An Easter Evacuation

Photo taken just before evacuation take off from CAR

Sipping my coffee early Saturday morning this Easter weekend, I’m finally enjoying the taste once again. Earlier this week, malaria had knocked me down me with high fevers, night sweats, body aches and pains. Getting any type of nourishment into my body was a chore, and drinking coffee was the farthest thing from my mind. Being sick, I mean really scary sick, was no fun at all. One of the feverish nights, when my temperature reached 105° and Lesli was frantically working to cool me by all means possible, I wondered if my body might not be able to regulate itself. It was frightening. I mean, really frightening. But along with my sickness came an incredible wave of love and support. Family and friends were lifting me up to the Lord, praying for my healing. Emails of encouragement filled my inbox letting me know they were walking with me in this difficult time of illness. A paradox of suffering and thanksgiving filled my time of illness.

But now, the coffee is finally tasting good again and the phone rings, interrupting my restful Saturday morning. The conversation with the caller is brief. As I hang up the phone, I start packing my overnight bag. Within minutes, I hug my family, wish them a “Happy Easter” and head off to the airport. Fighting has broken out again in Central African Republic (CAR). A militant Islamic group conducted an offensive last night shelling the area near the mission compound, making for a very fearful night for the missionary families serving there. Now I’m off to evacuate them from the troubled area.

At the airport, the Caravan has already been fuelled and prepared for flight by my AIM AIR teammates, allowing me to jump in the plane and start my initial leg to the CAR. This journey will be a race against the clock, as landing after sunset is prohibited at all but a few airports in East Africa, since the dirt air strips are without runway lighting. The Lord blesses me greatly with strong tailwinds bringing me to Arua, Uganda in just 2.5 hours. At Arua, the plane is refuelled and another AIM AIR pilot joins me for the next leg of our journey. We usually fly single piloted, but evacuations are complex, requiring additional teamwork. We takeoff and begin our 2.5 hour flight to the CAR. Along the way, we discuss our procedures for the contingency plan of conducting a “hot load”, loading the passengers while the engine is still running. We review airfield limits and fine tune the maximum load we will be able to takeoff with from the mission runway that adjoins the missionary housing area.

View of some of the lush landscape at the mission compound in CAR. (*photo taken 3 weeks ago when Dan brought kids home from boarding school)

Flying over the beautiful landscape, I gaze down at the lush countryside. It is hard to imagine that this area is so hostile with fighting, as beauty abounds. This rich and vastly uninhabited land produces an abundance of food, with small game readily available to hunt. The bush country spreads for miles and miles with little sign of human impact. But this is exactly the reason that rebel groups, like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), have used it to hide out in for years. Large swaths of territory laying vacant make it an oasis for war lords, militias, and thugs to evade detection while living simply off the land. Now an Islamic militant group is pressing hard in the region, threatening life in the area. The CAR’s government is severely weakened, preventing them from being able to govern their borders completely. U.S. and Ugandan troops are in the area in very limited numbers, trying to provide stability in an otherwise lawless region. Last night, when the shelling was occurring nearby, U.S. Special Forces had offered to fly the missionaries out if they felt immediately threatened, but the shelling was far enough away that the missionaries did not request their services.

Our flight to the mission station goes by quickly and we circle overhead. The pre-coordinated signal on the ground giving the “all clear” is spotted, confirming that it is safe to land. Another Caravan had arrived two hours earlier for the first load of missionaries and all went well, but we are keenly aware of how quickly the environment can change. I bring the airplane around the pattern and line up for landing, making sure my airspeed and aim point on the ground are right on target. This is no time for a missed approach. The bad guys don’t need an extra opportunity to know we have arrived.

CAR man harvesting fruit from one of the beautiful, tall mango trees (*photo taken 3 weeks ago when Dan brought kids home from boarding school)

As I bring the aircraft to a stop on the runway and shut down the engine, missionaries and villagers surround the plane. We exchange hasty greetings and rapidly begin loading their bags into the airplane. The scene is vastly different from my arrival here 3 weeks ago, when I flew their children back from boarding school for a month long school holiday. That was a festive time accompanied by huge smiles, welcome home signs and laughter. Now the mood is starkly different. Feelings of sadness and shock are thick in the air at having to leave their home, friends and ministry with such painful abruptness. The missionaries give tearful hugs and say heart breaking goodbyes to their many CAR friends. A local pastor prays in a tongue I do not understand, yet my heart prays earnestly with him.

With the missionaries now on board, I take one more walk around the aircraft to make sure everything is in order. My eyes take in all of the people beyond the aircraft. The villagers, who are lined along the runway, have come to wave goodbye. “But what about them?” I ask myself, “What will become of them?” They have no aircraft to come and whisk them away from the shelling. They have no special forces to come and ask if they need to be flown away to safety. Last night, as the shelling occurred, many of them came to the mission compound hangar seeking shelter. What will become of them now?

Airplane safely tucked away for the night (*photo taken 3 weeks ago when Dan brought kids home from boarding school)

With no answers and only more questions that turn silently in my mind, I board the aircraft and mentally switch gears. Checklists and procedures are all I need to focus on now. The runway is short and the plane is heavy; contemplative thoughts will have to wait for another time.

Once airborne, we pass over the village. Huge mango trees, a little river nearby, lush green all around…it is such a beautiful place. In this beautiful setting, what will happen to the church that remains? Amid the Islamic pressures that are bearing down on the region, will the church remain strong? Will they suffer? Will missionaries be able to return someday soon, even if U.S. and Ugandan troops pull out, as current rumors suggest? So many questions with no clear answers. But God knows. He will not be sidetracked, taken off course, nor any of His plans hampered with. He knows what is next and He will be there with His church as they glorify His precious name throughout the land. Our view of things is murky, as if looking through smoky glass. His view is all knowing and He is all powerful. I take great comfort and confidence that my questions for the CAR people left behind remain in God’s very capable hands.

Church at the mission compound in CAR (*photo taken 3 weeks ago when Dan brought kids home from boarding school)

We arrive back to Arua, Uganda 30 minutes before our sunset limit with our weary missionaries. They are sad to have been abruptly removed from their homes, but thankful to be away from the fighting. The Lord used so many people throughout the Africa Inland Mission family to make this all possible.

I think of the large team of supporters who prayed throughout the last week for my healing. Just a few days ago, Lesli and I cancelled a teaching trip we were supposed to make to a small church up-country, because I was not well. Unknowingly, that decision allowed me to be available when I was needed to fly this evacuation. But it was your faithful prayers that brought about quick healing so that I was healthy enough to fly. Thank you for laboring with us as the Lord uses you in expanding His Kingdom! We are incredibly grateful for your friendship and partnership as we serve with you in East Africa!