“The Signs Don’t Mean Anything”

In the wintry first light two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-softened benches in front of the aid station at the edge of Miratovac village when I arrive for my day’s work. Dads, moms, and children are already munching bananas and mandarin oranges and fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. YWAM volunteers from Schloss Hurlach, working with German-based Humedica and American Medical Teams International medical personnel, greeted them as they began arriving an hour ago. Led by 6-foot-5-inch Michael Gun toting children and luggage up the last hill, the volunteers welcomed cold refugees with warming drinks and needed nutrition. It had been a sleepless night for most of them.

aleppo-food-distribAt midnight, after a series of metallic shrieks from the brakes, a 1940s-vintage train had jerked to a stop with a decisive final jolt, coming to rest in the feeble yellow glow cast by three temporary light stanchions. To the unshaven men and the scarf-bedecked women anxiously peering through windows, a full moon revealed rolling hills, barren trees, and frost-covered fields – but no railroad platform and no buildings. Reminiscent of an Eastern European passport control stop when borders still mattered, it soon became clear this train’s destination had been reached. Lights came on in the carriages, children woke and asked their parents, “Where are we?” – the parents did not know, and a uniformed Macedonian conductor, his undersized hat balanced on curly black hair, strutted through the carriages, announcing, “Granična kontrola. Izlezi sité!” – Border control, everybody get out!

img_9824Borders mattered again. All the train’s occupants were by now painfully aware of that. Carefully negotiating the three steps attached to the train’s doors, lunging the last eighteen inches to the coarse rocks lining the railroad bed, the mostly Syrian travelers numbly disembarked. Children, bedding, and suitcases were handed down the steps with sleepy chatter. Well worn but not uncomfortable, the ancient carriages dating to an era when all passenger trains were dark green, had provided a four-hour respite from the life of waiting and hurrying, hoping and worrying. With babies and bedrolls strapped to winter-coated fathers and mothers, the pitiable human chain robotically followed the officials in the funny hats through the no-man’s land at the border, then a swamp, and finally onto a hastily built road made of coarse crushed rocks. By the time they reached the reception center on the Serbian side, moist clouds of exhaled breath hung over the struggling procession. Fatigued and emotionally exhausted, a dull disinterest had settled over the midnight arrivals.

Hours earlier, a spark of hope had energized Sofia, a refugee from Aleppo, as she prepared to board the ancient train in Gevgelija at the Greek-Macedonian border.img_9857

“Omar, over here. This one is going to Berlin,” she had called to her husband as she climbed onto the stairs of one of the green carriages rescued from the railroad retirement yard. Indeed, in a slide-in slot adjacent to the door, the weathered sign proclaimed Berlin Hbf – Berlin Hauptbahnhof – as the destination. Berlin! Their goal, their hope, the shining city of their dreams, rubbled Aleppo’s replacement. For a moment, it seemed too good to be true.

“Sofie, the signs don’t mean anything. The last one said Budapest Keleti,” Omar, struggling with the luggage, shouted back, as he jerked his head in the direction of the previous carriage. Having heard what a dead-end Budapest’s main train station was for refugees, and taking no chances, he played it safe and followed Sofia onto the steps of the Berlin Hbf  carriage.

aleppo-refugeesThat was twelve hours ago. A packed reception center had forced them to huddle together under the stars until the false dawn peeked over distant hills and creaky joints were prodded into movement again. Now cradling hot chai after a three-mile, pre-dawn trek to the Humedica aid station, Sofia and Omar, beginning to warm up, are gratefully receiving the kindness of the volunteers. It is not Berlin, but they are one country closer to their goal, and one country farther from their lost home.

(Note: The first, second, and last picture are wire service pictures)

The Unfairness of Life

The ninety-minute trip to Ed Daein in a twelve-seat UN helicopter follows wiggly railroad tracks surrounded by endless sand. Until three years ago, the child slave trade flourished in this part of Sudan.

Halfway to my destination, twelve freight cars are stopped on the tracks below us. Near them a boxcar is lying on its side halfway down the embankment. A sandstorm, Haboob they call it here, obliterated the tracks a few years ago. In the absence of viable roads, this “act of God” ended child slavery in the region.

But there are other curses. 104,000 poorly fed refugees from the War in Darfur, many of them babies, live in camps surrounding Ed Daein. Malnutrition has replaced slavery as the scourge of the defenseless. Medical Teams International loaned me to Tearfund to consult on their feeding programs for these waifs of the twenty-first century.

My first day in Ed Daein, Dr. Mozamil and I visit the Stabilization Center, an ICU for severely malnourished children. Located on the grounds of the local hospital, it is clean, bright, and airy. White metal-frame beds covered in turquoise sheets line the walls. sad baby 2Attached to the end of each bed is a clipboard detailing the baby’s progress. Mothers in bright-colored dresses, scarves draped over their heads, sit on the beds feeding their babies. In spite of the cheerful surroundings, sadness and resignation hang on their faces. Most of the babies look vacant and lifeless.

Tearfund’s five nurses, seven nutrition specialists, and gentle but competent Dr. Mozamil work here. They exude love. The children and the mothers need it. The war in Darfur impacts families more than any other armed conflict I have witnessed. Fleeing violence, avoiding rape by the Janjaweed, and scavenging for food has taken a toll. Famine, the bane of the Sahel and a huge problem even in peacetime, exacerbates the plight of mothers and children.

Sahel, meaning “edge,” is a transition zone. Like all things Africa, it is a war, a warsad baby 1 between the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, and the jungles of Africa. The desert is winning, steadily moving southward. Meanwhile, diminished rainfall is claiming grazing lands. While men push herds and aggression southward, women struggle and children starve.

And so it is for little Nasr and his mother Alimah. Occupying the first bed on the far side of the sixteen-bed ward, two-year-old Nasr’s chart indicates he is doing better. His face says otherwise. A sad look, lips set in unhappiness, and staring eyes greet my daily visits. His mother attempts cheerfulness at the good news of his weight gain. Her tears betray her. Escaping in unguarded moments, they are waters of torment past and despair for the future.

From intravenous nutrition during his first days in the hospital when he vacillated between death and life, Nasr has graduated to Plumpy-Nut. It is the salvation of starving children. During the last four days, he has gained three ounces. He has a long way to go. Ribs protrude from a sternum pushed outward during his days near death. His upper arms are painfully skinny. Curly hair covers his disproportionately large head. The ends of his curls are blond, an indicator of severe malnutrition. I cringe when I see him for the first time.

And then there are the coinage marks along his lower ribcage. Faith healers at the El Ferdous camp rubbed coins in vertical lines. More than three dozen. It resulted in bleeding and scarring. When Nasr became worse and started gasping for breath, Alimah brought him t075o the Therapeutic Feeding Center at the camp. From there the staff drove him to town and the Stabilization Center.

Two days later, on the same road to town, an American NGO’s vehicle was carjacked at gunpoint. The humanitarian workers, shoved onto the road, had to walk to safety in 120-degree heat. As a result, the UN declared the roads to El Ferdous and Abumateriq Camps “no-go” zones, sealing the fate of children who need emergency care.

Nasr was born a plump baby, Alimah shares. At the traditional simaya naming ceremony on his seventh day of life, the family gathered in their ancestral village in the grandparents’ tent. Coming out of her tent for the first time since giving birth, Alimah faced east as her husband and the midwife said traditional prayers and performed rituals. Slaughtering a goat for the occasion, everyone enjoyed the celebration. They remarked what a healthy baby Nasr was.

In her vaguely told story, militia attacked and burned her village. Her husband joined the fighting and she fled. On the move ever since, many days went by without food and only scant water. Nasr was often sick with diarrheal disease. Alimah’s strength gradually waned too. When they could get millet paste they would get stronger, she said. Finally, they arrived at the El Ferdous Camp. But with so many newcomers, even there, food was scarce. And then, Nasr became ill.

