As the sun began to set over the Khan al-Khalili marketplace in Cairo, Egypt, the daily buzz of people, businesses and vehicles gave Erik Mirandette, his brother and friends no reason to feel alarmed. Then, in an instant, an explosion knocked Mirandette off his feet and sprayed him with nails as he simultaneously glimpsed a wall of fire engulfing his friend, Kris Ross. Behind Mirandette, his younger brother, Alex, and friend Mike Kiel were also leveled by the nail-saturated blast.
The bomb would ultimately claim the life of Mirandette’s brother, and leave Mirandette and his friends changed forever.
About two years earlier as a student at the Air Force Academy, Mirandette found himself restless. “I was a regular university student in my sophomore year, and things were going rather well,” he says.
Yet he could not shake a sense of discontentment. “I felt like there was just something else out there that I needed to be doing at that point in my life. I thought, What would happen if I just gave two years of my life completely up to doing good things for someone? What would happen with that? What would God use that for?
Five months later, Mirandette was in Morocco with a humanitarian worker his church supported. After spending more than a year and a half in Africa getting to know the stories of refugees, he wanted to understand more about their plight. So he set out on a journey across the African continent with his brother, who had joined him in Morocco, and Ross. Their goal was to travel from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, and to serve with humanitarian groups along the way.
“I contacted a bunch of humanitarians and a bunch of missions throughout Africa, and we started leapfrogging our way up the continent,” he says. “We flew down to Cape Town, got three dirt bikes and started traveling north.”
What followed was four months of exploration, adventure and service to those in need.
“We worked [in Cape Town] and helped those communities, working with AIDS awareness stuff for a couple weeks, and got to know a lot of people there. Then we traveled north through Botswana.”
From Botswana they traveled to Zimbabwe and made their way up through Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
In Nairobi, Kenya, with 4,000 miles left between them and Cairo, the trio was joined by Kiel, who had just completed a four-year contract with the U.S. Air Force.
It wasn’t until their journey was nearly over that they met their only major roadblock. When they arrived at Sudan’s border, they learned that the country’s border policy had changed just weeks before, and Americans were no longer allowed in without an invitation by the government.
The group was forced to travel the last leg of the journey by plane into Cairo.
“Once in Cairo, we’d accomplished our objective,” Mirandette says. “We had braved 9,000 miles across this continent of Africa, through two civil wars and about five different rebel groups.”
On their second day in Cairo, a suicide bomber with “the equivalent of 20 kilos of TNT” walked up in the middle of the band of friends and detonated
“It was absolute hell,” Mirandette says. He recalls seeing body parts everywhere as he lay on the ground. “All my clothes had been blown off me. I’m lying naked in the street. My body’s full of hundreds of nails, and the nerves in my leg are severed. A good chunk of my left tricep was blown off. I look over, and I’m pretty sure that one of my friends is dead. My brother is nodding in and out of consciousness, and my other friend comes over and helps me tie tourniquets around my bleeding appendages and then goes over to deal with my brother. I mean, the smell, the choking smell of smoke with all the body parts. It was a complete and utter hell.”
After hours of pain, panic and fear as they were transported and tended to, Mirandette, who had been sent to a different hospital than his brother, received a phone call from his mother.
His little brother didn’t make it.
“It really caused me to question the nature of God,” Mirandette says. “How could He reward a group of guys who are following His plan with such an unspeakable hell? It’s hard still to try to wrap my mind around all that.”
In the months that followed, Mirandette’s body began to heal, but inside he remained “a real wreck.” From Grand Rapids, Mirandette and Kiel moved to Kauai, Hawaii, where their internal healing could really begin. Mirandette found a job bartending, but more importantly he found anonymity and peace. “It was there that I wrote The Only Road North (Zondervan), which was really cathartic—just sitting down, telling the story and trying to make sense of it all.”
In his book, Mirandette recounts his journey, from his days as a discontented college student to a seasoned African traveler—a man whose faith was more real than when he began. But he does not propose to have any answers.
For Mirandette, the end of this story requires the beginning of a new one. “The conclusion that I came to was either everything that I had believed in up until that point—everything that I had stood for, everything that I had lived for the last couple years, everything that my brother died for—either that was true, or my life and his death were completely in vain. I wasn’t willing to accept that.
“I have to believe that someday—I can’t imagine that it would be in this life—it’s all going to make sense, and it’s all going to be made right. Until then my responsibility, my job, my obligation is to do the good that I can do and to make the difference I can make.”
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine, July/Aug 2007