Marylanders help to airlift food to Somalia's starving

December 03, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The Maryland fliers believe they made a difference, but they say there's more to do.

"We flew in something like 200 tons of food and it really felt good, but it was still just a drop in the bucket," said Maj. Chris Inglis, 38, of Annapolis, who returned yesterday after a three-week stint flying relief supplies into war-devastated Somalia.

Major Inglis was among 13 Maryland Air National Guardsmen who brought their huge, four-engine C-130E transport back to Martin State Airport in a 10-hour, nonstop flight from the Azores.

Picking up food and medical supplies in Kenya and landing on fields that were often nothing more than dried-up river beds, flight crews from Maryland's 135th Airlift Group have been rotating every three weeks since September as part of an international airlift to relieve starvation and disease in Somali refugee camps.

The fliers who returned yesterday at 4 p.m. and those who flew earlier in the mission said they they believe the airlift has helped to relieve the starvation. But they insisted that the effort should be maintained and said that if the 135th is asked to do another tour, they would all volunteer again.

"We made a big difference," said Lt. Col Steven Fletcher of Westminster, who flew between Oct. 18 and Nov. 12.

"There were 50 people a day dying before we got there, and by the

time we left, it was down to one a week. We don't often get a chance to fulfill our mission like this. This was good."

During the three-month tour, the 135th rotated seven crews -- 44 people in all -- who flew 206 missions carrying 2,856,600 pounds of relief supplies, according to figures compiled by the Guard. Each crews flew two missions every other day, they said.

Other Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units from around the U.S. are maintaining the airlift, with the help of units from other countries, including Australia, Belgium and Germany, the crewmen said.

"I hope we do go back, but it all depends on what the American people want," said 2nd Lt. David A. Robinson, 25, of Carney, a flight instructor in civilian life and a pilot in the first Maryland crew to join the airlift.

"We do make some difference, and this is our peacetime mission, to help."

Master Sgt. Charles "Lee" Cherry, 42, a 25-year veteran who works as a flight engineer, said his crew learned about the impact of the effort while giving a lift to three Irish nurses who were getting three days' leave after working from July to October in clinics and kitchens at Baidoa.

"We interrogated them like reporters because the biggest question all the guys ask is, 'Are we making a difference?' " Sergeant Cherry said.

"They told us that Baidoa formerly had 20,000 people, and that it gotten as high as 140,000 as people came in from the villages. They were living in mud huts with thatched roofs, like in the Stone Age, but they have machine guns," he said.

Since the airlift began, the population is down to about 90,000 because the supplies are getting out to the villages and people are going back to them, the sergeant said.

"They told us 2,000 people a week were dying when they first came, but that it had come down to two a week. Despite the hijackings [of food supplies], they estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of the food was getting through to the villages."

While his crews were flying between Kenya and Somalia, Col. Vernon Sevier, 48, of Towson was flying a Thanksgiving relief mission in Liberia, which is also wracked by civil war.

"They didn't want any more colonels in Kenya," he quipped.

Capt. John B. Livesay, 41, an English teacher at Overlea High School and the unit's public affairs officer, got 36 hours' notice to take off with the last of the Maryland crews.

He wouldn't have missed it, Captain Livesay said yesterday.

"I saw first hand what we are involved in there," he said, "watching the supplies being loaded at Mombasa [the Kenyan coastal city] and being unloaded by hand wherever we went. It was utterly fascinating. The airlift is making a differ- ence."

While most of the relief flights were routine, the fliers said, there were some exciting moments -- including one incident in which shots from gunbattles between opposing Somali factions hit several relief planes, causing periodic suspensions of flights.

Major Inglis told of an incident at a place called Delet Uen where members of the local militia employed by the Red Cross were engaged in a labor dispute.

"As we came overhead, they occupied the runway so we couldn't land. The Red Cross told them that if they didn't move they would suspend the flight, so we got down," he said. "It's a real zoo."

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