Missionaries narrowly escape coup in Africa

It all seemed like some apocalyptic action movie. Society in chaos. Machine-gun-toting bad guys driving a ragtag collection of stolen trucks across the Central African savanna. Chasing … what? A convoy of missionaries headed for the border?

That’s what played out on Palm Sunday in the Central African Republic, following an overthrow of the government. The missionaries knew they didn’t have much time to escape to neighboring Cameroon. Only later would they learn just how close they’d come to not making it.

Hit rewind.

In late 2012 in the C.A.R., a disjointed collection of rebel groups and mercenaries formed a coalition, called Seleka. Their gripe: Corruption and authoritarian rule by Gen. Francois Bozize. Their goal: Overthrow the Bozize government and take control of the country.

Gangs moved from town to town, driving out local officials and looting, while also picking up weapons, vehicles and volunteers – many of them children – with each new conquest.

“It’s not like they have tanks,” explains ReachGlobal missionary Tim Wester, a physician and surgeon who grew up in Congo and has seen this kind of chaos before. “It’s a pickup with a machine gun, and maybe a bazooka.”

“They recruit anybody they can find to join them,” adds Ann Wester, Tim’s wife and a 39-year veteran of the African mission field. “They say, ‘You want to join us? Here’s a gun. You’ll get rich off of this.’”

By December, Seleka controlled about one-third of the Texas-sized country and was within 75 miles of the capital, Bangui. That drew international concern. France, South Africa and the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) dispatched troops to halt the advance and protect strategic interests like airports.

It worked, temporarily, and the sides devised a peace plan. Rebel groups would be included in the Bozize government. But by March, the rebels weren’t satisfied with the progress, and broke the cease-fire. They moved in and overtook Bangui.

“You’ve got to leave”

Three miles from C.A.R.’s western border with Cameroon, in Gamboula, missionaries from ReachGlobal, Covenant World Mission, Presbyterian Evangelical Fellowship and the Swedish agency InterAct operate a hospital and nursing school, a Bible School and an agricultural project, along with an outreach ministry to the nomadic Fulani people. No fighting was happening anywhere near Gamboula, but the missionaries took a keen interest in what was happening 500 miles to the east, monitoring events via cell phone and slow internet.

“We had our trip wires,” Tim Wester says. “We said if the capital fell and there was looting, we would probably have two or three days to evaluate and maybe move on.”

What they hadn’t counted on was an independent group of rebels, the Miskine, led by a rogue general and camped in the west. They had Internet, too, so when they learned that Bangui had fallen, they saw opportunity. They overran nearby towns, claiming to be part of Seleka.

At 10 a.m. on Palm Sunday, March 24, several leaders of the national church at the mission station delivered the news to the Americans. Rebels were already approaching government offices downtown.

“You’ve got to leave,” they told them.

There were 30 expats: 12 American missionaries from the Gamboula, with their families; visiting missionary families totaling 15, including some who had already been evacuated from Bangui; a Swedish missionary; and two NGO workers, one Danish and one British. They packed what they could into nine vehicles – mostly Toyota SUVs and small pickups.

“We had been thinking about it since December,” Ann Wester says. “We kind of had this area where we’d say, oh, we’d like to take this. Well, let’s put that in the pile.”

It was still a scramble to grab what they needed and didn’t want stolen: Two cartons of Tim’s books. Ann’s sewing machine. Two small barrels of food. French-language DVD’s they use in ministry.

“We were going to just move across the border and stay there for a few days until things settled down, and come back,” Ann says. “That was the idea.”

“Leave your trucks. They’re coming!”

Brake problems on one of the vehicles delayed the group’s departure. When it couldn’t be fixed, they swapped it with another truck. The delay cost precious time – but would end up protecting them.

At 2:10 p.m., as the group was getting into the vehicles, word came that the usual route to the border was blocked. Rebel soldiers were already in that town, 5 km away, and the border checkpoint was closed. If not for the truck-repair delay, the group would have left two hours earlier and driven right into a mob.

Now, with the new information, they would have to take a much longer route that might not be passable.

After 15 km on the muddy road, they reached the Kadei River, still within C.A.R. and about an hour’s drive from the station inside Cameroon. There was no bridge, but there was a manual ferry – a small barge that would hold three vehicles at a time. Attached to cables, it’s guided on an angle across the river by the current.

As the ferrying process began, a group of armed men came running down the road toward the river. They ran right past the group, jumped into a canoe and crossed the river. The missionaries recognized them as local police and soldiers from Gamboula, fleeing to Cameroon.

Uh-oh.

