By Tony Calderbank

07 January 2014 - 16:47

'As I lie awake, not hearing bullets in the night, I ponder the consequences of not leaving.' Photo (c) US Army Africa US Army Africa, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'As I lie awake, not hearing bullets in the night, I ponder the consequences of not leaving.' Photo ©

US Army Africa, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

British Council South Sudan country director Tony Calderbank writes about the evacuation from South Sudan soon after fighting broke out last month.

I am lying in bed, Monday morning. It’s the last week before Christmas. We had an office party on Saturday night and during the course of the coming week, all members of staff will leave Juba. Teachers will fly home and local staff will head for their home towns to spend the break with their families.

By Friday evening, the office will be closed, and I will be free to relax for two weeks in quiet, sleepy Juba doing my favourite things: translating a collection of South Sudanese short stories, perfecting my lamb rogan josh and reading the pile of books that I have accumulated on recent travels.

Just before the alarm goes off, a text message comes in. It’s from the British ambassador informing me of overnight shooting, which may continue into the morning, and that all staff are to stay off the streets.

My heart sinks. As I open the front door and walk into the yard, I make out the muffled sound of a full-scale battle raging somewhere in the direction of the army base several kilometres from our house: machine gun fire, regularly punctuated by explosions. Oh no, I think. They’re going to make us leave.

I phone all staff to tell them to stay at home and see what’s happening their end. It shouldn’t take long in Juba, given our small contingent, but it does, because most of the time, calls don’t go straight through. And this morning, the networks are busy. 'Sorry,' intones the female robot voice as a motivational techno tune tinkles away in the background, 'the number you have dialed is not reachable. Please try again later.'

Colleagues report fighting in most parts of town. Everyone is staying indoors, lying low. I make more calls, one to a local NGO partner to cancel a training workshop, one to our training consultant who is staying in a hotel near the airport, and another to our acting senior teacher to follow up with IELTS staff who have flown into Juba for the weekend, one from up-country and one from Kampala.

A quick assessment of the situation indicates that all staff are safe and accounted for. Three are outside Juba in provincial capitals where, for the time being at least, things are calm. However, the airport is closed and the only bridge across the river, which leads to the main highway to Uganda, is not secure. For the moment, we’ll be staying put.

I begin a series of conversations with colleagues in London. They will take place regularly over the next couple of days. Together we assess the situation and score different aspects of it such as law and order, security, Foreign Office advice, appetite to stay, and so on. On paper, it doesn’t look too good.

That afternoon, the fighting quietens and we hear only sporadic shooting that continues into the night. Unable to leave our houses, we understand that the streets of the town are deserted, save for groups of soldiers who from time to time engage one another. There are rumours of looting and scores being settled.

Tuesday morning and gunfire continues. I have the radio on as I work on the laptop and calls come in all morning from embassy and DFID (Department for International Development) colleagues reporting heavy fire in their vicinities. From time to time, shots seem to be exchanged right outside our gate, but the security guard assures me they are farther away at the top of the main road. We later learn that it is the former vice president’s residence being looted.

I have another conference call with London and the view is that the situation is worsening. It looks like we might be asked to leave. My heart sinks deeper. That afternoon, the fighting stops. There are random shots but generally a silence falls over the city. The evening security guard arrives and reports that there are patrols of soldiers on every junction.

The president addresses the nation in English and Arabic. He speaks of an attempted coup led by the 'Prophet of Doom' (the former vice president) and confirms the arrest of ten senior figures and warrants issued for the arrest of five others. He assures the citizens that the situation in Juba is under control, and calls upon them to be united and report to their places of work the following day.

I have another call with London. 'It’s calming down' is my message, but not theirs. The Foreign Office in London does not seem to think things are improving. A speech by the president asking people to go to work is hardly an indication of improved security over the medium term. Options are being considered; either flights out as soon as the airport opens, or a road convoy to the Ugandan border. It could be a couple of days but we need to have all colleagues prepared to move at short notice: grab bags at the ready.

