle of the road than that they were going to shoot.
When the commander rejoined us he asked that we open the fuel depot. I told him I needed to get a hammer from the garage it I was going to break the lock and he said OK. Once I opened the garage everyone seemed to get excited again.
I picked up a sledge to go break the lock. That was taken from me "so they could break my head," and I was told to haul a spare tire. I started out the door with that and was jerked back inside for what I'm not sure, but at this point the commander said "let him take the tire.'
At the fuel depot I was given the hammer and told to break the lock. I took a swing at the lock and broke it with the first lick. For some reason that all kinds of exclamations out of the group and a lot of laughter. I did my best to laugh with them. Inside I pointed out what was what and began to help find funnels and buckets and carry fuel out to the cars.
I was taken to another and told to break the steering lock. I need to study car thievery 'cause I couldn't break the thing for the life of me. We finally took the steering wheel off to where we could get a good swing and started pounding on the lock form all angles. Finally somehing up under the dash gave and the wheel would steer a little.
With engines roaring and fanbelts screaming they started out the gate, and I got on the bike to head for the hall inside the hospital. As a final farewell they began to shoot into the air, but the first crack made me think they were shooting at me. I hid my bike in the tall grass by the end of the kitchen and went looking for folks in the hospital. They came out of hiding and we had a reunion there in hallway.
After some talk and relieved laughter we went to the surgeon's to give him a report and let him know I was still alive. He served us some juice that was the best I ever tasted. It cut the cotton out of my mouth. There were times that if someone had said spit or we kill you I would have been dead my mouth was so dry.
After the meal we heard a jeep coming onto the station. We doused the lights and got ready to go out the back door. The jeep drove down to just in front of the surgeon's house and after some discussion drove back up to the intersection by construction yard and parked. After watching them from the window for a long time I decided maybe we should see what they wanted.
It turned out to be soldiers and officers from our local military camp who had come to take the last of the vehicles they hoped to take. They came back again around 3 a.m. but I was asleep fully clothed in a bed other than my own at that point.
Sometime shortly before dawn it began to rain. As the lightening flashed and the rain came down in torrents I lay in bed cheering God on. I figured maybe we might get something back if the road became a swamp. There are already reports of our vehicles stranded in different places. Supposedly the Land-cruiser was rolled three times between town and the river and eleven were killed. That is completely believable with the way they drove out of here but they weren't driving too fast for me.
The morning was fairly calm. Only a few shots fired from different directions but nothing real close. The surgeon and I stayed clear of the hospital afer learning that they had been asking for us by name the night before.
Around noon word came that we needed to get off the station. We then all headed for the woods below the airport and found a nice shaded spot to sit out the afternoon.
Both Sunday and Monday nights we have been out patrolling with other of the brethern. More as an early warning than anything else. We try to stay out of the way and listen. Everyone is looking forward to the rebels' arrival and wonder what is taking them so long.
In spite of a few bruises and a tendency to break into a sweat when remembering some of the events of the last few days I
have to say it has been precious. Not the new tales for the grandkids, but the relationships. Not the excitment but the team work. Not the absence from loved ones but the sense of our Lord's presence. We have had our hearts joined to the ones with whom we serve in a way that I never have experienced before.
I believe that God called us just for such a time and prepared us for just such a time and has helped us be faithful in just such a time.
One last prayer request. I still need to get home before April 26 for my daughter's wedding. I don't want Leveda and I to wind up in the 'Can this marriage be saved' column if I don't make it.
Yours . . . because of Him,
Pub Date: 4/11/97