45 minutes of hell but couple forgives attackers
Their story is horrific, the photos are heartbreaking, but these Alberta missionaries are making a remarkable recovery. John and Eloise Bergen survived a vicious home invasion in Kenya.
Eloise Bergen was taking a hot bath last week in her Kenyan home when she looked up to see five men, each clutching machetes and clubs in their hands. "I thought, 'This must be a joke,' so I said, 'Can you please pass me my clothes?'” the 66-year-old from British Columbia, said in a telephone interview Friday from a Nairobi hospital room. "They raised their machetes and told me to get out of the tub. They wouldn't give me any clothes."
The men took Eloise's hands and tightly tied one with a black cell phone adapter cord and the other with a cord from her husband's electric shaver. Then Eloise, naked and dripping wet, was forced to stand up so the men, all local Kenyans in their 20s, could rape her. Three of them did. The attack lasted a horrifying 45 minutes. “It was not nice," she said.
The gated home she shares with her Canadian missionary husband John, a place that was supposed to be a safe haven, had been violated.
"The tall one was in charge of me. He did everything standing up. He didn't lie me down," she said, her voice composed and unwavering. "I think he thought he could get away faster if we got caught. It was quite painful. Then he handed me over to the two others."
The whole time, she said, she did not utter a single word except whisper 'Jesus' over and over under her breath. After the men were done, they punched Eloise in her private parts, choked her three times and cut her with their machetes. Her jaw was broken. She needed 35 stitches to close the cuts on her face.
Seven people - five men and two women - have been arrested for the brutal attacks on the Bergens. Two of the men taken into custody have been identified as their security guards, hired in the last three weeks to protect the couple at night.
Eloise and John, 70, had recently moved into their own house on a gated farm in Kenya, where they grow food for local children. They were working with the non-profit organization Hope for the Nations.
The retired couple had moved to Africa to help widows and orphans in the city of Kitale and help refugees who had fled a political crisis. They had been living in Kenya for four months when the brutal home invasion occurred.
Eloise said after she was attacked the suspects demanded her car keys. She was then forced to lie down on the floor and was covered with blankets and a mattress. That's where she lay, waiting to hear the thieves start her car and drive into the distance before she got up and cut her bonds loose with a pair of cosmetics scissors to search for her husband, who she hadn't seen since the attack started.
With a thin blanket draped around her body, she ran out into the yard, calling his name. Eventually, she found him lying in the bushes, his arms and legs broken. His head had been slashed by the machetes.
What followed, Eloise said, was "miraculous." The car she thought the thieves had driven away was still sitting in her driveway. They had crashed it into a tree and fled.
The petite Eloise dragged her husband, by then a "dead weight" into the car. "He kept asking me, 'Are we in Africa? Are we in Africa?' "she said. "My face was pouring blood." It took her three tries to get the car moving. Eloise had to ram through the gates surrounding her farm to drive for help, 20 minutes away.
Ryan Schumacher, the director for the East Africa division of the Hope charity, said the couple was a horrifying sight when they pulled into the missionary camp. "It was one of the worst things I've seen in my life. They were covered in blood, head to toe."
The Bergens were rushed to Kitale's tiny and understaffed hospital, where the lone nurse on duty that night had to cope with rats the size of coke bottles while performing first aid. Within half an hour, however, the hospital was crowded with doctors, pastors, and friends looking to help the wounded couple, said Schumacher.
It was only when they arrived at the hospital that she realized how seriously injured her husband was. The assailants had struck John's skull, jaw, arm, knee, and leg with clubs.
He also had been severely cut with machetes. He needed so many stitches to his face that the doctors "lost count," Eloise said. She said John will need to undergo four major surgeries. Both will need extensive medical procedures to fix their broken jaws. They were later air-lifted to Nairobi.
Steve Pippin, who lives in the same Kenyan village as Eloise and John Bergen and works for the same Christian group, said police made the arrests about a day after the attack.
"She's an amazingly tough lady for how she dealt with it," he said of Eloise. Or, as her husband put it: "She's a trooper, for one thing."
This crisis has given her more strength to help those in need, Eloise said. "Today in my hospital room, an Ethiopian young girl came in and she just started crying. We both cried together because she had gone through the same thing (rapes) too," she said.
Her husband was in similar spirits just hours before he was scheduled to undergo the first of his surgeries. Although he couldn't move either of his arms and his jaw was about to be wired shut, John spoke in glowing terms of his co-workers and the residents of Kitale.
