Life in a war zone

International | A year's worth of missionary dispatches from Uganda illustrates the challenges of spreading the gospel

Issue: "Justice to the Chief," Jan. 23, 1999

The itinerant life holds nothing new for most missionaries. But some mission workers for Philadelphia-based World Harvest have taken more than the usual amount of pack and go: In June 1997 and again exactly one year later, they made hasty exits from their outpost at Bundibugyo in western Uganda. The area borders the Kivu Province of Congo and the volatile lake region of Rwanda, where rebel ne'er-do-wells take to mountain hideouts, raiding refugee camps for resupply. Early this month, 500 villagers were murdered in the province, reportedly slaughtered over three days by Rwandan and Ugandan rebels. At the outpost, pastor Paul Leary provides leadership, physicians Scott and Jennifer Myhre lend backbone to Nyahuka Health Clinic, Pat Abbott works with refugees and UN bureaucrats, Rick Gray labors to plant churches, and Waller Tabb puts the movie about Christ know as "the Jesus film" into Lubwisi as just one part of a lengthy translation project. All wear other hats as well, and daily chores don't go wanting despite the drum of gunfire, as this "year in the life"-an edited version of the mission team's 1998 prayer letters-reflects. January 19:
We've heard exchanges of gunfire over the past couple of days. It may be the government troops encountering groups of rebels as they come down out of the mountains, but as yet, there is no confirmation. On Thursday, two women were admitted to Nyahuka Health Clinic with gunshot wounds. They were reportedly going to their gardens under government escort when they were ambushed by rebels. One of the women died after being admitted; the other was wounded in the foot and should live. February 7:
We spent three arduous days adopting a simplified Book of Church Order with only minor disagreements and some pretty major decisions. One of the biggest surprises was a move solely initiated by the Ugandan elders to require all new elder candidates to officialize their marriages before they can be ordained. (It is not unusual in traditional African culture to take a common-law wife.) The sounds of heavy artillery can still be occasionally heard in the far distance as the government forces maintain their hunt for rebels in the mountains of Congo. May 17:
The [UN] World Food Program will continue to feed about 5,000 on this end, although the number of IDPs [internally displaced persons, or refugees] is closer to 15,000-the beginning of a painful weaning. Resettlement of Kyaka refugees back to Congo is on hold for a month because of the cholera epidemic. Today a handful of captive rebels were transferred on to Bundibugyo town. Since the action is in the mountains, there are fewer soldiers in Nyahuka and market day was busy as usual. Waller [Tabb] transported two wounded civilians to the hospital. The story is that they were shot by government forces who demanded their [UN-provided] roofing tarp! We [the Myhres] had dinner with Jonah and Melen in Nyahuka a couple of nights ago, reminding us of what real displacement is. He is living with his wife and three young children, sister, mother, and assorted family in two rooms smaller than the smallest rooms in our little house, cooking in a shared muddy courtyard jam-packed with kids. While we chatted and watched Melen cooking, I counted over 60 kids just in that small space watching us, not to mention about a dozen adults. Both of our families ate knee to knee packed into one of those rooms by the hot smoky light of a kerosene lantern. [Later] ...The ADF attacked Butama this morning, and Jonah came around noon to get Scott [Myhre] to come and see his brother who was shot in the leg. He will be okay, but later two more wounded civilians were brought to Nyahuka. Scott is now taking them to the hospital in Bundibugyo. May 30:
Less than 24 hours after we prayed for a culturally appropriate yet responsible approach to suspected corruption in food distribution, the RDC (who is like a governor of a state) of our district showed up at the mission. He asked Paul [Leary] and Pat [Abbott] to accompany him, and then swept unannounced into Nyahuka and ordered storage rooms in shop after shop opened and inspected. Within hours, he had confiscated 1,131 sacks (110 pounds, each) of World Food Program food, breaking locks, pulling out bag after bag. That is about 10 truckloads full! This is food that had been distributed to various leaders of refugee groups. Those leaders then passed on only a portion to their people and stashed the rest in Nyahuka here and there, to be later smuggled out of the district for sale or even repackaged and sold locally. Some are suspected of even supplying the rebels. This was obviously a widespread practice. The good news is that a Ugandan, the top official in the whole district, initiated the uncovering of the scheme, not the missionaries. The bad news is that the food has been sitting for weeks unused, and has been infested with bugs, and much of it is still locally inappropriate corn kernels (not familiar here), which have to be pounded since there is no mill. June 6:
