Raising the Roof-Journeylog Reflections Oct 2014

Juaibor (2)Juaibor is located approximately 60 miles west of Nile River city of Malakal and about 80 miles southwest of Bentiu in South Sudan. The village is situated south of the Nile river offering a natural barrier of refuge from the fighting that has been raging near the oil fields of Bentiu.  Internally displaced people (IDP’s) from the Nuer ethnic background have been moving into this remote area which is considered traditional Nuer tribal lands.

For several years Mission Aviation Fellowship has been supporting the work of  Christian Mission Aid by flying to this remote community every week (weather permitting) . CMA has built a maternity center and health clinic in Juaibor.  In comjunction with several other partners, CMA is training pastors and facilitating outreach programs in the region. These tireless workers  have to face challenges that could only be overcome through the vital MAF aerial link.  Most of the cement, roofing materials, timber, doors and windows for the clinics were flown in by MAF.   The maternity clinic in Juaibor and another in nearby Keew was opened only months before the political crisis of December 2013.  The clinics have proven to be essential to the health and welfare of these two communities however, each is now in critically short supply of experienced health workers. Government colleges have suspended internships due to ethnic tensions.

Since the crisis, armed conflict has refocused the humanitarian work in South Sudan.  Virtually everywhere the migration of people escaping conflict has resulted in a shift to emergency aid while postponing community development projects. Large-scale migration means that crops are left behind.  Food shortages near resettling camps become critical necessitating aerial food-drops by the WFP to prevent starvation on an epic scale.

Despite the uncertainty and ever present danger of ethnic violence, the local church in Juaibor has been working diligently to rebuild the church building. The roof had collapsed due to heavy rains and lack of proper materials to span the size of building needed to serve the community.  Despite meager financial resources the people of Juaibor have rallied together, determined not to allow tribal issues to over-ride their faith in Christ. With the help of CMA, the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nairobi , the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, and MAF,  Juaibor’s church building is nearing completion.  Nuer-language hymn books and the church building will be shared between IMG_6195local congregations from several denominations as well as being used to facilitate pastor training and outreach under CMA’s guidance.

I had mixed emotions as I flew into Juaibor this day.  It brought joy to my heart as I listened to some of the workers singing as they unloaded roofing materials.  The joy was overshadowed by an awareness that this would likely be the last time that I would be here. I  have always been eager to fly into this remote community to support the hard-working and dedicated CMA staff members that I had come to appreciate over the past four years. It was plain to see that MAF flights are vital to their work.  It is amazing to see how the communities of Juaibor and nearby Keew are being transformed by the love of Christ.

At its inception, the new nation of South Sudan was so full of hope. Since late December 2013 it has been full of despair, horror and hardship caused by ethnic and political violence.  After experiencing the hope and enthusiasm of the crowd that gathered to help unload the church’s roofing materials, I rest assured. If the message of the Gospel can transform this remote community then all of South Sudan can become a place of Hope. We will continue to pray for the peace of Christ in South Sudan.

At the time of this flight our term of service in South Sudan was quickly drawing to a close.  Home assignment was only a few weeks away. We have been praying diligently for the Lord to lead us to our next assignment with MAF.  We are so blessed that we have had the opportunity to serve the people of South Sudan through the help of hundreds of dedicated and like-minded people who give graciously to support the flying ministry of MAF.

The conflict in South Sudan is difficult to understand.  The level of violence and cruelty has evolved through centuries of rivalry over cattle, land and water.  Sudan has used these rivalries to destabilize the south during its drive for independence in one of the longest civil wars in history.  Many believe that the Khartoum government is supporting the current round of violence but little direct evidence has been openly debated in the international sphere.  I found a video on YouTube that explains much.  BE ADVISED THAT THE CONTENT IS GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING!


Fully loaded-Journey Log Reflections Sept 2014

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One of many wrecks strewn about South Sudan

Northern Canada is vast with many miles between towns and villages.  Without roads, aircraft provide the vital life link for most supplies and medical services.  In the same way, South Sudan is dependent on aircraft due to a lack of alternative transportation. Unlike Canada, there is a complete lack of adequate road infrastructure, poor communications and almost no regulatory oversight at the few airports. High demand for urgently needed relief supplies puts pressure on air carriers to haul loads beyond the certified limits of the aircraft type.  Almost any visitor to Juba International Airport will quickly observe that too many aircraft are struggling to get airborne. Some barely get off the ground before the far end of the 2400m (7874ft) runway!  It is surprising that there are not many more accidents in South Sudan when it is clear that a number of air operators are flying well outside of the safe limits of their aircraft placing crew, cargo and passengers at risk as well as people at high risk.