Going from patient to patient with Dr. Mozamil all the stories have similar themes. Burning villages, violence, flight and famine. Rape is a constant fear, but never mentioned. The Muslim culture shuns a woman violated by rape. A life of shame awaits her.

A young mother, perhaps not yet a teenager, acts more like her baby’s older sister. Shesad baby 4 looks down in shame when we approach. She has suffered the full range of barbarism in her young life, the nurse tells us. The inflection of the voice and the expression on the nurse’s face hint at the worst imaginable. I do not press for details.

Yaya, the girl calls her eighteen months old baby. The baby’s upper arms are bone and skin, and her head dwarfs her body. But she is gaining weight. Each day the child-mother continues to bury her head on her chest when we examine Yaya. On my last day in Ed Daein, I put my hand on the young mother’s shoulder and say some reassuring words in English. She does not understand the words, but the tone and the sentiment register. Before Dr. Mozamil can translate, she lifts her face and looks up. Her pleading helpless look becomes my iconic image of Darfur’s misery.

Not all malnourished children recover. On my first day, new arrivals fill all sixteen ICU beds and the overflow beds on the porch. The last one admitted visited a traditional healer before coming. Afflicted with malaria and malnutrition, the child’s agonizing gasps remind me of the first child I saw in Mozambique. But, as before, the extreme measures we perform are not enough. The next morning the child passed away. Life is harsh here. From Habakkuk to Hemingway the unfairness of life has vexed mere mortals; it is clear, the answers lie with God. But man’s sinful nature contributes mightily.sad baby 3

The Road Less Traveled

Carrying their possessions on their backs, Syrian refugees Sayid and Nabilah are spent as they reach the Humedica aid station. Nabilah sheds her pack and bedroll attached to it, collapsing onto the blanket-covered bench in front of the clinic. The last hill of the three mile trek from the border exceeded her limit. Rivulets of perspiration course down her temples onto her flushed cheeks. She pulls off her gloves, and cradling the cup of hot tea I hand her, allows it to warm her hands. Tired eyes express her gratitude.

Sayid, in limited English, speaks for both of them,

IMG_9770“Tsank you,” he says with a slight bow. The “th” gives him trouble, just as it did me when I was an immigrant in America many years ago.

In truncated phrases Sayid speaks of their home in Aleppo, destroyed by bombs at the beginning of the war. After moving in with relatives they were bombed out again. When they survived yet another attack on their neighborhood, they had no place else to go. As he describes the destruction of his beloved ancient city, his eyes cloud over. Images of bombed out Berlin, Dresden, Coventry, and so many others in World War II come to my mind. The stories of destruction and the horrors of war, even told in shreds of sentences, are so familiar, and still so senseless.

When Sayid and his family have finished their chai, a hard-boiled egg, and a banana, there is nothing else I can do for them – except point them to the God of the universe whose Son’s immense love taught us how to love. Attempting to communicate this carefully without giving offense, I looked intently into Sayid’s face. I hope he recognized a bit of that love on this stop of his sojourn.20151223_110354

Traveling with the Arabic speaking group were a number of young men from Syria without families. Polite, less encumbered with grief and loss, immune to the rigors of four thousand kilometers on the road, they seem to be on an adventure. Hard earned money had been invested by their families in sending them to the west, one of the Syrians explains to a volunteer. Syrian families do not want their sons to be cashiered into the service of Assad’s army or into one of the rebel groups. Senseless death is not in their mindset. Believing younger men have the best chance of securing work in the west, the parents hope they will be sent for later.

Not so pleased with the adventure is a young couple, also from Aleppo. They too have lost their home, good jobs, and a good life. With a sister in the United States, they visited there, but returned when their tourist visas expired. An application for a work permit 20151222_132935was the next dead end. Now, seeking asylum, they are half-way to Germany. Fatigued, homesick, disillusioned, and without faith in a loving God, they are losing hope. Encouraging them is difficult.

As they are leaving, the next train’s refugees begin to arrive. It is a large group from Afghanistan. Among them is a burly, tousle-haired Afghani man with his ten children. His three wives accompany him. Trustingly draped across the top of his voluminous backpack is a two year-old. Wearing a pink coat with a tasseled hood she is sound asleep. Her left arm dangles over her fathers’ shoulder. Seeing him holding her hand reassures me about her precarious perch. With his other hand the dad-of-the-day is carrying a duffel bag too full to zip.20151223_082120

I approach two boys who speak some English, thinking they are part of the group. One is sixteen, the other, his brother, fifteen. They are traveling without family. After leaving the rugged mountain valleys of their home, they hiked through western Afghanistan and crossed into Iran. Walking, hitch-hiking, and riding buses when they were available, they made it east to west across Iran, and then Turkey. After a scary boat ride to one of the Greek Isles – they did not know its name – they joined the great European Refugee Road. Three months after leaving home and family, they still possess the air of two sky-larking youngsters at summer camp. Their spunk reminds me of the journey of Anne’s great-great grandfather and his brother who left the Orkney Islands at similar ages to travel to Canada with the Hudson Bay Company over 170 years ago.

As the sun ducks behind the Macedonian hills, the last of the afternoon train’s refugees have come up the hill. The road from the official border crossing joins a narrow, older road in a Y in front of the aid station. The other road is less traveled, coming from the closed border crossing at Lijane. Limping, more than walking, emerging out of the setting sun, two emaciated young men on the Lijane road approach me. They are North African, judging by their appearance, and they are without backpacks or bedrolls.IMG_9803

“Do you have any food?” the taller, skinnier of the two asks me as soon as he is within earshot.

“Of course,” I reply and invite them to sit on chairs in front of the store room.

Before I can go inside to see what I can rustle up for them, he steps close to me, and almost pleadingly, asks,

“Are the Serbian police bad?”

Caught off guard, I ask him in turn,

“Do you have something to hide? What have you heard? Are your papers not in order?”

Given a choice of three questions to answer, he chooses to trust me, and bares his soul.

“We are Moroccan and we don’t have any papers. What will happen if we go down the road?”

Knowing that any refugee who comes down the road from the closed border is entering Serbia illegally, I sense trouble for the two starving boys.

But that is not in my purview. Meeting their most basic need we feed them eggs, bananas, juice, and rice cakes. They devour all of it with eagerness. Between bites they tell us they walked the length of Macedonia. It took four days. They said they were robbed by the Macedonian Mafia along the way. Maybe. It is a common story among the Moroccans who pass through the closed border.

Glancing at their shoes reveals another pressing problem. The top leather on each boy’s shoes is separating from the soles. Gaping open, the shoes reveal socks and toes. While the volunteers manage to find two new pairs of shoes and socks for them, we bandage their blistered feet and speak of why they left home.

“There is no future for us in Morocco,” the emaciated one states emphatically. It is a theme echoed by Sayid, the young couple from Syria, the boys from Afghanistan, and countless others since I arrived here. Poverty, repression, and endless wars certainly bring the lack of future into sharp focus. But so does living poorly among the wealthy, or living richly without meaning.

Caught between their desire for a better life and EU rules declaring only asylum-eligible refugees can cross Serbia – which excludes Moroccans – the boys don’t know what to do. Without permission to move forward, or resources to return, they have reached what appears to be the end of their long journey. My heart aches for them as tears well  up in both  boys’ eyes.  Their plight is beyond our ability to help.

An hour later, on this most unusual of Christmases, I watch the Moroccan boys head down the road to their inevitable encounter with the authorities, and I reflect on the lure of the West’s materialism. In time it may fill their wallets and their bellies, but contentment will be elusive. Only a relationship with the God who is Father to his wandering children and with his son Jesus can provide the hope of a real future. Sadly, chasing their most basic needs, none of the refugees passing through the border crossing at Miratovac appear open to that message yet.

