Note: This is the third in a three-part account of a security incident I was involved with in late 2007, in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. Click here to read the first part, and here to read the second. I’m sharing this story for World Humanitarian Day (19 August), which honours aid workers, and remembers those killed and injured in the line of duty.
Please note that the story contains an account of violence that readers who have been exposed to critical incidents themselves may find disturbing.
The stretch of sun-seared bitumen from Nyala airport into the town itself passes along a desolate acreage of dry scrubland- bare earth pocked with low grey houses, rising to a couple of low scraggy hills in one direction, and otherwise opens out to the brown and barren expanse of the semi-arid Sahel. Not far from here is the vast sprawl of Otash camp, the makeshift home these past four years to tens of thousands of internally displaced Sudanese relying on international assistance to survive.
I’m sitting in the back of another logo’d Land Cruiser eerily similar to the one I left this town in earlier today, under vastly different circumstances; in some ways a vastly different person.
It’s an ambulance-style setup as well, with bench-seats running along the hull and facing each other over an empty bay. I can’t help thinking of Abdul and how, seven hours ago I was kneeling by his head trying to keep him alive as we jarred our escape along the vehicle-tracks of the savannah south and west of here.
I’m sitting opposite Emmanuel. His face is drawn and weary, but there’s also inexpressible relief there. He looks at me, and although there’s nothing funny about today, he smiles and shakes his big dark head.
“Truly,” he says, “You are a child of God.”
I thank him, a wry smile that is part acceptance, part bemusement twisting my lips. It’s an odd compliment. It’s an odd time for it. But I take it.
“They shot you,” he says. “But nothing happened.”
I nod, and get a funny feeling. I think he’s talking about the way our assailant emptied his clip through the windows of the four-by-four and the dozen or so bullets that must have whipped through that tight space but leaving us alive.
But I’m wrong.
The chopper comes about four in the afternoon. The attack happened a little before eleven, which means we’ve been out here for a little over five hours. Hot, thirsty, exhausted. But we’re all alive.
It’s a big Mi-8 Hip, a behemoth of an aircraft that seats 24 passengers plus crew, with round portal windows and a ramp that drops down at the back.
We’ve been hearing word that the thing is on its way for a few hours when it finally materializes. It wasn’t really until about half an hour earlier that we get confirmation that yes, this time it’s actually taken off. Then we hear that the pilots can’t find the village. ‘Bul-Bul’ isn’t a helpful reference, and they’ve had to put down a couple of places already, looking for us. But at least this confirms to us that it’s actually airborne.
We hear it whopping through the air a couple of minutes before it comes into sight over the low scrub, and the sheer release of tension I feel finally seeing it hovering over the village makes up for the growing frustration I’ve been feeling as reports of our pending evacuation begin to to feel less and less believable.
There’s a big open patch of ground in front of the health hut, at least the size of a soccer pitch, and the brute hangs there like a giant airborne cricket before slowly putting down, back-wheels and then front-wheels. It is all white with a black-stencilled designation on the airframe.
The ramp at the rear drops down, and four medics carrying a stretcher between them come running out, heads low beneath the thumping blades. They could only have made a more dramatic entry if they’d parachuted into the village from on high. The whole community has turned out to watch them. Soldiers are stacked in the tray of the pickup truck, leaning nonchalantly on their weapons as though they aren’t totally digging the fuss.
They put the stretcher down in the open area in front of the compound, and inside I organize a few men to transfer Abdul back onto the bench, after which we litter him outside and transfer him over. The lead doctor pours over him, consulting in Arabic with the nurse. Within a minute there’s another drip in him, being held aloft by a female orderly.
There are orders now. There’s an Africa Union official with the flight, fair skinned but fluent in Arabic, and I suspect he’s Egyptian, or maybe Moroccan. He’s telling us to get onboard quickly. They don’t want to stay on the ground longer than absolutely necessary.
There’s a brief discussion going on. The drivers are talking about staying with their vehicles and driving them home. Emmanuel is telling them no way. Eventually they acquiesce. I watch the proceedings, standing by with my backpack until I’m waved onboard through the rear ramp. When I get into the cabin, Mohammed and Essam are already seated, and Mohammed’s head is being rebandaged.
I sit near the front by one of the round windows. The escape exit is marked with Cyrillic words. I muse to myself that I never thought I’d be so happy to be inside an aircraft stamped with Russian letters. Then they’re loading Abdul into the back on his stretcher, a calm little hive of activity, and the ramp is closing. The curious villagers are waved back.
