For 4 relief workers, a dramatic escape

December 12, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

GAILALASSI, Somalia -- Operation Restore Hope had a tragic consequence here yesterday, just as it has elsewhere in the hinterlands of starvation.

Gunmen fleeing the U.S.-led occupation in Mogadishu, came through and looted and pillaged the village Thursday night, taking the food and fuel and medicine. Four relief workers, terrified for their lives in what had been a "pretty peaceful" village, were rescued by a German air force cargo airplane that waited only four minutes on a desolate runway.

They left behind about 1,000 Somalis in the village who depended on them for food and medical treatment -- and now are likely to die.

It was enough to make Pytt Hart weep as she and three colleagues jumped aboard the cargo plane from the thick, swirling clouds of orange-colored sand after racing across the crude airstrip here.

"This isn't easy but the situation was deteriorating," said Mrs. Hart, 48, of Eustis, Fla., who works for the English chapter of Save The Children. "I would love to go back,but it's not safe anymore."

She and her companions -- a young Englishman and two Irish women -- started radioing for help after armed thugs shot up their warehouse the night before and seized a car and most of the local food and drug supply, including medicine to cure local Somalis stricken by malaria.

Now they say they may never see the people here again. That's because the very survival of the ailing Somalis has depended on the painstaking care provided by these four foreign relief workers, the last holdouts in an area already abandoned by other humanitarian aid groups.

All the sick townspeople could be dead by the time U.S. troops make it safe enough for Mrs. Hart to return.

"Eight to 10 villages depend on the feeding centers and drug center we set up," she said. She estimated that the lives of 1,000 Somalis were most at risk.

During an interview aboard her evacuation flight across the border toKenya, Mrs. Hart blamed her departure on a influx of gun-toting bandits in all-terrain vehicles, known by relief workers as "technicals."

Their numbers tripled since the arrival Wednesday of U.S. Marines in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, she said.

"It was pretty obvious when they pulled up in front of our house with their guns," Mrs. Hart said.

The town of Gailalassi, which is roughly 100 miles north of Mogadishu, was "pretty peaceful" until Operation Restore Hope began, forcing the gunmen to flee the capital.

After the technicals went on their rampage shortly after midnight Thursday and there seemed little less to steal, Mrs. Hart said that she and the other workers felt even more vulnerable. "We kept a lot of diesel fuel at the house and that's really in demand," she said. Despite the risk of an attack against the house, she stayed inside most of yesterday until it was clear enough to try an escape.

"The 10 to 12 [Somali] nationals on our staff thought we'd better go," Mrs. Hart said.

They waited at the local airstrip for a plane to respond to their pleas for rescue, broadcast on a high-frequency, hand-held radio transmitter. An afternoon aircraft delivery of wheat had been inexplicably canceled, so the workers were uncertain who might help them.

One plane heard the call for help,but could not respond promptly, she said. So it radioed the German air force cargo plan that had just unloaded a supply of blankets in Bardera, in southern Somalia.

The Germans, who earlier this week diverted a plane to evacuate 13 relief workers from the embattled port of Kismayo, headed directly to Gailalassi. With the airplane's engines revving and wide loading ramp in the rear open for passengers and luggage, the evacuation took only four minutes on the ground.

"We were just getting somewhere," Mrs. Hart said about the Save The Children program in Gailalassi. "We'd go out and deliver food and medicine. Oh, to see the faces of all the people you are helping."

Mrs. Hart seems to be a woman devoted to helping others.

Trim, with short, blond hair, she rushed aboard the rescue plane dressed in an eclectic outfit of denim and tie-died pants, her other belongings in a couple of duffel bags.

The evacuation interrupted her second tour of duty in Somalia for the relief agency. She worked in Mogadishu for four months, beginning in September 1991, shortly after responding to a Save The Children recruiting poster during a trip to London.

She became a nurse after her husband died several years ago. She says her work in Somalia has been far more rewarding than nursing in America.

"Take the treatment of malaria," she said. "It's a basic treatment, but it makes a very big impact here and that's very satisfying -- at least very satisfying until all your drugs have been stolen."

She bit her lower lip and gripped the arm of another worker, Breeda Hickey, 30, of Tralee, Ireland, as the cargo plane descended toward Mombasa, Kenya. Sitting close beside them were the other two workers -- Mary Riordan, 28, of Charleville Cork, Ireland, and Matthew Jowett, 26, of Bolton, England.

Tears welled up in their eyes as the plane landed at last in Kenya. "I'm going to call my mother," Mrs. Hart said, "and then think about going back."

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