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A Grief Too Far

It is 7 am, three days before Christmas in many parts of the world, but not here. Already two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-covered benches in front of the Humedica aid station. Dads, moms, and children are munching bananas and mandarin oranges handed out by volunteers, while fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. The volunteers working with German-based Humedica greeted the refugees as they began coming up the hill from the border an hour earlier. After arriving by train at the Macedonian-Serbian border at midnight, some of the families had to spend the night outside at the packed reception center. At first light they began the three kilometer trek up the winding road to Miratovac village.

With a mixture of gratitude and guilt for having slept in a warm sleeping bag on a soft futon – indoors – I help unpack our bins of medicine in the small store-front clinic, part of the Humedica aid station, and prepare to treat patients. As a Medical Teams International volunteer augmenting Humedica’s refugee relief effort, I arrived in Serbia four days ago.

IMG_9797Two men with toothaches, another with a headache since leaving Turkey four days ago, a few runny noses, an upset stomach, and a kind young dad with four little girls wait for our attention. The youngest of the four girls, a one year-old, is blind. Her two year-old sister Mayd, sporting a runny nose and a cough, bravely allows me to examine her. Her right ear is flaming red infected, but she does not fuss. With Amoxicillin and Paracetimol in hand, the dad places his hand over his heart and thanks me in the genteel Arab way as he departs.

Warmed up, topped up, and medically treated, the families leave to trudge the last 500 meters to waiting buses taking them to Presevo’s one stop registration center ten kilometers up the road. There, comfortable buses wait to take them across Serbia to the Croatian border. More registrations, more hikes across no-man’s land at borders, more buses, and more trains are in store for them as they make their way to the hoped for land of milk and honey. Every kilometer takes them further from the comfort of ancestral homes, but also the conflict of senseless war.IMG_9775

From Turkey to Germany, Europe has become a refugee board game. As they hopscotch from one country to another, for most the goal is to reach Germany or Sweden. If you are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani, however, you cannot pass Go or collect the proverbial $200. Two Moroccans tried to access Serbia illegally yesterday; their game ended with a Go-To-Jail card. For those deemed legitimate asylum seekers, the game starts with a hazardous boat trip from Turkey to one of the Greek islands. With the hucksters who run the boats fleecing the fleeing, the desperate game ends prematurely for one out of every 50 players. Desperate to escape, new players come by the thousands. Nearly a million so far.

There are good cards and bad cards along the way. If you land on the road to Hungary, you miss a turn, maybe even get trapped dealing with unfriendly police. If your train arrives after 10 pm at the border of Macedonia and Serbia, you miss the last bus from Miratovac to the Presevo registration center. If the border reception tents are full, it might be your fate to stay outside in freezing weather. Worn out shoes, or worse, worn out feet, will also slow your progress. Ditto if you get ill. They are frequently drawn cards.IMG_9773

But there are good cards too. An exhausted Syrian woman collapsed on the bench in front of the clinic and pulled off her disintegrating boots to look at her purple feet. While the feet looked like she might need to exit the game, she was in luck. After re-warming her nearly frost-bitten feet, the Humedica volunteers cheerfully outfitted her with wool socks and new boots from the storeroom of donated items. With two warm cups of chai warming her insides, she was made road-worthy again. A baby sitting on a mother’s lap next to her received clean diapers, a new hat and mittens from the baby room. A man whose woefully inadequate jacket left him shivering received a new winter jacket. These travelers drew the Christmas card. With at least as much gratitude as most children display on Christmas day, shukraan’s – thank you’s – were offered with hand over the heart and a bow of the head. And then the race to the goal resumed. For most it is Germany.

By the time the muezzin’s recorded chant sounded through the tinny loudspeakers calling the local Muslim Albanian population to noon prayer, we had seen an additional 25 patients, with hundreds more receiving sustenance of some type.

While we were running out of bananas, Leann, an English lady who had come to Miratovic with her dog to “help the refugees” was hard boiling one thousand eggs for the next wave of players. While the eggs were still hot, they began to arrive. After visiting the food tent and getting a cup of chai, many came to the clinic, particularly the pregnant women. Teresa, our nurse from Oregon had brought her fetal Doppler. Hearing the baby’s heart invariably brought smiles.

With the sun burning off the icy fog, a warm winter day had developed by 1 pm. Perspiring in her heavy fur collared winter coat, Genan Asaad, collapsed as she crested the hill in front of our aid station. The three kilometer walk had been strenuous for her 52 year-old body afflicted with high blood pressure. By the time she was carried into the clinic, her exhaustion, the daunting task of an additional 2,000 km ahead of her, and, most of all, the weight of the loss of home and country fully impacted her. No longer numb to the bottomless anguish of her life, the dam burst and the tears flowed. And flowed! With her daughters hugging her, and Teresa and I comforting her, tears became contagious.

But they were also cathartic. Privileged to be part of the intimacy of a grief too much, I was amazed as Genan recovered. Having spent her tears, she enjoyed one more hug from each daughter, one more comforting squeeze of the shoulder from each of us, wiped her tears, reined the emotions back in for another day, and resolutely got up. With “God bless you’s” and “As-salamu Alaykum’s” to send her off, she passed the test of this watershed moment, assuring her survivor status.

And so it goes for half the population of Syria and a good many from Iraq and Afghanistan, afflicted with a grief too much, fleeing one home and seeking another.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Before I saw the wound my staph-sniffing nose was aware of it. The dust-encrusted, fraying bandages wrapped around the teenager’s left foot were no match for the scent of gangrenous flesh. Seated on a lacquered black chair in the neatly tiled, well-scrubbed room serving as my operatory, he was unfazed by his injured foot or the wounds around his swollen left knee. Or by his missing right leg.

My interpreter, a junior doctor from Da Nang, introduced him as Thanh. Born a decade after the end of the war, Thanh did not have the benefit of immunizations. No one in Viet Nam did for the first dozen years after peace broke out. As a result, polio became the scourge of Quàng Nam Province’s humid river valleys extending from the mountains of Laos to Da Nang Bay and the East China Sea. War’s desolation had wrecked all semblance of sanitation, allowing polio to spread savagely from village to village, hut to hut.

P0001382Thanh became ill with the crippling form of spinal polio before his fifth birthday. For the first few years he hobbled on a disease-withered right leg no longer able to move, and a weakened, poorly controlled left leg. With no braces to support his atrophied limbs and no shoes to protect his feet, skin breakdowns and infections took their toll, especially on his feet. By his tenth birthday, the unavailability of antibiotics caused a bout of life-threatening gangrene. In desperation his right leg was amputated by doctors at the regional hospital in Tam Kỳ. But it was not the end of his problems.

Undaunted, Thanh propelled himself along on one barefooted leg. But that leg’s spasticity caused his foot to drag on its instep. Frequent falls, leg abscesses, fluid in the knee, and now a two inch raw infection exposing his first metatarsal bone had cratered his remaining leg like a war-torn hillside. Wearing a white baseball cap jauntily placed on his head with a few strands of dark hair peeking out, he continued to smile. His younger brother, a head shorter than Thanh, looked worried however.

NWMTI013Carefully soaking off the blood-stained dirty bandages and then layers of pus and skin debris, we faced oozing tissue and exposed bone. Marie Davis, a veteran of many mission trips, cringed; Rachael, her daughter, a young nurse herself, had to turn away. Realizing the wound’s full potential for osteomyelitis and fatal sepsis, I gave an injection of Rocephin antibiotic in the only area of his buttock with enough tissue to absorb it. Generous amounts of Silvadene on the raw lesion, covered with non-stick Telfa, followed by multiple layers of Kerlix gauze wrapped around his foot and ankle covered the ugly wound. Concealed, it looked better; meanwhile, Thanh’s smile never left.