Juba has a long runway and has seen relatively few accidents from overloaded aircraft but P1010735increasing traffic and the use of larger transport aircraft will increase the risk of a major accident as margins for error and comprise shrink to zero.  South Sudan is littered with dozens of aircraft wrecks where the pressure to carry heavy loads and fly into terrible airstrip conditions leads to inevitable crashes; some in the most remote places.  Pilot skill, bravery or wishful thinking never wins against the laws of physics.

dispatch team

Dedicated MAF- South Sudan Dispatch Team         (click to enlarge)

Thankfully, MAF has a dedicated team of managers, pilots and ground crew that work tirelessly to ensure that aircraft are operated safely and within the limits of both aircraft and crew.  Despite the fact that nearly every MAF flight leaving Juba is full, careful planning considers the routing, conditions at the destination(s) aircraft performance and weather.  Praise God for the wisdom, skill and knowledge of the pilots, operations officers and dispatch teams that ensure proper and secure loading of passengers and cargo.

MAF partners know that when they are given an amount of freight and/or passenger weight that the aircraft can safely carry for a flight, it will be accurate to the kilo.  Keeping passengers and cargo safe to a from the more than 100 remote airstrips and 5 airports in South Sudan is just one more way that MAF is serving the Lord in the world’s newest country.

Down on Main Street-Game ON!

Many a Canadian youth has played street hockey on suburban roads.  The familiar cry ‘CAR!’ can put a game on hold IMG_0760 (800x600)in an instant.  Goalies grab the lightweight nets and move them aside so a vehicle can pass safely. As soon as the net or those rough-looking clumps of snow marking the goal are back in place the cry ‘GAME ON’  signals the restart as if nothing has ever interfered with the joy of playtime.

In remote South Sudan villages, the concept of street hockey would seem absurd but soccer, well that is another thing. So is the thought of a vehicle interfering with a game.  There are few vehicles outside of larger towns and those that do venture the pirate-plagued roads won’t risk slowing for a soccer match so games are played in the safe confines of a sports fields or a similar open area.  Aircraft need smooth clear surfaces to land and that is exactly the type of place that a runway (a.k.a sports field) provides.

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looking down main street from the south end

My mission today was to fly to an airstrip about 30 miles from the medical facility at Leer in Jonglei State, South Sudan.  I was to deliver a community healthcare worker and one church worker to Nyal.  The airstrip was on a thin strip of sandy ground that was mostly surrounded by swamp for the better part of the year. They had recently completed a new airstrip on the edge of town but the recent rains had made the black cotton soil too soft for landing. Instead, I was to use the old airstrip which was the main street for the town.  As I overflew the sandy airstrip, there were children playing and people walking about to and from the local market.  Lining up for final approach, I scanned the road (I mean runway) for stragglers. People on the street were moving to the side like the parting of the Red Sea. No sooner had I landed than people were back to strolling about as if an aircraft landing down main street was an everyday occurrence.  For me, landing on main street, in the middle of a small town is one I will IMG_0767 (800x600)never forget!

Photo Album

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the south end of the airstrip heading out of town

Civil war, children and saving lives-Journey Log 27 Feb 2014


Alex and some new friends

A few days ago, I flew into Gumruk airstrip in Pibor county, South Sudan.  This airstrip is unusable for most of the wet season due to flooding so it was almost eight months since I was last here. On that flight, MAF was bringing in supplies for IDP camps that were formed when David Yau Yau’s militia was fighting against the government. Yau Yau had failed in his bid to be elected as the representative the region which, is mostly inhabited by the cattle-keeping members of the Murle tribe, recently .  In the recent civil-war clashes between Riek Machar’s forces and the South Sudan government, the World Food Program stocks at Gumruk were looted and carried away by the combatants leaving the IDP’s to fend for themselves. Also running from the fighting was the teachers, healthcare workers and many other NGO’s who were forced to flee for their own safety.

