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Trek Through Africa Leads to Physical and Spiritual Scars, and Hope

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The rebel soldier with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder glared at Erik Mirandette with deadly eyes. He wanted money. So did the mob of more than 100 angry people crowding around the young man from Kentwood, Mich., stuck on a mountain in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The rebel soldier with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder glared at Erik Mirandette with deadly eyes. He wanted money.

So did the mob of more than 100 angry people crowding around the young man from Kentwood, Mich., stuck on a mountain in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This was long before a terrorist’s bomb maimed Erik and killed his younger brother, Alex, 18, in a Cairo marketplace on April 7, 2005. The brothers and their friend Kristopher Ross were on a 9,000-mile trans-African journey on their dirt bikes.

Suddenly, on this mountain in the middle of a Congo civil war, their lives felt very much in danger.

Alex’s bike had just collided with a van. The van’s driver was hysterical with rage. Erik coolly paid what the soldier demanded, began to leave and yelled to his brother, “Alex, get out of here!”

The three young travelers escaped that day. It was one of several close calls they endured in riding rough roads from Cape Town to Ethiopia on the ultimate young men’s adventure.

It was only when they reached the end of the road, enjoying a leisurely stroll through a tourist trap in Cairo, that tragedy struck. Erik’s body was riddled with nails and his beloved brother was killed by the terrorist’s bomb.

For Erik, who had gone to Africa sensing God’s call to do humanitarian work, the wicked turn of fate was almost too much to bear.

“It’s disgustingly ironic,” said Erik, now 24, two years after the bombing. “When we should have gotten killed, we survived. When we were done with the trip, (Alex) got killed.”

But he looks back with gratitude on that year in Africa with brother. Fully recovered from life-threatening wounds _ and still healing from the spiritual ones _ he says he doesn’t regret the final experience he shared with the brother who always made him smile.

“I thank God for the life I was able to share with him,” Erik said, “and look forward to the day when I’m able to see him again.”

He tells his alternately exhilarating and harrowing story in the compelling 300-page book, “The Only Road North,” just released by Zondervan.

Alex died within hours of the suicide bombing in the crowded Khan al-Khalili marketplace. The blast also killed two French tourists and injured 18, including Erik, Kristopher Ross and another friend, Michiel Kiel, who had joined them in Kenya.

Ross and Kiel returned home within two weeks, but it took Erik months and dozens of surgeries to recover.

He has done so to a remarkable degree. He is back studying at the U.S. Air Force Academy and is on track to graduate next year. But about 35 nails remain embedded in his body, and a chunk of his left triceps is gone.

What doesn’t show in his easy-going manner are the spiritual scars and questions he is trying to answer. Writing the book was part of putting his shattered life back together.

“Now at least I’m not alone,” Erik said. “It’s out there. I wrote it because I needed to get it out.”

What he’s written is a remarkable account of adventure, gritty mission work and faith-shaking tragedy. Even without the bombing that made it a news event, his would be a fascinating story.

For the Mirandettes’ father, Rick Mirandette, the book showed the strength and courage in both sons that helps him endure the pain of Alex’s death.

“What greater gift can a father have than to have two sons like that?” Rick Mirandette said. “I’m trying to live up to the goodness of these two boys.”

The book is a sometimes painfully honest account of a young man who went to Africa to help humanity and came home with a blasted body and broken heart.

Unhappy and restless at the Air Force Academy, Erik Mirandette followed a “whisper” inside telling him to go overseas and do good. It took him to Morocco where he worked for a nonprofit called Partnerships International.

He soon broke off on his own, bringing food, medicine and Bibles to Muslim refugees living in a garbage dump. Then, in February 2004, he began helping rebuild a city devastated by a severe earthquake.

The brothers met up in Spain before Alex entered a study-abroad program, and Alex accepted Erik’s invitation to help him in the earthquake recovery.

That led to what Alex called “the trip of a lifetime”: a dirt-bike journey northward through Africa, stopping at humanitarian outposts along the way. Erik invited his old buddies Ross and Kiel to join them.

The two brothers and Ross left Cape Town in January 2005, three pumped-up young men on their “stallions,” Erik writes. “The whole continent of Africa lay ahead of us, ready to share her endless secrets and mysteries.”

What followed were nearly four months of breathtaking beauty, grueling driving and occasional terror.

Erik describes the magnificence of a waterfall in Zambia and the awe of peering into an active volcano in Congo. But the journey turned perilous when their bikes broke down in a lion-infested jungle, they were charged by an elephant, and they encountered hostile villagers in war zones.

These episodes foreshadow the nightmare that awaits them at trail’s end.

Erik recounts the bombing incident in agonizing detail. The young men wander aimlessly through the busy marketplace looking for souvenirs. Hungry, they pass up a cafe before Ross notices an Egyptian man walk by clutching a bucket. He hears a clicking noise and turns to look.

“Welcome to hell,” Erik writes.

He and Alex take the brunt of the blast that sends them airborne. Shards of glass and a “light mist of blood” rain down. Victims scream.

Erik recalls Alex’s screams in the Egyptian hospital and his own desperation to find him. And he recounts longing for death as his prayers go unanswered.

“In my moment of greatest need I am alone, forsaken, betrayed,” he writes.

In describing his long recovery in Grand Rapids, Mich., Erik frankly expresses his anger at the God he believed led him to Africa, only to take away his brother. If this was part of God’s plan, he writes, “to hell with the bigger plan.”

It’s an issue he struggles with today.

“It called everything I knew and believed into question,” Erik said. “There’s a lot of ghosts that are never going to go away.”

As for the unanswered questions, he leaves them to God.

“Someday, it’ll make sense,” he said philosophically. “I doubt I’ll ever see it this side of death but, until then, I’ve got to carry on.”

(Charles Honey writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

KRE/LF END HONEY

Editors: To obtain photos of the Mirandette brothers, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

Michiel in 13th graf is CQ.