Archive: A Nightmare of ”Liberation”

The true story of a missionary family, the Marvin Wolfords, trapped by Communist guerrillas in Zaire.

by Randall Nulton, Wheaton, Illinois

The long nightmare started with a knock at the door. Two friends came to tell the eight United Methodist missionaries at Kapanga that hundreds of rebel soldiers had surprised everyone and were on the edge of town.

Moments later there was another knock. This time, Dr. Glen Eschtruth found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle. Several men in khaki green uniforms were standing on the porch with rifles and machine guns thrown over their, shoulders.

“We have come to liberate Zaire,” the leader of the soldiers said in Lunda, a language several of the missionaries spoke fluently. “You are all under house arrest.”

In a couple of hours that quiet jungle town of 15,000 was turned into a strategic army headquarters for much of the Communist Katangese rebel force striving to “liberate” Shaba province in Africa’s biggest country, Zaire.

Before the soldiers arrived, business as usual was the order of March 8, 1977. Marv Wolford and his assistant, Rev. Nshid Sampas, were in the office early to begin another day of work on the Bible translation in the local Aruund language. Dr. Glen Eschtruth spoke at the morning chapel service and then made his rounds at the 250-bed Samuteb Hospital on the mission station.

Marv’s wife, Jean, spent much of the morning at her typewriter.

Glen’s wife, Lena, measured medication in the hospital pharmacy.

Newlywed Gaye Radford wrote a letter to her family back in the States. Her husband, Rick, was away on a routine flight to another mission station with the Cessna 190.

Myrtle Pritchard was teaching the African women sewing and cooking, while lab technician Randy Vincent, and nurse Prudence Kirk were hard at their work.

The missionaries had no way of knowing that in a few hours, communication with the outside would be cut off and their lives would be in danger. (One of them would not live to tell about it.) Little did they realize that for the next 11 weeks their faith would be tested as never before.

Rumors had been floating around for some time that the rebels exiled in nearby Angola may have been planning to cross the border and start another war. But the missionaries were not alarmed. Fighting was common in that part of Africa.

“During the early 1960s we had a lot of encounters with the antigovernment soldiers. But that was basically a friendly relationship and we assumed that this would be the case again,” said Marv Wolford. “We just thought it was another round.”

And for the first five weeks, that’s just what it appeared to be. The missionaries were told that the war had nothing to do with them. The soldiers said they had come to free Zaire and things would be okay if they minded their own business-advice the missionaries always followed, even before the invasion.

“At first we were treated quite well,” Lena Eschtruth recalled. “They confiscated our shortwave radio, but the commander was friendly. He said nothing would be taken from us by his troops without a signed requisition.”

After a few days, the house arrest order was lifted and the missionaries were free to carry on everyday tasks. Inconveniences in the guerrilla-occupied city rarely amounted to more than occasional arrests, and the empty feeling of being separated from loved ones. Gaye’s husband, Rick, could only wait and pray with United Methodist missionaries at Kolwezi, 450 miles to the southeast. The Wolfords had no way of getting in touch with their three sons, Tom, Steve, and Andy, in boarding school several hundred miles away.

“Being cut off from the boys was the first thing we thought about,” said Jean Wolford. “But the Lord gave us a peace about the whole thing, so we just trusted others to take our place with them.”

But soon, good fortune turned to bad. About mid-April there was a sudden, frightening change in the attitude of the captors. The rebel army began to suffer some setbacks in the combat zone to the north and east. The soldiers stationed in Kapanga were getting edgy. To make matters worse, a new “political officer” arrived on the scene.

Again the missionaries were confined to their quarters under armed guard. Political slogans were painted on the walls of the hospital. One read: “Down with the United States and the CIA.”

A few days later, Dr. Eschtruth was falsely accused of being connected with the American CIA and having radio contact with the Zaire army. A “people’s” trial was held. The verdict? The doctor was to be taken to Angola for “disciplining.” Six weeks later, the real fate of Dr. Glen Eschtruth was learned. He was gunned down the next day alongside the road a few miles outside the town.

Security at the mission station grew even tighter. Some soldiers made sport of trying to make the missionaries believe false rumors. Others tried to trick the missionaries into telling lies.

