Tense Moments Leaving Congo Can Now Be Told

Post a Comment » Written on May 4th, 2007     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (May 4, 2007) – Editor’s note: at the same time in March that Curt Peterson and Roger Thorpe were caught in the midst of a military upheaval in Kinshasa, Congo, another story was unfolding in the northwestern part of Congo, a story that at the time was intentionally withheld until those involved had safely left the country.

Evangelical Covenant Church missionary Keith Gustafson says he was shocked to hear the familiar voices calling his name as he disembarked the plane that had brought him to Paris from Bangui, Central African Republic.

There stood Curt Peterson and Roger Thorpe. “They had arrived at the same time, and the gates were right next to each other,” says an incredulous Gustafson.

HarveyIt was a remarkable reunion to cap two frightening days.

Peterson, executive minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church Department of World Mission, and Thorpe, a retired Covenant medical missionary, had made their way to Paris after nearly being killed when caught in the middle of fighting that broke out in Kinshasa, Congo, two days earlier on Thursday, March 22. To read some of the earlier stories, please see “Congo Crisis.”

Peterson and Thorpe had helped lead a conference for pastors of the Covenant Church of Congo (CEUM), conducted at the Karawa mission station. They had traveled south to Kinshasa to catch a return flight, but it was unexpectedly canceled due to the fighting. En route to a hotel to arrange another flight at an airline counter, they were caught in the cross-fire and were whisked inside a nearby local jail as a security measure.

Meanwhile, Gustafson and Covenant pastor Harvey Drake (Emerald City Bible Fellowship in Seattle) also had been at the conference, but still were in Karawa when the fighting erupted.

Gustafson and Drake first heard of the clashes between the Congo military and bodyguards of Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of President Joseph Kabila’s political rivals, while listening to a “fuzzy” shortwave radio broadcast that Thursday evening. The reports were confusing, however.

“As we would listen, we would try to put the pieces together,” says Drake. “We were disturbed by what we were hearing because we could not make contact with Curt or Roger.”

“We heard that the militia had overrun the jail, and that the troops (bodyguards) had overrun the militia,” Drake says. At the time, he didn’t know that Peterson and Thorpe had been nearly killed at the jail.

On Friday morning, Peterson was able to call Karawa and warn Drake and Gustafson not to travel through Kinshasa as originally planned. Also of concern was the possibility that fighting could spread to the northwestern Congo region, including Karawa, where Bemba had traditionally enjoyed political support in past years.

“We had to get out of Dodge,” Drake says. Their hasty exit began with an arduous trip by road to the border separating Congo and the Central African Republic. The pair traveled for 12 hours over dirt roads that are nearly impassable before arriving at the border town of Zongo. From there, it was an intimidating 20-minute paddle in a dugout canoe across the Ubangi River to Bangui. (The accompanying photo shows Drake in the canoe during the crossing.)

Drake looked at the canoe, the others traveling with him, and their gear. “I was a little nervous about it because I weigh about 260 pounds,” he says, laughing. “Fortunately the water was calm. I can swim, but I’m not a great swimmer.”

Now safe, Drake recalls the inspiring experience of being with the Congolese during the conference, where he taught. “I received so much more than I actually gave,” he says.

“I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people who have so little,” Drake says. “The passion they have for God is absolutely amazing!”

He was awakened around 4:30 a.m. each morning by the sound of people singing and praying at church. “Hundreds of people were singing and praying until 7 a.m. It was really something.”

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