On a wing and a prayer, Freetown, Sierra Leone
The Meetings have passed with ease, we are pleased with the arrangements made.
Return flights to Accra from Freetown are once a week, we opt to fly out on a Sunday. The weather has been moody, in Freetown it rains every day, the clouds are hanging low over the foamy sea. Last nights dinner was sumptuous, as always, the quality of food outstanding considering the location and the time. Credit to the Italian Management Paolo, and his girlfriend and the fact that we have the right contacts.
Late night we are informed that the Hovercraft is non-operational, and we must fly with a local commuter plane departing Hastings airport to Lunghi International. Also we are informed that the rooms are all fully booked, so we have no choice but to leave. Military personnel from all over, U.N. UNHCR, Peacekeepers, High ranking officials from OAU, CIA, Mercenaries alike, all are lodging at the Cape Sierra, a somewhat funny arrangement, yet without choice. Cape Sierra is the only foreign run Hotel in war torn Freetown.
Early morning we move, after breakfast we say goodbye to our friends, and move with the Car provided by the Hotel.
Hastings airport is about an hour drive from Cape Sierra, we pass the U.N. Security barrier, the OAU barrier, slipping through devastated Freetown in the middle of misery and carnage that befell this city.
We can see houses destroyed, tin roofed buildings in desolate condition, people without hope. Yet somehow, life goes on. Talking about it brings back memories that are not at my top list. I try to forget the kids without limbs, but somehow the sight keeps coming back.
Pity to see small children in their misery, for what ? Power, greed, money. Same story happens today in another part of this planet, without making direct reference.
When we reach Hastings airport, the rains pours down in full force. Nigerian OAU troops are guarding the airport, their Captain shaking our hands, welcoming us. We sit down on a wooden makeshift bench, one hand holding our valuables in an attaché case, the other bag with our necessities.
We are told the plane coming from upcountry is due to arrive shortly and will take us to Lunghi Int’l. I wonder, with a visibility of 50-100 meters, the clouds so low that you can almost touch it, it needs a special Pilot skill to land in such weather.
Although the ILS is working, the Pilot cannot see the tarmac till he almost touches down. We are conversing with the Captain about the war and its repercussions on the civil population. One thing that strikes me is the explanation that behind all the carnage in Sierra Leone is one man, Charles Taylor.
He supplies arms to the main rebel leader Fodeh Sankoh and his URF United Revolutionary Front in return for Diamonds, which both should make them rich.
However, for every seller there must be a buyer. And I know that De Beers has its offices in Freetown, throughout the war. We can debate the negative ness of this, but one thing is sure, that I won’t buy anymore diamonds for anyone as long as I live.
We hear the distant rumbling of a planes engine, a turbo prop twin of Czech origin drops out of the sky, lands safely, taxiing to the main tarmac.
Hastings is a small airport, we can follow all the movements precisely. We grab out bags, and walk towards the parked plane, to take a ride to Lunghi. Njet, Njet says the Russian pilot.
No way he flies again in such weather. We stand like paralyzed, trying to convince him to take us. The OAU Captain does its best, to no avail. The guy remains stubborn, nothing will make him move this plane again today. as long as the clouds hang so low.
We glance at our watches, the time close to 11.00 AM, our Ghana Air flight departing at 13.00 PM from Lunghi.
We are sitting on needles, I turn to the Nigerian Captain, asking him if they have choppers stationed here. He nods, but says he can’t ask them to take us. I say: ‘Come on, help us, if we can’t leave today, we won’t be able to leave till another week’. He moves away to see what he can do, but returns with resignation, no way.
I do not know what happens on this day, except that somewhere some angel must guard over me, for in about 20 minutes I hear the distinctive whirl of a chopper, a large Transporter or fighter, we cannot see because of the fog.
It comes closer and gets louder by the second, then the craft slips out of the sky like the twin before it, I notice the distinctive marks of a MIG 8. The MIG rolls along the runway, turns towards the Hangars, its Rotors spinning in near half throttle, anyone would know he does not stop here.
Our Captain gets into action, runs towards the monster, now turning its tail 30 degrees towards us, the Captain exchanges a few words with the pilot who opens his cabin and leans out. A mighty white, hairy arm waves towards us, come on and hop in, the Captain now running back towards us, waving us to hurry up. Needless to say, we grab our bags, and run with our business attire towards the chopper.
The captain receives a buck from us for his troubles, and advises us to tell the Pilot that we love Cuba. We reach the chopper, after waving goodbye to the soldier who helped us, and we are both helped into the vibrating aircraft, its Rotor blades now picking speed we can hear the from the turbines sound.
The Interior is a junk yard and a warehouse, two machine gunners with heavy submachine guns guarding both entrances, open door, we lift off almost instantly.
Flying very low over the Mangroves that occupy the are between Hastings and Lunghi, I wonder what it would be like to make a hard landing in this waters below us.
I have time to study the interior, they carry supplies to the troops, from rice in bags, to toilet paper rolls, all is stuffed in the craft, and so are civilians who are sitting in the back. I am amazed to see how much stuff goes into that craft. Vibrating, with the gunners watching carefully the Mangroves below, we fly towards our destination, a mere 10-15 minutes ride, our lifeline to the outside world.
And when we reach Lunghi, I see the Ghana Air F27 approaching and land on the runway. The Pilot moves the MIG to a close area near the main building, and we thank him, amidst the noise jumping out of the aircraft, and running to the main building.
The departing passengers give us a curious look, because from where we come not other passengers appear. Immigration, Customs are passed quickly, leaving our last Leone, the main currency. The plane meanwhile has parked and we are the first, occupying seat Nr. 1 + 2 in the front. I recognize another friend who is a member of the security forces of Ghana, accompanying the plane from Banjul, Conakry, Freetown on to Abidjan and Accra.
Long after taking our seats, the plane has taken off, I realize how fortunate we are, for if this chopper hadn’t taken us we would be still waiting for another week in this forsaken place, but with uncertainty where to sleep, as all the rooms are booked out. We sip on our welcome drink and try to relax.
In the news a week later we hear that Freetown has been overrun by the Rebels again, and we know that the favorite place of the rebels is the Cape Sierra Hotel, the Hotel staff explaining to us whilst we are there. If this is not luck, then what is….
We thank those brave soldiers of the Nigerian peacekeepers for making our return possible, to the Pilot of the MIG; and I pray for those children who lost their arms, that they will find a somewhat normal life again.
It remains a vague hope though, because one can imagine what it means to live without his right or left hand, or both. God bless those who can.