Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Breathing life: A solider's story.

I say that everyone has some stories to tell. A friend I had met in Africa a few years ago, who lives in France, and with whom and his family I just spent nearly two wonderful weeks, shared with me some of his little adventures. Nothing much, he said. Well, he has parachuted and dived and a few other thrills, such as dodging rioting crowds to grab his children from school.

I asked him to share with me some of his stories, and he did that. He has shared with me a report he wrote a couple of years ago about an incident in 2003. I have not changed much of it, except to translate it into English, shorten it a little, and remove some details about locations. This is the stuff of novels and movies, but it's also just another day in someone's life.


It was December 2003, in the Central African Republic, and we had a take off fixed for dawn, from the M'poko military airport. At first, all went well, and we navigated using GPS, but planned landing and Guiffa was blocked with containers, etc, so we had to do further, but first took a "technical break" at Bamingui to recover. We took off again soon after, and hoped to reach our destination just after midday. On arrival at Avakaba, I paid the military post there and gave them also a TK 80 radio and made an inventory of their various technical needs. We took off again around 3pm, and hoped to reach Monovo at 4pm. There we were welcomed by a local environmental protection group and given the room reserved for us; our refuelling needs were also taken care of.

Next morning at dawn we took off again towards the Gounda camp to check the feasibility of installing a transmisson station to help in the fight against poaching. But, 20 minutes from the airport we had our first incident: a loud, suspicios noise. So we decided to cut short the flight to make some checks. We soon found that our exhaust pipe had broken. I made a quick repair using two jubilee clips and a piece of conduit so that we could continue and then make more substantial repairs.
We decided to head toward Ndele to make better repairs.

We took off and made some tests that the repairs were adequate; the noise was much reduced. But as we climbed we realised there were more problems: a dramatic loss of power led us to a sharp fall in altitude. The pilot immediately sought somewhere to land, but we were above a forest and there was nowhere nearby to safely land the plane, so we crash landed in an area that had been cleared by burning. Our SOS calls were in vain! The pilot had been excellent: he had cut the motors several meters above the trees and tilted the plane backwards as much as possible so that the shock of the landing would be minimized and the landing as long and slow as possible.

It was now midmorning, and we were several kilometers from our destination. We got out of the plane; the two reservoir petrol tanks had been punctured. We went back a short while after to get the most equipment we could and two litres of water.

I was a soldier, so time to take control of operations. What did I have to consider?

- we were 18 kms from our destination;
- radio and GPS no longer working;
- gasolene everywhere, on and in the equipment, electrical functions nil;
- six and a half hours of daylight remained and a night in the jungle, without proper equipment and only two litres of water could not be envisaged.

Decision: We should walk as far to the west as possible and hope to find a trail to our destination. We started walking just before noon, using the sun as our reference--northern hemisphere so I kept the sun where my shadow was at about 2pm for an hour, then at about 3pm for two hours, and so on.

We soon found a little mound of rocks around 2.15pm and I climbed to get a good view of our location. But it was clear that there was nothing to confirm my direction to the west. My companion was getting tired and his morale was waning. I remembered some fundamentals from my time as a commando trainee in French Guiana:

- don't panic;
- don't stand still for too long to avoid cooling off;
- don't drink too much, save water for later;
- don't change your mind and stay positive.

It was just after 4pm, and I asked my "guiding star" to give me a reason for hope, but in a few minutes my thoughts became more somber. I must find a reason to be positive. Then two minutes later, a miracle! A trail, in the middle of the forest.

Some men had passed by earlier and naturally had returned to their village, but by good fortune their tracks were heading due west.

This essential discovery, which would lead us back to civilization bizarrely lowered the morale of my lieutenant; his logic was totally different than mine. His thoughts were that now that I am on a trial I can relax and walk more slowly. My thought was I can now move fast so that we get clear of the forest as quickly as possible and surely before night. So, there was a small war of words between us. I was constantly in front, walking firmly and motivating my partnerwith my voice.