This flight was carrying medical staff who were there to restart the clinic after more than two month. People were very excited to see the aircraft arrive and a many visited with us during the two hours we waited at the airstrip for the medical team.  Waiting with me was Alex, one of MAF’s flight dispatch team members.  Whenever possible, we will take MAF staff members on flight so they can see, first hand, the impact of the work that they are doing. Like most South Sudanese, Dispatch Team member Alex can speak four different languages but it did not help us to communicate with the children that had gathered around us. The majority of the people in Gumruk lack any formal education and the Murle language is quite different from the Juba-Arabic, Kiswahili, Bari,  English or French that we could muster

New Friends at Gumruk

New Friends at Gumruk

between the two of us. We discovered they had no food, no donkeys to haul water from the river 5km away, no schools and what was strikingly obvious from their thin bodies, no food.  As we enjoyed the company of our new friends, we watched the older boys and young men walking by sporting brand new green uniforms and  toting AK47’s.  They are now part of the new local militia for the area.  It was the first time that I had ever seen child soldiers. Most of the boys were between 13-16 years old, I was a bit stunned by their casual attitude as they carried their weapons like veterans with many years  toting firearms.  The odd reality is that even without civil war, these same young boys would be carrying AK’s to protect their cattle from raiders. Instead of militia uniforms they would be covered in dung and wearing a filthy tee-shirt and worn-out trousers

When the medical assessment team returned they had three patients that needed immediate transport to Juba. Without medical intervention, there was little doubt that none would survive.  I was struggling in my spirit as I strapped in two young girls aged somewhere between 12-13 years.  Both were seriously malnourished. Their arms and legs were little more than twigs and their stomachs distended.  I was shocked to discover that the distention was actually pregnancy!  Children, just children… mothers-to-be, suffering from the ravages of cattle-culture, ignorance and war.  Boy soldiers with nothing better to do, no options, no education, no work…just violence and strife.

Back in Juba at our office, I found myself head in hands, lost in thought.  I have seen many hard things since coming to serve in South Sudan.  Dead and decaying human bodies strewn like cattle carcasses after a drought (which I can’t bring myself to write about) to putrefied limbs from snake bites; corruption, ignorance and spiritual darkness.  The need for the Gospel is so great as it clearly is the only way to overcome these things.  Humanitarian aid alone, somehow seems to only prolong or aggravate the agony or give false hope in faint doses.  It is only the hope of Christ that will transform a society…people…to begin caring for one another instead of fighting over meager resources while at the same time destroying the same resources for everyone else.

It was Alex that brought me back to reality as I overheard him talking to another national staff member.  He was saddened by what he had seen and disappointed that many of his countrymen were suffering so badly but he said ‘today we were flying for life, just like it says on the MAF logo’.  Indeed we were and so we shall continue so long as we have supporters that want to spread the love of Christ to a land in such great need!  Amen.

NOTE: Out of respect to the pregnant girls and for fear of the reaction of the boy soldiers, I did not take any photos except with a few children that came to visit.  Alex, who is featured in one photo has been with MAF in Juba for several years.  He is a flight dispatcher and handles the passenger check-ins for us at Juba International Airport.

The Long and Short of it…24 January, 2014. South Sudan

L1150774Today, I completed two flights from the Juba airport. The first was to carry nearly one tonne of medical supplies to Doro airstrip in Maban County near the Ethiopian border. The flight was nearly 400 miles each way. Medair is working with many tens of thousands of returnees who have been living in large refugee-style camps since they were repatriated to the south from Sudan. The big question for these people now, in light of the recent conflict that has created instability and ethnic rivalry is, where to go?

Neighboring Upper Nile is Jonglei state which also runs along the Nile river. It is the country’s  largest but has virtually no economy to support so many people wanting to relocate there from Maban. Despite being some of the IMG_0524 (800x600)most fertile and abundantly watered land anywhere in the world, it has virtually no food production. The long grasses, which can grow more than 15 feet per year support millions of cattle that are rarely eaten and are cherished by most families above their young children but only for status not income. The predominantly pastoralist culture of Jonglei may seem to be peaceful at first glance, but as the next generation reaches the age where they need cattle to buy a wife, many hundreds and sometimes thousands of people die in brutal cattle raids every year. Stealing cattle is the main occupation of many and it is done without remorse or guilt because cattle are only taken from “those other people”. Across this vast land, many tens of thousands of young uneducated men are reaching reach fighting age. They have little to do and nothing to do it with so they are ripe for recruiting into rebellion, raids and ethnic clashes. In the midst of that crisis is the returnees, refugees and now IDPs (internally displaced people from conflict). South Sudan has a very long way to go and only the Gospel will enable the transformation of these ancient societies that struggle on the fringe of humanity.