London says it will most likely be another couple of days before the airport opens. We will talk again tomorrow, Wednesday, at midday Juba time or 09:00 UK time. I pass on the message, then look at the cats sprawled on the settee. It’s going to calm down, I’m sure.

In the middle of the night, I receive calls from London. One requesting passport details of colleagues so the Foreign Office can have flights booked and another to confirm that a change in Foreign Office travel advice has been approved by the Foreign Secretary and that evacuation procedures have now kicked into place. I suggest that I might stay but am left under no illusion: that option is not on the table. As I lie awake, not hearing bullets in the night, I ponder the consequences of not leaving.

The next morning, Juba is quiet. The daytime security guards turn up and the housekeeper arrives. People are moving around, it seems. Heavy military presence appears to have brought order. Perhaps when we speak at 12:00 we will be able to reassess the situation. I phone round and tell colleagues to be ready for an update around 12:30 and ask the driver to be at the office by noon. I speak to local colleagues. Noel, the resources officer, is taking a look at things from the end of his street. He says he’ll be in later in the morning. The December salaries haven’t been done.

Still in my pyjamas, I sit at the laptop with my morning coffee responding to the various emails that have come in from the UK. It’s 09:30. I text the ambassador to see what the latest update from the embassy is. Ten minutes later he calls me: 'Are you guys evacuating today?'

'Not sure, I’m waiting for a call with London at 12:00, There’s an FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] meeting this morning.'

'Speak to Ian. He’s at the airport.'

I call Ian: 'Sorry the number you have called ...' I try three more times and eventually DFID’s Head of Corporate Services, who it transpires is at the airport overseeing the evacuation of embassy and DFID staff, picks up.

'If your guys are leaving, you need to be at the airport by 10.30.'

I explain I’m waiting on a conference call at noon. It doesn’t matter. The planes are on the tarmac and DFID and embassy colleagues are queuing up.

I call the British Council in London. It’s just before 07:00 and they are on their way to the FCO briefing. They know nothing about the waiting planes. It only takes a moment to decide it’s best to move.

I call around. We divide into three groups, we need three drivers. I call the driver: 'Sorry, the number ...' Noel turns up. He’s in a good mood, got to the office without trouble. Streets quiet. Soldiers about. I sign some cheques for the Christmas payroll. The banks are open today and he will cash them. My wife puts some things in a case. She strokes the cats. We must leave them and everything we own behind.

Because I’ve called too many drivers just in case, two arrive together. We try and explain what's happening, and why we are leaving in such a hurried fashion. No one quite gets it.

As we drive to the airport, the streets are normal. It looks like any other day. Curious schoolchildren peer into the vehicle as we wait to turn down the main road. There is a huge queue to get into the airport, and lots of armed soldiers and police. Cars are searched thoroughly.

Our three groups arrive. We have not seen each other since the party on Saturday night. There are reassuring looks and generally much relief to be getting out.

We give our names to the American embassy staff who have organised the aircraft, then we stand under a tree. We join the British embassy team. 'You were holding us up,' they joke about our tardy arrival. 'We didn’t get much warning,' I reply.

We pile into a convoy of vehicles and are driven onto the far end of the runway where two huge C-130s are parked. South Sudanese soldiers face outward in a fan, peering into the distance, guns at the ready. There are American soldiers too, in full combat gear, all around the plane and in the grass beyond the landing strip. We crowd into the cavernous belly of the plane and are packed in intimately like sardines. We wait for what seems an age before it takes off. We cannot see out but sense the leaving of the tarmac and the slow shuddering lift into the air.

There is a deep anxiety and sense of loss in the pit of my stomach.

That evening we are all together in Nairobi. Colleagues are making plans for onward journeys. There is much support and words of comfort and consolation. Our three colleagues who have been working up-country join us in the following days.

Christmas day comes. We watch the news and wait for a resolution to the crisis. Peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.

Find out about our work in South Sudan.

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