Despite their quiet and calm demeanor, 50 Sudanese refugees had a slightly nervous look in their eyes; they were about to take their first flight ever, home to Sudan.
Men, woman and children of all ages were dressed to the nines - even in the warm Gambella air - some in winter type clothing obliviously donated by someplace in the northern hemisphere. Quietly proud, happy and excited they filed through the Gambella airport office preparing to board the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and International Office on Migration plane.
A leader of the group , called Marko, is requested to tell the group of 50 to use the bathroom before they leave. He speaks in the Dinka language “please use the bathrooms before we leave on our flight” as he points his finger in the direction of the shed that houses the toilet.
Peace in South Sudan has brought with it the opportunity for people to return home, some who have been away for up to 20 years.
Out of the generosity of project coordinator Rune Dyhr of Denmark and the mostly Dutch flight crew, I was invited to join two flights of refugees being flown back to South Sudan for voluntary repatriation. They were on the tail end of a project that had moved 7,500 refugees home since last December from Central Africa, Kenya and now Ethiopia.
The crew was a genuine made for TV reality show. The captain, Derk, had the perfect gravely voice and huge heart. The first officer, Jeroen, was a Clint Eastwood type, cool and collected. Masero, the flight attendant, was a saint, as she changed diapers of numerous babies in the walkway of the cabin. The flight engineer, Cyril, had the daunting job of keeping a plane flying in Africa. And Rune, who was the glue of the operation, kept things moving forward despite all the constant obstacles and bureaucracy.
Watching them work together, it was clear they loved what they were doing, they knew when to laugh and how to keep things in perspective.
The passengers for these flights had volunteered 18 months ago for this journey. As the plane raced down the runway, most stared out the window to watch Ethiopia fade away into the clouds. For the younger passengers, it is all they have ever known.
“It has been 15 years since I last saw my brother,” says Marko, now 30 years old. “I hope I will be able to recognize him.”
Unlike many refugees who have moved around from different locations, Marko has spent his entire time in the Gambella region.
“I'm happy to be leaving Ethiopia and for the chance to go home and build a house for my family in Sudan,” Marko says.
The cabin of the plane is actually quiet and comfortable, with cool air circulating through. Many of the young children fall asleep an hour into the flight.
“This is so much better then flying cargo,” Rune says. “The emotion of the people is touching.”
As the last flight touches the red gravel runway, the passengers break out into singing, a rejoicing of voices to be back home in Sudan.
Most hope to complete their education and find a way to help their people or create a life with some kind of dignity.
The passengers unload, and the processing begins by UN staff.
As our plane leaves Sudan, I peer out the window and see the passengers we dropped off standing in the skeletal rusting frame that poses as a terminal and I wonder what their future will be.
The flight crew dropped me off at the Jimma airport after the second flight, saving me a day and a 12-hour bus ride. As I said goodbye to the crew, Captain Derk said, “stay at the airport, we'll do a fly by.”
Waving goodbye to the crew as the plane took off from the runway, I stood there alone on the tarmac like a solitary tree in a large open space.
Several minutes later the plane came roaring back flying quite low and much to the bewilderment of the Jimma airport workers. As the plane flew by, the captain tipped the wings from side to side three times before jetting back up into the blue sky. My eyes welled up as what I called, “the wings of hope waved goodbye.”