Mortal Danger in Ethiopia – «Hands Up!» (4/5)

“Treasures From The Pioneer Era” – Continuation from the book by Ernie Tanner: “Where Angels Fear To Fly”

Sadly I watched as Georg and the three men left across the deserted airfield to go to Kelafo, far away, for help. He was taller than the black men, but I was still worried about him and dreaded the long and dangerous wait.

In the afternoon, I had visitors. Two Somalis stopped in front of the helicopter. I greeted the frowning faces with a smile. They mimed their request for cigarettes. When I replied that I had none, they asked for a drink. I didn’t dare refuse although my water supply was very low and handed them a beaker indicating that they should share the precious water. No way! One of them grabbed the beaker and emptied it straight down his throat. Then he handed me the beaker back for a refill. When the second man had drunk the water, he plucked at my shirt and indicated that he wanted it or one like it. As I had no other clothes, I was unable to grant this wish. At this, the two went away grumbling together. Not a word of thanks. Perhaps it had been these two who had tried to break into the helicopter?

The heat became more and more unbearable and my thirst greater and greater. How I wished I had an umbrella! I dared to move over to the forest where there was some shade only for a very short break to gather some more wood for the campfire that night. That was essential for survival. The stinging heat didn’t let up until evening, and I arranged my camp in the helicopter, hungry and thirsty. After lighting a slow burning fire, I even fell into a deep sleep.

At eleven pm, cries roused me from my slumber. “Yooooo-ui! Yooooooo-ui!” is the typical Ethiopian call. I pulled my boots on fast, and fumbled for the flashlight so I could shine a light on the forest edge. The batteries were still powerful enough to show me two figures at the edge of the forest and a third that was joining them. As they came nearer, one of them gesticulated to me that I should turn off the light. I didn’t. Closer still, I recognized that one of them was carrying a thermos flask in his hand, which he was holding up demonstratively. Could this be my rescue party? I wondered. But the timing ruled that out. I had an eerie feeling of foreboding. The three men draped in their white robes stopped about 30 feet (10 m) from the helicopter and sat down, beckoning me to join them for a drink. 

Hesitantly I sat down with them on the ground. One of them poured a beaker of tea and handed it to me. I prayed for protection, not knowing if the tea might be poisoned. It tasted wonderfully sweet and did my parched throat good. He even poured me a second cup, which I also drank with relish. While I was drinking the tea, the other man got up and went over to the helicopter. He felt about on the door and finally found the flap lock and opened the front door. That was too much for me. I stood up, walked over and closed the door. The man raised his fists and screamed at me in a language I didn’t know. It sounded like curses bubbling over his lips. I understood my precarious position. I thought of Dr. McClure, who had been responsible for supplying relief to eight thousand refugees and had recently been fatally knifed in the back; of my friend Count von Rosen who had also been shot dead in this region; of the twenty-eight year old Australian doctor who had been looking after a camp with four hundred and fifty starving children and had also been stabbed in the back during a visit to the sick in a native village. If the Ethiopian driver hadn’t thrown himself in the way, the accompanying nurse would also have been killed. Well, now it looked as if it was my turn.

While the first guy was threatening and cursing me, I had the impression that something was going on behind me. I turned. His two pals had crept up to within 6.5 feet (2 m) of us. As I turned, they drew rifles from beneath their long robes as if on command, and held the barrels against my chest. My blood ran cold. My hands went up spontaneously. Not only because of the rifles but also because I was crying out to God. They waved the rifles to show me that I should move away from the helicopter and go with them.

Then God gave me anger and courage to act. As I raised my hands I remembered the two rocket flares in my breast pocket. Without hesitating, I pulled them out and with iron determination held them in both hands over the barrels of their rifles, yelling at them as loud as I could in English that they should get out of there as fast as they could run!

Startled and scared, they leapt back a couple of steps and cocked the guns. I held the two of them in check with my rockets, but the third man was still standing next to me. He picked up a big stone I had used as a weight and threatened to brain me with it. Instantly I turned the rocket in my right hand on him. He looked at it by the light of the fire and realized that it wasn’t a gun. He drew his hand back ready to strike me. At that second there was an explosion from my rocket. A dazzling red trail of sulfur hissed only a few inches past his head. He dropped the stone and ran to his colleagues.

They still stood with their rifles aimed at me. Luckily, the light was too weak for them to see how my knees were shaking. It seemed to me an eternity that we stood at bay like this, facing each other. I shouted at them to clear off. Obviously uncertain what to do, they conferred.

Then the unarmed one took a hesitant step forward. I immediately threatened him with my empty flare holder. He jumped back. I realized that he didn’t know the thing could only shoot once. I saw that he wanted to pick up the Thermos flask that was still on the ground, so I gestured to him to pick it up. Bent double, he crept forward, picked up the Thermos, and retreated. The two others lowered their rifles and turned to go. The third picked up three stones as big as his fist and aimed them at my head. In the darkness, it was impossible to see the stones as they flew. I heard all three whizz past my head. One of them hit the spare tank in the front of the helicopter, and another went through the plexiglass window of the cockpit and landed inside the cockpit. Then the three left, mission unaccomplished. 

I trained my flashlight on them as they went. At the edge of the forest they stopped and held a discussion. I grabbed my camera and pointed the photoflash a few times in their direction. Then they vanished into the bush. 

I thanked God for my newly saved life, but I was still fearful that they might make a second attempt. So, I patrolled every five or ten minutes around the helicopter and shone my flashlight all around the airfield. Finally, at dawn I allowed myself some rest. Before that, though, using the stem of the pump and a large burnt out rocket flare, I set up an improvised dummy rifle on the reserve tank and lay down behind it.

Around ten o’clock a different Somali popped up, dragging his feet and talking loudly. I waved a menacing hand at him and yelled to him to go away. He slowed down and I jumped into the helicopter, pointing the pump handle through the window like a gun and waved to him to go away. At first, he sat down in the sand and pretended to draw in it. I shouted loudly at him to go away. Eventually, he saw that I was serious and crept off. Despite my exhaustion, I managed to stay alert and never took my eyes off my surroundings.

(To be continued)