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Holiday in Juba, Part 2 – War Zone and Evacuation

In International Development, South Sudan on December 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I just got back from a trip to South Sudan.  I didn’t want to completely freak out my family so I held off on posting this until I got back safely.  This is my story from experiencing South Sudan’s current descent into civil war.  I’m leaving in the swearing as it reflects my state of mind, I wrote this as it happened.

Monday, 12/16/13, 8am Juba time
My time in Juba was supposed to come to an end this morning. I was working hard to get everything packed up and be clean and ready for a ride to the airport at 7:45, so I could be there well in time for my 10:40am flight. I came down and my CD and the Logistics guy told me there had been some fighting in Juba, and that movement is restricted, my flight had been canceled. OK, deep breath. Lots to process. Are we safe here? What if I can’t make the flight from Nairobi tomorrow night? Can I get to Nairobi by tomorrow evening?

My CD made some calls, he was able to call Kenyan Airways, I’m on a later flight today at like 3:30pm. Hopefully things will be calmer and I can get out of here. I’ve actually heard some rumbles that I only can assume are bombs. Somewhere.

4:30pm Juba time
It was an attempted coup, according to Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president. Elements of sacked former VP Riek Machar’s allies (Nuer ethnic group, a large minority) were disgruntled and mounted a mutiny in Juba last night. President Kiir is a Dinka, a majority group.

In any case, for some reason the GOSS has kept the airport closed, canceling all flights today. My CD is really screwed, he had a rare weekly connection set up to his hometown in India for the holidays. That’s scuttled now and he’s going to be out a lot of money to change his flight. I am still in decent shape as my flight out of Nairobi is very late tomorrow night, where I would board just before midnight. Hopefully, they get the airport back open tomorrow and I can get out of here on time.

12/17/13
Airport is still closed. I will not make it to Nairobi today, and my flight to DC through Brussels will be without me, unfortunately.

Woke up this morning after a fitful nights sleep. There were firefights nearby, on and off, all night. I tried to go to sleep last night around 9:30. While we kept the generator on, soldiers had come by the compound urging us to turn all our lights off. So we got the candles together and I draped a sheet over my window to dampen out any light, I wanted at least to have my iPad as a companion as the battle happened outside.

I feel reasonably safe here in this compound. There are a couple of diplomats (German, South African) that live here so they are left alone and allowed a little more leeway than just a regular NGO person like me, I suppose. The walls are very tall, of thick cinderblocks, with double razor wire. Our generator had just been topped off the Friday before with a few days of fuel. We’ve been putting the generator off for a couple of hours at a time. It’s not too hot right now so we’re comfortable.

Last night it seems like they needed to root out the opposition. They shut off the phone lines, so our mobiles didn’t work. To communicate, the soldiers would fire rounds in the air, sometimes with automatic rifles. You’d here a pop or two, then a ta-ta-ta-ta. From far away you’d hear a reply, it was like a bizarre violent version of guerrilla Facebook.

This morning was pretty bad, around like 9-11 am. They literally were battling up the street from us. My heart was pounding, I was trying hard to think as clearly as possible. My blood pressure must be through the roof. I was rationalizing where I was in the building, the odds of a stray bullet – the geometry of how this firefight could hurt us. I was 95% confident that I would be OK, as long as I stayed away from the windows.

This is such a miserable country. Physically, this country has lots of advantages – they’ve got oil, some areas of great soil for growing whatever they want – shit-tons of water from either the Nile or insane rains that they could eventually harness and save. But they have super low capacity, their population is poorly educated. The ruling elite don’t know the first thing about governing. It’s clear that this is not a methodical coup d’etat – this is just a bunch of soldiers that heard rumors and got pissed off, then a brief scuffle turns into something 10 times worse, now there’s basically a budding civil war here, it’s only going to get worse.

My hope right now is that they can build some kind of ceasefire or humanitarian space where I can get the fuck out of here.

8:12pm
Been calm most of the day. Got to talk to my wife twice, both times without any gunfire in the background. It’s brutal telling them that I’m going to be late.

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
8:30am
Blissfully quiet night, there was some random potshot rounds fired last night as I fell asleep, but I suspect those were of the Geurilla-Facebook status update variety.

Called Kenya Airways right after I woke up, they have a flight scheduled today but it’s full. I’m currently booked on a flight on the 20th but I’m not sure the peace will hold that long.

My sense is that the tinderbox has been ignited – with the real firefights, civil war is at hand. Riek Machar, the former VP here, has fled somewhere, and I think the current quiet here in the city is just regrouping. I don’t think this was a formal coup attempt, just rising tensions that got out of hand. But now that there’s been real killing – recent UN estimates have like 500 killed so far – it’s now gone beyond something that can just blow over.

