Fleeing a war zone: Media trainer Carolyn Thompson's account of South Sudan evacuation
Canadians wanting to be part of evacuation order left on flights organized by German government
Carolyn Thompson is a journalist and media trainer working in South Sudan's capital, Juba, with Journalists for Human Rights. The country has been devastated by heavy fighting between government forces supporting President Salva Kiir and opposition forces supporting First Vice-President Riek Machar — fighting that continued until a ceasefire was announced July 11.
The United Nations says at least 36,000 people have been displaced. Hundreds have been killed.
Staff with Journalists for Human Rights left Wednesday after the organization's evacuation order Wednesday due to what its Facebook page says was "the deteriorating security situation."
Here is Thompson's account of the hours after the order was called:
I woke up five minutes before my two alarms rang out. I hardly slept.
The security escort arrived outside our compound. One looked like a military vehicle, the other a large van. The security experts told us where to hide our money. A small wad of South Sudanese pounds stayed in my back jeans pocket — money I hoped they'd find and take so they'd leave my bags alone. The drive to the airport was quick and smooth, with just one checkpoint, but each time we saw soldiers holding AK-47s, we held our breath.
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The airport was crowded with people – some on crutches, others with bandages over their shooting wounds. Most carried one or two small bags: all that's allowed on a chartered flight for an evacuation. A few came with large suitcases stuffed full. Until the flight details were cleared, passengers weren't allowed inside. Hundreds stood in the sun. At one point, there was a loud bang. A police officer had leaned on a rickety metal rail cordoning off the departure gate, which clanged against the ground. It felt like a gunshot.
Our in-country manager, Grant McDonald, collected everyone's passport, and with the help of a fixer, worked to get our clearance. He'd gathered names of others needing evacuation on the Journalists for Human Rights plane — a chartered flight from Nairobi. One journalist, some aid workers and a consultant. We feared one of our staff, South Sudanese media trainer Suzan Kim Otor, wouldn't be allowed on the flight. Amnesty International has reported security forces blocking South Sudanese from leaving the country. The organization said some charter companies were told not to take nationals, particularly men. JHR's executive director, Rachel Pulfer, had written an official letter explaining why Kim is essential to the project. We weren't leaving without her. Her passport was cleared.
An email from the Canadian government. Those wanting to evacuate had the option to board one of three military flights being organized by the German government: at 3 p.m., 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Passengers had to find their own way to the airport. "Look for German authorities as there will not be Canadian officials available – they are waiting to assist you at the destination in Uganda," the email said. As with most evacuation flights, one 10-kilogram piece of luggage was allowed. The email also specified there could be costs for the flight and there were no guarantees. "We are depending on the Germans for this service." It ended with a note: "Be safe."
After passing through security, where bags were searched and the money I wanted them to find was taken, we sat as a group waiting for notice our plane had landed. When it came time to board the plane, a dozen strangers also clamoured to the door. They followed us to the plane where we learned we would only be allowed to take off if we helped others leave. As soon as the plane was packed full, it sped to the runway. From above, Juba looked quiet and innocent.
The flight landed at Nairobi's Wilson airport. The tarmac was cluttered with propeller planes. Many were making the same trip to Juba and back. While some were departing, other journalists and humanitarian workers were heading into South Sudan. Lindsay Hamsik, policy and advocacy adviser for the South Sudan NGO forum, said for some, it's about removing unnecessary staff and sending in the essential people who can keep programs running. For development organizations like JHR, whose work is most effective in post-conflict zones, the focus was to keep working from somewhere safe. On our visa forms, the reason for visit said "evacuation."
We met Ben Peterson, JHR's co-founder, outside the airport and called our team in Canada. Cheers and some tears. JHR's team will work from Nairobi for a month to determine when we can go back. After so many messages sent during the fighting, my phone has started to predict the phrase "are you safe?" We are, but our journalist colleagues in Juba are still there, working to report on the situation as best they can. One journalist, John Gatluak, who worked with media development agency Internews, was killed.
We're all hoping the shaky ceasefire holds.