Earl witnesses bombing of Georgia

Lori Boruff/Correspondent
Jim Earl stands with two church members from the country of Georgia before the recent Russian invasion.

It was too close for comfort as missionary Jim Earl of Aledo heard a Russian jet overhead and seconds later felt the blast from bombs exploding two blocks away. Aug. 8, 2008 appeared to be a typical busy Friday mid-morning in Gori, Georgia as Jim Earl and the Baptist Medical Missions team were preparing to hold clinics in nearby villages. Team members were purchasing medical supplies while Jim strolled the streets to capture the old Georgian culture on his camera. What he captured instead was bombs falling from the sky.

"I heard and saw this Russian jet, it was very obvious it was Russian," Jim recalled, "I looked up and it looked like two giant pieces of coal falling out of it, then I heard the loudest sound I've ever heard."   

The two bombs landed in an unoccupied stadium in the center of town. Later Earl discovered the bombing was simply a show of force by Russians.

Earl described the next scene as glass falling, people crying, and running everywhere. His team members reported lights going off and many people immediately talking on their cell phones.

"I wasn't afraid, I don't know what I was thinking," said Earl. " I couldn't hear because of the bombs...my main thing was getting back to my other people."

The group reunited and returned to their hotel. Dr. Ralph Izard, Baptist Medical Missions from Little Rock, Arkansas and Baptist missionary in Gori, Jeff Franks who was their host and translator had contacts in Georgia. As they tried to gain understanding of the situation, Georgian President Mikkeil Saakashvili announced the Russians attacked Gori. Dr. Izard decided the group must leave immediately.

The mission team had a heavy heart for people of Gori and surrounding areas. They spent time in prayer outside their hotel before beginning a difficult and uncertain journey. Earl described the citizens of Gori as being sad and wondered if their president could stand against a Goliath like Russia.

As they began their trip to nearby Tblishi, Earl was confronted by Georgian troops for taking pictures. The commander led the mission team out of town and warned Earl he was not allowed to take photos in a war zone.

The Baptist mission team traveled by car to the village of Chumlocki in East Georgia. They contacted other Christians around Georgia, listened to radio and learned Russians announced Gori would be bombed that evening. Their driver was concerned about his family in Gori so a new driver was arranged.

The team spent the warm night in homes of church members. Water was drawn from wells down the street and wooden outhouses grew in gardens. The night was very dark with the absence of street lights. The church members welcomed the mission team and were generous with little they had.

News arrived via cell phone Russia had declared war on Georgia and marshal law was in place. It was not safe to stay in Georgia and the medical missionary team decided to leave early morning.

Aug. 9 began with an 8 a.m. Bible study, prayer and goodbyes. The team returned to Tblishi to check on flights out of the country. A Turkish airline was the only airline in operation given the circumstances. Those flights were for business only, not available until the next day and very expensive. Plan B took the team to the U.S. Embassy, but they received no assistance.

Dr. Izad knew it was time to get out of Dodge. The front of the war was now in Gori. Russian tanks and troops were moving in fast. It was a matter of time before the borders would be sealed.

Dr. Izad paid a heavy price for a driver and van. The plan was to travel from Tblishi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia via the mountains. The mission team had many Christian friends in Armenia.

As they traveled high into the mountains on rough and rutted roads they were virtually alone. They stopped to change a tire and stepped out of their overcrowded van.

"They called it No Man's Land," recalled Jim.

Finally, at the isolated Armenian border strict guards met the mission team. The customary bribes of food and money were offered and two hours later paperwork was completed and visas obtained.

At 2 a.m., Aug. 10, the mission team checked into a hotel in Yerevan, Armenia. The updates from Gori worsened. The Gori hotel where the team had stayed had been bombed.

By 8 a.m. the team was up and served an Armenian breakfast of soft boiled eggs and flat bread. Their next stop was a very old church where surrounding Baptists held services. Approximately ten churches have been planted in outlying villages.

The mission team visited a legendary monastery at the base of Mt. Ararat said to be the location where Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301 A.D.

The next day the weary missionary team miraculously obtained five airline tickets out of the country. As the day progressed, to their delight, they met a U.S. Air Force flight crew who brought Georgian soldiers back from their duty in Iraq to fight Russians. They now learn Russians occupied one half of Georgia and 80 percent of Gori was evacuated.

Aug. 12 Earl and his colleagues arrived at the crowded airport for their flight home. They safely landed in the United States the next day.

Earl has traveled to more than 20 different countries as a Baptist Medical Missionary since 1999. He has encountered uncomfortable situations in Philippines and Honduras. China was a country he actually felt safe in, although they held church in silence with pencils and paper.

"We never go without faith," he said.

When Earl is not ministering abroad, he teams up with Merle Johnson through Gideon's prison outreach and ministers to inmates at Mercer County Jail.

"I'm thankful to First Baptist Church for their financial and prayer support," he said. "And the support of my wife and family."

Jim Earl may be contacted at j.earl@mchsi.com.

Shown are six members of Baptist Medical Missions team, hosting pastor and his family, Jim Earl (front right) before they fled to Armenia from Gori, Georgia.