The Refugee I Love

Drs. Craig and Médine Keener.

By Craig Keener –

It wasn’t that I was never attracted to anybody. But after being deeply wounded by betrayal, I was very shy about relationships. So even though Médine Moussounga was one of my best friends during my PhD work at Duke University, I couldn’t tell her how much I liked her. I didn’t know that Médine liked me too. In her culture, only the man was allowed to broach such a subject.

So after Médine finished her year at Duke as an exchange student, she returned to finish her own PhD in France. As we continued to correspond, our feelings eventually became too difficult to hide. But I was convinced that only someone called to ministry would be able to share my passion for God’s work. So when she denied being called to ministry, I insisted that we should stay just friends. She could not tell me that she was heartbroken. Nor did I realize that, despite her denial of ministry, she was on the leadership team of a church that she helped plant, was doing open air evangelism, and engaging in door-to-door evangelism in immigrant communities. She defined ministry more narrowly than I!

After she returned to her nation of Congo-Brazzaville, she finally gave way to local pressure and married a man there. I thanked God for providing a husband for Médine. Little did either of us know that he was a bigamist, with another wife and girlfriends on the side. But Médine began to realize that she was in serious trouble when, after perhaps a month of marriage, he began coming home drunk. Soon he began physically abusing her and threatening to kill her. By the time he strangled her, nearly killing her, she knew that she was pregnant.

Accosted by soldiers. When war erupted in the capital, Médine, now pregnant and sick with malaria, barely escaped with her life. Her bigamous husband abandoned her after taking her possessions. She filed for divorce. Although a doctor had guaranteed that her baby would die, David was born healthy, and she began nursing him in her home town of Dolisie. As we continued to correspond, I was heartbroken for her.

One day, however, I received a new letter from her, mailed by a relative who had left Congo. Bullets had barely missed her brother and father; her cousin was gunned down in the street on Christmas Day. The new president’s soldiers were raping women and killing men, and she didn’t know whether she would live or die.

I would not receive any more news about Médine for the next year and a half. All I could do was to desperately pray. By the time her letter reached me, Dolisie had been burned down. The International Red Cross estimated that war displaced up to a quarter of her country. What if I had married her years earlier, I wondered?

Because of fighting in the city, her neighborhood cleared out – except for Médine and her family. That night, soldiers from their own region, finding them home, shot at them and robbed them. Médine and her sister decided the family must flee. But how? Her father was disabled, and the brothers who were strong enough to carry him were now far away. They couldn’t consider what some others had done – abandoning aged parents to die. Her parents prayed a simple prayer for God to send someone to help. And then there was a knock at the door.

Médine and her sisters glanced at each other, perplexed. What if enemy soldiers had returned to plunder, rape and kill?

Beginning Life as Fugitives. With trepidation they opened the door to find an older relative. “Help me get Papa Jacques in the wheelbarrow!” he ordered. As they left behind a home that they would never see again, gunfire and explosions kept Médine anxious. The group carried clothes on their heads and backs as they trekked up a steep dirt road, sweating in the tropical afternoon sun. David rested firmly on Médine’s back.

They found friends to travel with. Some were educated people like themselves – a pastor, a principal, a pediatrician, a professor, and a widowed nurse. Hungry, the nurse’s son decided to backtrack to try to find some food. When he did not return the next day, the group had to move on. The nurse went looking for him. The following day she caught up with them. They found her sobbing and lying in the mud as the rain poured down. She had found her son with vegetables still in his arms, shot dead.

The band of fugitives usually slept on dirt or concrete floors of abandoned buildings in villages. These offered shelterfrom rain but not mosquitoes. They had to continue fleeing from the outskirts of one village to another as war continued to spread throughout the region. For their feet, they only had flip-flops. They walked often on dirt roads, but sometimes in tall, sharp grass or on stones. Their feet toughened but sometimes bled; eventually the flimsy flip-flops broke. Médine’s one consolation was the toddler singing on her back.

In one village the alarm rang out just in time. As soldiers swarmed the village, they and other civilians were fleeing along mountain paths. The path that Médine’s party had chosen, however, ended at a chasm with a river raging below, filled with jagged rocks.

