WAR, FRIENDSHIP, AND FAITH
by Mike Cousineau
November 4, 2004, 7:15 am—Bouaké under attack
Rockets rained down and 1,000-pound bombs exploded, shaking the entire city. Rebels and civilians died as government fighter planes hit strategic locations throughout the area. The tenuous cease-fire ended abruptly. We watched uncertainly as Ivorian fighter planes flew close to our campus heading for nearby rebel military installations.
Deleen and I had returned to the International Christian Academy (ICA) campus on the outskirts of Bouaké less than three months before the attack. Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second largest city, had served as rebel headquarters since the civil war began on September 19, 2002. We had returned somewhat apprehensive about being behind rebel lines, yet confident this was where God wanted us.
ICA had become a strategic installation for the French military, and we were given a unique opportunity to live on the same site as the soldiers. ICA staff and French officials negotiated a “common life agreement” to make sharing the campus work. God placed approximately 150 French soldiers on our doorstep. We prayed for opportunities to build relationships and friendships.
Security concerns had been minimal since ICA reopened. The bombing required us to act quickly to insure the safety of our staff and students. We increased security significantly, and French military representatives briefed us several times daily.
In an effort to handicap rebel forces, the Ivorian government cut all electricity, water, and communications to the northern half of the country. Thankfully, we had plenty of food and water on hand. However, I had the only contact with the outside world through a satellite phone.
As the bombing continued, our on-campus crisis management team began making plans to evacuate the staff and students. We could not travel south since the capital city was in flames. Throughout the country a massive evacuation of westerners was underway.
A French military camp about a mile from our campus was bombed, killing several soldiers and wounding many more. A week later Mr. Koné, a rebel leader I had befriended a year earlier, gave us an influential escort for our caravan. We had eight vehicles loaded with 53 people. Mr. Koné’s presence made the passage uneventful as the group journeyed through a dozen rebel checkpoints to the northern border.
As the staff and students left campus, I stood at the school entrance and watched them drive out of sight. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I realized most of them would never set foot on campus again.
I stood at the gate mourning the death of a 44-year ministry. François Noël, the commander of the 28th Geographic Battalion, approached and invited me and the other staff person who stayed behind to eat our meals with his unit. He stated it would not be good for us to eat alone. We accepted and were warmly received by his unit.
One evening I felt impressed to take coffee to the soldiers on guard duty at the front of the campus. During our conversation Thomas inquired, “Michel, I know why we are here. We are military and are ordered to be here. Why in the world are you still here?” That night I told him and his buddies on duty about the love God gave me for the Ivorian people. I spoke of my love for Christ, and what He has done for me and for all peoples of the world. Thomas told me that he wanted to discuss these things further.
When hostilities first heightened, Cedrick, a French soldier with a three-year-old son and a pregnant wife, begged me to allow him to call his wife and let her know he was okay. He knew she would hear about the bombing of the location where he was stationed. I felt impressed to meet Cedrick’s need and dialed the number of his residence in France. When his wife was on the line, I handed the phone to him. The biggest smile I had seen in over 24 hours illuminated his face. This began a friendship I’m sure will last a lifetime.
My relationship with some of the soldiers grew stronger as the weeks passed. Cedrick and several of his friends came to my house almost nightly for coffee and cake. We discussed military logistics and personal struggles, and opened our lives to one another. I even had the opportunity to talk to Cedrick and Cyrille about the Christian philosophy of marriage and child rearing.
One afternoon I presented a Bible to Cedrick. He held it with both hands as if it were the greatest treasure he had ever received. Tears filled his eyes as he said to me, “Michel, I have never had a Bible. Thank you so much.”
When Cedrick’s wife had complications with her pregnancy, we prayed together. I assured him I would continue to pray for her, and for him. He responded, “This makes me very happy.”
One evening about a week before my return to the United States I was visiting with Cyrille, a six foot, five inch, blonde-headed soldier. With all his military gear and sunglasses, he was quite impressive. But underneath the protective gear the young man was hurting. This particular evening, he began to share some of the difficulty in his life. I was exhausted, so around 11 p.m. I quietly asked God to send him on his way. Instead God infused me with energy until Cyrille left at 1:45 a.m. I told Cyrille I would be praying for him and his pain. His face lit up and he thanked me.
December 2, 2004, 6 a.m.—Departure day
Several men came to my house at 6 a.m. to tell me goodbye. Among them were Cedrick and Cyrille. Cyrille told me he had something very special to give me. He removed his gold chain from around his neck and placed it around mine. I looked up and saw big tears in his eyes. This chain serves as a constant reminder to pray for the men of the 28th Geographic Battalion. Not a day has gone by that I have not prayed for them.
The civil war has been devasting for Côte d’Ivoire. It has caused the country to regress in almost every way imaginable. However, I can honestly say the Ivorian Christians have grown spiritually.
Even as bombs fell from the sky and tanks fired missiles in our direction, God gave us golden moments to share boldly the reason for being in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire. Without the civil war, I would not have been given the opportunity to share my faith with French soldiers. New friendships were made that will not be broken. God provided many opportunities to pray with my new friends. I look forward to the moment when I can take these friends to the cross of Jesus.
Mike and Deleen Cousineau have ministered in Côte d’Ivoire since 1978. Mike is currently making trips to Bouaké to minister to both French military and Ivorians. His dream is to see the church planting effort in Bouaké restarted. Presently, Deleen remains stateside until the country’s situation stabilizes.