Before we could wonder how he would keep his freshly bandaged foot clean or get around with no shoe or other leg to steady him, his younger brother slid onto the chair in front of him. In a seemingly well-rehearsed routine, the younger boy stood up carrying Thanh piggy-back style. 015_12Incredulous, expecting the smaller boy to collapse any moment, we offered to help him. Smiling, he shook his head and replied; our interpreter’s eyes welled up as he translated:

“He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

By this time Rachael’s tear ducts were working overtime, Marie’s eyes were filled and the dams were about to burst, and my eye allergies were acting up as well.

More than thirty years earlier an American soldier, walking with his troops in this same region of Quàng Nam Province headed to a village which had just been bombed. They passed a heart-wrenching scene – a boy carrying his dead brother away from the burning village. One of the soldiers who spoke Vietnamese stopped to speak with the boy and comfort him. When he asked, “Isn’t the body heavy?” The boy responded,

“He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

But Thanh and his brother would not have heard that story. The few remaining older men never speak of the pain of those years – years relegated to dusty history books and repressed memories. An American songwriter named Bob Russell, inspired by the sad tale, penned a song, colloquially naming it “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Children_frameIt has been a quarter century since hostilities ended and pronouncements of peace were issued. But for Viet Nam peace unleashed the horrors of a war won badly. The American War they called it. Its legacy featured ruined villages, dioxin poisoned vegetation courtesy of Agent Orange, a generation of polio and birth-defected children, and a missing generation of men.

In this summer of 2001, while a new generation of industrious Vietnamese were rebuilding their country, America, ignorant of what laid ahead, was enjoying its last pretense of re-acquired innocence, before the terror and the realities of the next war were rung in.

But there were loose ends from that distant American War. Five of us were dispatched by Northwest Medical Teams to help World Concern address the rehabilitation of teenagers and young adults crippled by the after-effects of the war. Refugees in their own country from a war which ended before they were born, their deformities and infirmities sentenced them to a life in the shadows of a society eager to not be reminded of that distant war. Polio, endemic for decades after the war, and the birth defects of exposure to Agent Orange had left hundreds of attractive, kind-hearted Vietnamese young adults grappling with terrible handicaps. For liability reasons we were not allowed to mention chemical exposure, particularly Agent Orange, as a cause. However, in a mea culpa of sorts, the evaluations, the recommended treatments, and the rehabilitations were indirectly funded by the US government through USAID, before lawyers’ briefs and depositions, and world courts mandated it.

P0001383Hosting us for this work were Bob  and Kathleen Huff, World Concern missionaries in Da Nang, living and working among the visually shunned young victims of that still devastating war. Culturally astute yet uncompromisingly Christian, they did a masterful job of delicately dodging the various elephants in the room. Beside the mention of Agent Orange as a culpable cause for the birth defects, the faith-based nature of World Concern and Northwest Medical Teams represented the other elephant. Not only could USAID funding be withdrawn by overt evangelistic activity, jettisoning the project, but our Communist minders would have been thrown into convulsions of fingers-in-the-ears, head shaking denouncements.

But the world had not yet achieved full paranoid political correctness yet. All of us knew the rules of engagement, but mutual respect permitted the necessary freedom to act in our calling. We could not have had it any other way. In the Huffs’ daily demonstration of the love of Christ among Viet Nam’s outcasts, hiding their shame from their own people, the hope of the Gospel was never far from quiet conversations. Responding to their love, many of the young men and women embraced a forbidden faith.

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I watch Thanh leave on his brother’s back, his bandaged foot dangling, as the next patient is ushered in, a twenty year-old girl with one eye missing and a horrendous cleft palate. I suspect she is a victim of her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange sprayed by American planes to kill vegetation, including crops. The dioxin in the defoliant chemical has become a poison in perpetuity. The soil in this province will be contaminated for a generation or more. Grieved by the barbarism of war and man’s misuse of his ingenuity in its pursuit, I am pleased, nonetheless, to be allowed to participate in bringing hope to these lovely young men and women, many pitifully deformed.

I reflect on the years since Bob Russell’s song was popularized by the Hollies. Its lyrics still rattle in my head. I wonder if we have learned anything about love, about bearing one another’s burdens. Or is it just a waste of breath, a vaporous Christian concept for people like Bob  and Kathleen Huff?

So on we go,

His welfare is of my concern,

No burden is he to bear.

For I know, he would not encumber me.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness,

That everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness

Of love for one another.

 

 

The One-Hundredth Name of God

“It’s a still life water color, of a now late afternoon, as the sun shines through the curtain lace, and shadows wash the room,” the song softly begins, dialing up a faded memory.

With each phrase, vivid images of a still life in a small sunlit hospital room in Afghanistan come into sharper focus. Wintry sunlight filtering through thin curtains paints shadows in the room and settles on a young woman’s face. Framed by a black lace veil, a few straggly wisps of dark hair peeking out, her face is careworn even as it is lovely. Flushed unblemished skin and almond-shaped eyes under long eyelashes speak of timeless beauty, but hardened lines around the edges of her mouth attest to prior griefs. NasreenDeep worry furrows her forehead. She is keeping a lonely vigil by a sick child’s bedside. Widowed, it is her only child.

The room is quiet; so quiet, I can imagine hearing drops in one second intervals falling into the drip chamber of the IV, before coursing through the tubing to the girl’s left hand. The girl, her cheeks flushed a deep red by high fever, has not moved for hours.

With her work-worn left hand resting consolingly on the girl’s head, and her other hand on her own cheek in disbelief, the girl’s mother wonders, how did it all go so terribly wrong?

It had been a sweet life for Nasreen and her daughter until that terrible day nearly three years ago when grenades and bullets rocked her home and her world. Before their shattered wattle and daub dwelling could be repaired, hordes of Pashtun soldiers erupted from the back of Kamaz lorries and from pick-up trucks with big guns mounted in the back. Some even rode into town on horseback. They were the dreaded Taliban, notorious for brutality, especially against Tajik women. Their reign of terror was spreading north. Kunduz, Nasreen’s hometown, became their latest conquest.

When her husband joined the Northern Alliance’s Mujahedeen to fight against the Taliban, she worried about his safety. But she consoled herself, men always go off to war, it is part of their life. More viscerally, she feared for her and her daughter’s well-being. Little Tahmina was her life. For the predominantly Tajik population of women and children remaining in Kunduz, a town of a quarter million people, beatings, theft, rape, and murder at the hands of the Taliban soldiers were constant fears. Prisoners in their own compounds, many, including Nasreen, decided to flee.

Travel on DonkeyLeaving her damaged home, Nasreen on foot and Tahmina riding with grandmother Bibi on the family’s donkey, set out on the one hundred mile journey to relatives in Rustaq. Skirting mountains on narrow dirt trails, they arrived three days later.

Life as a refugee in the primitive small town without electricity or safe drinking water, was not as comfortable as in Kunduz. But it was much better than the squalid conditions of the two refugee camps just outside of town. And it was safe.

Then disaster struck again. Tahmina, happily enrolled in a Madrasah school for girls, became ill with a high fever. Within hours she was comatose. Now, lying in the sunny room of the small hospital, Tahmina was near death. Nasreen was told it was due to malaria which had spread to her brain. Hour upon hour Nasreen watched the fluid and the medicine drip through the tubing into her daughter’s unmoving hand. The local husband and wife physician team, kind and gentle Pashtuns unlike those she had encountered in Kunduz, checked on Tahmina frequently, as did my colleague Dr. Mike Pendleton and I.

* * * * *

Burqa_doorIn a home not far from the hospital, another sick child lay dying. Cared for by an Afghani physician working for the Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes, the child had become much sicker overnight. Mike and I are asked to evaluate the almost one year-old.

