Grace on the Frontlines

Libby Little is an international speaker, who has spent thirty years serving in Afghanistan. We were recently privileged to have her as our guest at Interserve Day, where she shared a glimpse into life in a war-ravaged country.

My husband, Tom, and I were invited out to a city in western Afghanistan, to finish the construction of a desperately needed eye hospital. While my husband was at work, I ventured out with my daughters (a four-year-old and a newborn) to try to make friends with my neighbours. But the local women were very suspicious of me, and no one would open their doors.

A couple of months into our time there, the Russians, preparing to invade, sent advisors to Herat to lay the groundwork for the overthrow of the government. But the people started to fight back, and in an effort to disperse the mobs, government planes began to systematically strafe our houses with huge bullets that went straight through the mud roofs. We hid out in a basement – just an underground kitchen, really – and my husband threw his body over me and our children. It was very frightening, and I longed to leave.

When things were a little quieter, a government convoy offered us safe passage back to the capital. “You might not get out alive,” they said, “this is your last chance.” That was the first hard decision. But we remembered what someone had said to us: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” And so the convoy left without us. After that the people who had closed their doors to us started bringing us food and inviting us into their homes. Only when we were ready to be part of their lives, part of their risk, part of their danger, were they ready to receive us.

One dark, dark night, when the mobs were very strong and we could hear the Russians screaming as they were killed, an Afghan neighbour made his way up through the fighting in order to protect us. He lay at our door and motioned the mobs to pass by.

At one point while we were hiding in the basement, and bombs were falling all around us, our four-year-old complained that she was hungry. I told her that we’d get something to eat as soon as the bad explosions stopped. “But I’m hungry now,” she said.

Then she asked, “What happens if one of those big things lands on us?” While inwardly horrified, I tried to stay calm as I replied, “Well, we will all go straight to heaven.” “Oh, good,” she said, “’cause Jesus will have dinner ready!”

The decision to stay, on our part, was just bare-bones obedience; we wondered if we’d ever see our families again. But staying there with our neighbours had an immeasurable impact. That Christmas – our second in the city – our living room was jam-packed with women and children. They had come because our daughter invited them to a birthday party for Jesus. And a wonderful friend who was based in a neighbouring country shared the Christmas story with them, using a flannelgraph. For most of them this was the first time they had heard about Emmanuel, “God with us”.

Grace on the frontlines

The darkest time was during the ‘90s, when we were based in the capital. Hundreds of rockets landed in the city each day for years. Our houses were sandbagged. We never used the second floor. Most of us slept in basements or other safe places. They were dark days, but many of us felt it was a privilege to come alongside our Afghan neighbours in their place of suffering.

God was there on the frontlines with us, in the middle of the mess. Our houses were hit, projects burned down, our vehicles were turned into ambulances and our homes became triage centres. We came to understand that God provides for us in these times of great need. It was step-by-step faith, bare-bones obedience, and
God gave grace.

God was at work through ordinary people, who were just on duty for the Lord. Like the Japanese nurse who, every day, hugged the walls of the dangerous streets on her way to the hospital, where patients lay in the hallways, on the floor, as the rocket and bombing attacks continued year upon year. As the nurse navigated the war-torn streets one day, a local man grabbed her and shook her, asking, “Why are you doing this? Don’t you know how dangerous it is? What compels you?” All she had time to say before running on was “Jesus”. It was just one word, a name, but it burned in his heart and drove him to search for the truth.

True Worship

On 15 July 2010, some of the Nuristan Eye Camp team met in our home for prayer. The following day the team left the capital, and drove for two days, until there were no more roads. They then had to trek for several more days through the mountains, over a 16,000-foot pass, to provide medical care to some of the poorest and most remote communities in the country.

I was back in the US waiting for the birth of our first grandchild. My husband didn’t want me to worry, so he carried a satellite phone and called me twice a day. Calls were very expensive, though, so we only talked for half a minute in the morning and half a minute at night.

When the Eye Camp ended they made their way back over the mountains, over the plains, and then back to the river where the cars were parked. When Tom called he said, “We made it to the cars. We’re waiting for the river to recede so that we can cross over. I’ll call on the other side.”

I never did get that next call – the team was ambushed after they crossed the river, and all except one were killed.

Later that month, some of Tom’s personal items were returned to me, among them a small notebook. One of the last entries he’d jotted down was Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The first chapter of the Bible I ever memorised was Romans 12, and it has followed me through my life. We are urged to, “offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice … this is [our] true and proper worship.” Worship songs are good, yes, and getting down on our knees, but actually offering ourselves to God to use in whatever way He chooses, that is true worship.

I look at life from a different point now, thinking of the ones who lost their lives by that river in Afghanistan. But God is no debtor; He‘s helping, He’s restoring and, through ordinary people, is doing something extremely beautiful behind the scenes. Sadly, even though the work continues in the major cities, many of the neglected, hard-to-reach places continue to be avoided. Jesus is already there on the frontlines, but He needs hands and feet. Please pray that a whole new generation will rise up and respond to the call to serve in Afghanistan.