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When things go wrong: evacuating N’zerekore

December 8, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More
This story comes from Fred Banaszak, that I had the pleasure to meet months ago in Thailand. Fred told me his story and I think is a great example for everyone interested in working in the field. Things can turn ugly, sometimes...

Fred at workLife serving or working as an international aid worker will be the most challenging and rewarding job that you will probably end up accepting throughout your career. Peaks and valleys is the best way to judge a potential scenario for yourself, while operating in the field.

I got my start, in the international development field, as an agriculture and forestry volunteer, serving in French speaking Guinea, West Africa, with the Peace Corps. Everything for me would seem to take a change, after this decision, due to the fact that if you live for adventures, are flexible and adaptable; this type of lifestyle slowly becomes an addiction. It’s so different from the norms that we are used to in our own respective countries.

Each country has its pluses and minuses to offer, but, for myself, life in Guinea was a love hate relationship, on a daily basis. The country was so random, which made every day fun and fulfilling, and kept you busy and on your toes. You never knew what was going to happen to you when you woke up. A true challenge that can really take a toll on you, mentally and physically, if you’re not ready for it.

An ex Peace Corps Volunteer and current NGO director told me that I should really consider all my options and goals, in this life, before starting a career living and working in West Africa; because it will ultimately shorten your life by 15 years.

After Peace Corps, I was recruited by the US Forestry Service, for a 6 month service that extended to 10 months, due to the political situation. My position was based in capacity building, technically and administratively, helping a USAID partner, in the sector of sustainable agriculture and forestry. I accepted the offer and was more than happy to return a country where I had a unique set of skills that set me apart from the others. Everything was great, at the start. I had a fully furnished house, led an entire team who hung on my every word, translated in the field for social research scientists, and most importantly, besides career development, was receiving a competitive salary.

But after a couple of months it seemed that the wheels starting coming undone and everything that could go wrong went wrong. I lost my health and girlfriend, was robbed for almost everything I owned and was eventually evacuated from the region due to an ethnic and religious war that broke out in my city of residence.

Below is an excerpt I’d written, from Sierra Leone, days before I would be sent home, ending my service, for a couple of months, before I’d make my return a month and a half afterwards. There are numerous prior emails written that build the drama and tension leading up to this scene, but this one symbolizes the final hump that ultimately broke the camel’s back.

 

Letter from N’zerekore

Oooooooooooook, Bonjour toute le monde, comment ca va? Ca va bien j’espere… So I’m not sure who’s been reading the news or is aware of the current situation that is the reality of my Guinean home; but as of yesterday I was evacuated from N’zerekore, Guinea, where I was living and working since February, and am now safe and sound in Free Town, Sierra Leon.

These last 2 weeks of my life have been of the most intense moments ever in my nearly quarter century humanly existence. I’m tired physically and confused mentally and am now going to be taking a break for a couple weeks/month to get myself back on track. There’s a possibility that within this upcoming week I might be coming back home for that period of time. What happened? As you remember from my last message I was in a rough spot with my health issues, well that just kept chuggin along. I’d fallen ill to Typhoid Fever and Malaria. The flavor of this month was that my Typhoid Fever ended up coming back and he/she brought their uninvited friend, a wicked throat infection; Ended up being diagnosed with Mononucleosis. Bring it on guinea. I signal my right hand to you like Neo in the Matrix. I will absorb you all and become immune.

So last week I was really sick again and had a fever that didn’t break until 2 days ago…. maybe 8 days of a sustained 100+F (38+C). It got to the point where I was taken to an American Protestant Missionary Hospital about a 20 min moto ride from the city. First of all I was oblivious to the fact that this place existed before, and was a little furious that no one had told me about this medical center the last couple months while I was sick as well. Either way I was pumped to speak American with Americans about my health issues and finally stomp it out.

Only 100 patients are admitted into this hospital a day, because of a lack of resources, so I arrived at the gate at 530 am and waited with the other hopefuls until 9am..all the while sweating perfusively, in the morning cold, due to my unknown ailment. I made it in and spoke with the doc, did my lab tests and then sat outside on a bench to wait my for my results.

This is where the story turns: Around 1pm a man comes in through the front gate with drenched in blood missing the side of his face yelling that there’s war in N’zerekore. Everyone was shocked and didn’t take him seriously about his complaints. He was admitted into urgent care but the small hospital continued. Then about 30 min later a woman missing the top of her head and screaming/balling came in being pushed by a man cut up and bloody himself. This is when people got on their cell phones and called to N’zerekore to see what the fuck was going on. And yea there was an ethnic war between the Gersay and Malinke that had broken out over a gas station dispute in the nearby town of Kolie.

By the end of the day 10 victims had been brought to our hospital, all wearing their own machete wounds. It was medieval warfare. Mother fuckers hacking each other up with machetes. People brought in with arms missing. I saw all of these people. And one of the guys with a blow to the head didn’t make it through the first night. Everyone was hopeful that this would blow over and be resolved by morning.

