December 1992. I take off from Mogadishu to Nairobi and from there to London, after ten days of journalistic assignment in Somalia, on the way to Tel Aviv. But planning aside and reality being what it is, I find myself landing at midnight an unplanned emergency landing in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It was fun ...
Somalia Diaries Chapter 4
Arrived This was already our second visit within a month in Somalia. This time we have arrived for a week of broadcasts from Mogadishu, the capital, to cover the landing from the sea of U.S. Special Forces with the beginning of Operation Restore Hope- and now we are ready to embark on our way back to Tel Aviv.
The story we told here during the week was an important story, certainly for the American television audience. For the first time since the Gulf War in 1991, American soldiers are once again landing on foreign soil to take part in a conflict not for them, serving humanitarian help, thousands of miles from home and American television networks have sent their top stars to the front line to tell the story. And with the TV stars came dozens of production staff, journalists & engineers, and tons of television equipment.
This time, unlike the previous trip to Somalia, we were no longer here alone, a chamber music quartet. This time we were part of the grand NBC News’ "Philharmonic Orchestra." About 30 people team we stayed at the Press Hotel, the "Al-Sahafi" located on the main road at the entrance to the city. On the roof of the building, the engineers placed the satellite transmission dishes, the camera gear, monitoring, and control racks. The editing rooms were installed in a row of rooms on the floor below the roof and cabled up to the roof connected to the transmission rack.
The hotel had an active dining room, providing three meals a day, which was an advantage in a city with no infrastructure, a city that lived in a great shortage of basic food. Not to mention restaurants. Electricity cables were stolen and sold to metal dealers on the scale, so we brought with us power generators from London. There were no air-conditioned rooms but we could always sleep on the roof at night...
It was fun to meet again NBC's "Veterans of wars" most of whom I've met on previous trips, in other wars, in other stories; in the disintegrating Yugoslavia; in Belgrade, Zagreb, Titugrad, Ljubljana and Sarajevo.
During the week after the U.S. forces landed, we shared the coverage assignments with the other teams that came with us. We filmed stories in the refugee camps in Mogadishu and outside the city parameters, we went out of town and joined an American mounted patrol and the marching band of the local militia brass band. We filmed in the days and broadcasted during the night because of the time difference between Africa & the East Coast of the U.S.
And then after another 24 long hours of dismantling all the installations, collecting the hundreds of feet of communication cables, packing all the equipment, and saying goodbye to the host Somalis who were already dressed in NBC News merchandise that we brought with us; T-shirts and colorful hats with the logo of the colorful peacock logo of NBC, we are ready to begin the journey home to Tel Aviv.
The Ukrainian airline's Antonov B-32 cargo plane picks us up at the makeshift airfield “50K Airstrip” about an hour's drive outside Mogadishu where we landed ten days ago. A ton of equipment is quickly loaded into the aircraft's cargo compartment. We sit on the benches alongside the plane, the door closes, and the plane starts running on the tarmac and accelerates as it increases power and speed until we feel the plane's nose is raised. The Antonov folds wheels, the Indian Ocean is stretched beneath us. Goodbye Mogadishu, you have been good to us. This is probably will not be our last time here, in the most dangerous city in the world.
Early afternoon, we pass over African forests, a large river, a deep blue lake, and vast green safari areas, Nairobi is discovered on the horizon. An hour and a bit after takeoff we land at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. There in the airport, we say goodbye to our colleagues who are moving on to their next destination. Martin, Yossi, Amikam, and I, are on our way to the Hilton for overnight R&R in Nairobi.
The first thing I do when I get to my room is to call Naomi at home. “It's all good. We are in Nairobi at the hotel already. Give the girls a big hug and a kiss and I will see you soon”. We are having an early dinner to celebrate the completion of yet another successful assignment, and tomorrow we will continue to Tel Aviv via London. A stopover in Heathrow is a chance to pick up something for the girls. Yes, Somalia is not one of the destinations where one comes back with Souvenirs...
After a good night's sleep in a decent bed, air-conditioned room, and a comfy duvet, the four of us meet down in the lobby for a good breakfast, a real treat after a 10-day of junk food diet in Somalia. Martin and Yossi take off for London at noon, Amikam and I won't take off until later, on the overnight flight scheduled to land in London early next morning.
The plane is full, we're sitting separately. Amikam sits in the back behind the left-wing of the plane. I got a front seat on the right side of the plane, a row or two before the right-wing, an aisle seat. Next to me sitting two women; likely, a mother and a daughter. I am nodding my head for a Hello and Hi, cramming the Billingham bag into the overhead compartment, before sitting down.
