The radio frequencies were eerily silent. The normal flurry of constant transmissions between the tower controller at Juba International Airport and aircraft arriving and departing was absent. For once, instead of trying to get in touch with the controller for 10 minutes, I got through on my first call. The absence of other planes in the area was even more evident as I was cleared 15 miles out to “report established on final” – meaning I was first in line to land with no-one waiting to take-off. Typically, I would expect a complicated array of instructions involving circling somewhere just out of the way, while watching for other planes coming in and out of the airport, but today, there was hardly anyone else to watch out for.
It was the first of many signs of the toll that had been exacted on this city the several days prior. Two days before this flight, I sat in Nairobi monitoring the news as the battle between two arms of the government wreaked havoc in the capital of South Sudan. This flight was to evacuate the support staff of a Christian organization that conducts ministry across the country. They had managed to survive the fighting, made their way through a variety of security checkpoints and been cleared through the airport to meet me and board the plane which would take them back to Kenya – home country for most of them.
We had received confirmation before I arrived in Juba that things continued to be relatively calm since the cease-fire had been declared 36 hours prior, but I was alert as I waited by the plane for my passengers to arrive. There were only a few other aviation operators in Juba at this point – none of the commercial airlines had started service again, and I learned that most of the crews I saw milling about a few planes were looking for damage. A few planes had bullet holes that had been left as one branch of the military had swept across the airport during the fights.
I pulled out my cell-phone to call the local contact and confirm that things were still going as planned only to find that the cell towers weren’t allowing foreign registered phones access to the network. Thankfully, I had my sat-phone with me, a precaution all of us pilots take since communication is so vital in this part of the world. After finding a satellite connection, I started dialing when a small motorcycle carrying two plainclothes security personnel veered over from their path in front of the plane towards me.
They jumped off the motorcycle shouting “What is that? Is that a Sat Phone? Who are you calling? Where is your ID? You can’t have that on airport property! Maybe you are calling rebels hiding in the bush!” As I lifted my hands in the universal expression that I wasn’t a threat, I greeted them appropriately and started reassuring them of who I was, and what I was doing. Unfortunately, they were a bit too interested in the sat phone and decided to confiscate it by removing it from my hand. One of them left to investigate my story while the other stayed behind and watched me from a distance. Over the next two hours as I waited for my passengers, I chatted off and on with the security guy about this, that, and the other, including his desire for me to buy my phone back from him once they concluded that I wasn’t a threat to national security. Dissatisfied with my lack of willingness to be extorted for my phone, he eventually left, promising to return later – which didn’t happen of course.
My passengers did arrive eventually; tense, visibly anxious, and ready to get going – something I was quite ready for as well. We loaded up quick, and I was pleasantly surprised to be cleared for takeoff as soon as I was ready. A few minutes later, a quick glance back showed a plane full of people all looking out the windows at the ever-shrinking city with a mixture of sadness and relief. Those emotions seemed quickly to give way to excited giddiness as we returned to Kenya and it was clear where people were from as they pointed out the familiar hills, roads, and towns where they grew up.
Over the next several days, I was privileged to be a part of several other flights like this, one of which included a motorcycle that had been ridden up from South Africa! Thank you for praying as we are two weeks into these flights and have seen good protection for our planes and personnel. Please continue to pray for us and for those we are here to serve as each of them evaluate the next phase of their ministry in South Sudan.