Last night five rebels infiltrated a bar where government soldiers were drinking and dancing in Njuule (a few miles on the other side of Nyahuka). They were dressed in military uniforms. When the soldiers were drunk, the rebels opened fire and killed three. They escaped after capturing one officer, and proceeded to Bundikuhungu (closer to Nyahuka) where they wounded four civilians and killed one and also captured three young boys as recruits. One of the boys is related to our worker Charles. The father offered money and goats, but the rebels refused and took the children instead. Today about 20 government soldiers have left Nyahuka on foot to search for this small band of rebels, and have arrested five suspects in the market. June 9:
The rebels attacked Kichwamba Technical School (about 10 miles out of Fort Portal on the Bundibugyo road) Monday night with a force of about 150 men. They overwhelmed the 16 government soldiers guarding the school, set a dormitory on fire after locking the boys inside, and then abducted about 80 students. The death toll given on Voice of Toro last night is upwards of 50 from the dorm fire, plus guards and a few civilians nearby. This attack is on the opposite side of the mountains from us but startling in its brutality and force. June 10:
We will leave tomorrow, Thursday, June 11, at noon by road for Fort Portal. Everyone will go, including the Isingoma family and Edith and Apuuli, using all running vehicles, traveling together in a small convoy. Jonah feels strongly his duty to stay behind to medically assist the war effort, and at this point does not plan to send his family though he may change his mind before tomorrow. We have offered. Radio reported that Kichwamba School was attacked again early this morning. Six of the 80 abducted students escaped to Bundibugyo town and are providing information to the army. The army is pulling back from the mountains to establish a perimeter along the foothills; more refugees are arriving in Nyahuka; a large band of rebels has been tracked coming down between Butama and Kakuka; and Agaba was told that the situation would "soon become tense." So with all these events, World Harvest's decision looks appropriate in spite of the pain it causes all of us to leave home and friends. July 11:
[Back in Bundibugyo] Although we aren't hearing as much gun and mortar fire as usual, the troop movements evidence a flurry of military activity. About a thousand new soldiers arrived and are quartered at Izahurua. General Kazini himself reached Nyahuka last night and traveled up to the Congo border today. We have a 24-hour contingent of soldiers patrolling the river. This week two immediate neighbors of the mission have died, a young child and an elderly woman, those on the edges of life always the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the women in Bujilele are struggling to reconcile God's teaching about marriage with their cultural expectations. July 27:
Half of our bean shipment made it on Friday, after a week of continuous rain. The rest is due along with the seeds and hoes early this week. August 10:
We are thanking God for the rice seed. It arrived today-just in time for us to distribute in our first location tomorrow. We have been disturbed by the news of embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania with the recent confusion and rebellion against Kabila in Congo; it makes us depressed about the state of politics in Africa. What is God's plan in all of this political maneuvering? It reminds us that we are never sure how long we will be available here to do the work we feel called to. October 1:
We learned yesterday that since the latest spurt of attacks in the Kirindi area, Busaru leaders have held a series of meetings encouraging the Babwisi population to arm themselves against their Bakonjo neighbors. (The ADF rebel group includes many tribes, but people here perceive the minority Bakonjo as supporting them.) The Harugali (largely Bakonjo) leaders responded with meetings of their own urging preparation for defense. It is hard to imagine our district disintegrating into a Rwanda-like chaos of machetes and missing people, but the human heart has long proven itself capable of unimaginable atrocities. November 11:
Paul [Leary] leaves in an hour for Congo, traveling by bicycle with three other elders to a town called Kamongo, about a three-hour trip. They hope to encourage believers there whom we came to know while they were refugees in Uganda the last few years. Now that the Congolese have returned, there are fledgling fellowships. December 10:
The rebels attacked again last weekend, brutally killing three civilians as they slept in their beds in Kirindi. This is usually the rainy season, and many, many acres of seeds were planted after the USAID distributions, only to be drying up in unseasonable blazing sun. We've had no more than a dust-dampening sprinkle in over two weeks-great for the road but terrible for crops. Living here, we can imagine the longing of the Jews for the fulfillment of [the advent] promises, for no more sorrow or sickness or death, no babies who live only a few days, no hunger or war.

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