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ss nucleus - summer 1996,  Azerbaijan - doorway to another world

Azerbaijan - doorway to another world

Sometimes God lets us make our own choices- and at others he seems completely adamant about wanting us to go somewhere or to do something. My time in Azerbaijan was a case of the latter. My church is extremely involved in the '10-40 window' and I had heard about Azerbaijan from those on previous visits. One evening in church, it felt as if I wasn't allowed to think of anything else but this country of which I personally knew very little. I became progressively troubled in spirit, until I cried out to the Lord, asking him to give me peace if he wanted me to volunteer myself. That peace descended.

Forms were sent in, and after a brief interview at the offices of Global Care in Coventry, I was told they wanted me in the air in seven days. Fine! If the Lord can get a 19 year-old a place with a voluntary aid organisation, he could certainly sort out plane tickets, my visa, my work situation, my future lack of accommodation at university, and what felt like half a ton of clothes and spare vehicle parts that I was going to try and carry on to the plane. The day before I left, everything except my visa was sorted out; I collected my passport at the airport from an embassy official.

The last-minute arrangements didn't worry me. However, as a medical student to be, I felt confident to diagnose my father's imminent ulcers, acute angina and an obstructed hernia or two. He was in good shape considering that just a week before, I had told him of my plans to leave the house for several months.

Azerbaijan was a country at war, and in economic turmoil since its separation from the former USSR. The money needed to buy a new car could now only pay for ten loaves of bread. There were no pay rises. Global Care in Azerbaijan was part of a network of co-ordinated aid organisations. Our part was to oversee 12,500 refugees, 2 children's homes, a psychiatric hospital and 5 poly-clinics over an area of about 10,000 sq km.

The children's home in Ganja (the town in which we were based) housed between 80 and 100 children up to the age of three years old. Many (especially girls) were unwanted; others, parents could not afford to keep alive. Suffering is never more acutely felt than if one sees it in a child's eyes- eyes which have seen more pain in a few years than any human should be able to bear in a lifetime. One child stood out and stole my heart. Her name was Sabina. Although two years old when I met her, she looked younger than a year. Her eyes were huge; her mouth was a hole full of broken and rotted teeth- and what astounded me most was that I could make out every bone in her little body, through a loose bag which was once skin. She was too weak to move her head, and so would spend her days watching the world go by in that bare cot of hers. I lost my heart to her when I tickled her ribs and she gurgled a deep throaty sound instead of laughing, somehow transforming her hollow face to something full of joy at the same time. All I could visibly see was an emaciated baby in a 'living hell' and yet she could laugh somehow and make the tears pour down my face. Our supplies to the home (apart from our love) consisted of protein biscuits and food and clothing.

At the other children's home in Selci, the situation was very much the same. It 'catered' for about 40 children between the ages of 4 and 16. Their living conditions, as for too many we saw, were indescribable. I'll certainly never forget the 'ablution block'. It measured 3m by 4m with a wooden partition to separate the sexes. When I visited, it took me a while to work the system out. Each section was divided into three toiletting areas- and I presume the original intention was to use a Turkish-style toilet. However, they needn't have bothered. The entire floor as I realised after standing in the dark parquet block for a few moments, was approximately 6-10 inches deep in human excrement. My own position was amusing- but the thought of children having no other choice but to use that place (with no electricity, paper or washing facilities) for twelve years of their infinitely precious lives, was definitely not.

Seeing the Lord touch these children's lives was beautiful. We distributed some Bibles unofficially, which we happened to have with us- and the hunger of people for the Word of God was phenomenal. Delivering drugs to one of the clinics, we handed out about six Bibles. The incessant talk stopped and we sat for half an hour, watching patients, doctors and nurses completely absorbed in the living Word of God. One lady said to us, 'Thank you, this book is more precious to us than gold'. These traditional Moslems had more of an appreciation of the book of life than many 'Christians' I know.

In the culture, bread is totally sacred- and to discard or leave any around is to throw away the gift of God. An interesting local saying is: 'If bread is upon a shelf out of reach, stand on the Qur'an to reach it.' This excited me so much- because with it we were able to illustrate the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who described himself as the 'bread of life' (Jn 6:33-5), to many people we met.

One of my companions, who had experience in the field, described the psychiatric care in Azerbaijan as 50 to 100 years behind modern thinking. On arrival, we felt helpless to make a difference. A psychiatric patient was held to be of less worth than a donkey- which itself occupied the most deplorable position in their social hierarchy. The doctors and nurses who treated the patients were not held in much higher regard, and their pay was far from enough to live on. Yet as a group who were prepared to touch and love people who were the lowest of the low, we made an impact on the whole community. I wondered at the huge impact the Lord Jesus had in his unceasing concern for the outcasts, the hopeless and the dying.

One family called us to help a man whom no doctor had been able to treat. He presented with liver and kidney failure, anaemia and leucocytosis. His symptoms seemed to indicate a parasitic infection - with some elusive under-lying diagnosis. This was completely baffling to the medics, one of whom had considerable experience in tropical medicine. Not only were we able to offer him drugs, but more importantly, pray for him. We would be asked to pray for his healing in the name of Jesus, and the whole family - of Moslems - would come to listen and pray with us. God's healing of that man would have made a great impact on the community. However, he died after severe bleeding - having taken the local witch-doctor's potion. The Lord's ways are higher than our ways (Is 55:8-9) and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. Sometimes we have to bear humble and painful witness to that.

The 12,500 refugees were typical of what we see and hear (and have become desensitised to) on the news every day. We ate with some of the richest people in the community - but the meal I will always remember was provided by refugees in a semi-desert area. We arrived with our aid and gave a little of what was not ours- insufficient for their wants- yet they insisted we enter one of their houses (a hole, dug in the dust) and gave us everything of theirs. A white cloth laid on the floor in front of us was the table. On to the table were placed two saucers containing yoghurt, made from the milk of their one sheep. Two semi-cooked (by the sun, probably) eggs from their one hen were added, followed by cheese from their only goat. They gave us all that they produced from all that they owned- into one bowl. It was the sacrifice of the poorest of people trying to give a little of nothing back, for our love was precious to them.

Do we fear costly service to God- or do we give him back our all, from all that he has given us?

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