BLIND PEOPLE SEE AGAIN Travel Journal - 1996 (Part 3) Azerbaijan

Monday June 17, 1996: Baku, Azerbaijan: Fortunate for us, the oil company guesthouse is equipped with a marvelous workout gym. I got up early this morning and made use of their stair-climber machine, stationary bicycle, and treadmill. Anna Marie and I ate breakfast and were all ready to go to the ship to see the crowds lined up for eye examinations. Dr. Carlos had already performed four intraocular lens-transplant operations this morning.

From the ship we traveled north of the city along the coast about forty kilometers to where the new oil camp is located. They are constructing new roads, new off-shore platforms, new refinery buildings, and new pipelines from Baku north to Russia and northwest to the Black Sea. Lots of money is being poured into the project, which is joint-ventured by eleven major oil companies.

The oil group had allowed us to store the containers of donated medical goods inside their highly secured storage area until they were needed. Trucks were already there when we arrived.

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They were transferring the medical goods from the two containers we had shipped. Personnel from the Innernest Orphanage were there collecting the things we had designated for them. They were loading the mattresses, beds, and medical goods for the orphanage clinic onto the waiting truck. The goods would then be taken to the orphanage in time for us to go there in the afternoon and make the official presentation to the directors.

It always gives me a funny feeling to be halfway around the world somewhere and see all the items being unloaded that had been in our Denver warehouse. I recall loading the individual pieces of equipment and boxes of supplies and remember just how they were all carefully fitted into the cargo container. I have fond memories of going up to the hospitals or clinics and picking up many of those pieces, perhaps on some snowy, wintery day in Colorado. And I love to see the looks on the people’s faces who are receiving the medical goods, and hear them say as they discover their new presents, “Wow, look at this! This is really good stuff.”

Today, Dr. Harper, head of Vision International, who since 1966 has had a goal of placing a Christian eye clinic in every major city in Central Asia, was with us. As he watched the goods being unloaded from the two containers onto the truck, he was astounded.

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“I’ve never seen such good quality merchandise as this. How were you able to get these kinds of supplies and equipment donated?”

I simply replied that it was not through our ingenuity or cleverness that it happened but through the wisdom and direction of God himself.

After the loads for the orphanage were transferred and the goods were on their way, Anna Marie and I had lunch. The people at the oil company invited us to join them at the camp cafeteria. The food was great, and eating with the oil-company workers gave us a feeling as to what it would be like to leave your home, perhaps in the United States, and go to an obscure oil-field location to work.

The oil-company housing is situated around the cafeteria and the office complex. All the buildings are white and are portable and modular in construction. Indeed, they would have to pay me a whole lot of money to go out there and live for a couple of years to direct an operation like that.

With lunch finished, the driver returned Anna Marie and me to the city, where we checked in once again on the eye operations on the big ship. By now the sun was very hot, and lines of people had formed anywhere there might be a bit of shade. Anna Marie and I went to the top deck of the ship and snapped some pictures of the site. Today is the last day the operations will be performed. None of the people gathered outside the ship will have a ghost of a chance to be included on the list of procedures.

We went back down into the hold of the ship to see how many operations Dr. Carlos and his surgery team had completed. They had already finished twelve. That meant that already, twelve people who were blind with cataracts yesterday will be able to see again in a couple of days—an absolute miracle.

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Anna Marie and I gave the team our words of encouragement and then went back up on deck to get some fresh air. The hold of the steel ship was an oven. I didn’t know exactly how hot it was down there, but I had to leave and get some fresh air. The doctors and nurses had been there working steadily on such a nerve-racking procedure, realizing that one mistake in cutting open the eyeball, removing the old eye lens, and replacing it with a new one … one slipup, and the patient would be blind forever. One faux pas, and all Christian witness through medical help in a strict Muslim country would turn against us, and our efforts would end up worse than if we had never shown up in the first place.