Half an hour for takeoff. The crew of the plane is busy with last-minute preparations for takeoff. There's a feeling of elation in the air. My adrenaline level is still high after the 10 working days in Somalia, the excitement before another long flight, and the opportunity to disconnect for straight ten hours from the surroundings and begin the process of decompression before landing at the office in Tel-Aviv in twenty-four hours.
A brief conversation with the “neighbors” lined to my right, indeed a mother and her daughter. I'm wearing an NBC News Tel-Aviv T-shirt. The Americans recognize the NBC logo. I explain to them that I'm a part of a team of journalists on the way back to Israel, after 10 days in Mogadishu. Yes, they heard about the Marines landing from the sea. We're laughing. I'm Hanani I introduce myself, I'm Stephanie, and my mom is Barbara. Nice to meet you too. I take my reading book out of my Billingham, turn on the small overhead light, and get ready to take off. The captain is just awaiting approval from the control tower to take off. "The hot meal will be served as soon as possible, to be followed by starting the entertainment system onboard. The films tonight on this London-bound flight are The Crying Fields on channel 1 and Home Alone 2 on channel 2. and now please fasten the seat belts."
The plane detaches from the external power supply, starting its 2 engines. The light goes out for a second and lights up again, the air conditioning goes back to work, a heavy tractor pushes the plane out of the gate, straightens it in the direction of the runways, and we're on our way to the tarmac, there's a queue of three planes ahead of us, Stephanie and Barbara to my right are immersed in silent conversation, I turn off the little light over my head, close my eyes, wait for takeoff. The plane starts running on the runway, increases speed, pulls its nose up, and disconnects with a big noise and the full force of its engines. Little by little, he gains altitude. There aren't many lights in Africa at night. Nairobi went to sleep.
The flight attendant walks by and offers drinks. I ask for red wine and get a small bottle of some Italian pinot-noir wine and a plastic cup. Stephanie and her mom also take a glass of wine each. We raise a glass to a good and uneventful flight.
I can't help but recall the days when as a child in Tel-Aviv where I was born and raised I would travel alone from time to time, in the early evening, when mom and dad would disappear for one event or another: for a movie or concert. I would leave the babysitter with my two younger sisters, go down to Sheinkin Street, take bus number 19, and head to the Tel-Aviv main railway station, where I would take the special Israeli airline El-Al bus and travel all the way to the airport which was about 30-minute bus ride.
I would buy the ticket for the airport bus at the station’s office and then get on the bus that I loved traveling to the airport, getting there, going up to the welcome balcony, standing by the railing, and seeing the arriving passengers descending the large metal stairs that were rolled up to the plane's doorway. I loved to close my eyes and take a deep breath inhaling the smell of jet fuel that stood in the air. I think I got addicted to that smell. I felt abroad for an hour and then, after an hour, I would go down to the plaza in front of the terminal and take the El-Al bus back to the Tel-Aviv's North train station and then again line 19 that would take me back to Sheinkin St. and Ahad-Ha'am corner, straight to bed for a goodnight's sleep.
The wine, the memories, the fatigue that accumulated over the 10 days in Somalia, the tension of that night in the port of Mogadishu when the Americans landed, so I must have fallen asleep in seconds.
I woke up as if in a dream to the announcement of the captain announcing a change of course and an unscheduled emergency landing in about an hour!
I had no idea where and why and all I wanted to do was go back and curl up in my blanket and continue sleeping, but then I thought I caught the captain with a heavy British accent explaining that because of a medical emergency we would land in about an hour in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to drop off a passenger who suffered a heart attack during the flight to allow him to be brought in for urgent medical treatment at the local hospital.
All at once I was wide-awake, I looked to my right, my two neighbors were sleeping, and I got up to look for the flight attendant to make sure I did hear right, and we were going to land in the capital of Sudan... I immediately recalled the captivity stories of Israeli civilians abducted on a flight to Uganda back in 1976, only here we were only two Israeli citizens, Amikam, and me.
The stewardess politely explained to me that one of the passengers had a massive heart attack and was lying in the aisle near the kitchen in the back section of the plane. I went over there and indeed someone was on the floor and above him two people, a flight attendant and probably a doctor who was among the passengers. I went back to the flight attendant and explained to her that as an Israeli citizen landing in Sudan is a real and direct danger for me if the authorities board the plane and asked to check the passengers' passports and discover the Israeli citizens who could be blamed for entering an enemy country... She promised to report this concern to the captain. I told her there was one other Israeli with me, seated in the back of the plane, and he was with an Israeli passport, too.