As we enter the room and are introduced by the interpreter, the child’s mother, fully covered in a Burqa, accustomed to life in the shadows, slinks to a corner, crouches there, and tries to make herself very small. Attempting to learn more about the child conversation flows haltingly, whispered sentences dangle in the air, and connections fail, even with the ever-present grandparents. Lyrics of a song flow through my mind,

“Like a poem poorly written, we are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme, in syncopated time.”

Examining the child we find a 106 degree fever, a bulging fontanel, a stiff neck, and an occasional shrill cry. With a positive malaria test, Mike and I need to treat the baby boy for meningitis and also malaria. Our four massive medicine duffels contain no intravenous antibiotics, so we set out for a small local pharmacy I spotted on a walk through town. On its dusty shelves, lined with wrinkled, yellowing boxes, we miraculously find what we need. Just as miraculously, all the medicines are still within the usable dating. The final miracle came when the total cost came to just over $12, well within our in-pocket funds. The same drugs in the US total over $800.

We start the medicines knowing the rest is in the hands of the God we call Father. I also know one more miracle is needed, and I pray for it. But it is not to be; early the next morning the little boy takes his final breath. The mother’s grief is heart rending. As a new grandfather I particularly ache for the quietly sobbing grandfather. His unashamed heartfelt grief in a country where men are not known for sensitivity is particularly touching for Mike and me.

 Hillsides

 

* * * * *

 

Because clinics end at noon during Ramadan, we have the next afternoon off.  Fasting from sunrise to sunset, even in the short days of December, leaves men too weak for a full day of work, one of the administrators solemnly informs me, as he calls it a day shortly before twelve. With the extra time, Erda, Mike, and I accompany Dag our Norwegian missionary host, manager, translator, and cultural guru, to a village in the mountains.

We pass a small caravan of cows, donkeys, and camels, herded along by boys who would be in primary school in other parts of the world. Abdul, our driver, remarks camels always appear to be smiling. He adds, Muslim legend has it the camel smiles because he knows the one hundredth name of God. DSCN1152I ask him,

“What is the one hundredth name of God?”

“We don’t know,” he answers. “Camels don’t talk.” Intriguing, but logical.

Without missing a beat, Dag offers,

“We know the one hundredth name of God. It is Father.”

Abdul ponders that for a while, keeping further thoughts close to his vest. Intermittently he will engage with us about our faith. He has no problem with the God of Abraham; Jesus represents the continental divide for him, as he does for most Muslims.

Our destination, the village of Ghrange, is spectacularly set at the base of snow-capped mountains. It is also spectacularly poor. An 8.5 magnitude earthquake two years earlier rattled flimsy homes, fissured fields, and claimed countless lives. DSCN1176Clothing, shoes, and grain are in critically short supply. Three years of drought have not helped.

In a hut with a panoramic view of the village, we negotiate with the mayor and the elders of Ghrange about upcoming distributions of shoes and warm clothing. It is vital no one is left out, or afflicted with shoes too small. Frustrations don’t play well in this country. Neither do negotiations when freebies are involved. The sun is already dipping behind the mountains when we finally finish.Ghrange

As we leave, I take a last look at the towering Hindu Kush Mountains keeping their brooding watch over the village of flat-roofed mud huts, barefoot children, and wide earthquake fissures. One fissure swallowed a school with 125 students. Life is difficult here.

On our return, we pass Northern Alliance soldiers on the long walk home. No more than boys, each carries an AK-47 rifle or a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher, twentieth century weapons in a country stuck in the fifteenth century in most other ways. Returning from Kunduz, they proudly inform us they successfully routed the Taliban. I think of Nasreen and Tahmina, wondering if they will now return to Kunduz.

Stopping at the hospital, Nasreen and Tahmina are gone. The girl passed away hours before. I grieve for Nasreen, her losses, and the harsh life which is the lot of girls and women in this culture. With a heavy heart I entrust her and the grieving mother in the Burqa to the God whose one-hundredth name is Father.

DSCN1166Postscript: After fourteen more years of war, Kunduz once again fell into the hands of the Taliban in September 2015, as more lives were wasted and more women and children became refugees.

Lyrics from: Dangling Conversation, Paul Simon, 1966

An Extraordinary Season

Turning from the young mother with the sleeping baby cradled against her chest, Gabriel, with a puzzled look translates her concern,

“She says her baby turns blue whenever it cries.”

Unfamiliar with more than rudimentary medical symptoms, babies turning blue is dismissed by Gabriel as an aberration of the cumbersome translation process. But, after three hours of the show and tell of skin rashes and foot infections, the point and palpate of muscle and joint pains, and a variety of symptoms which truly were lost in translation, this sounds like a pediatrician’s kind of problem.

DSC_0008Eyes downcast, the sixteen year-old mother is obviously intimidated by the three of us seated in a semi-circle around her. She has bravely walked since dawn from her remote village. José, the compassionate mayor, translating between the Chatino Zapotecan native dialect and the limited Spanish he knows, is seated next to her (Chatino, what the natives call their language, means “difficult word”). Gabriel, one of the three young men from Manos de Ayuda based in Oaxaca, often guessing at what he thought the mayor meant, is the Spanish to English interface.

I learn the baby is about six months old. The mother calls her Lupé, presumably short for Maria Guadalupé, the most common female name in these mountains. She began turning blue with crying episodes about a month ago, the mother relates tearfully.

I ask if I might be allowed to examine the baby. Reluctantly she releases her protective grip. Pushing aside the threadbare blanket, I detect a faint bluish tinge around the baby’s mouth. I also note the ends of her tiny fingers appear widened, the nailbeds dusky, medically described as clubbing. It is seen in cardiac disease. After lifting up the graying, well-worn baby shirt, I use my palm to warm up the flat portion of the stethoscope before gently placing it over the left side of Lupé’s chest. Moving it around I listen to the sounds of her heart while she begins to stir.

My fears are confirmed by what I hear. As she wakes, her eyes open, she looks around, and seeing a strange white face for the first time in her life, extends her arms and legs, and begins screaming. Within seconds her eyes become large, her screams seem frozen in her mouth, and her skin turns profoundly blue. Gabriel’s eyes also become big as he recognizes what the words meant, translated faithfully but with doubt only moments before. Fear and panic cross his face. Helplessly imploring and wordlessly pleading, the mother looks from one of us to the other.

In that moment it is clear to me the baby has been born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a complex of four associated heart defects. It is the most common congenital heart problem causing cyanosis, or blueness. Around six months, babies with this condition develop “tet spells,” or sudden severe blueness when un-oxygenated blood is shunted through the defect in the heart’s pumping chambers. Crying or straining can cause these spells. Eventually they can become quite harmful, even fatal. Squatting, or drawing up the knees to the chest, will temporarily reverse the abnormal shunting of blood, stopping the “tet spell” and the blueness.

Pulling Lupé’s little knees up to her chest, after removing the bit of old cloth serving as her diaper, restores her to relatively pink color. The mother’s relief is evident, Gabriel exhales audibly, and the mayor looks like he is about to cry. And, I am struck by the God-sized dilemma on my hands. This is no ordinary problem – its natural course is fatal – and we are extraordinarily far from any medical facilities on this last stop of our medical tour of villages deep in the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains.DSC_1457

After being pounded by torrential rains, the region had been devastated by earthquakes the last six weeks, and, like the flooded delta of the previous week, cut off from medical care. Just getting here has been arduous, testing and fatiguing us. We had driven south-east on the Internacional Highway 190 from Oaxaca the previous Sunday. In a remote village we had overnighted in an unfinished hotel. Our night was blessed – or cursed depending on the perspective – by an all-night Marian vigil. With an Oom-Pah-Pah brass band, enthusiastically playing the same melodies outside our window from ten p.m. to six a.m., accompanied by boisterous singing, laced with shouts of,

“Maria, Maria, Maria,” assuring we did not dare doze off, Dennis, Dan, and I started the week sleep deprived, and perhaps a bit cranky.

