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Air Support

Kenya's MAF director reports on evacuation and supply efforts.

Bernard Terlouw, Kenya director for Mission Aviation Fellowship, was in his Nairobi office on January 1, planning how to best evacuate victims of the escalating violence. Amid the fighting that had broken out after the contested win of President Mwai Kibaki over challenger Raila Odinga, MAF had begun receiving calls from desperate Kenyans in Eldoret, Kisumu, Kitale, and other western towns.

"We were trying to see who needed help and where they could be routed through," said Terlouw. As more calls came in and the planning continued, Terlouw said he and his team began to feel optimistic "that we were going to be able to do something for some of these people."

Then Terlouw got a call on his cell phone from a man near Lake Victoria. "He was screaming at me because he was being chased into a field. He was saying, 'Send a helicopter! I need a helicopter! Can you come to this park? I'll do anything for you! I'll work for you! I'm at this park.'"

"I told him I couldn't send a helicopter because we didn't have any," said Terlouw. "There was no air field nearby, and we couldn't get there. Suddenly, there was this deadly silence in my heart. … What happened with that man, I don't know. I don't even know who he was. He just called me on his cell phone, a man in western Kenya."

As the death toll and number of displaced people has mounted, Terlouw said his team has been focusing on getting people out of the most dangerous areas. They're also delivering supplies to some of the more than 300,000 displaced people who are congregating at schools, police stations, churches, and open fields.

"At the moment, the crisis is very big," Terlouw says. "Large areas of the slums have been burned down. People have been thrown out of their houses. Stress levels are high. People are seeking shelter around police stations and are in need of protection because people are still very angry and scared. We all fear the violence will be rekindled."

On January 8, Terlouw said his team of pilots would be flying goods supplied by Food for the Hungry and Catholic Relief Services to western towns. "Today and tomorrow we will fly several loads — thousand of kilos of blankets, mosquito nets, and plastic sheets," said Terlouw. "At least it will give them a little bit of shelter." The next day, he was called on to evacuate a group of German missionaries who had been threatened for helping "the wrong tribe." Earlier, MAF planes were also used to evacuate staff members of Scripture Mission, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Navigators, and Gospel Fire International.

While much of the violence has been tribe-on-tribe, Terlouw said rivalries and the disputed election, which has largely pitted members of Odinga's Luo tribe against members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, are not alone to blame for the violence, looting, and killings. "The moral framework people have been living in has collapsed," he said. Last week, with the police busy squelching violent demonstrations, "people took advantage of the situation and used it to commit an enormous amount of crime. Doctors here report that rape has increased dramatically. The moral constraints failed, and people started doing things because it was possible now."

Terlouw said the desperate state of affairs has also brought a resurgence of the practice of witchcraft to the largely Christian country.

"Last night [January 7], the leading story on network television was how effective black magic is," he said. "The networks have been running long feature stories on looters who returned the timber they had stolen after shop owners sought out witch doctors to cast black magic and practice witchcraft on them. What a story to bring to a country that is 80 percent Christian."

Terlouw, a Presbyterian minister who teaches at a Vineyard Church in Nairobi, said religious leaders' ongoing calls for peace and reconciliation are going to be hard for victims of the violence to accept.

"Right now there is a terrible circle of revenge," he said. "People have seen their houses burned down and their children killed. How are they going to deal with that? … The sad and confusing thing is that there are Christians on both sides. It's difficult to understand that a country this Christian could go through this mayhem."

Terlouw said he believes reconciliation is possible, but not without justice and "the long and painful process of acknowledging and forgiving sin." He is currently working with the African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry and hopes that the religious leaders and diplomats who assemble in Nairobi this weekend will see the need to pursue a justice-based solution, while also resolving "to sit down together and [decide] to forgive."

This is his prayer, and it is what he and thousands of other Kenyan believers are asking Christians around the world to pray for. "Christians have an answer," said Terlouw. "It's not an easy answer, but it's time to speak out."

In the meantime, said Terlouw, "we just continue to fly."

Related Elsewhere:

BBC News has a section on Kenya's ongoing election crisis. Newser has collected coverage from many newspapers.

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