in the summer of 1993 i found myself in a cave near yonki dam. with my dad, kurto, JJ and BB and a first time visitor to papua new guinea, rhianne. all of us but rhianne had grown up in png. it was first return home after leaving school and my first time to the caves.
several hours of crawling and scooting, gripping rope ladders, hands inches deep in musty bat dung and one small passage that i didn’t have the courage to go through..the ceiling only inches from my face and claustrophobia knocking. i wore a lycra suit (lightweight scuba diving gear) for warmth and the underground streams. at the end of the day we had descended a mile and emerged squinting into the bright sunshine, tired and wet…satiated with the glory of our adventure.
the entrance to yonki caves is a small opening at the base of a short but very steep slope.. almost like starting out in a ditch. as we came out it was not unusual to see three men at the top of the rise—locals had gardens throughout the area—until we saw the shotgun. the man holding it was bearded, thickset…thighs like a rugby player and noticeably calm. he was the farthest away and handled the single barrel with familiarity.
my heart sank. i had lived eighteen years in png without experiencing any violence personally, but i knew in a frightening second that the outcome here could not be predicted. the man obviously in charge began speaking to us. agitated, nervous, constantly moving…he was not in control of himself. it fueled the dread building up in my stomach.
i moved close to rhianna, aware that she couldn’t understand a word—only that something was not right. i whispering bitten off, edited translations of what was being said, perhaps trying to soften the reality of what she was seeing.
i also knew that as the women in the group we were vulnerable. i was aware of my too tight, torn jeans and the bright pink lycra underneath. i also knew that my dad, kurt and these boys i’d lived across the street from my whole young life would die before letting someone lay a hand on us. i tried not to make eye contact, not to draw attention to myself.
they were surprised when my dad spoke to them in fluent pidgin. 40 years a missionary in papua new guinea, he does not know a stranger. being who he is—he immediately engaged them in small talk. asking where they were from, familiar with their home of course…making a connection. i knew it was genuine but also an attempt to win them over… perhaps avert what lay ahead.
i saw the man with the shotgun relax, beginning to engage in the conversation. he even squatted down higher up on the hill, obviously willing to carry on. but he was too far away for even my black belt holding brother and dad to get to him before a shot was fired.
strangely, there was no fear for myself…only a stomach churning dread that these people i loved would come to harm. i remember the thought that kept running through my mind, “i’m going to watch my dad die”, “i’m going to watch my dad die”. it gave birth to tears that crept down my cheeks. god designed him to be the hero and he would not back down from any battle brought to him. but i knew he was no match for that shotgun, still far enough away to discourage any attempts at freedom. i squeezed rhianne’s arm and looked down.
the leader angrily interrupted, cutting off my dad’s efforts. he demanded what we had. it was not much. maybe two kina if that. we had left any valuables at the base. frustrated at the lack of money, the man berated us in pidgin, insisting we hand over any watches, flashlights and equipment that we had.
my dad, with skill and to protect his young charges, negotiated the keeping of one headlamp. it did not surprise me.
suddenly and confusingly, the thieves ushered us back into the opening of the cave, waving the shotgun pointedly… it appeared they did not want any witnesses to their escape and we were more than willing.
as soon as were were a few feet into the entrance, my dad quickened into action…he told the boys to hide and whisked rhianne and i to a secluded space…his goal to protect us girls. unsure if the men would change their minds, not willing to take any chances.
and then he left. taking the light with him. and i came face to face with true darkness for the first and only time in my life.
it brought fear bigger than what had already happened. it filled every corner and crevice and gave no room to light.
there was no way out. if i had a week, i could not have found my way to the entrance. everything depended on my dad’s return. on a savior. on the light.
fear started to choke a cry from me and i held on to rhianne’s hands tightly. the fact that we’d only just met—erased in one of those moments that binds people together forever. i knew for her this had to be more frightening. i was at least at home with the culture, the people, the language. it was awful but awful in my backyard. i was determined to stay calm and hopeful for her sake. we cried quietly and we prayed, whispering for god’s grace….for a happy ending.
meanwhile, the boys, cold, wet and exhausted, huddled together in a crevice nearer the opening of the cave. trying their best to keep warm and quiet, their bodies reacting to the physical and emotional toll of the day.
we were all frightened, unsure…. waiting for the rescue, for the light.
we waited. i could see nothing. completely blind. i think only the need to comfort a sweet stranger next to me, kept me from complete panic. we held each other close and waited.
then he came. appearing out of nowhere, light in hand. relief spread through us like heat and we followed him quickly…stumbling over rocks, not feeling the bumps and jolts. the birds had begun to call out again so my dad knew we were alone. it was time to run.
unsure of completed safety, we used the last of our strength in a stumbling run up the trail to the nearby swiss mission.
people surrounded us while my dad and a crowd of men went back for the boys. we couldn’t relax until we knew they were safe. i remember rejecting food offered impatiently. i wanted my brother, bobby and justin. needed to see them whole.
after about 30 minutes we were reunited and eager for home. my dad threw us in the back of the twin cab truck and told us to duck. he barreled down the gravel road, stopping just long enough to explain the situation to the yonki dam guard at the post further along the road.
adrenaline coursing through our veins still, we had instructions to duck down til we were away from the area and that anyone trying to stop us would be run over. he was telling us he’d keep us safe. no matter what.
we pulled up to our house on the hill, just as my mum was on the phone confirming a search party. we were two hours past due.
our adventure ended with a long time friend stanley, coming through the front door. we hurled our stories at this latest listener. speaking as quickly as possible through mouthfuls of fried chicken, hunger and the filter of past tense breaking through where fear had once held ground.
no more darkness.
i remember god finding me in a different kind of darkness when i was ten years old. c.h. was over for the hundredth sleepover and we were talking about heaven. we called my mum from down the hall for answers, confirmation.
we wanted to cross a threshold newly recognized and “asked jesus into our hearts”. i don’t remember much else except that it was real. that his light has never been extinguished…
that it doesn’t run out of batteries and cannot be taken away.