IMG_4512More hours on a deteriorating main road awaited us; then a dirt track heading into the mountains, gullied and even washed out in places by torrential rains which had started when the earthquakes did; high-centering twice, sliding off the track once, finally leaving the smaller of the vehicles in one of the many villages whose name began with Santa Maria, we arrived at a clearing where we were met by several kind Native American men with two burros and a horse. With all our supplies precariously strapped to the burros, the irrepressible Augustin, a young interpreter from Oaxaca, led the way on the horse with Pam our nurse seated behind him. Dan, Dennis, and I followed on foot since our riding experience had been confined to the “quarter” horse in front of the Safeway.

Five hours of hiking over 9,000 foot mountain ridges, interrupted by valleys and streams lined with mango and tamarind trees, brought us to the first village. Conducting clinic until well past dark by the light of a kerosene lamp, resuming at first light of day, then setting out on the next five hour hike to another mountain village, had become our pattern. A wall-rattling earthquake one night, a pack of local dogs stealing our food, and critters of the night challenged our commitment to bring the joy of the Lord to the people of the earthquake.

Now, at this village which does not even have a name, with over a hundred gentle native people still waiting, and one sick child with a mother expecting an explanation, and perhaps a cure, I am stuck. Explaining the child’s diagnosis through two interpreters into the native Chatino dialect is daunting. Dealing with the death sentence it represents in this remote outpost of human habitation is overwhelming. Stalling for time, I rub my chin pensively and nod my head, aware three sets of eyes are focused on me;  silently I pray for wisdom; and I realize how extraordinary it is for God to allow us to be here at this critical moment in this child’s illness – any sooner and the problem would not have been apparent, any later and it would be too late.

Complex as it is, corrective surgery for this condition has been available at major medical centers for fifteen years, but none of them are near here. Stop-gap surgery, known as a Blaylock-Taussig procedure, would buy time until Lupé is an adult. It has been effectively used for over fifty years. Maybe even in Oaxaca.

DSC_1355With Edgar’s help, tears well in his eyes when I explain the natural outcome awaiting Lupé – his loves for these kind people is so apparent – we devise a plan to transport her to Oaxaca. Manos de Ayuda will find a way to fund this, Edgar assures me. The mayor’s Chatino style translation of the plan is greeted with a tentative nod, an unsure smile, and a sense of bewilderment by the young mother, really no more than a girl, faced with a worry few her age have to face.

* * * * *

At 5 a.m. the next morning, the hard floor, and a rooster serious about his work make further sleep unlikely. Walking through the quiet village I pray for the mayor, his family, the starving people of these mountains, and, most of all, the sick baby and her mom. After using the leaning village outhouse, not as visually compelling as the leaning tower of Pisa but ergonomically at least as challenging, I notice a man wearing a leather Fedora, typical of the local men, coming down a path leading into the village. A dim flashlight strapped to his hat barely lights his path. Since I am the only person about, he approaches me. I have no idea what he is saying, but his tone of urgency, bordering on desperation, is inescapable. I wake Edgar who in turn finds José, the mayor, so we can do the two-step translation drill.

As soon as the visitor introduces himself, a wave of recognition rolls over the mayor’s face. With his arm around the man’s shoulder as they sit on a bench in the early morning twilight, the mayor listens, nods, and explains. Halfway through his labored translation into Spanish, Edgar nods in understanding, turns to me, and says,

“The man walked all night from his village. He wants to know what you said to his daughter yesterday to upset her. He is the grandfather of the baby who turned blue.”

Touched by the grandfather’s deep concern for his family, tears well up in my eyes. After shaking his callused hand I sit down next to him on the bench. Slowly I attempt to reduce the baby’s diagnosis and the needed treatment to a series of short sentences illustrated by diagrams on a piece of paper. The mayor and Edgar, appearing to understand most of the explanation, translate it into the Chatino dialect for the grandfather. Relief finally settles on his lined, weather-beaten face when Edgar assures him he will try to come back soon for his daughter and the baby.

DSC_0281With obvious gratitude in his eyes the grandfather pumps Edgar’s right hand up and down with both his hands, and then shakes mine as well. Now it is his turn to have his eyes fill up. I tell him we serve an extraordinary God, sovereign even in the remotest places. He has a long history of intervening at just the right time. When this is translated into his dialect, he nods, bows his head, and in what is probably the only word of Spanish he knows, says,

“Si.”

After drinking some water, eating my last Power Bar, and taking some Starburst candies for the road, the concerned grandfather heads back up the trail to his people, impromptu diagram tucked in his pocket, satisfied his family will be well taken care of.

The Snake’s Restraint, and Other Blessings

 

The snake’s restraint was the first of many unexpected blessings on a risky mission deep into the flooded delta north of Villahermosa.

Gliding serenely in a flat-bottomed boat through the still expanse of floodwaters stretching across a great tropical savannah, tree branches passing at eye level, the snake caught my attention before the oarsman standing in the stern of the boat saw it and could steer away from it. Perched on a branch which would momentarily pass within a few feet of my face, its patterned scaly body anchored around the tree’s trunk and its head extended over the water, the menacing dance of the forked tongue 8492402602_48a95716b6_z[1]was all I could focus on. Seated in the bow of the narrow, and probably unstable boat, three teammates and duffels containing medical supplies lined up behind me, I warned,

“Careful. Snake on the branch to the right.”

A long moment later, after the snake had deemed us too much bother, we exhaled in unison. With eight to ten feet of water covering the sea-level savannah, even snakes need a place of refuge and can’t afford sudden movements, we told ourselves gamely. Silently we also thanked God.

An hour earlier I had been tempted to cancel this day’s trip to a clinic outpost cut off for the past six weeks. The previous evening’s indigestion had turned into violent full blown dysentery two bites into breakfast. Aware there would be no toilet facilities on this foray deep into the flooded delta, and fancying myself indispensable as the only physician on the team, I had stopped drinking and eating and sat in that peculiar puckered posture familiar to sufferers of my ilk. The apparition of the snake further increased my anxiety about my condition.

Miles later, with a mind-numbing sun shimmering off the endless expanse of water, a mirage-like oasis arose in the distance. The heat waves rising off the water gave it a distorted ghost ship appearance. As we drew closer we saw a make-shift island of flapping black tarps, secured to a hump-backed bridge by branches and driftwood. In normal times the bridge spanned a straight channel of the curvy Rio Juguactal, shortening its distance to the Gulf of Mexico, our oarsman told us. He also said this would be our first stop. When the big rains came six weeks ago, tenant farmers working and grazing the delta land owned by Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, moved their meager belongings to higher ground. As the rains continued, higher ground became scarce. This bridge, rising out of the troubled waters, was their last stand. We would provide their first medical care in over a month.

After tying up next to a small decaying canoe, we and our duffels of medicines were helped onto the deck of the bridge. bridge9Straw covered the wooden planks of the bridge. Food scraps and excrement ground into the straw hinted at a lengthy habitation on the bridge. Chickens and semi-naked children roamed freely on the narrow bridge. Drying corn hung from the gnarly cross beam suspending the tarps. A cow and a goat were tied up at the far end of the bridge. Through an interpreter I learned the derelict canoe tied up next to our boat was used to obtain food for the two dozen people stranded on the bridge. A relief agency in town provided the food. The flood waters served as drinking water.

In spite of the squalor, laughter and joy seemed the dominant mood. Some of the bon homie disappeared when I had to examine two children with ear infections and six or seven with dysentery. Smiles returned when Starburst candies emerged from my pockets for each of the children.bridge7c As we were leaving, two of the men of the bridge prayed for us. Touched by their humble kindness, the incongruity of them praying for us struck me. The underlying sense of peace, even in the face of the unrelenting flood waters, was inescapable.

