Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tuesday Afternoon

Yambio, South Sudan

As I walked around my parked airplane, sweating in the 40 degree heat, I felt the cell phone vibrate in my pocket, and then heard the ringing a few seconds later.  Slightly surprised to be getting a phone call in the middle of my flight program for the day, I pulled my phone out and glanced down at the screen to see who might be calling me now.  My eyebrows lifted in surprise as I saw the caller ID telling me that it was our program manager on the other end of the line.

"Hello?"

"Hi, how are you?"

"I'm fine.  What's up?"

"We've just received word through some back channels that things are changing quickly in South Sudan.  We would like you to finish up what you are doing there as quickly as possible and then head straight out of South Sudan.  Don't be in such a rush as to attract attention, but be prompt.  How is the security there right now?  Is the police presence any different than usual?"

Taking a bit of a breath, and feeling my blood pressure beginning to rise, I looked around me.  Things suddenly looked different than they did only a few seconds before.  There are always a few soldiers at the airstrip with machine guns and it was difficult not to fixate on them.  They were still sitting on a low wall talking and laughing with each other.  I took another breath.

"No.  Everything is normal.  If anything it's a little bit more laid back and relaxed than things normally are."

"OK.  Be careful."

"OK.  Goodbye."

I pressed the disconnect button on my phone and slid it back into my chest pocket.  Taking a deep breath, I turned to my passengers and with a smile asked, "Who's next?"

Eight minutes later, I took another slow breath to slow my racing heart, and pulled the door of my plane closed beside me.  I was thankful for the flows that we pilots learn for the start-up sequence, as my hands moved switches and levers almost of their own accord.  As I taxied out, I made no radio calls and left my transponder off, doing nothing to attract any attention to myself or announcing my presence in any way.  Turning around at the end of the runway, I moved the power lever forward and felt the aircraft surge forward underneath me.  Acceleration never felt so good, and as my wheels left the ground and I climbed up above the treetops, I took yet another breath and felt my body begin to relax a little bit.

Fifteen minutes after liftoff, I watched the little line on the GPS move beneath the airplane icon on the screen and felt my self relax even more.  I was now out of South Sudan and into East Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For some, this might be taken as one of those "Out of the frying pan and into the fire" kind of moments, but I have never been so glad to cross into the DRC.  Turning on my radios, I made my first radio call since landing back in Yambio.

"Fox-Fox, this is Sierra-Charlie-Oscar (SCO)."

"SCO, this is Fox-Fox, go ahead."

In those few brief moments, I could hear the relief in the voice of my wife on the other end of the radio.  Karen was manning the flight following radio that morning, and the last little while had been quite stressful for her as well.  After making my radio call and informing MAF Uganda of my flight details and estimated time of arrival, I continued climbing (a little higher than usual, I'll admit) and attempted to relax further as I settled into the two and a half hour flight back home to Kampala.

The story that I just told took place one Tuesday shortly before Christmas, as the political situation in South Sudan quickly deteriorated and the two groups began to make war with each other.  As the situation in South Sudan continued to deteriorate, MAF Uganda began making daily flights up into the country, evacuating many of the missionaries that we support there.  We also flew out many Kenyan, Ugandan, and Sudanese nationals out of South Sudan as they fled the violence that had suddenly erupted in front of them.  As time has progressed, the initial violence has settled down a little bit, and we have begun to bring some of the missionaries back up into South Sudan.  For the ones who live in the more volatile areas, though, they continue to wait and watch to see what is going to happen and continue praying for peace in this young country.

It has been tiring and difficult, but it is always a treat to see the relief on the faces of those who we have flown out of danger, and to hear the total thankfulness in their voice when we arrive back in Uganda.  The total relief on the faces of the Sudanese refugees is something that we don't often see.

Please remember to pray for South Sudan and the people who remain there, especially the Sudanese who have no place to run to and who are simply struggling to survive the conflict.  Pray for the missionaries who have left their homes and friends behind and who would love to be able to return to their places of ministry.  Pray for MAF Uganda, Sudan and Kenya as we all fly into South Sudan regularly and move people and supplies from place to place. 

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