Teddy bears were left behind when three young children of World Harvest missionaries and all remaining members of the mission agency's Ugandan team were forced to a hasty retreat from their station near Bundibugyo. The 11 Americans fled the equatorial foothills near the Democratic Republic of Congo border after several days of machine-gun fire moved within range of their homes last month. Leaving behind the comforts of home-including favored stuffed animals belonging to the 9-month-old, 2-, and 4-year-old children of physicians Scott and Jennifer Myhre-was a strategic, if regrettable, course of action. Within days of their flight, villagers in the Bundibugyo district were forced into hiding while a rebel army invaded the area, looting and killing throughout the isolated, rural region.
Ethnic bloodshed is a tropical storm still raging through the heart of Africa. The violence between Hutus and Tutsis that began in Rwanda three years ago spawned conflict in Burundi and Zaire-known as the Democratic Republic of Congo since rebel leader Laurent Kabila took over in May. Now it affects even Uganda, once regarded as a growing haven of economic and political stability in a sea of change.
This week, 60 U.S. troops, part of a Special Forces unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., begin training Ugandan soldiers for an African peacekeeping mission designed to quell the violence leaking across East and Central Africa. The soldiers have come in response to a so-called African Crisis Response Initiative, which Washington has been developing since last year. After first agreeing to, then withdrawing from a U.N. peacekeeping effort in Zaire last spring, President Clinton quietly pressed the Group of Seven industrialized countries and Russia to agree at a June summit meeting in Denver to support the initiative. Its goal is to train African soldiers for rapid deployment without committing U.S. troops in the costly manner of the Somalian peacekeeping effort in 1993.
There was no peacekeeping apparatus in place (although 14,000 Ugandan soldiers are stationed in the Bundibugyo district) when rebel forces of the ADF, or Allied Democratic Forces, crossed the mountains at Uganda's border with Rwanda and Zaire and began threatening southern Uganda last November. An amalgam of former Hutu militiamen from Rwanda and Zaire together with Ugandan rebels, the group opposes Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom they say is not a full-blooded Ugandan because of some Rwandan ancestry. Other rebel groups, particularly one billing itself as the Lord's Resistance Army, operate in Uganda's northern mountains. Bundibugyo residents saw no reason to expect conflict at their doorstep.
The steadily approaching gunfire finally forced members of the World Harvest team to put their children on their shoulders and walk away from 10 years of church planting and social-services work in Bundibugyo. The group went nearly 15 miles in a day-long journey toward the Democratic Republic of Congo border. They were often joined by Ugandans also fleeing. Some carried chickens or mattresses or led goats. One local stopped to help Jennifer Myhre cook cornmeal porridge to feed her 9-month-old baby.
Along the trek the group found surgeon Wolf Moll and his wife, Heidi, Germans who work with the Myhres at the Bundibugyo hospital. The couple had been captured at one point by the ADF. While the rebels ate lunch, however, Ugandan Army soldiers attacked them. The Molls were able to escape as soldiers gunned down the rebels, including several 12-year-old recruits.
A satellite telephone allowed the World Harvest team to put through two calls to the U.S. embassy in Kampala. After U.S. Ambassador E. Michael Southwick contacted the Ugandan military, a helicopter collecting wounded Ugandan soldiers in the area was used to ferry the missionaries to Fort Portal. From there, the American families were later transported by Mission Aviation Fellowship to Kampala, the capital.
Rick Gray, a church planter for World Harvest, and Mr. Myhre later returned by helicopter to Bundibugyo. En route, their Ugandan convoy came under attack by the rebels. Once back in the district, they found 15,000 fearful Ugandans huddled in the small village of Nyahuka. Four-hundred people are living in a community center just completed by the missionary team there. In recent weeks, five babies have died at the center; more than 200 Ugandans have been murdered in the district.
Mr. Gray, the only World Harvest worker to remain in Bundibugyo after Mr. Myhre joined his family in the United States in late July, last week reported that four Ugandan soldiers and probably several dozen rebels died in continued fighting near the mission. Rebel numbers are dwindling, and they are desperate for food and medical supplies.
Families, too, face severe shortages. The departure of the Myhres left only three doctors to serve a district population of 100,000. Drivers are unwilling to risk traveling the one road into Bundibugyo, even though World Harvest secured supplies in Fort Portal. Larger relief organizations, like World Vision and the Red Cross, have stayed out of the area up until now to avoid getting caught in the fighting. To go in would require the protection of the Ugandan army, which could later result in retaliation from the rebels. Another rebel group attacked a World Vision project in northwest Uganda earlier this year.
"We understand the reason for the policy," said World Harvest director Steve Smallman, "but feel in this case it is very clear who the 'bad guys' are."
In the meantime, Mr. Gray is rationing plastic sheeting among 168 families who have been chased from their homes and need temporary shelter from continuing rains.
"We are in crisis mode," Mr. Myhre told WORLD. He added the chief role for the team now is to be "resident experts" for the larger organizations who lack experience in the region but have better resources for this crisis. "It was hard to know the needs of the people before this happened," Mr. Myhre said. "Now they will be recovering from this for years. It's a hard place to be."
Discouragement for the mission team has many facets. On July 1 they were to begin a new community health program. Already 14 high-schoolers in Nyahuka had been recruited for training as community health educators. No one knows when the program can be restarted. And the once peaceful co-existing tribes of the region, the Bakonjo and the Bhabwisi, have begun to fight over accusations of harboring the rebels. The good guys and the bad guys are getting harder to sort out.