I went looking for Amikam, who continued to sleep for a deep year. I woke him up and explained to him what was going on. Amikam quickly realized that there was not much to do but remembered that he had a small Psalm book in his bag and took it out just in case. I explained to him that the flight attendant was aware of our situation, and we had no choice but to hope for the best. I'm back in my seat. When the plane starts to down and the captain announces that we will land in Khartoum in less than 30 minutes.
When I got back to my seat my neighbors were already awake. Stephanie asked what was going on and why we were landing in Sudan and when would we continue and when we would get to London because they had to catch an early morning flight to Philadelphia... I explained to Stephanie what the flight attendant had told me, adding that what worries me at the moment, was that I was about to land in an enemy country and at worst I might be taken from the plane along with the other Israeli who is on the flight with me, in a situation that could develop into an international crisis...
Stephanie quickly understood the situation and asked if I had any other shirt to replace with the NBC News Tel-Aviv logo, no, I don't have... And I'm also thinking about how to get rid of the Israeli passport in my bag.
Stephanie grabbed my arm, held it tight, and turned to her mother to explain what was going on.
"Listen," she tells me, “If we tell the cops that we're a couple, do you think it'll convince them to leave you alone? " And put her arm into my arm. Then she gets up and heads out onto the aisle, opens the overhead compartment, and pulls out a T-shirt with a printed map of Kenya and a picture of a cute giraffe across it, a souvenir she bought for her boyfriend in Philly.
"Change your shirt, just in case they get on the plane, so they won't see Tel-Aviv first thing," she suggests. I admit that the very thought of dressing up amuses me. "And let's change place with my mom, you'll sit by the window and she's in the aisle seat, cover yourself in a blanket and make yourself asleep .... "
Please fasten your seat belts reminds us the cabin’s purser over the PA system, we're about to land in five minutes. I hope, he adds, that we don't spend too long on the ground in Khartoum, and take off again on our way to London...
I'm looking down through the window and see the tarmac approaching. The airport is dark, you don't see any other planes on the ground, and no terminal lights. In a minute or two, I can feel Stephanie's hand holding my left hand tight, trying to calm me down. I'm clinging to the window. The local time is just passed midnight. I'm thinking of the poor passenger fighting for a breath of air trying to survive a massive heart attack and doesn't know he's going to be transferred to a hospital in Khartoum to get help... The plane stops, a civilian ambulance with the Red Crescent caption in Arabic, which I read, is already parked on the runway. An old tractor drags a flight of stairs towards the front door which is on the other side of the British Airways Airbus. Two old military jeeps, Soviet army surplus I recognize, accompanying the tractor, one in front and the other in the back.
I don't see a special activity in the dozing airfield. I can't see the stairs connected to the door since the opening is on the other side.
I understand that the aircraft's front door is opened, and I hear the voices of the people who came in. Conversation in English. I see three local people passing through the aisle as they rush to the back of the plane, into the kitchen, where the passenger fighting for his life lies.
Stephanie hugs me, “just in case don't forget we're on our way back to Philly after a week of safari in Kenya. Let me talk and you 'keep napping”. The ambulance’s flashing red light marks the location it is parked, under the left wing, just beneath the front exit from the plane.
From my window seat, I notice the door, I look at the gaping opening on the other side of the plane I keep my fingers crossed hoping the police officers will not bother to board the plane to check the passengers’ passports. They probably want to go back to sleep, too.
I see two more people boarding the plane and heading toward the galley. I am trying to ignore the strange situation; A man wrapped in an airline blanket whose heart betrayed him lies on the floor in the aisle inside the rear galley onboard a British plane that landed in Khartoum at midnight, hoping, hopelessly, of course, that they could save his life there. Africa, third world, between Nairobi and London.
I hold hands with a girl I only met about three hours ago, her head laying on my left shoulder and my head only thinks of one thing– what happens if this scenario doesn't work... I'm reminded of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training I videotaped for the military during my service in the Israeli army 15 years ago.
That night at a British 1940s Tiger-type police station in the mountains in the North of Israel, the captivity instructors ambushed the unit's rookies, and they blew their blows, swept them with fire hoses with ice water, beat them, and left them blindfolded, having no idea where they were and what was in store for them And I was filming the drill... Even then my mind didn't think of anything but how to perform my duty in the best way, because they trusted me, and I didn't want to disappoint.
I practice "Surat Alfatiha"; the opening chapter of the Qur'an, which I knew to quote by heart in Arabic from my high school days.
Stephanie tells me about her studies, her boyfriend, the cat, and the dog she had growing up in the small town near Philadelphia. There was something comforting about the soft warm hand she placed on my shoulder.
A few minutes later the stretcher passes on its way back towards the front exit.
The passenger probably did not survive, I hear the people sitting by the exit door on the left report. The body of the deceased is lowered from the plane wrapped in a blanket on the stretcher. He'll be spending the night in the city morgue awaiting his final trip back home.