With six of the missionaries’ vehicles safely across the river and three to go, the Africans operating the ferry were on their cell phones. They were worried about the Miskine forces.

“Just leave,” they told the missionaries. “Leave your trucks. They’re coming!”

“They had heard that the rebels were already at Gamboula,” Tim Wester says. “But we said no, we need to get the vehicles on.”

Finally, after 90 minutes of ferrying all nine vehicles across, the evacuating group continued toward the Cameroonian border.

Fifteen minutes later, Miskine forces reached the river.

“They wanted our vehicles,” Ann says. But when they didn’t catch the missionaries at the river, they turned back toward town.

The border was still about an hour away on a grassy bush path just wide enough for the trucks. The actual crossing was unguarded. The checkpoint came at Garigombo, a kilometer or two inside Cameroon, as the sun set.

For the next three hours, in the dark, Cameroonian guards checked passports and searched all nine vehicles. Finally, a guard announced, “OK, everybody come.” He read the names one by one and handed the missionaries their passports.

“I have one more thing to say,” he said, and the missionaries waited for him to demand a bribe.

“Bon voyage.”

The group broke into cheers and applause.

“They opened the gate and let us through and they closed the gate,” Ann Wester says. “I can still remember thinking, ‘Phew, we’re in Cameroon.’”

But they weren’t through the gauntlet yet.

Next came five more hours and 120 km through red-clay mud and rain to the logging town of Batouri –- with about 10 more police outposts to drive past en route. They were stopped only once, and a group of police started inspecting the vehicles. But they soon stopped and let the convoy pass.

At 2 a.m. – 12 hours after leaving Gamboula – the caravan pulled into Batouri. A member of the group, Wycliffe missionary Tirza Cone, had grown up there and had called ahead on her cell phone to arrange hotel rooms. Twenty-three from the group would spend the night in Batouri, while the other seven drove until 10 a.m. to the capital, Yaoundé.

The missionaries learned only later how close they’d come to being chased down by the rebels. Just seeing African authorities they knew, fleeing across the river toward Cameroon, had been an ominous sign.

“It meant that all the military, the police, the mayor – all of them in our town fled when these (Miskine) guys came,” Ann says. “They destroyed the mayor’s office and the police station. And then they came to the mission station.

“We had left 30 minutes earlier.”


“We can’t even wave goodbye”

Some of the group remains in Cameroon awaiting confirmation that things have stabilized in C.A.R. Word is that Seleka forces have chased the Miskine back into hiding and that some order has been restored. Some of the evacuation group already has been back to Gamboula for a four-day visit. The Westers had been planning a trip home to Iowa, anyway, so the evacuation simply moved that up a couple of weeks. They hope to return to their work in C.A.R. by early August.

Ann smiles. “We’ve worked for the mission for 39 years, so we could maybe call this a sabbatical.”

“We knew evacuation was a potential, so that wasn’t so much the issue,” Tim says. “It was more the loss and the sadness. We still had a week of teaching at the nursing school before Easter vacation.”

 “We didn’t say goodbye to most people,” Ann adds. “When we pulled out of the mission station and went past the nursing school dorms, basically the students weren’t there. Some were at church, some out in their fields, who knows what. And it was like, we can’t even wave goodbye to them.”

Though the rebels certainly would have taken all of the vehicles, computers and supplies – crippling the ministry effort – the Westers don’t believe the missionaries would have been physically harmed. There were no reports of that in western C.A.R. – though no one wanted to take a chance, either.

“We attract the looters,” Ann said. “And the (African) people feel an obligation to protect us, but they need to protect their families, too.”

For most of the adults in the group, evacuations have been a familiar part of their work in Africa. All except one family had lived in Congo during unrest in the 1960s, ’70s and/or ’90s. Not to mention the 2002 C.A.R. coup d’état that brought Bozize to power.

“I can’t say I was really scared,” Ann says. “Just that real relief of getting to Cameroon. It’s not like we’re trying to be crazy by any means. I would not call myself a brave person at all.”

“As a doctor,” Tim says, “I’m working with up to 10 percent of our (C.A.R.) patient population that has AIDS. So any time I do surgery, any time I do suturing, it’s one needle stick away from contacting AIDS. I’m that close to death on a regular basis.”

Asked for his definition of safety, Tim thinks for a moment.

“Being where God wants you at a given time.”

•  •  •  •

This story was assembled through an interview in the U.S. with ReachGlobal missionaries Tim and Ann Wester, plus online reports from Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Roy and Aleta Danforth. ReachGlobal missionaries Kim and Jan Cone, and Timothy Chapman, also were part of the group that evacuated.

 

Leave a Reply