Refugee Relief – Not!

Autumn 1990 – Vol.6 – No.3

It is 10:00 A.M. on June 21st, a typically pleasant African morning. Despite the fleet of clouds sailing past overhead, the air is dry, as usual at this time of year. Seated in the passenger compartment of a truck loaded with 20 tons of corn and peas, I am mentally rehearsing a message in Portuguese as we careen down one of Mozambique’s narrow country roads.

To either side, eight foot high blades of grass crowd against the pavement like people massing at a parade, waving at us as we speed past and at times reaching out to touch us. Above the grass, boulder-like mountains thrust themselves out of the earth, towering like silent sentinels standing guard over the narrow ribbon of asphalt.

Inside, the cabin of the vehicle is worn and haggard, bearing all the signs of premature aging from rough use in a hard land. The windshield is cracked in several places, only jagged fragments remain of the two side mirrors, and broken springs protrude through blanket-covered seat cushions. Even without a speedometer, our velocity can be monitored through a substantial hole in the floor by watching the potholes streaking past below.

Behind us, in the bed of the truck, are 100 pound bags of relief food sacked and shipped by the U.S. and Canadian governments. The vegetables are garnished with 20 or so Mozambican soldiers clad in fatigues and brandishing machine guns which protrude menacingly in every direction from the cargo area.

We look dangerous, and need to, for we are heading 60 miles into the bush on our way to territory just recently regained from the guerrillas.

Behind us is a second truck carrying more soldiers and 60 burlap bags stuffed with relief clothing that has been collected by Christians in England and shipped in the container that carried our new Land Rover.

The first 40 miles of the trip are familiar. I traveled this road twice before en route to the port city of Nacala, 120 miles from our home in Nampula. Those trips were made to receive the containers of medical and personal supplies shipped to us from overseas.

On those journeys I traveled with an armed convoy. A convoy typically consists of 20 to 30 trucks loaded with cargo and soldiers, and as many cars. Though it has been many months since the road was last attacked, unpleasant stories still circulate of guerrilla ambushes.

When active, the guerrillas, or “armed bandits,” attempt to destroy one of the lead trucks using a bazooka. If they succeed, the wreckage of the truck blocks the narrow road jamming up cars and vehicles behind. From their hiding places in the grass alongside the road, the bandits then begin strafing the cars with machine gun fire, intending to wreak maximum destruction to life and property. Drivers and passengers pour from their vehicles, diving into the bush, hopefully running away from the guerrillas. Sometimes the government soldiers fire back from their positions on the trucks, but at other times they are the first to flee, leaving the civilians defenseless.

On this day, thoughts of guerrilla ambushes are far from mind as all my attention is bent on composing the message I hope to give upon reaching our destination, a refugee camp near Muecate (Mwee KAH tee). The people there have been recently liberated from the guerrillas and are in desperate need of food and clothing. Foreign governments are providing the food and Unimatco, working through Grace Missions, is furnishing the clothing.

I intend to use this as an opportunity to bear witness of Jesus Christ, but as the village of Muecate draws nearer, I have misgivings. Will unsympathetic government workers try to silence the gospel? Have the people even been told we are coming? How will they know when and where to congregate?

Yesterday the clothing had been carefully sorted and the large burlap bags arranged according to contents. However, the men who loaded the truck, with typical African disregard for organization and careful planning, have mixed up everything. Under their direction will the distribution as well succumb to a morass of disorder and confusion?

As we turn off the highway and begin the last stretch of our journey over rough, dusty roads, I commit these things to the God of order and design. I beseech the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort to cast Satan from his domain long enough to let the gospel go forth and to permit a little material relief for the suffering people in this afflicted land.

Twenty miles later, the truck with the clothing comes to a stop in an open area sheltered by a great tree. Suspended from one of the massive branches hangs a rusty old wheel. There are no huts, no villagers, not a soul to be seen.

The government worker climbs down from the truck and begins beating the wheel with a piece of iron rod. One can almost see the exclamation marks springing from the metal, filling the empty afternoon solitude and then drifting off to the far corners of the horizon.

For several minutes nothing happens, but then by one’s and two’s the refugees warily come forth from their grass huts hidden in the bush. The trickle turns into a stream, and soon there are 200 people standing silently round the truck. The government worker announces it is time to start the distribution. Wanting to keep first things first, I ask to say a few words in behalf of the donors.

I explain the clothing has been sent by Christians from a land far away. Of course then I have to explain that a Christian is one who serves Jesus Christ. Then I have to tell them who Jesus Christ is and how He came from God to save men from the suffering caused by sin in this life and in the life to come; how He sets men free not only from the penalty but also from the power of sin when they put their trust in Him, asking Him to come into their hearts and rule their lives; how the love of God constrains a Christian to do those things pleasing to God and beneficial to those around him, as the Christians in England were doing and how the people of Mozambique as well needed to have this God ruling their hearts and their land.