One officer brought Marv Wolford a barrel of gasoline and asked Marv to hide it for him. Two days later, another officer and his chauffeur came by for a visit.

“We want all the gas you have,” ordered the driver.

“You’ve taken all of my gas,” Marv answered.

“Yes, but we want all that you have.”

Somehow Marv began to sense a trap. Saying the wrong thing might mean death. He chose his words carefully.

“I have no gas, but I have one barrel that belongs to one of the officers and he asked me to keep it only for him.”

Satisfied, the chauffeur reported to the officer: “He answered right.”

“I felt like I was walking on eggs most of the time,” Marv commented. “We just did the things they demanded in a very prayerful attitude, trusting the Lord to help us not make a mistake, an error of judgment, or a reaction that would upset them and cost somebody his life,” Marv continued. “I came to the point where I realized that if I were going to die, I wanted it to be in God’s way, and in God’s time.”

Many things the missionaries never understood. But one by one, they concluded that God had them there for a purpose—to pray. Each night they would eat together followed by a lengthy time of devotions. One Gospel hymn after another echoed into the tropical night.

“We really counted on those times of rejoicing and fellowship and looked forward to the evening all day long,” said Marv. Jean added, “It was beautiful how we all were knit and woven together. I just know that’s the way the Lord intends the Body of Christ to be.”

Besides praying for their own courage, the missionaries also prayed for the soldiers. Over cups of coffee, some of the missionaries had a chance to establish a real friendship with some of the men. Marv often read his newly translated Scripture, and a few would let him pray with them.

One guard, who was generally rough with his constant orders, asked the group what they were thinking around the supper table one night. They answered by singing a Bible chorus. For those brief minutes, the guard’s wicked spirit seemed to soften.

But sharing about Jesus wasn’t easy because most of the men were smoking marijuana and drinking all the time. Under those circumstances, reaching the inner man was difficult.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know the impact for Christ we had on those men,” reflected Jean.

The weeks rolled by into mid-May. Mortar fire could be heard resounding through the jungle as the fighting gradually moved closer to Kapanga. Government mirage fighter bombers literally flattened village after village in the area. Finally, Kapanga was the target. Like a bolt of lightning, two jets cruised over the treetops and showered the town with bombs from one end to the other. Amidst all the confusion, the missionaries gathered for prayer.

God answered. No one died and only eight people were injured in the entire village. Half of the bombs didn’t even explode.

The rebel army withdrew the next day and retreated toward the Angolan border. Almost the entire Kapanga population evacuated their village, fearing punishment from the advancing government for “not resisting the communists.”

The missionaries were left alone in a modern day ghost town. All was quiet except for the occasional thunder of artillery booming in the distance. Without a shortwave radio, all they could do was wait until the Zaire army arrived.

May 21 … May 22 … May 23 … the artillery fire was getting closer. May 24 … May 25 … still no army.

Ironically, one more miracle would be needed before the whole ordeal would end. A Roman Catholic priest from a nearby mission station figured out the problem. “The Zaire army hasn’t realized they aren’t fighting anybody yet,” he said.

The priest volunteered to take a white pillow case and ride an old worn-out motor bike into the bush to meet the army.

“From our past experience with Zaire wars, we knew there was no way anyone could do what he was doing and not be shot on sight,” said Mary.

But the plan succeeded. The priest was unharmed by the surprised Zaire soldiers he approached on the road. The general called off a massive artillery attack minutes before the designated starting time. Plans were to completely level Kapanga. No one remaining in the village could have expected to survive. So with one final close call, it was all over after almost three months.

Before Glen Eschtruth kissed his wife for the last time that fateful day in April, he scribbled Romans 8:28 onto the inside cover of Lena’s Bible: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

The weary group of missionaries at Kapanga was beginning to understand this profound verse.

“We felt that if we were not there, the hospital would have been destroyed, the mission station destroyed, and our village demolished,” Jean concluded.

Amazingly, through the entire ordeal, there were no bitter feelings—even when Lena learned her husband had been murdered. In fact, several of the missionaries are either already back in Zaire, or planning to return shortly. All three Wolford boys want to be missionary pilots in Zaire.

“I learned three important things through it all,” Lena Eschtruth witnessed. “God gives strength where there is no strength, faith where there is no faith, and peace where there is no peace.”


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