9:15am
US Embassy is organizing evacuation flights on a first come first serve basis, I’m going to the airport ASAP. I’m literally shaking with adrenaline, I am so full of hope. Driver is coming shortly. Got an email with a PDF to fill out, I sent it immediately. I may have to pay but I’ll sell my house to get out of here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013, 12:27 pm
That was fast and furious. I made it to the airport, the ride through town was not bad, the owner of the taxi service we used took me in a private land cruiser, so it was lower profile than a marked NGO vehicle. Didn’t see much damage, even though we drove right through where there had been heavy fighting. Along the main boulevard to the airport there were a few light posts in the median presumably knocked over by bad armored vehicle driving. The airport had a line of vehicles so I just got out and walked with my bags. The Americans were grouped under a tree nearby, they took my name. I then waited for a while, maybe 2 hours. An old Peace Corps Niger friend Kimberly that works for another NGO – we’d met for dinner the previous weekend before the battles… was there and we waited together. I had enough time to get a bite to eat at a bizarrely nice restaurant next to the airport.

When I got back from eating I asked the nearest official-looking young American woman if I should wait closer, she said yes, and I immediately headed back over to their little encampment. They then coalesced us into lines, there was maybe 100 Americans there. They tried to prioritize as there were a few families with small kids and a couple of very old people. Then they loaded me into an armored land cruiser. My seat mate was a young South Sudanese man, maybe a teenager even, who had literally nothing with him other than an American passport. He had fled.

They brought us to the end of the tarmac, passing the permanently unfinished and abandoned “new” terminal. There waiting for us, engines running, were two US Military C-130 cargo aircraft, big bay open in the back, with maybe 50 US Marines in a perimeter around us, gazing into the tall grass (the kind you can imagine a Lion waiting in). They loaded us up, handed out earplugs, and after quite a long wait, started to taxi. They didn’t close the back bay until just before we were to take off – the marines were kind of guarding the rear of the plane.

While I was sitting there I texted my wife. “On US Mil plane,” I typed, “coming home.” I kind of wept as I hit send. I sent a similar message to my dad, as I know my parents and sister have been worried as well. I was so full of emotion. On the one hand, profound relief with being able to get out of a true war zone and back safe to my family. On the other, deprecating guilt at having left behind my colleagues – who’s only difference was that they’re not American. My expat colleagues in South Sudan are Ethiopian, Kenyan, Ugandan, Indian, Pakistani, and Azerbaijani. There are 9 of them (3 Ethiopians). Why should I get all the luck? Just because I come from a country that can literally move heaven and earth when it needs to?

The plane was pure utility. All wires and pipes and various implements hanging here and there, all designed to either tend to the wounded or facilitate jumping out of the plane. The marines sprawled out on the back end of the gangway where some of our bags, including mine, were. They just crashed out. We were seated in long benches staring at each other, the back was like a seatbelt material mesh, the seats were low, so my knees were higher than my hips, which starts to be a problem after an hour or so… but whatever. I was safe.

It took a while before people started to kind of take it in and relax. All of us kept our earplugs in for a while. Then slowly, everyone took out their kindles, iPads, books, whatever. Most of us were pretty gritty. All the donors we met with the week before when things were normal – EU, DFID, OFDA, they were all on the plane. They must have had a deal with the other embassies to get all the diplomatic corps out.

When we landed, we taxied way over to the back end of the Nairobi airport. A man came in and introduced himself as the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy Nairobi. He told us what was up – we were to go through a quick luggage scan on the tarmac, then driven over to check through customs, our bags would be brought to a nearby hotel where we’d be processed. When we got on a bus to the airport, the DCM (second in charge) for the US Embassy Somalia chaperoned us and briefed us on the bus to the hotel.

We ended up at the Ole Soreni, a pretty decent hotel just near the airport. They had all the conference rooms set up – they’d reserved a block of rooms, there were consulate officers from a bunch of the other EU/Canada/UK. There was a medical table, it was like a career fair for evacuees. The US Ambassador greeted us in a room with two sections for US Citizens and everyone else, there were catered food tables in the back, I downed two glasses of orange juice right away and ate some samosa looking finger foods they had, as well as a little piece of cake. They had some drip coffee as well, I felt like a PCV coming in from the bush. The diplomats were milling around chatting us up, greeting us, it was pretty much intense customer service. Someone had tweeted that they wanted to avoid another Benghazi… so I can kind of get that. But I was very appreciative.

I signed a couple of papers and releases, got my bag, drank some more juice and ate some more hors d’oeuvres, and waited for my NGO’s driver to come get me and take me to our Nairobi guest house. I had just been evacuated from a war zone. Can check that off the list.

3:52pm, Nairobi Airport, waiting to board.
Booked on a flight from Nairobi to Dubai then to DC. Should be home by 8:00am tomorrow. Crazy the way life goes on while shit falls apart in other places. I’m happy to have that perspective but I’m getting tired of bearing witness to it. I know I’m not even close to having the level of exposure to misery as 95% of my hard core colleagues who’ve worked in lots of bad places. But I really am thinking twice about the professional path I’ve chosen. This will have to be the subject of another blog post another time, but it’s the state of mind I’m left with as the high blood pressure and tension is replaced by butterflies and the thought about how it will feel to wake up with my wife and kids around. I’m incredibly lucky.

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