Pope John Paul II, accompanied by the Archbishop of Kha […]
All this talk about the new Pope Francis got me thinking about the times I covered his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in the 1990s.
The first trip I covered, and probably one of his most controversial, took place in February 1993 on the last leg of his 10th Africa trip. After visiting both Benin and Uganda, Pope John Paul II made a nine-hour stop in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to lend his support to the Christians who were caught up in the fighting between the north and the south of Sudan.
At the time, Sudan was 10 years into a civil war, pitting mainly animists and Christians in the south against Muslims in the north. It all started in 1983 when then-President Jafar Nimeri imposed Sharia, or Islamic, law on the entire country. By the time a permanent cease-fire was finally agreed upon in 2005, nearly two million, mostly civilian southerners, had died and millions more were displaced. The 1983 conflict was actually a continuation from the first civil war that lasted from 1955 to 1972. The underlying reason for both conflicts was the South wanting greater autonomy from the North.
During his stop in Uganda, the Pontiff was warned by a visiting south Sudanese Bishop, Paride Taban, that the hands of Sudanese strongman Lt. General Omar Hassan Bashir, who had came to power in a coupe de tat in 1989, and the hands of other officials who would welcome him in Khartoum, are “dripping with the blood of Sudanese Christians.”
Undeterred, the 72-year-old pontiff landed in Khartoum kissed the tarmac (a tradition he had always performed) and then was escorted through the streets of the capital, to a rapturous welcome by mainly displaced Sudanese Christians living in Khartoum. Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir told the Pope in his welcoming address that Sudan “has devised ways and means whereby all can enjoy life and live in harmony, fraternity and tranquility.”
After meeting priests and nuns at the cathedral in Khartoum, the Pope had a private meeting with Bashir, who many accused of war crimes. The Pope was firm when he told Bashir that as leader of Sudan he had a “universal obligation to understand and respect the variety and richness of other peoples, societies, cultures and religions.” After the nine-hour stop, the pontiff boarded his plane and flew back to the Vatican.
Following the Pope’s departure, a number of us in the media requested to go down to the south in order to see for ourselves how peaceful things were. The next day a government spokesman came to the hotel and told us that there was a plane at the airport waiting to take us to Juba, the southern capital.
After we arrived at the airport, we were ushered onto what we were told was a humanitarian flight carrying “medicine.” The Boeing 707 was converted into a cargo plane with no seats and blackened windows. About a dozen of us journalist were told to sit on top of the cargo and hang on to the security straps that prevented the payload from moving during the flight.
I have flown in numerous C-130 military cargo transport planes configured to carry just about everything, but nothing prepared me for the ride I was about to take. As soon as the plane left the tarmac, those of us who were not hanging to the straps found ourselves tumbling to the the rear of the plane in a scene similar to what one sees at a playground when more than one child goes down a slide. Fortunately, nobody suffered anything other than a few bruises.
Once the plane got up to cruising altitude there was not much else to do but stretch out on the canvas and stare at the fuselage. Since there were no government minders with us, a few journalists began pulling up the canvas to see exactly what medicines the plane was carrying. Beneath the canvas there were wooden boxes stacked two deep that filled the entire cabin.
One journalist was able to pry open one of the boxes and, to our utter surprise, we didn’t find medicine inside but rounds of ammunition for automatic weapons. After putting everything back in order, we just sat there in disbelief thinking how weused by the government in Khartoum as a means to resupply troops stationed in the south.
If taking off in Khartoum was a thrill, it was pale in comparison to landing in Juba. At the time the government in Khartoum was in control of the city, but not the outlying areas, which were in the hands of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). Planes coming in, particularly from the north, were occasionally shot at by anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. In 1986, a journalist friend of mine, along with seven other aid workers, died when the SPLA mistakenly fired a surface to air missile at the plane they were traveling in.
I have had people try and describe to me what it’s like to be in a plane that descends rapidly, in a circular pattern, to avoid anti-aircraft fire. However, no amount of explanation can do justice to what actually happens.
The corkscrew landing (or spiral landing) was developed during the Vietnam War by U.S. pilots forced to land in demilitarized zones (DMZ) that were surrounded by the enemy. It was not uncommon for U.S. troops to occupy a clearing in the jungle, but have the Viet Cong control the surrounding countryside.
More recently, passenger planes that flew in and out of Baghdad in the early years following the U.S. invasion were forced to adopt the corkscrew landing as well to avoid being shot by surface to air missiles used by various rebel groups hiding outside the airport perimeter.
The experience for us was only made worse because we had no way of seeing what was happening through the opaque glass windows. Without warning, the plane suddenly went from normal cruising altitude and speed into a free-fall corkscrew. In a panic I grabbed the canvas covering, so as not to have a repeat of what happened during takeoff.
My first thought was that the plane was in trouble and we were going to crash. I don’t remember if I screamed or how the others reacted around me and I don’t even remember how long the plane spiraled toward the ground. All I remember is suddenly hearing the engines kick in at full throttle and then this feeling as though the plane had stopped in mid-flight. Before I could grasp my breath and regain my composure, there was a loud bang that rattled the entire fuselage as the plane hit the tarmac. Afterward all was quiet except for the humming of the engines. Before I knew it the plane had come to a complete stop; the doors were opened and I stumbled out onto the runway, sweating profusely and spitting up bile.
In many ways, north and south Sudan are similar to other African countries that were artificially carved up by the European powers at the end of the 19th century. There are no common tribal, cultural, religious or other links to bind them together other than they share the same waterway, the White Nile. Juba is black African and Khartoum is Arab. The only thing that looked out of place in the south were all the northern soldiers camped out at the airport and stationed throughout the city.
The first place we were taken to was a government-run girls’ school for both Christian and Moslems students. The tour was very well choreographed and if one didn’t know better you would think there was perfect harmony between the two religions. After the school we were taken into the center of town where displaced families from the countryside had set up camp to get away from the fighting.
During the 24 hours that we stayed in Juba, it was hard to get a real picture of the situation, other than it was clear that government troops were in control of the city and that everywhere you looked there was grinding poverty. Basically, the fighting in the countryside, compounded by the famine, had forced hundreds of thousands of refugees into Juba in search of protection and food.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere among Christians in the north, there was nothing in Juba to acknowledge the Pope’s visit. I doubt many in the south even knew that he had come, so depressed and isolated was this part of the country.
Pope John Paul II was more mobile during his 26-year reign than any other pope before him, visiting 116 countries. Besides his jet-setting lifestyle, John Paul II did more to break down religious barriers that exist between different communities than any other religious leader, past or present.
At this stage, it’s hard to know what path Pope Francis I will take. After seeing him stop at will and get out and touch the parishioners during his inaugural ride around St. Peters Square, I have an inherent feeling that this is a Pope who will not sit idle. I hope for the people of South Sudan, Pope Francis I will continue where John Paul II left off and make another trip to the Nile basin, but this time further south to South Sudan’s capital Juba. After nearly a half century of civil war, this newly independent country could use a blessing from the pontiff.