In Harm's Way

Flying where no one is allowed to fly, bringing aid to people without hope

One night before bed, Pat Bradley picked up a copy of God's Smuggler, a book about a Dutchman who sneaked Bibles into the communist world.

He decided to try it.

In the winter of 1989, he flew to Estonia with Bibles hidden in his suitcase. He prayed his way through customs, left a few Bibles in Estonia and took the rest to an underground church in Moscow.

Pat Bradley with a Sudanese villager in front of her home
Courtesy of Pat Bradley
Pat Bradley with a Sudanese villager in front of her home
Bradley, with his escorts, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Bradley, with his escorts, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan

He handed one to a tall, hollow-cheeked pastor with gray streaking his black hair. The man stretched out rough hands and took the book, holding it as if it were a velvet pillow for Catherine the Great's rubies. Bradley expected a smile or at least a nod; instead, a drop of water splashed down on the page. The man walked away wordless, carrying the Bible, tears streaming down his face.

The exchange felt so tense, Bradley worried that he had somehow offended the man.

"No, no," the translator said. "He was in prison in Siberia for 26 years for being a pastor. He's never owned a Bible."

In that instant, the hook entered.

A successful advertising-account exec, Bradley had once been so scared to live, he'd numbed himself with anything liquid and strong. Now, stone sober, he felt brave. He joined International Christian Concern, a human-rights nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and brought Bibles to 22 countries where Christians were persecuted.

Then he went to Sudan.

And he realized that Bibles weren't enough.

The worst he'd seen, the ghettoes of Bangladesh, looked like Ladue compared to the way the Sudanese were living. Framing the destitution: rampant AIDS and malaria, ethnic and religious persecution, slave trade, rebel insurgencies and a government that would rather spill blood than the oil under southern Sudan's cracked, dusty earth.

In one village, a man told Bradley how soldiers took babies, held them by their ankles and swung them like baseball bats up against trees.

Sometimes the attackers were government troops, sometimes soldiers in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/ Army. Supposedly the two were bombing each other's strongholds, firing at each other's armies.

But it was the villages that burned.

Bradley's trips took on new urgency. Since that first trip in 2000, he's gone back to Sudan six more times. He's also gone twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In March, he formed his own nonprofit organization, International Crisis Aid, so he could bring aid under neutral, secular auspices.

He no longer cares whether he helps persecuted Christians or starving Sunni Muslims.

The twin-engine plane he charters holds a crew of three and three more, plus food. Bibles weigh too much. He'd rather get to the places none of the NGOs is reaching.

"The government of Sudan has created no-fly zones where they forbid anyone to go," Bradley explains, his voice mild as Mister Rogers'. "Those are the areas where we focus -- because that's where the greatest need is."

That's also where the danger is, according to Human Rights Watch staffer Ryan Hahn:

"Aid workers do get killed in Sudan; in the no-fly zones, especially, there are instances where the aid planes get shelled." Hahn says that in February, Sudan's government actually approved an aid distribution in one of these zones. Then a government plane "accidentally" bombed the site, killing at least 24 people.

Bradley travels only with an interpreter and a South African colleague. He won't take his wife, Susan, because "in Sudan, anything could go wrong." He keeps a survival kit with him at all times and comes prepared to hike two weeks in 115-degree heat if necessary.

He's found only two airplane-charter companies in Kenya willing to accept these missions, yet they've proved surprisingly easy: Nobody's monitoring the forbidden zones, just bombing them.

That's about to change: Sudan is installing radar. Bradley worries that surveillance will complicate the flights, which already cost $2,000 an hour.

Money comes to him from unexpected sources -- clients at Vertis, the St. Louis advertising production services company where he works; church members; strangers who hear word of mouth.

Advice flows just as freely. A board member told him he should write his family a letter, just in case -- the kind of letter a soldier writes before he goes into battle.

Bradley's tried, several times. But he's never finished the letter.

He swears he's only been heart-stoppingly scared once: in December, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were "security concerns" -- read "Taliban" -- about a refugee camp there, and no other NGOs would go. More than half-a-million refugees were encamped, and 1,400 new families had just arrived. They walked. For two weeks. Without food or shelter.

Bradley packed twenty tons of wheat flour, and he and his crew followed a narrow rocky path up into the Tora Bora mountains.

"Half-a-mile before we reached the camp, a little truck comes flying at us, and these guys jump out with AK-47s," he says. "The commander's bodyguards."

Ushered into camp, they found a minicoup in progress: An Islamic group was trying to get the refugees stirred up against the Americans who were bombing them. Bradley's team left immediately. The next day, the commander set them up in a more controlled spot, and they gave out all their flour.

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