The engine rotations increase and the noise level in the helicopter ramps up. I’m handed a pair of earphones. There’s a curious feeling as the vehicle goes weightless, and then we’re hovering.
I look out of the window. The whole village is there, in a giant semi-circle, must be three hundred people. The two technicals loaded with armed militia. Men in their robes. Women in bright coloured print dresses and headscarfs, all fluttering in the wind. Our exit is like something from a Hollywood movie. I note it at the time.
Then the nose dips, and we’re heading east.
I’m in a funk of exhausted relief. There’s not a whole lot going through my head. I’m staring out of the windows watching Darfur slip beneath us a few hundred feet down. Flat-topped acacia trees and thorny scrub, little clusters of villages and the outlines of pasture-lands. Wadis are marked by lines of dark green where foliage taps the underground moisture. In the late afternoon sun, the brown landscape takes on warm hues.
The confused euphoria of survival sets in.
Approaching Nyala, the helicopter banks over the outskirts of town. I can see the IDP camps laid out beneath us, white and brown speckled over the dusty landscape like a skin-rash. They’re vast. I’ve noted them every time I’ve flown in and out of here.
Touching down on the apron moments later, and I see the Sudanese helicopter gunships lined up a few dozen yards from where the UN Humanitarian Air Service flight disgorges its daily quotient of arriving aid workers. It’s one of the blatant ironies of this corner of the world.
The blades go still and the vibrating leaves a remnant that tingles in all the muscles. The ramp opens. Hot daylight and the perfume of AvGas spills into the cabin.
I’m the last of us out, and I step into a mob of chaos. It seems half of Nyala is out here to meet us. I can see a score of people from our office. Family members of the staff involved surge forward. Emergency personnel and aid-workers with some of the medical charities are there. There’s a small fleet of four-by-fours and an ambulance.
By the time I’m out of the chopper, a throng of people has surrounded Abdul’s stretcher. There’s crying and loud voices. Over it all, a set of jet engines is whining loudly. People are trying to make decisions, others are trying to keep the crowd thin. I stand well back.
I feel awkward and a little left out. A couple of the senior expats from our office come over and welcome me back. They look worn and a little haggard. They haven’t been with us in person, but they’ve been trying to manage the crisis from this end, knowing only that their friends and colleagues are in serious trouble. It’s been an incredibly distressing experience.
I see the freshly-bandaged Mohammed being led away.
“You’re being medevac’d to Khartoum,” I’m told. “The plane is waiting.”
The UNHAS flight is the one standing nearby, jets idling and the rear door still open. I can see white faces peering through the windows at the commotion on the apron, but I shake my head.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I want to stay here.”
There’s a little pressure to convince me, and Essam too, but in the end Mohammed flies without us, a nurse staying with him until he reaches the hospital. He’ll be stitched up and treated for a mild concussion, and released without serious physical harm.
There’s still a mob around Abdul. The medics are deliberating. He’s still having fluids pumped into him. They’re very concerned for him and he’s not out of the woods yet. He’s fragile and his blood pressure has bottomed out. They want to fly him to Khartoum at once, but he’s too weak to fly so they’ll need to keep him in Nyala overnight. It isn’t good news.
I’m standing a little to one side when a Sudanese solider walks up to me and starts yelling. He looks nineteen, and he’s got some serious agro. I’m a head taller than him, and I suddenly feel a burst of intense fury, the likes of which I’ve rarely felt in my life. I’m standing there, covered in the dried blood of a colleague, having just had the most intense day of my life. There’s a whole knot of people clogging up the runway, and this punk has the audacity to pick on me. I heckle up and raise my voice back at him, gesturing the injured man on the stretcher, and his attitude arcs up in response. We’re nose-to-nose, and the only thing that stops me taking a swing at him is the knowledge that he has two comrades with assault-rifles nearby, watching. I back down, but stay furious for hours afterwards at the memory.
Later I get a taste of more of the attitude that was coming our way. Abraham, our office manager, tells me that as I stepped out of the back of the aircraft, one of the other soldiers started gesturing at me, yelling in Arabic,
“Why is he okay? They should have shot that one!”
I’m shocked to hear the story. I’ve never been the subject of such hatred before.
The full story doesn’t come out until we start to debrief. We have a lot of those over the next few days. First off, we report back to the office managers what happened- myself, Emmanuel and the two drivers. Essam comes back from the hospital a little later after getting stitched up, and travels to Khartoum the next day.
