When we moved to M-ville at the end of 2010, we had no idea that it was a place characterized by conflict. We joined a solid team with 3 other families, and worked in a well-established community development project that had been running since 2004. It truly seemed that our move from the remote mountain village of Lal (where we worked 2007-2009) to M-ville was a wise move. It didn’t take long however, before insecurity gathered a lot of our attention. The international troops were in a very active campaign of night and day operations in the areas around our city. The city itself started to host some heated protests in response, and our team had to tighten our security restrictions, and that affected the team dynamics in a big way.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
As security deteriorated our teammate families started to disappear. One family had planned to leave in July, and they bumped that up by one month and were gone in June. Another had planned to be in M-ville for at least another year, but they made a sudden decision and were gone. For several months after that the last family hung on, and we thought they would stay because they had been in M-ville since 2005. It became clear however that they were no longer well in M-ville, and by October all 9 of the children that were “little t’s” playmates were all gone.
After the other families left we went through a period of doubt, but then we emerged to enjoy our best season in this country. At first we considered leaving as the last of our teammate families were leaving. We still had a German couple and a single American woman as teammates, but we knew that we would go through some tough challenges without the support of other families. After prayer and consideration, we decided to stay, as we knew the season would only be 5 months, after which we would be going home in the spring to have our next baby. There were challenges not having a community of foreign families, but we also grew close to our local colleagues and friends. “Little t” regularly had local friends come play in the mornings, “T” got to know her neighbors and language tutor better, and I enjoyed relating with my staff not only as colleagues, but as friends. We went into those months thinking it would be a season of “making due”, but after growing closer to the people around us, we left M-ville with the hope that we could return after 6 months and pick up right where we left off. In order to do that, we would need the company of one other family.
One of the first tasks on our minds when we landed in the states in the spring was recruiting another family to join us in M-ville. Less than a week after landing in Denver we were driving across Wyoming to meet with the family we had in mind. We had heard that this man and wife, who had served with our organization in our country before, were interested in coming back and bringing their young family to M-ville. Spending the day with them in April was shockingly encouraging; they were genuinely interested and fully prepared to return, and they sounded very interested in checking out M-ville. We had brief contacts with them over the summer, and as the fall approached plans were materializing for the other family to visit M-ville in December. We wanted to move straight back to M-ville in October or November, but we conceded that we would allow the other family to visit it and make their decision first, so that we were not putting undue pressure on them. Still we felt that we could not wait until December or January to return, so we arranged to temporarily live in another family’s house in the big city in the north. Leadership of both of our organizations affirmed our plans, and many leaders here were telling us to rest assured that the other family would be joining us in M-ville. Things were looking good, but, it was all about to change quickly.
Just days before our planned departure from the states, a single boy’s act of violence in M-ville upset everything. On a special Friday morning a 14-year-old boy left the main mosque in town after finishing the holiday prayers. He was in the thick of the crowd of men when he pressed the button on his suicide vest. They say the bomb was extremely powerful, as it killed 45 people and wounded 50 more. A number of police officers, and the local chief of police, were among the dead. Perhaps those were the target, but also among the dead were ordinary men and boys. In the first contact I had with my local colleague, he said that the city was eerily quiet, 3 men from his street were dead, and the husband of one of our newer local staff was also gone. It hurt to hear how close this had come to the people that we care deeply about. The pain of the new widow was unimaginable, and the concern of the whole city was reason to grieve. The best way I can help you understand this incident is to say that it would be just like an Easter morning service being bombed. If that happened in your community, wouldn’t it suddenly feel like nowhere was safe?
In a way, the mosque bombing didn’t affect us, but in another, it definitely did. You might be thanking God that we weren’t in M-ville that day, but if we had been there, we would not have been harmed, because we would not have been anywhere near that mosque on that holiday. Not all matters of insecurity are alike, and this one had no intent of harming foreigners, it was an attack on the local police and local community. That being the case, in the aftermath I wished I could have been in M-ville to grieve with and counsel our staff. Unfortunately, at the exact time I was wishing I could be in M-ville, our leaders were planning to make a decision that we would not be able to return to M-ville.
Four days before our departure from the US we received a call from our central office saying that they had serious concerns about insecurity in M-ville, and that we should not count on returning there as quickly as planned. The timing could not have been worse. We wrestled briefly with the thought of postponing our trip, but decided to follow through with the plans to return, albeit with an unprecedented lack of confidence about what was next.
The day after we arrived in the capital city, we were in a meeting with the other family and our organization’s key leaders. After more than a year of hoping, discussing, and planning, this was the first time that all of us could gather in one place. Until this day the attitude had always been one of “hoping and planning for the best”. Finally we gathered for the first time, just one flight away from M-ville, and the attitude had definitely changed to “let’s be real”. The sudden and dramatic change in attitudes has been hard to get over. It felt like we were right in between the two attitudes, because we had lived there, knew the tenuous nature of security there, and yet we felt called to return there because we had seen a way and a value in continuing to move forward. It also felt like the new family had been given too optimistic, even too naïve a picture of M-ville before they came back to our country, and then after they arrived they became aware of the more challenging aspects about M-ville, and quickly caved to the conclusion: “we can’t do this!”
Without a family to join us, our hope to return was doomed. Leaders passed the decision that no families will be placed in M-ville for at least 2 years. They say that our organization will continue to support the projects in that province by sending singles or couples without kids… but I look around and think, who? There is no one currently available to support the community development project; I was that person.
Today or tomorrow the local staff in M-ville will hear that we are not allowed to return there. The local project manager will have to face his fear: he’s been left without foreign support as the end-of-year responsibilities in donor-relations draw near. Will he be able to secure funding for projects for the next year? The field team will be wondering what we expect them to do as the power brokers across the province are changing, and they face threats of violence if they do not coordinate with all of them. The women will wonder if they are headed for unemployment if the insecurity continues and the men deem the female team “unnecessary”. The point is not that I could prevent any of these tragedies, but that I would prefer to be with these brave men and women as they have to face the new risks and challenges of this “post-foreign military” period. For our staff there is a significant temptation to despair right now. If they do not conduct their work safely enough, someone could get kidnapped or killed. But if they withdraw from all the insecure areas (which coincidently are all the needy areas) then their project will lose viability, lose funding, and they’ll all lose their jobs. To keep the work in M-ville going is in essence a fight against despair. I so deeply desired to be a part of that fight. I wanted to help them puzzle through the challenges, to keep finding a way. Maybe the risks would have become too much, and the project would have to be closed, but if I were there I could at least bring their employment to conclusion with honor.
What we will do next is undecided, and our varied considerations are the content for later blog posts. Today my point in writing was to express, if not vent, the emotions of this unfortunate change of plans, this closing of a door. I can’t move on and care about anything in this country if I haven’t first registered how much I cared about the people I was working with in M-ville, how much it grieves me to think of their pain, their loss, and their fear, and how badly they need a Savior. Clearly I’m not that Savior, but it would have been nice if I were allowed to take my family back there and point to Him.