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.

"Everything went fine until we left," says Bradley. "As we came up to the steel gates, there was almost a riot, people trying to get in because they'd heard there was food. I yelled at the driver to go back -- I was pretty nervous. But he went through the gates anyway."

"What the hell am I doing here?" Bradley thought. "We could be killed, and nobody in the world would ever know."

Instead, it was like the parting of the Red Sea:

"As we drove forward, people just moved away."

He flew home safely, and by March he was back on a two-week marathon: Afghanistan/Pakistan and southern Sudan.

On Bradley's first trip to Sudan, he'd seen bomb craters a foot-and-a-half into the ground. This time, he saw craters four and five feet deep, a testament to higher-tech warfare. He saw vast expanses of land marked off in neat grids for drilling -- and villages bombed to drive the people west, away from the oil.

He saw a baby with a tumor bulging from her neck, larger than her head and hard as a rock. He saw a woman so skeletal, it looked as if her bones were laid on top of her skin. Nearly bald, with a gap the size of two teeth blackening her smile, she saw the visitors and hurried to put on a dress and a bone necklace.

Bradley flew back to Sudan in May with more food. This time, because it seemed so important to the villagers that visitors stay among them for a while -- not dump food and race back to safety -- he set up camp in a village in the western Upper Nile region (where, according to State Department reports, the fiercest fighting is taking place). Then he fell into a deep sleep, zonked by heat and exhaustion.

At 2 a.m., he bolted straight up. A bomber was flying directly overhead, at about 1,500 feet instead of its usual 15,000. He'd always heard that if a plane's flying close to the ground, you don't hear it approach until it's right on top of you. Rumor confirmed.

As soon as the roar faded, flashes of light tore the black sky. The plane, a Russian Antonov, was dropping bombs on a neighboring village.

After the sixteenth bomb, Bradley stopped counting. But he never fell back to sleep.

Just before dawn, his team set out on foot, walking in the direction of the flashes, toward the village of Rier. The ground was dry and barren, the horizon flat. In a few hours it would be 114 degrees, the light a brilliant yellow, with no clouds or trees to soften the sun. Bradley walked steadily, his eyes straight ahead. And then he saw dots that could have been people, off in the distance.

They were walking toward him, moving slowly, many carrying wounded relatives. As they neared, he saw blood soaking their clothes. One man's right arm hung by four inches of skin, the tissue ripped out from shoulder to elbow. He walked on his own, eyes dull with shock, holding what was left of his arm against his side so it wouldn't swing.

Another man carried a boy about fourteen years old on his shoulders. Something sharp had gone into the boy's left temple, but there was no exit wound; his face was swollen, drenched in blood. There was no way he'd live through the day.

Using their little plane, now emptied of its floury cargo, Bradley and his crew evacuated the worst cases to the Red Cross hospital in Lokichokio, Kenya. Hospital administrators later told reporters that they had admitted six seriously injured civilians but could not confirm where they were wounded or by whom, because the Red Cross did not have access to Rier.

It was in a no-fly zone.

Bradley came home more determined than ever to continue his expeditions. He's now working on resettlement of twenty-one Sudanese orphans -- former slaves who were rescued and hustled out of the country -- and he's planning his next trip to Sudan.

This time, he wants to bring more medical supplies. He's learned to make field splints of bleached sticks and tie them with tree bark, and he's dressed wound after wound, dreading the day he'll have to do a field amputation without anesthetic. When he closes his eyes, he sees a brownish-yellow growth: a hollow scooped into the middle of a woman's breast, crusted on top like burnt casserole.

He opens his eyes, reaches for his cell phone, arranges to wire his South African partner $10,000 so he can get flour out of storage from their last trip and have it delivered to people on an island in Sudan. As soon as the logistics fall into place, his body relaxes, as if somebody has just snipped a cord that was holding him a little too taut.

"They're IDPs, internally displaced people," he explains, "and they need to get off the island, or they're not going to be alive."

In his drinking days, he was barely alive himself. Now his nose tingles with the stink of camel breath from a caravan in the Tora Bora mountains, and when he sips water he thinks about a black pool of water with three skeletons half-submerged, their flesh dissolved into the water, and flies buzzing around the Sudanese people's heads as they bend to drink there.

Last month, Sudan's government agreed -- at least in principle -- to open some of the no-fly zones to humanitarian aid workers. The government kept eighteen locations restricted, however.

When Bradley flies back in September, that's where he'll go.

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