After the first debrief, we report in to the Africa Union base commander. We thank him for sending his chopper to get us out and explain what happened. He’s a Nigerian soldier, thickset and short in stature and temper. He bawls out the office Manager for allowing us to be travelling on a road so unsafe that even his own armored personnel carriers won’t travel on- unfairly, as Abraham wasn’t in town that morning and it wasn’t his decision.
I’m checked out by the base medic, who washes my arm and examines the shrapnel punctures. He scolds me for spending the day covered in blood and reminds me that it’s a risk of infection, especially when I have open wounds of my own. To be honest I’d stopped noticing the stuff. The clothes I’m wearing are still caked in the stuff and I don’t really realise. When I get back to Melbourne I’ll need to have a blood test for Hepatitis and HIV, just to be safe, but I come back clean.
We walk out between the rows of prefab huts, past shirtless grunts kicking around a football in the post-dusk glow, and eventually past the sandbagged nests where sentries with 7.62mm machine-guns crouch outside the wire gates beneath their kevlar helmets. When we get back to the office, the light is fading and fast has broken, and there is a tranquility over the city as families share the start of the evening meal. Beside our gate, four men in off-white robes sit on a thatched mat and invite us to join them in a piece of shared flat-bread. We greet them and gracefully decline. The normalcy aches.
It’s not really until I hear the whole story first-hand from Issa and Essam, both of whom were awake throughout the assault, that I begin accepting what happened that morning, and even then it takes me a couple of days to release the last of the denial.
I run it through again in my head.
The attack is brutal, without warning and, even now, without clear motive beyond banditry. Nobody in our vehicle sees the assailants in the bush, and no effort is made by the attackers to stop either vehicle peacefully. The attack begins with murderous intent.
In the two or three seconds of that first attack, as far as we can surmise, the gunman squeezes off the better part of an entire clip through the moving vehicle. Looking at the shot-out windows, the number of holes in the fuselage, and the injuries suffered by the staff, we estimate no less than a dozen bullets travel through that tiny space, and possibly more. Each one of us is spared death by pure chance. Millimetres of change in the angle of the muzzle, fractions of seconds’ difference in the firing of the rounds, and any one of the three bullets that go into the strut behind my head could have gone through it instead; the bullet that embeds itself in Essam’s bicep may have gone through his chest- or simply torn out the artery in his upper arm and bled him out; the round that lodges in the sill above the driver’s window could have struck Issa directly; and either one of the slugs that strike Mohammed or Abdul could have killed them outright. In Mohammed’s case, two or three millimeters lower and his head would have blown open. In Abdul’s, a single millimeter lower, and the ensuing damage would kill him in minutes, if not instantaneously.
In those early seconds, Mohammed and Abdul are both knocked unconscious, the former landing beneath the latter. Essam, who immediately realises what’s happening, collapses into his seat and pretends to be dead throughout the entire episode, but concentrating intently on what’s happening. Only Issa and I interact with the gunmen. Essam makes no sign that he’s alive even as his body is roughly searched for valuables by the first attacker, and although he turns his radio down, he keeps it close to him. It’s Essam, listening to what happens next, who may well have saved all of us.
It’s after I’m back in the car, when I’m began to sense that something is really wrong, that things start to go badly. I hand over my money, while Issa stands helplessly by as the two gunmen start talking.
As I’m looking forward through the windshield, my hands still raised, the first gunman, who did all the shooting, raises his weapon and points it at me. According to Issa, he’s agitated and aggressive, highly nervous. Issa wonders whether he might be on drugs. The other guy seems far more frightened, and quieter.
The first gunman addresses Issa.
“Tell him,” he instructs, jerking the gun at me, “That I’m going to kill him.”
Issa, mercifully, does nothing of the kind. He stands there, helpless. I, in my ignorance of Arabic, have no awareness of the plans in store for me.
The gunman adjusts his grip on the gun where it’s levelled on my chest and, ten paces from where I’m sitting, pulls the trigger.
Both Issa and Essam hear the gun click.
The gunman, frustrated, turns to his companion, standing there watching events unfold.
“You finish them off,” he orders.
The other refuses. Issa says he appears reluctant.
“Okay,” says the first, irritated. “Give me your gun. I’ll do it.”
We’re still not entirely sure what happens next to change things. What we know is that Essam, playing dead in the back seat and listening to our murder being discussed, knows that there are few options left. He’s turned his radio back on and is crouched in the back seat, trying to raise the other vehicle. With the volume turned up, its his radio that now chatters to life as Emmanuel comes back to us over the net asking what’s happening.
