By William D. Turner
As soon as they made the turn, everyone in the car knew that they were in immediate danger. The street in front of them was impassable, overflowing with moving, shouting, gesticulating, confused, and angry people. Suddenly, they were trapped. Like a dam breaking, the route behind them was filled from both sides with a storm surge of fluid humanity. For a brief moment, the chaotic street scene seemed frozen, like a motion picture suddenly stopped on a single frame. The chaos of sound, of wailing and shouting and distant sirens, also seemed to suddenly stop, as if a sound track were abruptly muted.
All four men in the small, hot, and dusty vehicle instantly turned their heads from side to side, their eyes casting about in search of a way out of their predicament. There was no escape, and now bodies were pushing up against the side of the car, thrown against the vehicle by a shifting wave of the surging crowd.
Just as suddenly, the sound track was turned on again and the din of anxious, high-pitched voices reemerged in their conscious awareness. The frozen newsreel they were caught in began to clatter once more on the projector of their overwhelmed senses and everything around them became frenetic motion. They were submerged in the relative stillness inside the car as the crowd swirled around them. Then, abruptly, people began pushing their faces to the car windows, apparently trying to determine if those inside were friend or foe. It was like driving off of a bridge and plunging beneath a roiling river current, safe in a pocket of air but on your way to drowning unless you could find a way out and back to the surface.
Anwar Matta, an Iraqi pastor, was behind the wheel. Missionary Arlie Enis sat next to him in the front passenger seat. In the back seat was Regional Director Robert Rodenbush. Beside him, on the driver’s side, sat Middle East Representative Gary Reed. No one spoke in those chaotic moments, but it was evident with the wailing of ambulance sirens that a car bomb had just exploded in a nearby market place. It was another suicide bomber — the second of two such incidents in the northern city of Irbil since their visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq began. The ancient city of Irbil was a major trading center between Bagdad and Mosul. It was the spring of 2004.
A short time earlier, they had stopped at a Bible bookstore owned by a Kurdish pentecostal believer. “I am not alone. There are 300 other Kurds who believe just like me,” the bookstore owner had said. “People who read the Bible are different,” he added. “I want to put a Bible in every home in this city.” In spite of their eagerness to quickly continue their journey since there had already been a bombing near their hotel, the bookstore owner had delayed them for prayer together. They were all realizing that had they not been delayed, they would likely have been in the direct path of the suicide bomb that day that had taken the lives of 20 innocent bystanders not far from the spot where their car was slowed in the crush of frenzied people.
Suddenly, all four men looked to the front of the vehicle as an armed, Kurdish policeman pushed his way toward them. Operation Desert Storm was over, the regime of Saddam Hussein had been deposed, and a new government had come to power, supported by American and allied forces. Arlie, an Army veteran and coordinator of Military Ministries in the region, could only assume that this policeman would be friendly to Americans. He reacted quickly as the officer approached his window, clearly upset because the car was slowly moving forward in the crowd. Arlie reached into his pocket and pulled out his U.S. passport and pressed it to the window so the policeman could clearly see it. The police officer acknowledged that he had seen the passport by quickly coming to attention and saluting. Arlie returned his salute. The policeman pointed to a side street and motioned Arlie to follow. The officer began shouting and shoving pedestrians out of the way, clearing a path for the car and its four preachers until finally they were in the clear again, driving down a relatively quiet side street. They waved a thank you to the police officer, who once again saluted.
It was not the only close call that day. On the drive back to Mosul, Pastor Matta saw an American military convoy just ahead of them. Thinking the convoy would offer them some protection during the drive into the city, he steered toward the heavily armed military vehicles. Arlie immediately realized the danger as they approached a large armored vehicle with a machine-gun mounted on top. The American gunner had his finger on the trigger and the barrel pointed directly at them. Arlie knew that convoy gunners were under orders to open fire on any unauthorized vehicles driving straight toward them.
“No, no! You don’t want to do that, Brother Matta,” he nervously told the Iraqi pastor. Too late. They were dangerously close to the convoy. Once again, Arlie saved the day with his American passport, which he was now pressing to the windshield, hoping the American machine gunner would notice. He did,
and at the last moment pointed the barrel of his weapon down. “We came very close to being blown away,” Arlie recalled, smiling ruefully about it, nearly 12 years later. “I still get nervous thinking about it.”