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 really wanted to experience life abroad, and I wanted to make a contribution to my fellow man—to do something to help and serve for a couple years. 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. “I was working with the refugees,” he says. “We had about 1,000 to 1,600 men at any given time living up on this mountain in the direst of circumstances, feeding from a dump, diseased and dying. They needed medicine; they needed food. The Moroccan military was conducting raids; they were getting shot at every week. It was a miserable situation. To go into a situation like that where there is no safety net, there is no comfort zone, it’s real. It’s life and death. And to see how much more serious and important a faith is—my faith got very real very quick.”
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. “I really wanted to see what they were going through—what was going on in the rest of Africa that would cause them to leave their countries and venture toward Europe,” he says.
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.
Memorable stories outline their journey, from a camp invasion by a bull elephant in Botswana to patrolling with paramilitary rangers and swimming at the base of a breathtaking waterfall in Zambia.
In Tanzania the concrete road became a dirt trail that would bring them through 500 miles of often mud-entrenched jungle. From Tanzania they followed the trail to Burundi and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only three weeks prior, that span of the trail had been an active war field.
“When we got to the end of that road, there was this huge volcano in one of the cities outside of Goma, which is in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We climbed the volcano and spent time looking down into this fiery pit.
“That was a significant moment for me,” he continues. “At that point I was more convinced than I had ever been before that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing with my life. I was out there with my brother and my friends, and things [were] good.”
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.
Between Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia there were, again, hundreds of tales to tell. 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; we had finished our journey,” Mirandette says. “We had braved 9,000 miles across this continent of Africa, through two civil wars and about five different rebel groups. We’d finally reached the end of our journey.”
Mirandette and his brother Alex planned to go back to the States to celebrate Alex’s birthday in just two weeks. However, 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 his bomb.
“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.
“You’re lying in the street just trying to make sense of it all. 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 looks like hell, but he’s walking, and he 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 was the worst thing Mirandette could have imagined. “I would have, in a heartbeat, given my life to save my brother,” he says. “I even tried: He was the first person on the ambulance, and we were sure that I was going to die. And then he was taken, and I live.”
It is a chapter in their story that left only confusion, pain and doubt.
“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.” Even after returning to his home in Michigan, he was surrounded by reminders of Cairo.
“In Grand Rapids everybody knew my story,” he says. “Everyone knew my name. Everywhere I went somebody was there to say something about the whole thing. I just needed to get away for a while.”
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.
“It took us four months before we felt ready [to simply live again],” Kiel says. “The dream of one day waking up and being the way I was is gone now. It’s a continual process that I’ve accepted, and I have come to embrace the new me.
“We still fight our inner battles, but we know that we have two other guys who can help us through it,” Kiel continues. “We have gone from adolescent friends to three brothers who will always be there for each other no matter how life decides to mess with us. A bond has been formed that is difficult to describe in words.”
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.”
This is article originally appeared in issue 27 of RELEVANT. To purchase this issue or subscribe to the magazine, go here.