When I returned to Juba, I was greeted by our dispatch team who was ready to board a group of 10 doctors along with South Sudan’s national health minister and her assistant. About 100 miles north of Juba along the Nile River, IMG_0027Bor has been the center of the most fierce conflict. Some parts of the town are leveled to dust. The Bor hospital, one of the largest in the country has remained intact but most of the medical staff had to flee the fighting. There are not many qualified doctors in this country and many must travel to remote areas so I have met some of these men and women on other flights. Today, however, I felt an unusual concern as I realized that I was probably carrying nearly one quarter of the country’s doctors in our 14 seat, Cessna Caravan into an area that in recent weeks has seen many thousands of combatants killed and many more wounded. As I lined up for the final approach to Runway 01, I thought about the aircraft that had been shot at while descending into Bor during evacuation flights, just before the new year.

Thank God, the short 30 minute flight to Bor was uneventful and everyone arrived safely. On the return to Juba, I loaded up the aircraft with 14 women and children who had been escorted by UN security from the UN compound in Bor to be evacuated to Kenya. They were the wrong tribal group in the wrong place at the wrong time and risked being killed in retaliation if they stayed in Bor. Whether close or far, long or short, today, Mission Aviation Fellowship was in the right place at the right time, helping reconcile families and support healing and peace in a land that is suffering.

The Pilot’s Axiom

There is a famous saying among pilots that goes like this: I would rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air rather than being in the air wishing I was on the ground.

cropped-kenya-scenery-2011-0041.jpgIf you have ever faced a looming thunderstorm or been caught in a blinding blizzard trying to land, you will know what I mean!  Never, in our flying careers, had Judith and I anticipated that we would have to contend with the winds of war and use those same words of wisdom in a context that is almost unimaginable.

Juaibor (8)We moved from Nairobi, Kenya to Juba, South Sudan in March of 2013.  It is a hard place to live compared to Nairobi and we have had to learn to contend with living in a poor but rapidly growing city which has an economy based on a predominant culture of short-term aid and relief workers and a massive UN mission.  MAF has been somewhat unique in its approach to meeting the needs of the community by establishing a long-term, family oriented, living and working environment.  Most NGO’s run camp-like compounds much like work camps in the forestry or oil industries in Alberta Canada.  There are plenty of single people or married with family at home, working intense short to medium term contracts for a few months to a year and then moving on to another project or NGO.  Some are working for the UN and humanitarian-centered agencies, a few are longer term working for diplomatic or quasi-governmental groups but very few have their husbands, wife or children with them due to the perceived risk of criminality and insecurity. Another major reason is the high cost of living associated with limited availability of suitable housing available on the market. Thankfully, MAF has been blessed with support of the local church for land access.

IMG_0019Just three days before we were to close our flight operations for the Christmas holidays, massive fighting broke out between Dinka and Neur tribal elements of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army or SPLA.  It was related to more recent developments within the political party called the SPLM (M=movement).  Small arms fire could be heard with occasional explosions of mortar, grenade and tank rounds.  Massive armored tanks rumbling up the streets would shake everything within blocks We simply had to stay indoors, hoping and praying that our flimsy compound gates and fence would keep out combatants and isolate us from hostilities.  We could not leave the compound.  There was no way to get to our aircraft and evacuating, even during the daytime when fighting would subside and many people went about their routine business tending roadside restaurants and small shops.  The airport was shut down and all travel on roads leading in or out of Juba was prohibited.  During this time were wishing that we were in the air and not on the ground.  At night, outbursts of gunfire was so intense that the grand finale fireworks display at the Calgary Stampede could hardly compare. Sleep was difficult.