As we went up on deck, I witnessed perhaps one of the saddest situations I have ever encountered. Jay Randall was standing at the top of the stairs leading to the side door into the ship and announcing to the people that there was no possible way that they would get a turn to be operated on until at least next May. There were already ninety-some people who had been examined and were on the waiting list. But the people who had been waiting in line would not even be examined for the procedure.

Some of the older people who were accompanied by family or friends turned and fell into the arms of those closest to them and began to cry out loud. They could not see. They had heard about wonderful doctors who had come to do operations. Some of their friends could already see again. They had their hopes up that one day they would be able to see their family’s faces again and be able to walk again unassisted. They had hoped that perhaps today would be the day for their miracle. But, no … not this time. Their hopes were dashed like the oil-slick tide against the Caspian Sea barrage. No help. No more hope. They cried.

Some of the family members were crying, and Jay had to explain that if they would line up, have their pictures taken, and give their names, they would be called first next May when a new team from America returns to Baku to do more eye operations. From just watching the emotional earthquake taking place, I was nearly as caught up in the grief and disappointment as were the families. I felt my eyes well with tears, and my chest got heavy with the emotion I was seeing.

Several of the people spotted Anna Marie and me and came over to us, begging for us to represent them so they could still get the operation. It really was sad.

We left the ship, and Dr. Carlos and his crew went back to work on as many from the list as possible. Our driver then headed south out of Baku to the orphanage. We were about to move from one emotional experience to an even deeper one.

When we finally arrived, the truck carrying our medical goods was already there and nearly unloaded. I got out of our vehicle and went to the front entryway of the orphanage to inspect the Project C.U.R.E. items that were to be left there. I was really impressed … and so was the staff at the orphanage. It was like Christmastime. We met the directors and staff of the institution. They briefed us on the facility and told us that they presently have 110 children. Almost all of them are not only orphaned but are also mentally and physically impaired.

The plan was to next take us on a tour of the location. As in every orphanage, the children were so starved for a smile or a touch or a hug that they literally mobbed us. The kids were extremely pathetic. And as they were hanging on to every available handhold of our bodies, the director told us to please be careful and watch ourselves, because for the past several weeks, the children had come down with something that was causing all their hair to fall out. The majority of them also had large sores over their bodies and faces.

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I looked over at Anna Marie. She was nearly in shock. Her life is kids. Whenever she goes through the supermarket, kids literally lean out of their own mothers’ arms and try to come to her. All the kids at the orphanage were being drawn to her now, as if she were some giant magnet. The kids somehow sensed her love and moved toward her en masse. I dropped back beside her and physically formed a blockade for her so that she would have a little space.

We were led upstairs to a room about twenty feet by twenty feet. There were about fifteen children gathered in the room. Every parent’s or expectant parent’s very worst nightmares were represented there. Kids were there who had been rejected for the most obvious of physical reasons—craniofacial disorders, such as double hair lips and cleft palates; severe malnutrition; badly disfigured faces and twisted little bodies; and severe motor disabilities. And most of them were suffering from easily observable mental disorders.

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It was without question the worst situation I had ever experienced in my visits to orphanages around the world.

The lady taking care of the children in that room said she has worked at the facility for over twenty years and receives four dollars per month for her services.

None of the other wards were quite like that one. In another ward, Dr. Harper was asked to examine some of the children who had gone blind in either one or both eyes. Following his examinations, he told the directors that a whole lot of the health problems the children in the orphanage were suffering could be cured with a little soap and clean water.

I left the orphanage with some strange feelings. I knew that even as good as the medical supplies were, we were not going to significantly change the lives of most of those kids. However, I saw something else happening. The directors, especially a young woman from Norway who had come to help in that awful place, took on a totally different countenance as they watched the things being unloaded from the truck.

One of the things we had sent was a new stationary exercise bicycle. The Norwegian girl was so excited. She said, “We have talked about and hoped for something like this to put in one of our rooms. During the severe winters here, the children can’t go outside. Now the bigger ones will have some way to exercise and work off their energy while staying inside.”