A short while later I quickly realized that his body was not following, but moreover his mental situation had deteriorated. He stood still longer and longer, and ate unknown fruit he found on the trees. Things got more complicated as we found ourselves in a glade full of termites nest. I had already crossed but he refused to go any further.
Now, it was nearly 5.30pm and little sunlight was left.

I took my last mouthful of water but kept the flask for later use. My mouth was really dry and I could not produce saliva; the first signs of dehydration were evident. It was not the time to crack up.

My lieutenant asked me to leave him and come back later for him. I had no idea how much further we had to go and in my condition did not see anyway that I would come back this evening; also we set off as a pair and would finish that way. The threats of leaving him alone with wild animals gave him a bit of mental and physical strength. I had to keep hopeful, though my morale was falling: I thought of my wife and children, and it was my son who gave me motivation; he had always been proud of his father.

The sun was setting. Got to move fast; no falling back. My lieutenant did not want to do any more; it was really his body giving up--his head had gone a long time ago. We walked into a field of cassava and I thought about giving him a couple of good slaps or shock him back into action. I stopped and rested my head on a branch on the ground; the lieutenant arrived two minutes later and assumed the same position, and immediately fell asleep from exhaustion! I got up after five minutes and screaming very loudly, made him believe that I had heard voices. The five minute nap had done him good and the yells motivated him. We walked on quickly.

Walking out of the field we saw smoke from a village. As we neared, I could not feel my legs any more, my Achilles heel was burning, but get to the village first and figure out the physical consequences later. The sun was no longer visible.

In a tree, a bird trap. The village was near. I heard children's laughter in the distance. My legs decided that we were near our target and I had the impression that I was running. I crossed the little stream and did not even think to refill my bottle; night was drawing on fast and the villagers were unlikely to be accustomed to seeing a white man arriving armed in the middle of the night.

I saw a house and three goats. I moved forward, my bottle in my handand, saying that I was not unfriendly. My lieutenant was 300 meters behind me but my yells guided him and he arrived a few minutes later. The women and children fled, only the men approached cautiously.
Seeing quickly that I wanted water, a villager gave me a filled washing bowl. I emptied it trying to swallow as much as possible, without thinking about the possible problem for my stomach. I did not speak the local language, Songo, and French was not much used here; soon the lieutenant arrived. He also drank several mouthfuls and asked for a chair. The villagers now came in groups and the chairs too. Water was no longer a problem and I emptied my second bottle. The villagers refilled the bottle while the lieutenant had to drink in a booth. The luxury of white people!

I sat in a chair and the lieutenant lay on a mat.
I was hungry; the little breakfast was long gone. We were a bit more relaxed as were the villagers; the village chief offered us everything that they had to eat. The tea flowed freely and was exquisite. The oranges were excellent, and I ate a good dozen.

Now, to take stock. The villagers had no vehicles and even less by way of communications. The school master arrived, he spoke French. I could therefore ask him how to find the nearest gendarme post. It was by bicycle, 25 kms away, that we got a message to the prefect [local adminstrator] that we were safe and sound in the village of Zoukoutouniala. The prefect and six armed men arrived at 11.15pm. We were taken to the town so that the lieutenant could get treatment on his left foot, and then taken on to our base at 3am.

It was at 6am Thursday that the gendarme at Ndele signalled the accident to Bangui [the capital].
The next day it was thanks to the help of two French men working for a nature preservation and anti-poaching associationthat we found our plane so that we could do the repairs.

Friday midday a twin prop plane arrives and we are taken to our destination at 4pm.

Conclusions. We had made no errors just that equipment had failed us. I never had a sense of panic nor doubt that I would succeed and return alive. But it's one thing to think that, and another for it to turn out true.

Planes can fail and the possibility of crashes exist, but it's important to imagine the worst in order to manage the best. There are not many wild animals in the central African bush--thank God! I love life and my first tour of duty in Africa will reinforce my love of my own life.

I took two planes after the crash and I am impatient to take back the one who will bring me back home. I don't know if I want to go up again in another plane like that which crashed.

Dammit! It's good to breathe.

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