Why doesn’t the captain shut the door and take off? The flight attendant is offering light drinks and snacks to the passengers.
I try to make eye contact with Amikam, I see him sitting a few rows behind, napping.
Stephanie tells me that she's studying for a master's degree at a small college not far from her hometown, she's young, she lives on campus, and her boyfriend goes to another college not far away, the Faculty of Engineering. Every Sunday she joins her parents, and they go to church, about Israel of course she heard, the priest mentions Holly land and the chosen people, hoping to make a visit maybe to Christmas, To Bethlehem, to Nazareth. I tell her about the house by the sea, about my two little girls, and about my wife whom I met fifteen years ago in the army.
The captain’s voice sounds over the public address system. Unfortunately, he explains, the passenger died before he could get to the local hospital, and a doctor who boarded the plane pronounced him dead, yet international aviation laws require us to complete here instead of a brief investigation by a local coroner and as soon as it's over we can go our way. However, because of the unplanned delay, the crew exceeds the permitted flight hours under international aviation laws and therefore, we will not be able to continue the flight to London, for another seven hours of flight. instead of London, we will land in Larnaca, Cyprus, a flight distance of only three hours. Our representatives at Larnaca Airport will take care of you for the rest of the journey, accommodation arrangements, food, and connecting flights the next morning.
Stephanie smiles. Me too. In any case, airport personnel, border police, or military officials will no longer board the plane. We are safe!
I apologize and go to the back of the plane to check on Amikam. He heard something on the loudspeaker but didn't really understand what exactly is going to happen next. I tell him that we are about to take off but we will have another stop – in Larnaca Cyprus, where we will get off the plane and wait for new flight arrangements.
Larnaca is only a spitting distance from Tel-Aviv, but it is not certain that British Airways will arrange the change in our tickets so we will probably stay with the initial plan to travel to London and from there to Tel-Aviv.
I stop on the way back to the seat at the stewards' stand and ask for three glasses of red wine. Stephanie and her mom are surprised by the gesture. Cheers, L’chaim I take this opportunity to expand their Hebrew vocabulary. Thirty minutes later I notice traffic on the runway around the plane's parking zone. The ambulance is no longer there. The two jeeps are leaving, and the tractor that dragged the stairs to the plane is approaching again, this time it drags a large generator with it. Two crew members are down on the ground seeing the tractor disconnect the generator from the tow hook and connect a particularly thick cable between the generator and somewhere under the wing. just below the window of my seat.
Stephanie leans against me, peeking out. Then she pulls out a Walkman music player with headphones and offers me one of the two earplugs – let's hear some music she offers. Leaning on me gazing in the window. It's almost 2:00 a.m. in Khartoum.
Leonard Cohen is blasting "Hallelujah" in my ear. Suzan is my favorite song she whispers.
The lights onboard the plane are momentarily turned off, the air conditioning system starts working again, and the engines are powered by the generator. The two crew members who were downstairs apparently supervising the generator connection, rush back to the plane, and the door closes. It's still left to unplug the generator before we can take off.
The captain addresses the passengers once more and explains that the plane received permission to take off, final checks, disconnection from the generator and we will set off. We'll be in Larnaca in three hours and 10 minutes.
I hold Stephanie's hand and tell her that the last time I saw the sunrise I was lying on the port pier in Mogadishu frozen and afraid to move a hand or a leg, not to get kicked by a Marine who was standing over me with a deliberate rifle. . "The sunrise in Larnaca will be seen together," she says half smiling.
And when the captain asks to fasten the seat belts before he starts running on the tarmac to the departure position – I wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes.
We land in Larnaca around 5 am meeting airline representatives who update all 150 passengers who are waiting outside the terminal to take us to a close-by hotel for a few hours of sleep before continuing at noon to London. Amikam and I get on the bus a short 10-minute ride, and we enter a large seaside hotel, we sign up at the reception and get the rooms. I'm looking for Stephanie. She and her mom must have gone up to their room earlier, and I'll see them later when we head back out to the airport on the way to London.
The first thing I do when I get to my room is call home. The girls are waiting for me to arrive this afternoon when they're unaware of the plot twist. It is 6:00 a.m. in Cyprus, and 6:00 a.m. also in Herzliya, Naomi answers a sleepy phone. I tell her in short the storylines of the night and explain that the return to Tel Aviv will be postponed by a day.
Around 11:00 am we go down to the lobby for a late breakfast. The announcement in the lobby asks passengers destined to continue their way to London, to arrive at the desk to arrange the connecting flights.
I've never seen Stephanie and her mom again. The T-shirt was left in Cyprus...