African dream turns into nightmarish flight to safety

Staff writer, with CNA

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 - Page 5

Two young Taiwanese men’s dream of teaching farmers in South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country, turned into a nightmarish flight to safety when the region in which they were working became embroiled in a deadly internal conflict.

Solomon Hsu (許家偉) and Fan Chen-hua (范震華) went to South Sudan’s northern border region of Abyei in October last year to work for Mercy Corps, a global aid agency, under a contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Cooperation and Development Fund.

However, on the morning of Dec. 18 last year, they received a telephone call from Mercy Corps telling them to make their way to a city 200km away to catch a plane out of the country because their safety could not be guaranteed.

They had to hurry, as the plane was due to depart just five hours later, Hsu said in a recent interview.

Until then, all he had been thinking about was teaching the residents of a village called Agok how to grow pumpkins and eggplants to complement their main crop, sorghum.

It appeared they had to find a way to get to safety because a conflict between South Sudanese government troops and rebels, as well as ethnic violence in Juba, the capital, seemed to be spreading to other parts of the country. Hundreds of people had already been killed in fighting at the time.

Hsu, 27, studied horticulture at National Chiayi University and finished his 11-month alternative military service in September last year, helping farmers in Guatemala.

Fan, a 31-year-old with a master’s degree in ecological conservation from National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, quit his job as a project manager with the International Cooperation and Development Fund to become a volunteer. In South Sudan, his work involved helping local officials write proposals for funding from foreign aid agencies.

Even though they would hear occasional gunfire around Agok, the order to pull out came as a shock, Fan said.

The two Taiwanese had to leave most of their belongings and equipment behind, and each carried only a backpack when they got on their way, accompanied by two local colleagues.

Soon, the car in which they were traveling got stuck on a muddy road, their cellphones could not get a signal and the pre-paid value on their satellite telephone ran out.

They started to walk and for a time, they had to wade through waist-deep muddy water, not knowing whether their next step would send them plunging into deeper water.

After walking for about 90 minutes, the party arrived in a village where the only vehicle available was a motorcycle. The two Taiwanese were each charged the equivalent of NT$2,000 (US$67) to share a ride to Awei, where they were supposed to board the plane.

Sixty-seven dollars is enough to feed a local family for a month, but the two were concerned only about getting to the airport — a trip that was further delayed when one of the motorcycle’s tires burst.

“It took us ages to push the motorcycle to the next village,” Hsu said.

Luckily someone there knew how to fix a flat tire, but the repairs seemed like they were being carried out in slow motion, with daylight fading fast in a village without electricity, he added.

By that time, Fan said, they were without a local escort and stranded in a village where no one spoke any English.

“I really started to get nervous and images from horror movies began to float through my mind,” Hsu said.

The two, along with the motorcycle driver, got on their way as soon as the tire was fixed.

They did not get to Awei until 7pm and had to wait for a flight the following day.

When they finally got to the airport, they discovered it consisted of only a few chairs in a shed with a plastic sheet for a roof. The runway was simply an open piece of land.

At 4pm, they boarded a small propeller plane bound for Kenya, where they caught a flight back to Taiwan, arriving just before Christmas.

Both Hsu and Fan were relieved to be home, but described their adventure as an unforgettable experience.

As they were unable to receive any news or information until they reached Kenya, Fan said they did not realize how much danger they were in during the 30 hours prior to catching the plane.

However, the two checkpoints guarded by armed men that they had to pass through on their journey did create some tense moments, Fan said.

Asked whether they would return to South Sudan, both answered in the affirmative, without hesitation.

“Our work there is not finished, after all,” they said.