YAOUNDE, CAMEROON (April 8, 2013) – Last month, 30 missionaries from the Evangelical Covenant Church and other organizations fled a mission station in Gamboula, Central African Republic (CAR), in an escape that was more harrowing than Covenant News Service was able report at the time for security reasons.
The conflict erupted as rebels moved to topple the government of President Francois Bozizé.
Covenant missionaries who fled were Paul and Sheryl Noren, Roy and Aleta Danforth, Josh and Lori Shinar and their families. They and others had been working at a small, non-Covenant hospital mission station in the west of CAR, which is very close to the Center for Experimentation and Formation Training in Agriculture (CEFA), a new project supported by Covenant World Relief and the Food Resources Bank
In an email sent late last week, Roy Danforth described the escape from Gamboula to Cameroon. What follows is an edited version.
MONDAY, MARCH 18
The rebel group Seleka, a coalition of five factions, announced that a peace agreement signed with the government in January was no longer valid because political prisoners from a previous conflict were not freed yet and South African troops who had been in the country since 2007 had not gone home. They gave the Bozizé government 72 hours to meet their demands or they would march on Bangui.
The republic has had a long history of coups and dictatorships. Bozizé came to power in a military coup in 2003. There have been threats of coups since then.
“Immediately, I announced to everyone that we were once again on red alert and that each mission organization should contact their missions. The missionaries in Bangui said to us they were staying put, as they felt they left too early the last time.”
TUESDAY, MARCH 19
“I decided if this country was to blow up soon, I wanted to get some fruit trees in the ground, so Timothy learned to lay out the planting spots, dig holes, and actually plant 100 pili nut trees from Hawaii.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 22
A sentry at the mission confirmed that soldiers had come from Berberati and walked around the mission at 2 a.m. The missionaries learned that two rebels were caught nearby trying to smuggle ammunition.
A jeep load of soldiers from town that Roy did not recognize drove around a farm he was visiting.
A friend from the local hospital called the police, who told him that the missionaries should not worry and that they should not try to leave the country. There were no other signs of impending danger.
SATURDAY, MARCH 23
News outlets broadcast that the rebels were advancing towards the capital, taking many towns in the east. Danforth had received a new bicycle in a container of items that arrived earlier in the week, and he rode around the mission station informing colleagues of the news as it came in.
The missionaries scheduled a meeting to discuss their options – after they watched the Super Bowl, which they had been able to download thanks to a newly installed fast Internet system. During the game, however, the missionaries decided they could not wait on their meeting when an African colleague came to inform them that local police were moving their own families from downtown to safer places.
They agreed that Paul, Sheryl, and Karl Noren would leave the next day to take the Shinars as well as Aleta Danforth in two vehicles to Cameroon.
“We had a time of prayer and did not finish watching the Super Bowl as many of us had not finished packing – especially since a lot of this group was also heading to Cameroon anyways for a Covenant fellowship at Kribi in Cameroon.”
SUNDAY, MARCH 24
After the Palm Sunday worship service, the missionaries met to be sure everyone knew the Norens, Shinars, and Aleta would leave that day, and the rest of the missionaries would be ready “at a moment’s notice.”
Then they learned the border was closed because the rebels who were caught trying to transport arms earlier in the week were freed by others following a gunfight. Meanwhile, the two vehicles were getting ready to leave. That’s when they discovered the brakes on Paul’s vehicle did not work.
“After hours of trying to repair it, they decided to use one of the Brethren vehicles.” It was 11 a.m., and no one had left yet. The personnel director of the hospital told Roy that Bangui had fallen into rebel hands and retreating government soldiers had looted Mbaiki, located 62 miles west of the capital. Truckloads of soldiers were fleeing to the missionaries’ location.
“I told everyone we all needed to leave, and it appeared that we would not be able to go the easy way, but needed to take the ferry road and exit via the border town that had been closed for years due to a territory dispute between Cameroon and CAR.