Eventually, the airport opened and was secure enough to evacuate most of MAF’s international staff out of Juba to Nairobi with only as much IMG_2214as they could carry.  Several pilots and ground crew stayed behind to provide evacuation flights for some of our partner organizations. Most had personnel working in remote areas that were quickly becoming unstable as the fighting spread. It was during those flights away from family, not knowing what the future would bring, whether our homes would be looted or knowing when or if we could return that had every pilot wishing they would rather be on the ground than in the air flying.  Thanks to the hard work of a very limited ground crew supporting the efforts of our MAF pilots, including those from Kenya and Uganda who immediately responded to help many dozens of NGO workers to evacuate from some of the most remote locations in the country.

IMG_0142 (2)Praise God that everyone was able to be evacuated safely and that the MAF facilities in Juba remained intact and secure until essential staff members were able to return early in the New Year.  Due to continued fighting elsewhere in the country, it will be difficult to provide much support for the massive humanitarian effort. With nearly 400,000 people who have been displaced from their homes and villages these past weeks, only peace will open the door to help.  As pilots, we stand ready to get into the air and support our partners, whenever we are called upon. We may be bringing in critical medical workers and supplies or evacuating assessment teams if conditions warrant.  We plan to support the South Sudanese church groups who have committed to expanding efforts for peace and reconcilliation work throughout the country.

Thank you everyone for your letters, emails and prayers.  It will be a while before we can consider things back to “Operations Normal”. Rest assured that will be determined but cautious as we resume operations for 2014.

The Dish

the dishOne of the fun things about working in Africa is the many varieties of English that is spoken.  We prepared to work cross-culturally by learning some of the customs and practices of African people-groups, not realizing that our greatest challenge would be within the expat community.  Judith and I decided to learn a bit about the Dutch, Aussies, Kiwis, Germans, Fins and Swedes by watching popular movies from those countries.  Of course we know our American neighbors fairly well or Hollywood’s version, at least.

Two of the Australian families recommended the movie “The Dish” which is a very funny movie about a very large satellite dish in Australia used to support NASA during the moon landing.  The funny thing about the movie is that the Aussies did not know how to make it work!  In a parallel to that story, our local experts have not been able to get a reliable satellite signal for the V-SAT, which is a key element of our Juba operations.

Reliable Internet access is vital for our flight management system as well as for email and for Voice Over Internet telephone (VOIP).  The Juba-based families and visiting pilots and support staff are very dependent on Internet for keeping in touch with their base management, family and supporters. Unlike Kenya, where mobile long-distance telephone is cheaper that local calls in Canada, long distance cellular telephone is very expensive in South Sudan and there is no government mail service yet


L-R Owen Fuller (MAF-US), Phil Buehler (MAF-Juba base), Christian Haak, (MAF-Kenya)

As you can imagine, after many months of unreliable Internet, we were so excited to a visit from IT specialist, Owen Fuller from MAF-USA.  Owen,  his wife Stephanie and children Larinda(7), Gabriella(5), Macy(4) and Omri(2) have been serving  with MAF Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo since 2012.  Owen gained his expertise in V-Sat and Internet Technologies though his service with the Signal Corps of the US National Guard where he did tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq before joining MAF.  In Bunia, MAF provides crucial Satellite-based communications services for a number of MAF partners.

The satellite that our dish was oriented towards was on the same longitude as Eastern Brazil and Greenland or 37deg latitude West. The long low sight line resulted in too much susceptibility to interference.  Now, it its tilted skywards a full 70 degrees and is communicating with a satellite that is at 13 Degrees East over Nigeria and is running about four times faster than the older NSS10 satellite.  Everyone at the Juba base is now thrilled at how we can now run Skype and receive regular emails with attachments.  Flight management and communications with Nairobi has allowed us to increase our confidence in daily operations and weather information is now available through satellite imagery instead of relying upon unqualified verbal reports.


Compare to photo above to see the higher angle

While many people think of MAF as a group of pilots and mechanics working in remote areas., it takes a more diverse group of dedicated and qualified people to achieve safe and reliable operations as well as supporting the families and national staff members who are at the front lines of the work we do.  Teachers, IT specialists, project and development specialists,  managers, communications, quality assurance and human resource specialists are all working together in service to our Lord.  We praise God for people like Owen and others who support the daily operations within the MAF system.  A special thanks to Owen and his family for ensuring that MAF and the many partners who benefit from MAF services can stay connected to the people from around the world who support us in our daily endeavors in Christ’s name.