Runaway

Some years ago in the early 1990s I worked at Friends House and was responsible for, among other things, the daytime reception. One morning as I was sitting out there talking to a colleague we had an early visitor. It transpired he was a soldier in the NATO force sent to the Sudan to work in the refugee camps – there was another one of Africa’s terrible disasters going on and yet more people were starving to death while governments quibbled in futile fashion.

He was very anxious because he was convinced that Mossad were trying to catch him and kill him for desertion, but he had been unable to cope with the camps any more and had run away. He had heard that we would help conscientious objectors. Over a number of days he had made his way back to London and by the time he reached us he was at the end of his physical and mental reserves, not having eaten for some days, and having slept rough as he travelled. As he was very distressed and frightened, and also causing a bit of a stir, I took him upstairs to a quieter room where he could feel safer. My colleague took over reception and called various people to let them know what was happening.

Meanwhile I sat with the poor man and listened to his story. He had joined the army because in his village in Lancashire there was no work due to the closure of the mines, and boys leaving school at 16 with few if any qualifications had very limited options. He had joined the medical team as he didn’t want to carry a gun, and worked as a stretcher bearer and general help. He had experienced some very traumatic events in the refugee camps as starving people swarmed in from the countryside carrying their dead and dying children, desperate to save them, but too often arriving too late.

As we waited for more support he became increasingly agitated and afraid that someone had in fact called the army to tell them where he was. His obsession with Mossad meant that he was literally in fear for his life. At one point he grabbed hold of me and threatened me with a knife he was carrying. It was a strange sensation, to feel so helpless, and yet to be the one who was calm and unafraid. At the time I knew I couldn’t win any physical fight, even had I wanted to try. I also knew that he was very frightened and didn’t really want to hurt me. As I didn’t want him to hurt me either this gave us some common ground, and I persuaded him to calm down and let me sit back in a chair. As he recovered his equilibrium he was extremely apologetic and later gave ne his knife to keep safe until it was time for him to go.

Eventually another colleague arrived. She was a trained facilitator who got the full story from him and was able to give him some advice about what to do. She also found enough cash for him to get a coach to Manchester so he could go home to his family. I gave him his knife back and he went on his way, leaving us his blue beret as a thank you gift.

Some months later he turned up in reception again to tell us that he had gone home and later made contact with the army, which had sorted out his discharge. He had come back to thank us for helping him and to let us know all was well.

It was a deeply moving experience. When I tell the story to others they are often shocked by it, but strangely I didn’t feel particularly unsafe at the time. I was in God’s hands, as was he, and we found courage together.

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