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In escape from gun battle, bond deepens with Karamojong

KABONG, Uganda (BP)–It was an average September day for the family of John and Linda Witte, International Mission Board missionaries in Uganda. The four children were playing in the yard, and AK-47 rifle fire crackled in the distance.

In northern Uganda, gunfire is a way of life if you live among the ever-warring Karamojong people.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoed across the desolate valley. It sounded like rocket fire, and it was close.

Four Ugandan army tanks and a personnel carrier had rolled in to confront Karamojong warriors — in the Wittes’ front yard.

John and Linda say they never feel endangered by the everyday fighting. But that day they were caught in the middle. Government troops fired over the house at warriors on the hill behind the missionary compound.

“Bullets whizzed by,” Linda said. “The kids were crawling on the ground army style to stay away from the gunfire. We could hear big blasts and booms off in the distance.”

John grabbed the radio and tried to make contact with other missionaries. He was surprised when the message went out clearly. In this remote area, the radio often didn’t work.

After hours of gunfire, the Wittes finally heard a break in the fighting. John sent Linda, their four kids and two house guests from the United States out the back. The group fled the compound on foot. All the roads were closed.

“When we got to a clearing by some big rocks and sat under the tree, we met up with some of our people from the villages,” Linda recounted. “When we saw each other, we all rejoiced. The women and I started singing Bible songs right there under the tree.”

John had stayed behind to keep radio contact with the plane that was coming to evacuate them. The kids stood on a boulder, watching through binoculars for their father. Their teenage daughter, Jordan, caught a glimpse of him running from the house with three Ugandans.

Then a rocket exploded just 200 meters from the fleeing men.

“I thought my dad was hit,” she said. “I kept watching, and then there he was. He came running out of the dust. He and the other men were OK.”

The reunited family had to find a way to get to an airstrip six miles away. The roads were closed, and even the walking paths were too dangerous to take. Their friends from the village led them through the bush to the circling plane.

“In that one experience, we bonded with our friends like never before,” Linda said. “Since we were on foot, just like them, we were hiding in the bushes from the bullets. In fact, we were completely dependent on them to help us stay safe.”

The Wittes hope this new bond will open the door to sharing the Gospel — something the Karamojong have resisted in the past.

Because they deal with drought and famine — and war — on a daily basis, the Karamojong are so busy trying to survive that they don’t have much time for anything else, Linda said.

In the past year, however, God has opened doors and a missionary team has been able to begin chronological Bible storying.

“We had no chance of getting the Gospel to them in our own efforts. It’s only through prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit,” Linda said. “There is such a darkness there. The Holy Spirit is the only thing that can penetrate.

“But these people are beginning to understand. Storying the Bible is really breaking through the darkness as they learn God’s Word and hide it in their hearts.”

Such a breakthrough is desperately needed, John Witte noted.

Of the 120,000 Dodoth people — the Karamojong subgroup to which the Wittes minister — only about 500 are evangelicals. While the New Testament has been translated into their language, the Karamojong are an oral people, and almost no one reads. The “JESUS” film, however, is available in their language.

The Wittes ask their supporters in the United States to pray that the Bible storying groups will continue despite the recent unrest and fighting. Their children specifically ask others to pray for friends and playmates left behind, who still are dodging bullets.

“We left on the plane and went somewhere safe with food and water,” Jordan Witte said. “Our friends had to stay. They could not escape. They left their homes and all of their food behind to find safety. We don’t know if they are OK or not.”
EDITOR’ NOTE: The Wittes are from Midland, Texas, where they are members of First Baptist Church.