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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
DR Congo's mission of mercy
By Caroline Pare
BBC, Bunia

Flying in to Bunia, in the north east Democratic Republic of Congo, all I could see was rainforest dotted with little farmsteads hacked out of the red soil.

Flights
The flights lifted 1,500 to safety in a week
The serenity belied what was happening on the ground.

Roland Sedlmeier, my pilot, told me what he'd learnt on the radio. "There was some mortar fire yesterday about half-a-kilometre from the airstrip and in town there was some fighting. I will make a steep, short approach and get off the airstrip as soon as possible."

It was May and Roland was one of a group of missionary pilots flying to the rescue of thousands of desperate civilians.

These missionaries were the first to respond to reports of tribal clashes between Hema and Lendu militias in Bunia. Residents were already fleeing in terror.

The UN spokeswoman on the ground told me that only two places were safe. The airport and the UN compound, though even those had been hit over the last few days.

Safety

In the tiny airport building it was pandemonium.

Hundreds of mostly women and children were pushing around a little desk. Dave Jacobsson, another mission pilot was speaking variously in Swahili, French and English, trying to organise the press of humanity.

God's blessing on them for what they have done
Passenger
He explained that he was the 'pointman' whose job is to weigh everybody and everything to create safe payloads for the tiny little planes the missionaries fly.

The trick was to turn each plane round as quickly as possible.

Gradually small groups of women and children squeezed through the doors carrying their bundles quietly across the tarmac. But once they were on board the planes the relief spilled out - they'd laugh and call to each other as they allowed themselves to be strapped to the floor for the 20 minute flight to safety.

Everyone was thankful to the men who risked their lives to take them to safety:

"It was our salvation. We would certainly have died. We thank God for them."

"God's blessing on them for what they have done."

Fear

They began telling me what they'd run from: murder, looting and rape. Mozart Kile described how he had to bury 11 of his relatives: "They had been badly killed - they had taken knives and slaughtered them. Babies too, I saw 3 babies killed."

French troops near Bunia
French troops moved into Bunia, but had no mandate in the region
Almost before they took off the planes had landed in the little towns of Aru and Beni. And the pilots weren't on the ground for long. They pumped more fuel on as the passengers scrambled off. In those small planes in that week's mission of mercy they managed to fly 1,500 people to safety.

So why was this job of evacuating civilians left to the goodwill of these men and their tiny mission aviation organisations?

Dave Jacobsson thought that the world was just not as aware of what was going on as the missionaries were.

Close to ground

"This is home. I grew up in Congo," he said "I've been here for 20 years. In a nutshell I love the people and want to do what I can to help."

MAF pilot
The pilots offer a lifeline to isolated communities
But it did involve risking their lives. "Well, it's not a normal kind of job that's over at 4 o'clock." said Roland Sedlmeier as he made his last flight of the day.

"You just do what you feel you are called to do."

Today, Bunia remains very dangerous but a newly beefed up UN force is keeping the fragile peace. Many residents who didn't manage to escape the town in May are still living in a vast makeshift camp outside the UN-held airport.

The five part series, On A Wing And A Prayer, is being broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursdays at 0830 GMT (0930 BST).


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