From Conflict Zones to Comfort Zones

By Gareth Barton

I was recently invited to give a talk to a group of local scouts as part of their ‘Inspire’ series.  The leaders had asked a number of local professionals to talk about their work to encourage these young people to dream big dreams and to aspire to good things in their working futures.  I was flattered and found myself in lofty company.  On the night I was joined by a forestry estate manager, a paramedic, a surgeon and a police helicopter pilot.  I was there in my occasional capacity as a photojournalist.  Sounds romantic doesn’t it? Adventure, danger, mud-strip landings on tiny aircraft, trips into the bush on the backs of motorbikes, cameras hanging off both shoulders, meeting people in tribal areas and sharing stories with those who have experienced lives so different from our own. “So I was there, in this tiny village, meeting a young lad who had just escaped the LRA,” I could hear myself saying to these youngsters with stars in their eyes. “And there was that time I was photographing genocide survivors”, oh and, “And this girl saw her grandfather hacked to death with a machete.” Romantic? Hmmm. When someone sent me some pictures of what is happening right now in DRC, I looked back on that talk and shivered.

I was sitting in my comfortable office at home and heard the familiar ping of an incoming email. I was expecting some up to date info on the latest developments in eastern DRC for a report I was writing to a funder.  I was not expecting to see the pictures they had attached.  Tanks on the street, refugees carrying mattresses, burials in bed sheets and bloodied bodies in the mud courtyard of a house being looked upon by a surviving family member.  I was shocked.  Again.  Images are part of my life and these hit me hard.  It struck me harder than ever that day, as I looked at the man gazing at the bodies, that this is who Flame International are called to minister to, to share God’s love with, so that he stands a chance of recovering from  this moment, caught on camera and sent to me on email, in my comfortable room, with my latte.  These images, these lives, beamed via amazing technology, from conflict zones to comfort zones.

Along with these images we received an emergency email from a Congolese bishop that has caused us to stop in our tracks. “Due to the fighting in North Kivu, the Congolese people are sad and depressed from this war. Today, so many people are displaced from their homes; many are raped, injured and killed. The victims do not get assistance. The war continues and nobody can tell when it will take end. This same situation is observed in South Kivu where FDLR (Interahamwe) and other militias are fighting against the loyal army in various villages. In such situation, we realise that it is not easy for people (pastors, women and youth) to travel from villages to Goma for the Flame Conference. Therefore, we would pray you to plan the Flame Conference for next year 2013 in Goma. We assure you that people would be grateful if Flame International may give any support to assist the victims in their sufferance. We thank you for your prayers in this moment we are living hardship in the Kivus. Yours sincerely, Rt Rev BAHATI BALI-BUSANE Sylvestre Bishop of Bukavu Diocese.”

The immediacy of what’s happening in the east of DRC at the moment has meant that Flame International’s programme of ministry there has been delayed.  This has only happened once before, in Malakal, South Sudan.  I asked Jan Ransom about that time. “The trip was planned for January 2007. In November 2006 we heard that 136 people had been killed in the town due to tribal fighting and the UN had been called in. The bishop was very keen for us to go and the team were really up for it and positive despite the dangers. However, our Chairman of Trustees at the time had a check in her spirit. She warned that she was nervous about a team heading off where there was such lawlessness. She could not quite put her finger on the reason why.

“There was a trustees meeting in December 2006 and we were due to discuss it. The day before the meeting our Chair went to a prayer gathering where she asked for prayer for a difficult meeting the next day without giving any details. One man who knew nothing of the circumstances had a spiritual picture of two beings without heads on! Gabby knew the Lord was saying it was too dangerous for us to go to Malakal. However, at the trustees meeting she chaired we spent time waiting on God after which we all sensed the Lord was saying the timing was not right and we should wait. The Lord spoke to us so clearly. “We delayed a year. It was interesting that the postponement only cost us £50, the Lord had gone before us and he made it clear it was the right decision. In retrospect we believe the Lord was calling us to do his will and submit to our Chair of Trustees, testing our obedience. We are an organisation that takes risks but they must be taken under the Lord’s direction and we must not be foolish! When we eventually went to Malakal we had an extraordinary visit and saw amazing miracles of healing and reconciliation. However, for our second trip to Malakal we were on the sidelines of violence and death at celebrations of the 4th Anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The President and Vice President were there but prior to their arrival two tribesmen were shot dead about 500 metres from where we were sitting and there was a stampede! There was much tribal tension and we felt very vulnerable! Prayer was our weapon and it made us consider what may have happened had we not followed the Lord’s leading on our first trip.”

Generally the teams visit places which are very ‘post-conflict’ – from a few years in Sudan and Uganda, to almost a decade in Burundi or even nearer a century in Armenia.  The needs are real nonetheless, despite the time distance, and the ministry challenges people with the need to forgive old hurts.  But here in DRC as it was in Malakal the need is to forgive fresh hurts.  And these hurts are enormous.  People are slaughtered in the street and in their homes – not from long-range but face-to-face, often by neighbours in the case of Burundi, by people known to the victims and survivors.  This isn’t the need to forgive a people group necessarily or a nation (although that might play a part) but rather to forgive someone you know by name, who you’ve lived in community with and you still see. Or in places like DRC and South Sudan it might be the very present fear of militia raids in the night with people dragged out of their beds to be executed or raped.

How do you forgive something like that at all, ever, let alone when it’s happening now or was just last week or only last month?

I realise this isn’t easy reading but perhaps it’s timely in that, after 10 years of ministry, we are reminded by the images we see and the messages we are mailed that the need for Flame’s ministry is as real today as it was back then and that it is still shocking, appalling and we wish we weren’t required.  That this is no romantic rescue mission for adventurous types but rather a humble and painful act of God’s mercy carried out by those who are called to move his kingdom forward on their knees.

I feel like returning to the Scouts to apologise, and to tell them that covering post-conflict zones as a photojournalist is  awful, wonderful, heart-breaking, humbling, tear-filled, attitude-adjusting and life-changing. It is not romantic.