So I became trapped at this hospital and was considered to be a patient refugee of war. Luckily the director of the hospital was really nice and gave me a place to sleep at the guest house and he provided home cooked meals out of his family’s home and potable drinking water. I was very grateful and when I return to N’Z I will be giving him a 50 kilo sac of rice to show my thanks..best gift you can give in these parts of the world. Also he gave me free medicine because he liked me so much. We exchanged some Pulaar together and that sealed the deal for him.. it’s the key to Guineans and their culture is that once you speak a little of their language they’ll invite you in to join their families. So for myself I couldn’t have been stuck at a better place, during a nastier time. A nice guest house with a shower, food and water, all the while I was trying to recuperate from my sickness. I read my book, slept and socialized briefly.

The situation in N’zerekore continued to get worse. Tuesday things started to get ugly… So the Gersay are Christians and the Malinke are Muslim. The battle turned into a religious dispute once the Malinke’s decided to burn down a Catholic church, which automatically resulted in the Gersay starting to burn down mosques. It’s terrible.

I’m not sure if you realize but it’s the month of Ramadan, the holly month for the Islam faith when Muslims across the world partake in fasting to search the benediction from Allah. It should be taboo to burn down any societal structure in general; this is common sense, but especially for Muslims to burn down their brother’s house of worship during their holy month. They know they pray to the same god, but through the heroine of the masses committed atrocities instead of peaceful prayer and fasting. More people are killed in the name of God than any other cause worldwide. One more reason why I’m happy to be a logical free thinker and not a part of the biggest hoax and bullshit created system we’ve come up with so far.

This problem then spread to other parts of the forest by Wednesday, day 3. A church was burned down in a prefect called Bayla..And other cities had smaller disputes break out as well. Wednesday things came closer to our door as well. The small town of N’zao, where the hospital is located, built a barricade at the cross roads to try and keep things from going to their community. Then for about 2 hours there was a group of about 25 men wearing bandannas and wielding machetes marching in military uniform screaming in front of the barrage and harassing anyone/vehicle attempting to come near.

 

The Rescue

Wednesday evening I was called by everyone important in the the USAID world. The US Embassy called me, our program director called, the USAID West Africa responsible called me, the Department of State called me… it was kind of cool receiving calls from these bureaus.

They told me they’d devised an evacuation plan now that things were starting to calm down.

Thursday morning at 730am an armed Nigerian Military Convoy pulled up outside the hospital to pick me up. The dudes were bad ass. It seriously was a fucking movie. This shit happens on tv and to other people not you. When it happens to you it’s a ridiculous feeling. This is truly an experience that will stay with me.

So I hopped in the middle car, we had a gunner sticking out our sun roof, and off we went into the city to my house to pick up my things. The city was in carnage..purely destroyed. The only people on the streets were soldiers and homeless people. There were cars flipped over and still on fire. A lot of buildings were burned and looted with structures smoldering and in ruins. And the worst part of all was there were still unidentified incinerated corpses lying on the side of the road. Dead bodies yo! Laying in gutters and lowlands where I used to walk by to go play basketball.

Got to my house… 5 minute goody grab..then headed to the small dirt track of the N’Z airport. Turns out there was a charter plane coming from Conakry to pick myself and 3 other STEWARD team members. We waited on the runway, the puddle hopper landed… we got in and took off immediately to Conakry. Think about an action movie get a ways and this one fits in there some place. Find the theme. We landed in CKY where a car was waiting for us from the embassy to take us to a place to wait for a STEWARD car to arrive coming from Freetown to pick us up.

A member of the department of state offered me his phone so I could call and notify my family of my safety, but I refused knowing it to be better to call once I’d arrived to a true safe haven. I knew they knew nothing of this “small” international affair. I arrived in Freetown at our guest house to brush my teeth and change my clothes for the first time in 4 days at 930pm.

I walked down the street to a kiosk to buy some booze and a pack of cigarettes. What a day huh!? So now I’m safe and there’s no reason to worry about me. I’m ok and will be ok. The AUDER office will likely be closed for 2 weeks to literally wait for the smoke to clear so this is a time where I’ll either wait here in Freetown or I’ve proposed to send me home to rest up.

I’d like to come home for bit and gear up for round 3 in West Africa. Get some Typhoid Vaccinations, new vitamins, anti-malaria meds etc.. I want to come home to ride my bike. Period!

So go to New York times and ABC International News and you will see that N’zerekore made it. The death toll when I left was at 54 and apparently the regional hospital was turned into a morgue. It’s sad because I love this country and its people. God speed Guinea. I’ll let you know if I come home or not within the week. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write this email or not but decided why not..because we are all in it together.

Love Fred

 

If you have any comment or question for Fred drop a message below.

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Category: Blog, Working in International Developmnet