Much open water later, past isolated homes abandoned to the flood, their roofs interrupting the endless waters, our boat was directed to the home of a patient too sick to leave. Entering the house proved tricky. Ducking through a partially inundated front door, I missed a hastily nailed step and swamped my waders. Recovering, I found a plywood platform stretched across the tops of furniture, inches above the muddy waters, too close to the ceiling for me to stand up. In the middle of this desperate living area a woman was cooking on a camp stove. Resting on pillows with colorful Mayan designs was an old man. Every breath was labored, heaving his chest and flaring his nostrils. His breathing was regularly interrupted by harsh paroxysms of cough. Through his whispers to Edgar, a very compassionate interpreter, I learned he had been sick since the flood waters forced them a half floor up. Breathing had become labored recently his wife added. I found out their names were Guillermo and Maria. I also learned he was in his early forties. Hard life and cooking indoors with no ventilation make most men in southern Mexico look old.

Examining Guillermo in the smoke-filled room, it was not difficult to detect severe pneumonia in his right lower lobe. He was very weak, unable to even take a proper draw on an Albuterol inhaler. Crafting a nebulizer mask by cutting an opening into the bottom of a Dixie cup and inserting the end of the inhaler into it, then placing it over his nose and mouth and pumping three or four squirts of the bronchodilator into the cup, he was able to receive a breathing treatment with immediate improvement in the airflow to his lungs. After giving an injection of Rocephin antibiotic, leaving a supply of oral antibiotics, another inhaler, and two more Dixie cups, along with copious nursing instructions for Maria, we were on our way.

I was already back in the boat when Maria leaned out of the door above the flood waters. In her hand was a cluster of ultra-sweet stubby bananas. It was her Thank You, taken from the little she had.

“You need to take it,” Edgar whispered in my ear, sensing my reluctance to deprive her of her meager food stores.

9fbea7a5888dee239bb495a5bd98a2ed[1]Clutching the bananas with one hand and wiping tears with the other – the kindness of the poor people overwhelmed me – we set out for our final destination. Knowing how my afflicted intestinal tract would deal with the bananas, I gave them to Edgar for safe keeping.  Within minutes he and Augustin, another translator, had brought them to safety. Shortly afterwards, I noticed banana peels floating on the water.

Our destination, the remote health clinic, was on higher ground, but it was not high enough. All the rooms were submerged in water to the top of my waders. That did not keep the rural farmers and their families away. Rowing up in boats not sea-worthy, some even bailing water while they rowed, they came for their first medical care in six weeks. Their kindness and joy was again inescapable.

Working in almost knee-high water proved a unique challenge. After dropping a packet of medicine into the murky water, I took great care with my otoscope and my stethoscope. Late in the day, with my dehydrated kidneys working for the first time in twenty-four hours, I asked Edgar where the bathroom was. He laughed and pointed out the toilet was under water.

“Just go behind the building,” he instructed me.

When I came back a minute later, Augustin, ever the jokester, laughed, pointing out the irony.

“Why didn’t you just go in here? What you did out there came back in here before you did.” Amid much laughter, and some embarrassment for me, a discussion of osmosis and diffusion ensued.

Against slanting shafts of late afternoon sun, we began the two hour paddle back to town. sunset_waterlogged_field_3[1]Passing a ridge of land backlit by golden sunlight filtering through trees, we saw an old man sitting on a plastic camp chair reading from the Bible to a young boy. A campfire and a tethered cow nearby completed the indelible image.

Waving us over, the old man approached the edge of the water, and thanking us for our service to his people gave us six tamales, no doubt sacrificed from his own scant supper. Stripped of their possessions and living on the knife’s edge, the timeless values of the people of the delta repeatedly testified to a deep trust and close relationship with their Lord and Savior. It was a final blessing to an unforgettable day.

“‘Con los pobres de la tierra’.

With the poor people of the earth I want to share my fate.”

Guantanamera – The Sandpipers

A Baby Named ‘Freedom,’ and a Close Shave

“If you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A Baby Named Freedom

Floria Tomaj had cried every night for the last two months. Most had been spent outdoors. Now seated on a bench near a wall in the ancient warehouse at the Mjedë train station, a newborn baby in her arms, grief and resignation are frozen on her face. Her puffy eyes appeared to have spent their last tears. Six additional children, all under the age of ten and the family’s makeshift luggage were huddled in a circle around her. Her countenance indicated that’s as far as she was willing to let her world extend, for now.

My interpreter and I approached the little citadel. In her child-like voice Ori introduced us. Sensitive to the mother’s pain and closed appearance, Ori commented on the beautiful baby. It generated the beginnings of a rueful smile. Gradually, with Starburst candies for each of the older children, smiles creasing their faces, Floria became less reluctant to engage with us. We found out the baby’s name was Freedom. He was born in Tropojë, in the mountains of northern Albania, two weeks ago.

I shared how my grandmother fled East Prussia in January of 1945, also with seven children, in another ill-begotten war. Her strong faith in God’s sovereignty over our lives, even when tempted to ask, “Where is he while this is happening?” sustained her, I tell Floria. She nods somberly. Beginning to trust us, her eyes regain some life. She hesitatingly shares bits of her story. Some I find out later.

kidsWe learn she came from a village named Izbica, in the rolling hills of central Kosovo about one hundred-fifty miles distant. Two months ago the Serbian soldiers burst into their home. They ripped the youngest daughter out of her husband Handi Tomaj’s hands, and, beating him with a bayonet, marched him off with the other men in the village. In the Serbian modus operandi, all the men were taken to a field. Then the shooting started. When it stopped, the men still alive were forced into the upstairs of the village schoolhouse. After locking them in, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the building’s downstairs window. In a deluge of souls rushed into eternity without good-byes that spring afternoon, Floria lost her husband, her father, three brothers, and a brother-in-law.

With her home burned to the ground, Floria, almost eight months pregnant, bundled up her children after the murdering had stopped, joining the exodus of the widows and fatherless. Using dirt roads, trails, and abandoned railroad tracks, always uncertain of the next meal, they made their way to freedom and safety. Near Tropojë, shortly after crossing the mountainous border, she gave birth. What better name for the baby than Freedom?

I am confronted by the enormity of a loss and a wrong only God can avenge, and for which only he can bring comfort. Ori and I mourn with Floria. I pray she will one day soon seek the comfort and safety of Jesus.

Ten years later, in a DVD produced by American missionaries to Albania, I meet Floria again. Not far from the killing fields, now haunted by silence and wooden stakes marking the final resting places of the men of Izbica, Floria and her seven children live in a modest home rebuilt by the missionaries. In spite of the proximity to the daily reminders of the past, she has chosen forgiveness. Along the way, she accepted the life-changing power of Jesus as her Lord and as her Savior. Although life’s wounds have aged her, peace has found her face.

 * * * * *

“In our adversity, God shouts to us.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

A Close Shave

Albania - Kosovar gandmother There are some images too poignant to forget. Not only Floria and her children, but the ninety-three year old grandmother who had outlived her teeth, holding out her hand for a Starburst candy after I treated her for conjunctivitis, and then using every muscle in her wrinkled face to beat it into submission, happy as a ten year-old; or the proper gentleman, recently released from a brutal Serbian prison, getting a close shave while waiting to board the grungy overnight train to an unknown refugee camp. Propping a pocket mirror on a weedy ledge, using an old-fashioned Gillette razor, a small can of shaving cream, and a bottle of drinking water, while standing in the shadow of a military truck, he became the best groomed man at the train station. Combing his hair and straightening out his sport coat, which had miraculously survived weeks in the Mitrovicë prison, further restored his image. He looked great, but at seven o’clock he still had to board the hellish train south to an unknown destination.