My stuff was already packed in the Noren truck, so I had time to go around and expedite our departure. Then, I decided to make a run to the CEFA farm to hide my motorcycle, our two new bicycles, some agriculture books, our new TV, and other valuables in a trunk.
“While out there, a fleeing member of our military was there – not a good sign, so I hurried back by a CEFA motorcycle, leaving the pick-up out there. As I got back to the mission, there was a lot of commotion and CEFA Director Benoit Yerima arrived from the hospital and anxiously said everyone must leave the mission at once! He said the rebels were ransacking the government posts downtown and would be at the mission at any moment.
At 2 p.m. the group left the mission in a nine-vehicle convoy using a “very bad road” to the ferry six miles away. At the halfway point, however, the lead vehicle’s gear shifter froze and wouldn’t move. Luke Turk used a hammer to free the shifter, and the vehicle was able to make the rest of the trip in one gear.
“We had wasted valuable minutes and were concerned that the rebels could be on us at any time!”
The convoy arrived at the ferry and was still inside CAR territory. “Of course the ferry was stationed on the other side of the Kadei River. It takes 15 – 20 minutes for the ferry to cross each time, so we did not know if we could all get across before the rebels came upon us.
“As we were loading the first three trucks on the ferry and everyone was still on the CAR side of the river, a group of armed men came running down the road, passed right through all of us, not even stopping, jumped into a canoe, and crossed the river. These were our former police and soldiers that were supposed to be protecting us!”
While thankful that the fleeing men had not been rebels, the missionaries then knew that no one was left to protect them. “So, we put everyone on the first trip across, except Paul Noren, Kim Cone, and me to be with the remaining vehicles until they got across.
“This was one of our more stressful moments as we waited through each 15-minute crossing of the ferry. We told the missionaries across the river to move the vehicles ahead and keep their bodies hidden. When we finally boarded the last three vehicles, we felt God’s power and victory in getting all the vehicles and all 30 missionaries out of harm’s way! However, we still had not left the country.”
It was another half hour before the missionaries made it to the border town of Molai and then traveled several more miles through what they call no-man’s land, which is a buffer zone between the two countries. They were thrilled when the well-uniformed soldiers who met them at the border are Cameroonian.
“We were greeted and treated with respect, and they were polite as they searched through each vehicle and processed the group over the next three hours. In fact, when we all got our passports back, the head of the border control said he had one more thing to say to us – ‘Have a bon voyage!’ ” The sendoff was a surprise. “We had thought he was going to ask for some huge sum of money for all their work in processing us.”
The missionaries drove more than four hours – the last couple in a pouring rain – before arriving in Batouri after 12:30 a.m. Monday. A few stayed at a local Bible center’s guesthouse and most at a nearby hotel. Several traveled onto Yaounde. The group that had stayed in Batouri arrived in Yaounde after 10:30 p.m. Monday.
The missionaries remain in Cameroon.
“The violence and looting seems to have slowed down in Bangui. The main rebel groups are all over the country and seem to be keeping the peace at our mission station though we have word of looting in many other towns. Director Benoit is still lying low away from the mission as we hear the new government is looking for him to get the CEFA vehicles.”
Despite the hardships, Roy says, “There were so many situations where we could see God’s hand either protecting us from making the wrong moves or guiding us in the proper direction. His angels watched over us especially as we were crossing the vehicles at the ferry where we thought for sure the rebels would catch up with us, and who knows what could have happened.
“I was appreciative of all the missionaries we were traveling with – on how they did not show any signs of panic and they kept their patience through all the circumstances that we experienced. They are an amazing group of people that are capable of putting up with a lot of stress and turmoil.
“We are also so grateful to our African colleagues, who helped us to safety and continue to be there, hoping and praying that all ministries will continue on, hoping that this will all settle down. We pray that no harm will come to anyone trying to protect property, that wise choices will be made. We continue to pray for their safety and for establishing a good relationship with the new regime.”