Dear Family and friends,


April 11, 1997

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.

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