March 24, 2013….this date will always be fixed in my mind as one of the most important and memorable dates of my life. A year ago today, was Palm Sunday and I was living in Gamboula, Central African Republic at the time. It was the holidays for us and a number of families were staying with us during the spring break. Yet even in the midst of enjoying a break from school and the joy which that brings, a threat was looming over our heads. Over the past three or four months, we had been in a state of watchful and anxious peace. Just before Christmas, rebels from Chad and eastern CAR had invaded the country and were marching on the capital. This invasion caused many missionaries within the interior of the country to flee westward to Gamboula since we were the westernmost mission station in the country and were only 45 minutes from the nearest Cameroonian town (Kentzou). The rebels were unsuccessful in taking the capitol then and retreated to the north and east of Bangui. We enjoyed a wonderful Christmas time with nearly 40 people over that period of time (not everyone was there at once)! After Christmas we didn’t hear much about rebel activity until March when the rebels attacked Bangui again.
That weekend, as the rebels were “knocking on the door” (an old Larry Munson phrase), we gathered on the Saturday night to discuss our plans for evacuation. Many of the men had been out hunting early that day and had thankfully just come in that night for the meeting. We ate pizza, watched half of the Super Bowl and then began to discuss our plans. One family with young children expressed the wish to leave the following morning. Some families wanted to stay longer. At that time, we heard a knock at the door which made us very nervous since it was about 9 pm. It was one of the nurses from the hospital who told us that the the village police were moving their families up from town to the mission station. Something was up but we didn’t know what. We agreed to have a meeting the following morning.
Palm Sunday dawned and at 9 am we had our meeting. I remember that conflicted with the church service so most of us didn’t go. We hadn’t heard any news of yet about what was going on in Bangui but many expressed their wishes to evacuate. We decided that if families wanted to leave that day they could; the Turks wanted to stay until the last possible moment. We all thought that it could take a week until things got bad our way.
As we finished the meeting and we hung around talking outside, Roy Danforth came riding up on his bike and told us that Bangui had fallen to the rebels. We knew now we all needed to make preparations for evacuation. We also heard that the border in Cameroon had closed which was expected but we didn’t realize til later why exactly it had closed. I went back to my house to pack the rest of my belongings and to try to Skype back home. One benefit to being single is that you don’t have much to pack so it didn’t take me long to all my belongings in two bags. My computer was the last thing to pack so I remember getting on it and finding my dad was on Skype. It was about noon in Gamboula and probably 6 in the morning back home; dad was preparing for his sermon that morning. I told him of the situation and that one of the other families wanted to leave that day but the Turks (the family I worked for) didn’t want to leave yet. I had no desire to wait till the last possible minute and began to discuss that with Dad. Just then, Roy knocked on the front door and told my roommate and I that ex-government troops with rebels in pursuit were heading west and we needed to head out as soon as possible. I told Dad to be praying for us, that we had to go, and turned off the computer.
For the next two hours, my roommate and I packed the house, settled our accounts, and helped others with their packing. We had to get rid of some food and I think we were the only ones who ate a lunch. I was over at the Turks around 2 pm and was talking to someone when all of a sudden, the village erupted in chaos. Rumors sprang up like wildfire: The rebels were here! Then we realized that rebels were not at the mission station but in Gamboula proper only 15 minutes away! Luke and Leanne Turk were busy locking things up and finalizing their accounts while I got everyone to pack up the truck. We were literally throwing the most important things in the back of the truck in a mad frenzy. A couple of the kids were crying and I tried to console them and tell them that no matter what happened, “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). I too was very nervous; I remember my stomach churning with adrenaline. A couple of the Turk boys also had to rush some of their pets off to other friends. Just as everything was packed, my roommate came and told me he had a car waiting for us. I went to the back alleyway and 8 vehicles were lined up with the other missionaries ready to go. I got into the lead vehicle with my roommate and another missionary. Ahead of us was one of the nurses on his motorcycle. I couldn’t see the Turks anywhere but off we went.
We had to go a longer route to the south since the normal route was cut off by rebels. As we passed through the village, people cheered us on and waved goodbye (they had given us permission to leave and loved us dearly and wanted us to be safe). So off we went, down on of the worst roads I’ve ever been on. We got to a small bridge and just as our vehicle got on it, our car broke down and wouldn’t move! The clutch had slipped but thankfully the Turks had joined the caravan and Luke was a mechanic. He hammered something and then switched places with our driver and we resumed our journey to the border. We were 9 vehicles and 31 expats, adults and children included.
We came to a river and the only way to cross was three cars at a time. Everyone except a few men came across the river on the first ferry trip and it took an hour or so
until all the vehicles were across. It took us a few more hours to finally reach the Cameroon border but until that time we never knew what might be around each bend in the road. The men at the border were very kind and gracious to us (thankfully we all had visas to enter the country) and never demanded any money from us. As we sat waiting in the dark beside our cars while the border guards deliberated with some of the other missionaries, we sang hymns and thanked the Lord for bringing us out of danger. That night we drove safely all the way to Yaounde.
We did learn later that it was only bandits who were in the area that decided to take advantage of the situation. They did loot a couple homes but thankfully 80% of it was recovered and returned by very loving locals. As I think back on that infamous day, I am reminded of many verses, especially Psalm 124:8– “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” God indeed was our help in protecting us during that whole event and He still is looking over Gamboula and the mission there. Since that day, no great harm has come to any of our friends living in Gamboula although many people, especially Muslims, are displaced from their homes. But please continue to pray for CAR: great unrest and strife is rampant in the rest of the country and many people are being killed in cold blood. Please pray for peace to reign over this poor country and for sinners to be saved!