By now one of Médine’s brothers, Emmanuel, had joined them and was pushing her father in the wheelbarrow. Yet the only “bridge” across the chasm was a single rail, the sort that is used for just one side of a railroad track. To get across, everyone would have to balance their way across on that single rail. The hardest task fell to Emmanuel – who would have to carry their father across on his back. Then, if they were to proceed further, he would also have to walk back across the rail and retrieve the wheelbarrow.

Only by God’s grace did they all survive.

Life and Death. Even when they eventually reached a mostly stable region, life was hard. They could eat just once a day. To get food each day, Médine and her sister walked five miles through snake-infested water and fields of army ants. They had to pick the large, biting ants off their legs. After harvesting the cassava root and returning home, they had to prepare it. Sometimes they supplemented by eating ferns or rats.

They lacked nets to protect them from mosquitoes. One morning so many mosquitoes swarmed David’s head that it looked like thick hair, and soon he fell sick with malaria. Excrement and dead bodies contaminated the water sources, but going without water was not an option. At any given time, someone in the family was therefore near death due to malaria, dysentery, or typhoid fever.

After eighteen months of war, the family finally returned to what remained of Dolisie. In Congo, a home is one’s main economic security, so people often invest their life savings in their house. Except for one room, however, their house had been destroyed by fire. Some other people, seeing their homes destroyed, died from heart failure or stroke. Médine and her siblings were afraid that the ruins of their home would prove too much for their ailing father. After a quiet minute of staring at the ruins, however, he announced, “Let’s thank God. He kept us all alive.”

More painful to Médine than the ruins of the house was the silence. Unlike her son David, most of the neighbor children had died during the war. Médine couldn’t bear to remain in Dolisie, and she wanted to resume contact with me. That would be simplest in Pointe-Noire, the one city that had escaped war.

Back in Contact. I was delighted to be back in touch with Médine, and immediately sent funds to help her. Little did I know that she had begun selling charcoal to survive and feed David. Little did I know that they were staying in a tin-roof shack. After heavy rains, water would flood the mud floor, attaching leeches to her legs. One day, a violent storm blew the tin roof off, drenching them and terrifying David. A pastor friend charged that perhaps God was judging her for sin in her life.

Yet as we corresponded, our feelings came up again, and this time we agreed to pray until we both heard from God. And this time, I heard the Lord’s direction almost right away. Email was relatively new in Congo, but when Médine got my message in the cybercafé, she left clutching the printed email, laughing and crying to herself.

Never Again. One night soon afterward, David went into convulsions from another bout of malaria. He went stiff and stopped breathing. Médine splashed through puddles, racing for a nearby clinic. Had she now found a husband only to lose her son? Because she had the money that I had sent, the clinic saved her son.

But most refugees have no money. Thousands died in Congo because of the selfish ambitions of politicians. Even outside food and medical aid couldn’t reach her region’s refugees until the war ended. For that matter, U.S. news barely mentioned her country at all. The news magazine I read back then didn’t even mention the war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo until an estimated two million people had died, and even then they gave it just half a page. Had 1 percent of two million died in North America or Europe, it would’ve been front-page news. In fact, when less than one-fifth of 1 percent of that number died in the attack on September 11, 2001, it understandably dominated the news for months. If black lives matter – and they do – our media and political system have certainly not always acted like it.

Hitler knew that he could get away with genocide. No one had intervened in the German genocide of tens of thousands of Namibians in 1904-1907, or in the Ottoman genocide against probably more than a million Armenians in 1915-1917. After the Nazi genocide the world said, “Never again.” They have repeated that refrain after subsequent genocides, such as those in Cambodia and Rwanda. Where are today’s voices for justice like our abolitionist forebears? Who will speak up for refugees?

U.S. immigration policy changed overnight after September 11, 2001, and Médine and I accordingly missed our first wedding date. But we have now been married for sixteen years, and David is a senior worship arts major at Asbury University. Although our story has a happy ending, not all stories end this way. The silence of the neighbor children of Dolisie cries loudly: May it be really, truly: never again.

Craig and Médine’s story is told more fully in Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope Against All Odds (Chosen, 2016), 240 pages, $15.99. Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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