It was supposed to be an ordinary Sunday on December 19, 1993, for residents of Kenya’s Sawmill village in Ainabkoi sub-county on the fringes of Uasin Gishu and Baringo counties. Nothing had prepared them for the events of that day.
At 11 am, a plane crashed-landed in the village.
Crowds rushed to the scene and hastily rescued the survivors from the wreckage and rushed them to the hospital.
One of the survivors is now South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit.
At the time of the crash, Kiir was the chief of general staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
On Sunday, April 2, 2023, 30 years later, some of the survivors of that crash visited the scene of the accident and met the families of those who rescued them. They also brought the good news of their plans to give back to the village that saved their lives.
The South Sudanese delegation of more than 15 people was led by Presidential Affairs Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, his Environment counterpart Josephine Nopwon, President Kiir’s son Thiik, South Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya Chol Ajongo and Ambassador Bol Wek, among others.
Mr Wek, who was then a security officer attached to Mr Kiir, recounted how their journey was cut short that day.
“When we were in Nakuru, the pilot announced that one of the engines had failed but reassured us he will manage the plane. President Kiir kept asking me what had happened. But on reaching Sawmill village in Ainabkoi Constituency, the pilot crash-landed the plane,” he said.
“I remember the plane hitting an object and I thought it was a house, but later learned it was a tree. The pilot, an American of Ethiopian descent, crash-landed the plane professionally,” he recounted.
Mr Wek, now a diplomat based in Juba, said after the crash, villagers could hear faint cries for help from the passengers.
“He (Kiir) asked me what happened and told me to unbuckle the belt. I couldn’t move much because my leg and back were in excruciating pain. I managed to reach for his seatbelt and freed him and we both pulled ourselves out of the wreckage,” he recounted.
According to Mr Wek, six people were on board the chartered plane; the pilot, Mr Wek, Mr Kiir, two Norwegian medics and a Briton. The Briton died on the spot. The pilot and the two Norwegians suffered serious back injuries and are now wheelchair-bound.
“Within minutes, locals had arrived at the scene, pulled out those still trapped in the wreckage and arranged for transport to the hospital. The president and I were ferried in a lorry while the others were taken in a car,” he said.
Accident and trauma centre
As part of their appreciation, the South Sudanese government will build a modern accident and trauma centre at the Eldama Ravine Mission Hospital, which will be named after President Salva Kiir.
Courtesy of South Sudan, the crash site will be part of their heritage and will be developed into a tourism site. Roads will be paved and the health facilities that offered treatment will be upgraded, alongside the proposed Salva Kiir Mayardit Accident and Trauma Centre in Eldama Ravine.
“This is now our home too and we shall be making more frequent but private visits here. We shall now henceforth be in regular touch with the families,” said Mr Wek.
The ceremony was marked with a thanksgiving service. Trees were planted at the site to signify the continuity of life and deepen the relationship between the rescuers and the survivors.
Mrs Everlyne Lunge, one of the rescuers, recalled how the attention of the village was drawn by the rattling sound of a low-flying aircraft that was seemingly experiencing a technical problem.
“All of a sudden we heard a loud bang and saw part of an aircraft wing on top of the huge tree outside the family residence. It was followed by a cloud of dust. The entire village ran towards the scene because it was apparent the aircraft had crashed-landed,” she recalled.
Her husband, John Lunge, who is now deceased, was a transporter and owned an Isuzu lorry. He was home, servicing the lorry together with his driver Elijah Kipkering Chepkwony.
“Everyone in the family ran towards the accident site, with the shortcut being across the open field. The driver took a long route with the lorry as it was obvious that the injured had to be rushed to hospital,” she recalled.
At the scene, she recounted, two African men were already out of the aircraft and were seated on the ground looking confused. All they could say was “Help, help,” she recounted the moments.
The villagers broke into the wreckage to get out those who were trapped. They managed to rescue two white people alive. One white man was already dead.
“The lorry arrived on time and ferried the two African men who seemed not to be badly injured but in shock, while the white man and woman were ferried in the pick-up vehicle belonging to another villager,” Ms Lunge narrated.
The injured were all taken to Toronto Health Centre in Baringo County, which was the nearest health facility where they could get immediate medical attention.
They would then be transferred to Mercy Mission Hospital in Eldama Ravine and later airlifted by Amref to Nairobi after former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi made a call from his Kabarak home instructing that the patients be taken to Kabarak airstrip for airlifting to Kenyatta National Hospital.
“The villagers helped in saving lives, but little did they know they were holding the future of South Sudan in their hands. How I wish Mzee Lunge was alive today to see the fruits of his noble gesture and be acknowledged by the survivors themselves,” Ms Lunge said.
President Kiir’s passport
Locals handed over President Kiir Zambian’s passport, documents belonging to other passengers and part of the wreckage of the plane to officials of the South Sudan embassy who visited the crash site last year. They also gave a ewe to President Kiir.
The rescuers said they learned two years later that the people they rescued were Sudanese and diplomats after they opened the documents they found at the scene, including President Kiir’s passport and an armlet written SPLA and SPLM, which were handed over to the South Sudan envoy.
Mr Benjamin, who represented President Kiir, expressed appreciation, saying the villagers’ act of kindness will not go unrewarded.
“It is because of your kindness that we have a country now, and it shall not go unrewarded. This place is now our home too and we shall plan to host you in Juba to meet President Kiir and also we shall invest in some projects in honour of the kindness,” he said.