Although we’ll never know, it’s very possible that the sound of the voice over the radio startles the two gunmen into realising that there are more of us out there, and that perhaps help is on its way. At any rate, without a further word, both men turn and walk off into the bush, leaving us alive. Issa bolts for the driver’s seat, and champion as he is, drives us the mile or two to our first stopping-point in a heavy four-wheel-drive on soft sand, with one of the tyres shot to hell.
We have a lot of heroes to thank that day.
We also learn about doings in Nyala. About the sheer panic in the office when the news first breaks that we’ve been attacked and that several of the team- it isn’t clear who or how seriously- are shot. Then about the rapid response that’s undertaken to get us home safe.
The message reaches Nyala about ten minutes after we get to Bul-Bul. They’re eventually able to make contact via cell-phone by standing on the top of a pickup truck. That means it’s not quite an hour since the shooting. From there, the office mobilise and contact the Africa Union. Within forty-five minutes of the news coming through, there’s a chopper on the apron in Nyala, fueled, with a crew and a medical staff, ready to lift off.
The Sudanese military takes three subsequent hours to give it official clearance to lift off and get us.
When I first hear that information I don’t have much energy left to respond emotionally to the news. Now, it makes my blood boil. I think how close Abdul came to dying on that table in the bush while we sat waiting for some piece of bureaucratic machinery to creak over- or worse, some malicious officer who would have been quite happy for some unwanted NGO worker to perish.
Abdul lives. Against all the odds.
We visit him that night in Nyala hospital. I remember the warmth of the evening air, and of families crowded into the hospital’s central courtyard around lamps, waiting for loved ones on the wards, bringing them food and themselves sharing the evening break-fast seated in circles on the ground, stew in coloured plastic pots and broth in copper kettles.
He lies on another guerney, under a fleece blanket and stripped to the waist, conscious but weak. We don’t spend long with him. We speak briefly with his brother, and there’s a draining concoction of gratefulness and concern. We pray for him that evening at that office, hoping he’ll make it through the night.
He does, and the next morning he’s flown to Khartoum, where his skull is x-rayed and it’s discovered that there are bone fragments piercing the brain, causing critical swelling. He undergoes emergency brain surgery to remove the shards and relieve the swelling, and by some miracle survives that too.
I spend several more days in Nyala, debriefing with the team, floaing through a strange sense of the surreal. My experience is at once intensely tangible and seared onto my brain in visceral clarity, and yet has left me oddly emotionally calm. I feel no grief, I sleep well, my appetite is not diminished. Although I get a little anxious retelling the story of what happened, the psychologist who is flown in to counsel us informs me I’m healthy and that I shouldn’t expect to experience any symptoms of psychological harm as a result of the experience. She’s right, and I don’t.
I leave Khartoum on an Emirates flight, in business class which the insurance company has agreed to pay for because my itinerary has had to be changed, and these are the only available seats; I’m very glad that we have an emergency travel policy.
The day I leave, I visit Essam and Mohammed. They’re both staying at our team-house in Khartoum for a few days before returning to Nyala. We’re glad to see each other, and as we re-tell our stories- with Mohammed for the first time- both men shed tears. Later I visit Abdul in hospital. He is happy to see me. He’s there with his family, about eight of them living out of a dingy room, but thankfully he’s got privacy from the rest of the hospital.
He doesn’t get up, which doesn’t surprise me, but it’s only later I realise it’s because the injury to his brain has left him paralysed down one side of his body. Although he regains some of his movement and the pain diminishes, he still hasn’t made a full recovery. He still works for the same organisation, but is confined to desk work, and walks with a cane. His is the one sad legacy from an experience that is otherwise miraculous- but even here, his survival is in the face of overwhelming odds.
The same is true for all of us. This particular set of circumstances could have been rolled on cosmic dice a hundred times, and in ninety-nine of those cases, not all of us would have lived.
The flight is delayed a little out of Khartoum. I wait in the business-class lounge with growing anxiety, and in my mind I recall that same sense of foreboding I had waiting for the helicopter to evacuate us from Bul-Bul, but thirty minutes behind schedule I’m shown through to a brand new business-class seat that goes completely flat. It’s going to take me twenty hours to get back to Melbourne and I know I should sleep. But it’s way too nice a berth for me to waste time unconscious, and I sit awake for several hours, sip white wine, and watch movies.
The constant hum of the engines eventually lulls me to sleep.
1. Untitled, from http://www.operationbrokensilence.com: ‘Rebuilding Darfur: How do we do it?’ (link embedded in photo)
2. From http://www.time.com: ‘Darfur Descends into Chaos’ (link embedded in photo)