My wife looked quizzically at me after I got the call. “I thought you hated Congo flights?” A hint of excitement must have been evident on my face. After all, I was just called in to finish off a week-long evacuation out of Bunia, a volatile little town in eastern Congo. Trips into this area had become notoriously stressful—dictated by the five-year civil war, frequent poor weather, and just general chaos. And it was true that I would almost rather fly anywhere else, but not today. I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain to Renee why this particular Saturday was so important to me. Perhaps I really didn’t know until it was all over.
Bunia had exploded into violence… again. A dizzying conglomeration of politics, ethnic hatreds, and old fashioned selfish greed had once again erupted. The unprepared UN force in town was rendered helpless and retreated into a defensive posture at the airport in a desperate effort to protect their own way out. While the international community held meetings and CNN cried “genocide,” many innocents in Bunia were subject to unspeakable things. AIM AIR was called up on Sunday by our coworkers in the town; Many Congolese pastors, teachers, and students with their families were trapped in the worsening situation. Some had already gone missing, most were just hiding and praying. These were “our” people—people who were supported in their ministries by AIM and AIM AIR through the years. They wondered if we would come for them now. Of course we would. It took two days to get our first airplane on the ground followed by five days of shuttles by three planes and a bunch of people both flying and organizing the loads. Our list of people to move started at a few hundred, and swelled to well over a thousand by Friday. Saturday would wrap up the operation with our Caravan and DC-3 doing four more shuttles each, bringing the total number of people moved to over 1500.
I was one of two crew in the Caravan that day. Matt had already been into Bunia over the past few days and he took the controls out of Entebbe to show me how it would be done. The plan was to get in and out as quick as possible: short steep approaches from the west and departures in the opposite direction. (Flying over town might invite ground-fire.) At the airport were a few of our seasoned missionaries preparing the loads of those fleeing, making sure we carried the right people, and staving off the abuse of “officials” who would rob them of their last few earthly possessions. For one long day, we operated out of “anarchy international airport,” carrying loads of frightened Congolese, mostly children, from Bunia. Matt and I switched back and forth from the left seat, one acting as captain while the other attended to seat belts and cleaning up vomit.
Remembering the faces of those we flew, I could tell that they were leaving behind a fear far greater than any fear of flying which might grip them as we departed. They were somber faces, introspective, and somehow very deeply thankful for the two golden-shouldered strangers in the cockpit. A smile and a gentle touch on the head of a child were all the language we needed to say, “your welcome.” Some weeks later I learned that our presence there that week was possibly the greatest single testimony ever to the Congolese church that they were part of the Church—the Body of Christ. These were people who thought they didn’t have a friend in the world. But they prayed and the Church responded with planes, pilots, people to work out the logistics and people to foot the forty-thousand-dollar bill. I am told that word has spread among the Christians in Eastern Congo about what happened that week… as well as some bewilderment surrounding just what manner of people would come to their rescue like that.
On the ramp between loads, I stood by my Caravan and watched some of those people. Razor wire, armored trucks, troops and children, arguments and petitions, and the roar of C-130s dwarfing our sizable DC-3—through all this chaos, the dust, wind and searing heat, I looked on at my colleagues; Dale and Tim in the madness of a sea of people, Brian and Rod in the cargo door of the twin-turbo Dakota; and Matt in the middle of it all. These were my teammates at AIM AIR, some of the best men I’ve ever known. What struck me standing there was not so much the satisfaction in watching them, but the privilege in being counted among them.
Referring to this week of flying, one of our missionaries on furlough wrote to me saying, “I miss being in the fight.” At first it seemed to me an odd thing to say, but after that day on the ramp in Bunia, I knew exactly what he meant. For these men that I respect and admire are not only servants, but soldiers. And although our work is not a battle in the conventional sense, it is fought with genuine sweat and tears, and sometimes on our knees. All things considered, that town was probably one of the least desirable places to be on the planet that day. Yet I felt so fortunate to be there, to be one of the team, and in the fight. That week in Eastern Congo was a reminder to me what an amazing team God has placed within the ranks of AIM AIR—from the radio operator to the pilot in the fray. In one single day perhaps, I learned what it meant to be part of such a team, and to see how small and how large is my place in the Body of Christ.