I am writing this blog entry sitting on the balcony of a small hotel in Entebbe, Uganda, looking out over a banana plantation. Actually, the hotel in is a scruffy little backstreet with a dirt road, a couple of warehouses and lots of corrugated iron roofs, but, sure enough, in the middle of it all, is a small plantation with about fifty banana trees.
Uganda is an incredibly green and fertile country. When it was going through its development agonies under crazy leaders like Idi Amin forty years ago, it was the fact that bananas grow anywhere that kept the population from starving.
Coming into Uganda last night was a real culture shock. Entebbe Airport is small, but spotlessly clean and very efficient. The Customs Official, (not usually the nicest of people in many countries), was delightful. “You have come from the Fireworks,” he said. “We must look after you!” After the day we had just had, I could have hugged him.
Up and down like… ? What was the expression? Well, whatever it was, it summed up our ‘evacuation’ yesterday.
Our day started at Rumbek Airstrip at about 8.30am waiting for a flight that was supposed to arrive at 9.00am At about 9.40am a twin engine, propeller driven, sixteen-seater plane roared in and we scurried on board, – no formalities, no check-in, no ticket, no ground staff, no security checks, just get on the bloody plane.
We then flew north to Wau to pick up five more volunteers. Wau is a bigger town. The people there are probably a bit more worldy-wise people than Rumbek, and certainly the officials at the airport have mastered the art of complicating everything if at all possible. The volunteers’ bags were thoroughly searched, and then there was a problem about whether the immigration official’s list matched the plane’s manifest. So the volunteers were stuck in the Departure area.
The plane was re-fuelled and we stood around watching about 100 heavily armed soldiers boarding another plane, bound for Juba, and presumably on to the fighting. And we waited. Eventually the concerns of the officials were allayed and our noisy little aeroplane took off again to take us to Yambio, which, from the air is just beautiful. I’ve never seen vegetation like it, with forests as far as the eye could see. Another couple of volunteers joined the party and off we went to the little town of Mundri.
Landing in Mundri was such fun that we decided to try it twice. The main road into the town cuts right across the airstrip and the airstrip itself is about as wide as a cart track, with trees on either side. As the pilot made his first approach, a boy on a bike came out of the bush and proceeded to cycle along the airstrip, oblivious to the impending doom bearing down on him from the sky. I’m not saying that our landing gear parted his hair, (Africans usually have very short hair), but the pilot certainly had to pull up very sharply and try again. Very exciting. Two more volunteers climbed in.
From Mundri to Yei. Another dusty airstrip, but, this time, one with its own immigration official. The idea was that we would get our passports stamped in Yei, so that we wouldn’t need to go into the hell that is Juba Airport’s departure area at the best of times. This is not the best of times. Thousands of foreigners are scrambling to get out of the country through Juba airport. A colleague from the Red Cross, who left a couple of days ago, spent seven hours in the airport trying to leave. The airport ran out of drinking water.
The problem for us was that the immigration official at Yei had already dealt with the one flight that he was expecting yesterday and had gone home. None of the AK47-toting guards, who were guarding this empty strip of earth, had the official’s phone number and we were faced with the prospect of having to fight our way through Juba Airport’s bearpit, to get our exit stamps. Eventually, as often happens in Africa, a way was found and the official was phoned. Twenty minutes later he turned up on the back of a policeman’s motorbike. We got our exit visas and flew back to Juba for refuelling.
Boy, were we glad we had found the official in Yei. We didn’t have to go into the terminal building, we just got off our little plane, while it was refuelled, and stood around on the tarmac at the side of the airport. The main apron and runway was like Piccadilly Circus. Planes of all nationalities were lined up, engines running, awaiting permission to take off; a German military Hercules, another huge, unidentified mean-looking military transport plane that could have fitted our little plane into its hold, Air Uganda, Air Ethiopia, Kenya Airways, (two in a row), Emirates, Dubai Air and us. As you might have guessed, we were not the priority. We had to sit, with engines running, and watch all the big boys leaving for what seemed like hours.
But, hey. We got out eventually and the hotel in Entebbe even managed to find a meal for all of us at 10.30pm. I wouldn’t have fancied our chances of doing that in London.
And a few minutes ago there was a knock on the door and we were given the news that VSO have managed to get us on a flight to London tonight. We should be back in Heathrow early tomorrow morning.
Mixed feelings, very mixed feelings. Relieved to have been evacuated before any trouble started in our part of the country, disappointed that the work we were doing has come to a full stop, concerned about the people we have got to know in Rumbek and what their future will be and, most of all, saddened that South Sudan has suddenly inflicted this huge wound on itself. All of those planes on Juba airport last night were taking away people, many of whom were there as part of the aid effort to help the country to develop, and none of those people will come back until they are assured that the situation is calm again. In the meantime millions of dollars will be blocked, while the country takes a huge step backwards.
Will it be settled soon? The signs are not good. The President has said he is ready to hold talks with the former Vice-President, who is now, more or less, the head of the opposition forces. The former Vice-President has said that the only thing he is prepared to discuss with the President is the President’s departure from office. We live in interesting times.