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OPINION: Reflections on Escaping War and 'The Saddest Place in Africa'

Philip Maher recalls a time not too long ago when he found himself in a similar situation in Sudan

The latest war to receive its own spinning logo on CNN is the conflict in Sudan.

Years ago, someone called Sudan the saddest place in Africa. It is true again. No doubt, the many Sudanese living in the Guelph Wellington area are concerned about their loved ones.  Evacuating civilians from Khartoum, has filled the headlines and reminded me of my own experiences escaping conflict.

It also raises questions about who to save. I’ve exercised the evacuation option myself. It’s rarely easy, as we see in Sudan and we saw in Afghanistan. You can hunker down for a few days during a war, but eventually you have three options – leave by air, land or sea.

In my travels, I always hoped that I’d be prepared for these emergencies, but I’m not sure I ever was. I see war philosophically. Wars embody simple messages like: “We need to talk” or “We are done talking.” This message could be sent by carrier pigeon, but pigeons just don’t carry enough oomph. Sending a volley of artillery shells helps clarify your resolve. At that point, assuming you can get around roadblocks, gun-wielding kids on drugs and miscellaneous mayhem, the rest of us need to get the heck out of Dodge. 

I’ve escaped war a few times. In Somalia, as rumours of war encroached, about 30 of us from numerous organizations, such as UNICEF, World Vision, CARE and Irish Concern nurses ran with our with our go bags, led by our armed technicals to a C-130 Hercules, or Herc as they call it. It was delivering food for the U.N. during the famine. It was operated by an organization formerly connected to the infamous Air America. 

Since it was a cargo flight with no seats, they were not supposed to pick up passengers. The Canadian loadmaster made us agree to keep our evacuation a secret, fearing grief from a transport regulator. I’m sure any flight safety folks would not have cared, but you can’t trust bureaucrats. We hung on for life as we took a steep ascent off the short gravel air strip.  

I took advantage of an evacuation in Latin America under the protection of the Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), Canada’s special operations folks, though they refused to identify themselves as such. The Canadian flag on the side of the Herc and the guy holding an automatic weapon wearing a Home Depot cap gave it away. I remember my relief as the C-130 cleared the runway. The next day, now in safety, I slept the entire day. 

Canadians have rescued me a few times. In East Timor, thousands of people died in a long simmering conflict between Indonesian occupiers and separatists. It culminated in a vicious destruction of the island in 1999 during a U.N. vote to separate from Indonesia.

Australians arrived to provide security and when there was a lull in violence, I jumped on a Canadian C-130 providing emergency airlift to Darwin, Northern Australia.

There was no passport control available in Darwin. We arrived at night and the friendly Australian woman who met us had to call the off-duty immigration officer. I can still hear her voice, “I’ve got a Canadian here, what should I do?” She told me to come back the next day to get my passport stamped, which I did. It was all so casual. 

It was the French who came to the rescue in the Great Lakes Region of Africa – Burundi, Rwanda and The Congo. I recall enjoying pate and crackers from a French, ready-to-eat meal (MRE), and admiring the trendy outfits on the French soldiers with automatic weapon slung on their backs. Remembering the clothing of soldiers or food may seem insignificant, but I think after seeing bodies literally stacked up or trying to deal with unpredictable drunk border guards, your brain focuses on the mundane. 

When you get home to Guelph and Toronto after all this, you don’t tell anybody. You sit at your desk in a beige cubicle realizing that there are many worlds. At the coffee station people ask, “How was your trip?” You tell them it was “fine” and feel guilty and helpless that you got out while others did not. You wonder about the people you left behind. 

Of course, we are the lucky ones. Foreign governments are obligated to help their citizens. Most local inhabitants are left to languish as refugees. If they can’t escape, they hunker down and hope the world does not end and live with the trauma of staying put.

These plane rides are costly for governments. Sadly, there is not enough money or space to ferry thousands of local citizens out. Some do make it on the flights, and almost always, it’s people with connections. Most locals will end up in refugee camps where humanitarian agencies will provide assistance. Having worked in Khartoum, Darfur and South Sudan, I can testify to how complicated and violent the politics are in places like this. 

With all my heart I hope for the safety of those in Sudan. I hope peace prevails and most of all that Sudan is no longer the saddest place in Africa. 


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About the Author: Philip Maher

Philip Maher is a consultant and photojournalist. He has managed international communication projects for more than 20 years, taking him to more than 80 countries. His twitter is @mercytraveller.
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