"The people here are hospitable, charitable, and have shown us nothing but love," he said "It's just a few thugs that are a little different."
Attacks like the Bergens' experience are common in the poorest and most remote regions of Kenya. But those attacks never targeted Western aid workers and missionaries, said John. He never expected to be jumped while tending to the gardens, but he said the farm had had problems with their night watchmen, who would later take part in the assault. "Maybe they just got tired of the Mzungu (white person) telling them what to do," he said.
He remembers standing outside in the dark, when seemingly out of nowhere, he was hit repeatedly with clubs and could feel the machetes "just gashing me, slashing me, cutting."
For the moment, John said he's glad to have survived the attack. "I was just praying, 'Jesus, help me, Jesus, Jesus,'" he said. "They left my life intact. It's amazing . . . it was an answer to my prayers."
John said he is now more determined than ever to help the impoverished children and widows of western Kenya, and he can't wait to get back to work. "My job is in Kenya, to grow food for the hungry, to build schools for children who really need them, and to teach them about God," he said. "What would we do in Canada? There's a social safety net back home that just doesn't exist here."
His family is shaken by what happened, their 20-year old son, Josh said, and he knows there will be disagreement over whether his parents should come home. "Of course I'd like them to come back, because it's safer," he said. "But at the same time, if you want to stay in a country after something like that, there are probably good reasons for doing it." The couple has no medical insurance and had sold their house, vehicle, and furniture before departing.
"It's unfortunate that these guys turned on us. It might've been an influence of alcohol and drugs," Schumacher said from Nairobi. "It's this bush mentality. They had grown up in the bush, not owning a pair of shoes and they thought that they could get something out of the Bergens."
In the end, the thieves stole laptops, cameras, clothes, and as much as $5,000 in cash, money that was supposed to go to African orphans. All of it has since been recovered.
Schumacher returned to the Bergens' house with police to find bloodied machetes and blunt instruments carelessly strewn about. The police dusted for fingerprints and caught the seven suspects after a quick fight in which the young men were soundly beaten, said Schumacher.
Nonetheless, Eloise said one of the first things she and her husband want to do once they fully recover is to visit their assailants.
"When I woke up this morning, I was picturing the time will come when John and I are physically well again," she said. "It's in both of our hearts to go to the prison and tell them about our forgiveness."
They had recently moved from the organization's compound to their own house about six miles away because they had wanted to be nearer to the widows and orphans in the city of Kitale, helping people who have fled a political crisis.
Eloise said that she remained calm during the ideal because God was on her side. "I was conscious of an overwhelming fear. But I knew I must do what they tell me to do. I have to remain calm." She said the culprits were very nervous during the whole ordeal.
"They were very nervous and jumpy and afraid that somebody might find me during this. They had the machete at my throat almost all the time," Eloise said.
When asked what the motive was behind this attack, she replied: "I don't know the reason. It was not reasonable." Mr. Bromley said Friday that he knows the couple wouldn't let an attack like this deter them from their volunteer work. "The Bergens are wonderful, fabulous people," said friend, Alicia Chirkoff. "They were continuously looking for people to help."
"They left him for dead in the bushes," said Ralph Bromley, president of the Hope society, which is based in Kelowna. "The brutality of it is very difficult to handle."
Although the locals are desperately poor, Mr. Bromley said it doesn't explain the viciousness of the assaults. "Especially at their age, why can't the thugs just tie them up and take the stuff?" he asked.
"They were drenched in blood. A Canadian medic had never seen anything like it. Our team was traumatized," said Mr. Bromley. "The family is deeply concerned and shaken. The amount of sympathy and support in Canada has been overwhelming."
John Bergen, an experienced international aid worker originally from Alberta, has retired from the construction industry. Eloise, an American from Georgia, has retired from teaching music. They were teaching English and providing food to locals, who are hard-pressed by threefold increases in the prices of beans and corn. "The poorest of the poor were around them. They are under tremendous stress," said Mr. Bromley.
Their daughter-in-law describes a conversation with her eighteen year old son, after he arrived at their hospital in Nairobi. "He said Mom, Grandpa shouldn't have any legs, any arms. They should be all chopped up and gone and he said the angels stopped the machete from going right through his body."
Once they are back on their feet, the family says the Bergens will likely return to Kenya to continue their mission to help orphaned children.
Eloise Bergen was already out of the hospital Friday, and John was expected to be discharged during the weekend. They are to fly back to Canada this week.