Overcoming Self Doubt.
In 1993 a small region in South Sudan became the centre of some heavy fighting. A group of Irish nurses from the charity Concern were in the centre of a tiny enclave in the town of Kongor, operating under the UN umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudan. As news filtered out to the aid outpost in Northern Kenya, from which the UN monitored the clashes in the war torn country, it became clear they were at considerable risk.
I read the sporadic reports and pieced together a growing picture as the clashes grew from a simple upsurge in fighting to what was increasingly obviously a major offensive on the part the rebel SPLA. It was Friday, and by the time the nearby locations had reported, already mid day.
From the dusty outpost in Lokichogio I jumped on a plane to Kongor, to get a feel of the situation on the ground. As Information Officer, I was the senior UN official in the field and wanted to know how seriously the fighting was going to affect aid operations in the area.
I stepped out of the little six-seater aircraft and walked out across the dry airfield. Only a week before I had been at the same place and the place had been awash in a sea of humanity as aid poured into the place, and 28 tons of food had been unloaded from a Hercules aircraft. Yet today there was not a soul around.
I chatted with the nurses and a French logistician. All seemed bemused that the place had become comparatively deserted. There were a few soldiers in evidence, and only those refugees who were too sick to walk. In a couple of short days the population had dropped down from 25,000 to perhaps three of four thousand.
There were vultures circling in the hot heavy air, and the recently arrived nurses were edgy, not really sure what should be happening. There was an almost surreal atmosphere to the place. I stayed a couple of hours, and then flew south to another small health post, where we touched down. When I chatted with a few of the rebel soldiers there, it became obvious that there was a big movement of soldiers in the area to the north.
By the time the little plane had left me back at Lokichogio I was growing increasingly certain that in the next few hours Kongor would not only be over-run by fighting, it would be destroyed and the six nurses in the health post would be added to the growing number of dead on the operation. Something else was nagging at my mind about the situation. When I went back into my notes about the SPLA, from when I’d covered the war for Associated Press, I realized that the rebel leader, John Garang, was born in Kongor. More tellingly, his birthday was the following day. This would be a valuable prize in his eyes.
I’d met Garang many times. He was single minded and obsessive, and most of all proud. There are times when we can see the future so obviously it might as well be written out in front of us like a screen play. Garang’s soldiers were going to take his birthplace the following day, and give their leader his birthplace as a birthday present.
There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the UN staff would be killed in such an action. In South Sudan at that time, that was always the way it played out. There would be casualties ‘caught up in the fighting’. In truth, UN staff would be massacred as witnesses to the resulting human rights abuses which inevitably followed fighting were an unacceptable risk for the soldiers.
What followed had the air of a farce about it. I got on the radio to our headquarters at Gigiri in Nairobi. The recently appointed director of the operation had left for the day. He would be away till Monday as he was flying to the coast. He’d only been in the job a couple of weeks, and prior to Sudan had been posted in Geneva. I asked for the number two on the operation, but he had taken a trip to Malawi and was not expected to be back until the middle of the following week.
When I asked who else was available the radio operator told me that the only other senior staff member available was someone called ‘Rob Hadley’ but he is in Sudan at the moment, beyond the reach of communication.
The situation was growing ridiculous. We had to get a plane into Kongor to move out 8 staff, 6 nurses and two logisticians. It had to happen at first light. Evacuating an aid operation is a serious business, and is not done lightly. There are many lives that would be lost by even a day of interruption, and it is usually a decision that only the director can make. As the clock ticked by, I wondered if our staff would even make it through the night.
Unable to reach the director I decided that I would authorize the evacuation, though I clearly had no authority whatsoever to do it. When I talked to the air ops controller, a flight was arranged for first light and a radio message was sent to Kongor telling all staff to attend a meeting on the airfield an hour after sunrise. Radio messages are deliberately left ambiguous as we knew that the rebel factions monitored our broadcasts. Getting the staff out at the earliest time in the day was essential as I felt sure the offensive would start with the dawn, true to SPLA form.
I spent a sleepless night and watched the early flight leave. Every seat was needed, so riding along was not an option. By the time the plane picked up our staff I was in a sweat about the whole business, knowing I was right to pull our staff out, but also aware of the resulting loss of life that would follow from the local population. Yet leaving our staff in place would only make the situation many times worse. If we lost those staff, the health post would be closed down for months, if not permanently – resulting in a substantially greater loss of life all round.
A bemused and surprised group of nurses stepped off the plane into Lokichogio that day, June 23rd 1993. They were not happy about the evacuation, however they were disciplined and understanding. We chatted about it under the trees at the edge of the camp, and I explained my reasons.
In the meantime finally someone had reached the director, from Mombassa and he was raising hell. “Who was evacuating the staff out of his operation? Who did they think they were!”
Things were getting hotter by the minute in the mid day sun. Meanwhile, things seemed very quiet in Kongor. So much so that it began to look like the town was entering a peaceful and uneventful weekend. There is something gruesome and all consuming as self doubt creeps in. What was my analysis based on, anyway? A hunch here, a guess there, but not much more. My actions would likely result in the needless death of hundreds of people who needed medical treatment.
I listened to the silence in the radio shack, where we could monitor SPLA transmissions. All that seemed obvious was that the airwaves were silent. Unsupported, a refugee population of the type that had descended on Kongor dies at the rate of about 10% a day. If I was wrong my actions were going to have dire consequences. No one was going to be particularly interested in the reasons for my actions. In the meantime, the airwaves between Mombassa and Lokichogio were alive with requests for reports and justification. I felt I was aging years with every hour that passed.
And then we started hearing rebel radio traffic. Nuer and Dinka phrases, short at first and then more protracted. Then shouting, panic and even sounds of gunfire as radio operators called in support in what turned into a major battle. An overflight of the town late in the day revealed the UN compound destroyed, and over run.
We received word from the SPLA later that day that Kongor had changed hands in heavy fighting. It was now back in Garangs hands. The new occupiers communicated that they would welcome the return of UN staff at our convenience. We would be able to reintroduce our staff in the morning, and their valuable work would be able to continue.
On my return to Nairobi I was hauled over the coals for what I did. It went against every procedure in the UN book. Not only had I evacuated a UN operation without authority, I had mobilized millions of dollars of equipment and moved non UN staff without any procedural oversight. Worst of all, I had offended our new director who felt he should have been allowed to make the decision. The fact that a delay of a few hours would have prevented evacuation was of little relevance. He was doubly angry, because he was Irish, and the nurses I’d pulled out were his compatriots.
A few years later I was passing through Nairobi and bumped into the head nurse of Concern. She’d been one of the nurses in Kongor. She told me with understated dignity and calm, that she was very happy that they’d got out that day. They all knew in retrospect that they would not have made it through that fight, if they’d remained on the ground in Kongor. I still get Christmas cards from a couple of them. No one really remembers the director of that operation these days, but at the time he seemed awfully important. Thank god I followed my instincts and didn’t allow myself to waiver.
Self doubt is a curse and will hurt you and others. Trust yourself and go with the result of your most rational thoughts. Even if you are wrong, you’ll have done the right thing.