Mefloquin, my weekly anti-malarial medication while in Albania, with the notorious side effect of dreaming in Technicolor, enhanced these images on my nightly silver screen and etched them into my permanent memory. Years later, Floria Tomaj’s story, the Burma Shave man’s close shave, and to a lesser extent, the Starburst-gumming grandmother, cause me to reflect and see significance in their presence in my life.

shavingGrowing up, close shave was used to denote a near miss, a narrow escape. I have had some significant close shaves. Several almost catastrophic car accidents in my twenties come to mind; or moving my flight up a day to December 28, 1975, and seeing newspaper pictures of the blown up baggage claim area at the LaGuardia TWA terminal a day later, where I had stood exactly twenty-four hours earlier. Fourteen people died there. In the ultimate close shave, or near miss, caught up in a fast paced world of wealth, featuring fine cars, fancy houses, and fun friends, I almost didn’t make it back. The lifestyle of hedonism caused me to stumble and plunge into adversity and spiritual ruin. In spite of looking good – being well-shaved and perfectly groomed – shame, divorce, financial ruin, and, difficult as it is to say, the train to hell awaited me. In Biblical analogies, the camel was having trouble getting through the eye of the needle, the rich man ignoring Lazarus at his gate was destined for hell, the one denying Jesus was ultimately going to be denied by Jesus before his father.

God’s mercy, my medical practice partner Mark, my wife Anne, and a movement of men called Promise Keepers convinced me anyone can be turned around, even I. I stopped being afraid of what I would have to give up to follow Jesus, instead seeing what life with Jesus offered. Repenting of my lifestyle, submitting to Jesus as my Lord, and allowing myself to be guided by his Holy Spirit, has opened wonderful doors. Some of those I am writing about in this book. It has also made it easier to resolve the unforced errors, the adversities I had inflicted on myself.

Best of all, my faith is being strengthened as God continues to reveal his purposes in my life. There is joy in that. Perhaps not as much as a toothless ninety-three year old’s joy in chewing a Starburst, but significant joy, nonetheless. There is also peace in that. I saw it on Floria Tomaj’s face on the DVD. With more loss and grief than I will ever experience, her peace in her patched up life and meager surroundings stretched my understanding. Understanding-stretching peace is available to each of us when we follow Jesus, when we choose to live our lives for his glory. It is the best choice I ever made, in the nick of time. A close shave, indeed.

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeimg039

Prisoners, and a Boy Named Bastri

Mourn with those who mourn,”

Romans 12:15 (ESV)

Dust clouds billowed in the foothills of the distant blue-gray mountains, announcing the approach of more trucks filled with refugees from Kosovo. For a month the daily convoys had come to the Mjede train station. Filled mostly with women and children, the misery index was high after the six hour trip over mountainous roads. But their ordeal was not over; after resting and recovering, they were loaded into ancient train cars for an overnight journey south to an unspecified destination, sojourners in a foreign country.

Today’s convoy of trucks from the border was different. Not only did it contain only men, they had few belongings. As they walked into the ancient warehouse in groups of twos, their eyes were downcast. Their walk seemed robotic. Once inside, they sat on their meager belongings with expressionless faces. One young man, sitting on the floor, head in his hands, never looked up for six hours, refusing water, bread, or Spam. We learned the men had recently been released from the horrors of a Serbian prison.

oldmenSome, like a man with shrapnel wounds, sought medical care. Two elderly brothers, wearing vests and coats over their shirts, apparently deemed too old to kill, related in heart-breaking fashion how, before imprisonment each had lost their sons in one massacre. Their loves, their joy, and their family name had been eradicated in one afternoon on a hilly meadow near their ancestral village. Facing the heartbreakingly personal reality of ethnic cleansing, it is difficult not to cry.

Two dark haired men, with countenances free of guile, but eyes speaking of unthinkable pain, want to sit next to me and tell me their story. They have an almost palpable telling pressure, needing to talk. img025Theirs is a grim narrative of capture, separation from family, brutal imprisonment, sixty men to a small room, virtually no food, daily beatings and torture, cut off from the outside world, and finally, when hope was lost, a surprising release. The freed prisoners had walked almost one hundred miles, when, just before the border, Serbian soldiers robbed them of their watches and any remaining money.

With bruises and healing wounds to show, and a story to tell the world, one of the men, Luan Kosova, motions for Genti, my translater, to start the videotape. Examining their bruises, taking their blood pressures, and listening to their hearts with the stethoscope, the men appear physically healthy, although their loose fitting pants indicate recent weight loss. My examination seems to bestow survivor status and a renewed vigor on them. Emotionally I doubt they will ever be the same without the divine healing of the Savior who reconciles and forgives, and teaches us to do likewise. I am humbled to be allowed access into lives and hearts at such critical times.

While wandering among the crowd of released prisoners, my eyes had been on a young man who had been following me at a distance. He had not spoken with anyone and did not seem connected with anyone, although he did appear interested in the videotaping of the two men’s testimony. I sought him out, and without the interpreter I introduced myself.young_Men

His name was Bastri Veselï. Through minimal overlaps in his knowledge of English and mine of Albanian, I learned he was 16 years old. He had attached himself to the released prisoners after he had lost his dad and his home. Sensing he had a story to tell and preferred the one-on-one contact without a third person intermediary, we went to the loading dock armed with energy bars and bottles of water. We sat down on the edge of the dock. While munching on Power Bars his story unfolded – in a drawing in my journal.

As he started drawing, a visible catharsis and peace settled on him. For almost an hour he perfected his masterpiece with occasional comments I did not understand. When he was satisfied with it, he signed it in the lower right hand corner. Like artists do.

I had to ask Suela, a very sensitive young woman walking past us, to interpret the drawing and the artist’s comments so I would understand it to the fullest.

The scene was Mitrovicë with the hills and mountains set in the background under a sunny sky with fleecy clouds. Fir trees were visible in the foothills of the mountains. img034A river ran through the scene and was crossed in the middle by a bridge. It was the infamous bridge dividing Mitrovicë into the upper Serbian half, with intact houses surrounded by well-maintained hedges, and the lower half of town, the ethnic Albanian half.

The picture of the upper half had an angry yelling man with a very large open mouth, a soldier, or a leader of the Serbs. The lower half had tanks flying the Serbian flag, shooting at houses. One tank was shooting at Bastri’s house, flames erupting from its windows and the roof. A sniper lying on the ground was shooting in the direction of the house. Bastri’s father lay dead in front of the door to the house.

With no words to express my sympathy, I hugged Bastri and comforted him. He had no tears. I presumed they were all spent. Suela also hugged him and thanked him for sharing his story, and in her warm way, said some comforting words. While drawing was cathartic for him, I sensed some wounds had been re-opened.

For the next three hours I was privileged to be his dad. He was my shadow as I continued to work, intermittently giving him hugs, squeezes of the shoulder, and more Power Bars. img033When it was time to get on the train, we walked around the front of the hall, across the tracks, and onto the platform where the dark green train cars were waiting. He waited to board until almost everyone on the platform had boarded. Hugging him, patting his cheek, and praying a blessing over him with my hand on his head, we said good-bye.  After climbing the steps into the rail car, he found a seat by a window facing me and continued to seek my reassurance. As the train started moving, his eyes finally welled up, and he looked the other way. The way men do.

Also walking around the front of the hall, across the tracks, and to the station platform were the men who had been released from prison. They walked as a group, perhaps out of habit, with shuttered faces, in silence. The bond they had with each other was evident. Getting on a train, headed to one more unknown destination, it appeared to be them against the world. Again. Not in an aggressive, assertive way. Just, again. The silent scream coming from this sad little group was, BROKEN.single_file

"bringing Christ's love to the least of these"

Seasons with Sojourners

"bringing Christ's love to the least of these"

veldez

Another Wayfaring Pilgrim