“We were lying on the bedroom floor under a mattress,” says Gill Jones, former BMS World Mission worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “There was a sniper holed up on the corner of the compound. We could see all the soldiers fighting. Mortar fire was going over us, and you’d wait for the bang.”
Crossfire, carjacking, IEDs, kidnapping, riots, robbery, explosions, raids—working in mission can be hazardous.
A bomb went off at the front door, and gunfights took place outside the windows of houses that BMS workers, Robert and Miriam, stayed in while working in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2008.
“You hide under the bed and you pray,” Robert says. “In every house there was a safe spot, away from windows so no stray bullets could get you. My safe spot was in the arms of my wife.”
“I always asked the question, where is the safest place that you can be?” he said. “And my answer was this: The safest place you can be is where God wants you to be. I believe that God calls people to go to places like Afghanistan and therefore we trust.”
The world can be a dangerous place for those working in overseas mission and aid.
Despite stringent safety precautions, 338 national and international aid workers were attacked in 2013. Of those, 119 were killed, according to AidWorkerSecurity.org.
BMS mission workers are living in dangerous locations all over the world. Even countries that seem relatively safe can explode into violence at any moment.
There’s a point when every mission worker says, “Here I am God, wholly available, send me,” but what does that look like when conflict breaks out and their lives, and the lives of their children, are in danger?
When trouble strikes, every mission worker is confronted with this question: Should they stay or should they go?
Staying shows solidarity, but the cost could be your life. Leaving keeps you safe to serve again, but it is heartbreaking to leave friends and colleagues in danger, not knowing if you’ll ever be reunited.
Ultimately, it is down to mission organizations like BMS to decide where to place workers and when to pull them out.
There are those in the West who would say that some countries are just too dangerous for mission workers—that the potential cost of living in a war zone, especially for mission workers who take their children overseas, is just too high.
Mission workers and organizations are confronted with these issues daily as they serve in some of the world’s most dangerous places. This is life when you do mission in a war zone.
Nicky Magahy was living in a fairly rural community in Guinea with her husband, Arthur, and their two daughters when violent clashes between unions and the government broke out.
Gunshots were fired into the air, roads were blocked and tensions were high. Every day they discussed as a team whether they should stay or go.
“The people we were closest to weren’t in a position to leave,” Nicky says. “That’s what made it so difficult.”
Eventually they decided to get out, for the sake of their children. “There was news going around the capital city that people were coming into houses and raping the women and children, and we have two girls,” Nicky says. “That, for me, was time to get out.”
When they left, they thought Guinea was just 24 hours away from civil war. Nicky didn’t know if she would ever get back in again.
Nicky says she would go back to Guinea tomorrow, without a second thought. Despite the dramatic evacuation and brink of civil war she and her family lived through, Nicky thinks life in Guinea was no more risky than the life her family now leads in Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
If anything, living in the U.K. is much more complicated. “Danger is all relative,” she says. “You can see it so clearly somewhere else, and you imagine home is safe.”
“Evacuating is quite a drastic step, but sometimes it is one of the only ways,” says Steve Penny, an independent consultant in security, crisis and humanitarian response. “We’ve got to be clear that the risks we’re taking are proportionate to the benefit received.”
If someone is doing life-saving work, staying in a crisis might well be worth the risk. But if the work’s not urgent, you arguably don’t need to be there in the height of danger.
According to Steve, there are three options for mission workers caught in crisis: evacuate, relocate to a safer part of the country, or hibernate in a safe place until the conflict comes to an end.
Sarah Stone is a writer for BMS World Mission. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of BMS’ quarterly publication, Engage, and is used with permission. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @Sarah_Stone and BMS @BMSWorldMission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow.