In the fall of 1992, God gave me a promise. And it wasn’t just any promise. I was about to leave for Afghanistan for the first time with a good friend on a mission to take Bibles to the Muslim people there. As I waited for the boarding announcement, I sat with my Bible on my lap, praying about the trip. That’s when the words of Revelation 2:10 jumped out at me from the pages of Scripture. “You will have tribulations for ten days.” Though written for another time and place, I could sense that these words were also a promise for me.
Now the airlines began to make my boarding announcement. I tucked the verse away to ponder on later and we boarded the plane. Mark and I had worked together in Hong Kong, taking Bibles to persecuted Christians in China. Both of us had prayed for God to take us where the need for His Word was the greatest. Right then, we felt compelled to bring Bibles to the people in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan had been a country in conflict for decades, and in 1992, it was shaping up to be an especially bad year of civil conflict. At the time of our trip, Iran-backed extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was fighting Burhanuddin Rabbani, a moderate Muslim and the leader of the country, along with the Tajik leader, Ahmad Massoud. Rabbani and Massoud were in control of the government. Hekmatyar wanted to make Afghanistan more like Iran, which was strictly Islamic— oppressing women and restricting any influence from the West. Innocent people were getting caught in the middle, which is what usually happens.
As Mark and I flew into Kabul, we looked down on a city that was cradled by mountains, with a brilliantly blue sky above and a rolling carpet of arid land below. In the west was a backdrop of the snow-covered Paghman Mountains, which showcased the beauty of this ancient city. From the air, it was hard to imagine modern artillery being used in such a remote and timeless place.
Then we landed. Primitive and poor, the airport had previously been hit by rockets; it was in bad shape. Our suitcases laden with scriptures were brought to us on a flatbed trailer, which was pulled behind a slow-moving farm tractor. Inside the terminal, the bathroom was partially bombed out, leaving us to wonder not only what violence had taken place there, but how recently it had happened.
The first time you arrive in a new country, there is always the shock of the unfamiliar, the foreign. For me, it was the weaponry on display that stood out the most. Though I was raised in Wyoming, where a truck is not complete without a gun rack, it was still alarming to see men with bazookas, AK47s, and other firepower—all within easy reach. Adding to this starkly hostile setting were the ever-present tanks, sitting at strategic corners or patrolling the streets.
We did not waste any time at the airport. We quickly hailed a cab at the curb. As our taxi driver made his way through the city streets toward our hotel, we caught a glimpse of daily life. Women, covered from head to toe in their full length chadors, walked purposefully to and from the markets. Only a small mesh opening allowed them to see where they were walking. Occasionally, we would see a woman raise the screen so she could see better or perhaps breathe more freely. Many had small children in tow, beautiful with their large, wise eyes and shy smiles.
Mark and I checked into a modest hotel and settled in for a week’s stay. That night, we could look out from the balcony and see the fireworks. I don’t mean 4th of July fireworks, but gunfire that lit up the sky far outside the city. We could hear the distant rockets hiss and then explode as they hit their targets. The civil war was happening right in front of us, but far enough outside of Kabul that it did not seem to impact the city itself. We listened to the popping sound of explosions as they punctuated the still night air. How could we not pray for the people of Afghanistan!
Coming from the baggage claim earlier, we had walked right through Customs without any incident. This was rare since we had 110 booklets, which contained the Gospels of Luke and Mark, all of them written in the native Dari language. They do not like Gospel literature to say the least, and if they find it, they will often either hold you for questioning or confiscate it. We knew God had already gone before us.
The next morning, Mark and I asked the Lord for direction in how and where He wanted us to distribute the literature. We decided to begin by just walking through the city. We wanted to wait on the Lord to direct us in giving away the Gospel portions as we went.
Among the many we met that day was a shopkeeper, who gave us a long, curious look before accepting the booklet. “Is this Christian?” he asked. Mark said it was, and the man asked for more to give to his family members and friends. Like many of the people we encountered, he was very open to the Gospel.
As Americans, we really stood out in the crowds. Besides me and Mark, there was only one other foreigner in the country at the time—a French man we had met one day on the street who was looking for drugs. He wore a bright red coat and a French beret. He didn’t seem to mind that he was a willing target for snipers. But I believe God used our foreignness as a way to spark the Afghan people’s curiosity and open doors for conversation.
Another day, while we were out walking, we met two young doctors who wanted to know why we were in Kabul. We invited the doctors to our hotel room to talk. One of them also brought his brother. After visiting a while, we showed them the “JESUS” video in their Dari dialect. Because an early curfew was in effect, they quickly left after the video, but the doctors returned the next day and asked us many questions.
Six years before, one of them had received a New Testament from a British missionary. Both men were very receptive to the Gospel and we prayed with them to be able to come to a full understanding of who Jesus is.
That week we also visited the old American Embassy. At that time, it had been shut down for three years. There, we listened to two Afghans who had worked for the embassy. They shared their frustrations with us. Both seemed to be broken-hearted that their country had been through so much warfare. They spoke of how those with guns would steal from those with smaller guns or from those with no guns at all. We could only listen and share with them the hope that comes from knowing Jesus. Afterwards, they let us pray for them and their country.
Having explored Kabul a bit, our next destination was a place called Mazar-e-Sharif, which is known for its stunning blue-tiled mosque. It is the second-largest city in Afghanistan, and some call this the “capital of the North.”
We rolled in on a dusty bus, after passing through some incredibly rugged and bombed-out country. At one point, we had to leave our bus to walk through a landslide, which had been caused by a heavy rainstorm. It was now blocking the road. Boulders, the size of cars, had rolled down the canyon, and mud had wiped out entire villages. It was no wonder there were these road blocks. We slogged through the mud for about a mile and then boarded another bus which was waiting to take us on to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Our plans were to cross over to Termez and then on to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizstan. We spent two days in Mazar-e-Sharif, and then traveled about 45 minutes by taxi to the border. There we met a young, helpful soldier who spoke English very well. He said that we would need an exit permit to leave the country of Afghanistan. We had not known this, and now it would take a trip back to Mazar-e-Sharif to get the necessary stamp.
“Let me talk to my army colonel and see what I can do,” the young man offered. He really liked Americans and I thanked God for giving us time with him. After about twenty minutes, he came back with permission to let us leave the country. Again, this was nothing less than Divine intervention.
Now that we could leave, we had to find a ride across the bridge that separated us from Tajikistan. Pedestrians were not allowed to cross, so we waited alongside a Pakistani man who was also hoping to get across.
Suddenly, a Jeep that was carrying two drunken Russians careened toward us, stopping suddenly in a cloud of dust. Loudly, and in broken English, they offered us a ride. With no better options to choose from, the three of us climbed into the back. The men asked us where we were from, and I told them Mark and I were Americans.
“No way! You can’t be from America!” shouted the Russian in the driver’s seat.
“Yes,” I replied, “We are from America.” Maybe we should have waited for another ride, I thought. “No,” the man repeated, “You can’t be from America— we love Americans!”
After we showed them our passports, they were ecstatic. “Wow! We love you! We love America!” Again, a Divine set-up!
The ride was quickly over and they dropped us off at the border. The funny part is, they were quite impressed with themselves for having met and helped two Americans. We were feeling pretty good, too, that is until the police at the border told us: “You can’t come through here—you’re Americans. Only Russians and Afghans are allowed to pass this way.”
When we protested, they picked up the phone and called their KGB officials, who confirmed: “No, you are not allowed to enter Tajikistan.”
By then, the war had really broken out in Kabul, which I reminded the officer. Thousands of refugees were streaming from Kabul, trying to stay ahead of the fighting that had moved into the city.
“We can’t go back there!” I told him.
“Well,” he said, shrugging, “That’s your problem. Go to Iran.”
Unlike our friendly Russian chauffeurs, the Iranians were feeling very anti-American right then. When I said that I really did not want to go to Iran, the officer suggested that we fly out of the country and head somewhere else. Unfortunately, most of the planes were being used for target practice, making this a less-than-appealing way to leave the country.
Reluctantly, we decided to return to Kabul by bus. During that long ride back, we passed people who were riding in donkey carts, on the backs of dump trucks, in buses, hanging off the tops and sides of buses—grasping at any means of transportation to escape the barrage of rockets and gunfire.
Finally, back in Kabul, we got off the bus and flagged a taxi. Mark had a visa to get into Pakistan, which was our next choice of destinations. Having planned to go to Tajikistan, I did not have a visa for Pakistan. So our first destination was the Pakistan Embassy to apply for my visa. On the way there, a rocket sailed over the top of our taxi. Our driver ducked low, muttering, “Oooh, bad, very bad.” The nearness of the fighting was startling.
At the Pakistan Embassy we hurried to the entrance, hoping to get my tourist visa approved quickly. Two uniformed guards stopped us at the door. “Sorry, we are closed,” one of them said. “Come back tomorrow.”
“What do you mean, ‘You’re closed?’” I asked. “You can’t be closed. We want to go to Pakistan tonight because the war is heating up.” I was starting to wonder what we would do if we could not get out of Kabul soon.
Unmoved, the guard, who seemed to be in charge repeated, “Sorry, we’re closed. Come back tomorrow. We’re open tomorrow from eight to four.”
“I can’t come back tomorrow. There’s a war going on.”
“We’re closed,” he insisted. “Come back tomorrow.”
“If I come back tomorrow, how long will it take to get a Pakistan tourist visa?”
“Five working days!” he stated. The expression on his face never changed.
“What?!” I was nearly shouting now. I repeated, “Five working days? You guys aren’t that busy, and I’m an American. We’ve done a lot to help your country!”
“Five working days,” he repeated. “Come back tomorrow.”
Seeing that we weren’t going to get anywhere with him, we left. Mark and I decided we would try to go out the other border, through Jalalabad into Pakistan, hoping they would let me in without a visa.
We flagged down a taxi and got in. As we were riding along, a military vehicle signaled our driver to pull over to the side of the road. Two stern and angry-looking soldiers ordered us out of the vehicle. We were annoyed when they began searching through our bags, but our annoyance turned to fear when they demanded that our driver turn over the keys to the taxi.
Immediately, the driver began to shout at us, “GET BACK INTO THE TAXI!” Mark and I quickly ducked around the soldiers and scrambled into the car as he sped off. At that point, we had no idea what was happening. The driver began to explain to us, “They had guns! They were going to try to steal my taxi.”
We had been told at the American Embassy that the country was in a state of anarchy, and here was the evidence. We prayed right there for those soldiers and for the whole country, which seemed to be disintegrating all around us.
After taking us as far as he was willing to go, the driver left us to wait by the roadside for another means of transportation. It was still a 12-hour drive to the Pakistan border. After a long wait, a van stopped and we were able to hire the driver to take us there. We were now traveling the same direction as the refugees; all of us were trying to get out of the country any way possible.
We had not gone far before a soldier pulled us over. Mark and I exchanged a look, expecting to be ordered out of the car for another time. The soldier just looked inside at us, and said, “You go any farther, and they will kill you.” I was starting to realize that Pakistan was not going to be our destination. Whether or not we both had visas wasn’t even going to be the issue.
“If you take this van down the road any further,” he continued, “the radicals are going to blow it up and kill you two Americans.” We opted to turn around and go back into the war zone. Again, we had to push our way past the fleeing masses.
Earlier, Mark and I had made friends with some guys from Rabbani’s government forces. We looked them up when we returned to the city. Thankfully, these friends let us stay that night at their army base along the highway.
During the middle of the night, we were repeatedly awakened by volleys of gunfire. I cautiously looked out the windows and saw soldiers shooting their guns up in the air. I could hear them clapping and rejoicing, “The war is over! It is finished! It’s done!”
Mark and I were elated to hear such good news. We went back to sleep, finally feeling hopeful. But the next day, the rockets started coming again and we knew it was not over. We spent two nights at the army base, and then we were told it was not even safe for us to stay there any longer.
Some of our new friends took us to a bombed-out shelter. We were surprised to learn that it had once been a country club. Not long before, it had been a hideout for the generals to use while making their strategic plans for the war. It was an eerie place, but we decided to go in and take a look around because we were in such great need of a place to stay.
The lobby of this former country club was still quite nice, even though most of the building had been destroyed. We found a small group of about a dozen men dressed in military uniforms who were sitting around on couches. I decided to start a conversation with a friendly young man wearing army fatigues who was casually holding a submachine gun in his hand.
“I’m a Christian,” I said, “How about you—what are you?”
“I’m a Muslim. I believe in Islam,” he answered.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, frowning. “You, come with me.”