It reminded me once again of what Vilmar Trombeta in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, told me after Project C.U.R.E. delivered a forty-foot container of medical goods to him: “Mr. Jackson, you bring many good medical things to us in Brazil. But you bring much more to us. The most important thing you bring to us is hope. To know that someone else knows about us and our problems and is willing to come help us, that gives us hope. We can continue if we have hope.”

As Anna Marie and I drove away from the Baku orphanage, I not only thought about the horribly pathetic kids we saw there and the political and social philosophy of the Communists who had, like in Romania and other places, allowed or encouraged such institutions to exist, but I also thought about the medical supplies things that were stacked outside the front porch of that large block building and the looks on the faces of those staff members. I thought, I’d do the collecting, loading, and shipping and come to this place all over again if I could once again be a part of the plan to bring encouragement and hope to the people who are daily asked to give their lives for such an institution. I want to be someone who brings hope.

From the orphanage Anna Marie and I once again returned to the ship to check on the final operations. We then had the driver return us to the guesthouse, where we ate and turned in for the night.

Tuesday, June 18

Through the night I kept thinking about the pitiful little children at the Baku orphanage. I would wake up angry, and my mind would go back to what I had encountered when I was in Bucharest, Romania. There the Communist dictator was intent on building a great army for Romania. In order for him to have an army, he needed lots of human bodies. So his program was to encourage every virile man to impregnate every available female and turn the country’s population into a baby machine. He promised them that once the babies were born, the parents would not have to take care of them, but rather, the state would take full responsibility for raising the nation’s future army. Not only would the children be cared for properly, but they would grow up thinking the way they “ought” to think.

Hundreds of orphanages were set up in Romania. After the people of Romania finally revolted against Ceauşescu, commandeered his helicopter, and took the dictator and his mean wife to an abandoned farm, they gave them a mock trial and then shot them to death.

Project C.U.R.E. had gone to Romania not long after the overthrow of Ceauşescu. We were able to use about $300,000 worth of medical supplies, along with some cash raised by Monty Ortman and Mike Ingram, two dedicated businessmen from Arizona to purchase one of the buildings in downtown Bucharest that had been used for one of the orphanages. While we were there, we learned a lot about Communist orphanages in Romania. They would select the best and healthiest kids and reject the others. The crippled and inferior or disabled children who had come along as a result of the “baby machine” were placed in special homes and were pretty much allowed to die. I understood from our sources there, that for the most part, they fed them very little and then during the winter would simply discontinue providing the special orphanages with any heat. The children in their weakened condition would quite quickly catch pneumonia or some other malady and quietly die. Or the other alternative was to allow humanitarian organizations from the Western world to take the undesirable children and place them with adoption agencies.

Perhaps all of that was running through the back of my mind when we visited the Innernest Orphanage. Dr. Harper shared with me that one of the most sinister uses of orphanages under the Communist regime was to punish anyone considered to be in opposition to the state. The Communist governments would take the children of those people, put them in an orphanage, brainwash them, and train them to unknowingly be the ones who would go back and kill their parents as the ultimate punishment for their opposition.

I do not wake up in the middle of the night with the same reactions to orphanages, let’s say, that I had visited in Uganda or Rwanda. Those little kids were sharp and in every way normal, except for the deep scars they bore from witnessing their moms and dads being hacked to death with machetes by members of another tribe seeking to eradicate them all through genocide.

Any way I look at it, I have to conclude that the creation called humankind, left on its own, is very capable of performing some dastardly acts of mischief and terror. The driving force behind all we do at Project C.U.R.E. is to somehow get out the message to millions of people that there is an alternative. There is a power that can change the wanton and corrupt nature of fallen humankind, and that power can allow them to become people of dignity, compassion, responsibility, and worth.

Next Week: “It’s Another One of Your Angels”