The people listen attentively to the Makua translation furnished by the government worker. By the time we are done there are perhaps 1000 refugees gathered round the truck.

Praising God from within for letting His message go forth, I turn things over to the church representatives and government worker who have come to supervise the distribution. Contrary to my expectations, everything is carried out in an orderly and efficient manner, though planning is done only on the spur of the moment.

The women and infants are formed into lines radiating out from the truck like spokes of a wheel, the men in other lines, and the children in still others. Then the workers station themselves at the head of each line with bags containing appropriate articles of clothing. All the women receive a dress as they file past, and the men get pants. The workers planned to pass out skirts and blouses as well, shirts to the men, and a coat and blanket to everyone, but a disturbance has arisen among the children. The smaller children who wait in line are being pushed aside by larger ones breaking through. Many mothers leave their positions to help their children wrangle for clothes. Disorder spreads rapidly, and soon it is impossible to continue because of tussling going on at the head of every line by people who refuse to wait their turn.

Some of the workers slip around to the far end of the lines and begin distributing clothes to the people waiting disconsolately from their places afar off. I also take a bag and begin handing out children’s clothes from the back of a line.

This works well for a while, but when the pushers and shovers discover what has happened they run to the new distribution points, bringing havoc and confusion with them.

Even as I write this more than two months later, several images from that day remain indelibly fixed in my mind. One is of a young mother, baby tied to her back, looking at me from two feet away, patiently waiting at the end of the line, eyes pleading for something with which to clothe her little daughter. I pull out a tiny dress. Someone snatches it away before I can pass it from the bag to her hand. I reach inside for another. Immediately it vanishes. A third and a fourth are ripped from my grasp by unruly women who fight over who gets the garment, tearing it in the process. After five unsuccessful attempts I close the sack and reluctantly make my way back to the truck.

The next image I recall is of the soldiers standing in the back of the truck, making whips from vines and lashing the people as they clamber over the sides. Next we are looking down at a desperate throng chasing after us, hands outstretched, some even hanging from the accelerating truck as it hastens toward the road, still over half full of undistributed clothing. Even as they shrink in the distance, the majority of refugees remain standing dejectedly in their lines, as if by doing so they can somehow make the clothing they so much needed reappear.

By this time, the exhilaration of sharing the gospel with such a vast crowd of people has already been swallowed up in the disappointment of seeing all given so quickly back into the hands of Satan. But my disappointment has not yet reached its nadir.

On the way out, the truck stops at the house of the local government official. He has killed some chickens and invites us to share a meal before we leave. Eagerly my church friends jump from the truck and follow him to the table. Now I am a bit bewildered, as just hours before they had vigorously declared the one thing they would not allow was for the clothing to fall into the hands of the government. Abandoning it now to the soldiers protection seems like asking foxes to guard the hen house. But the smell of roasting chicken has affected their judgment, for they assure me there is no cause for concern.

When we return from our meal of rice and chicken, things do not appear to have changed. The tarpaulin is pulled tightly down over the clothes, with the soldiers draping themselves bodily across that. But as we journey toward home, the night air turns cool and one by one the men begin donning their coats and jackets. But unlike the rest of their equipment, these are civilian coats they are wearing, some of them quite nice and unusually heavy for Mozambique.

Upon reaching the edge of the city, the driver stops while the soldiers drop from the truck to make their way through the darkness to their homes in the cane hut districts surrounding Nampula. As they leave, I notice their rucksacks, which have come out from nowhere, are fairly bursting at the seams. This is quite unusual since soldiers here typically have only a uniform, weapon, a few shells, and occasionally a canteen.

Finally we reach the warehouse where wearily we begin unloading the truck. As we pull back the tarpaulin, I am disappointed but not at all surprised at what I see. The bags have been bayoneted, the clothing ransacked, and the remaining jumble of material doesn’t warrant another attempt at distribution. There isn’t enough left to insure everyone would receive an acceptable piece of clothing.

Later that night, climbing the steps to our apartment, the question keeps echoing in my mind, “Why?” “Why does God let Satan have his way with these unfortunate souls? Why does He close His ear to the prayers of His own people made in their behalf and motivated for His glory?”

I am confident the scriptures hold the answer, but for now the only light that comes to my tired mind is the solemn warning of Christ in Luke 8:18 to take care how we respond to that light which we have already received, “For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.” It is a hard concept to accept, especially when one sees it carried out before his very eyes. But like all of God’s word, it is irrefutably accurate.