FORMER Derwent Valley lad Mark Wilson has spent more than 30 years of his Navy career saving lives in war-torn countries, but if he could be anywhere it would be back in Tassie, writes BEN WATERWORTH.
LYING down on his rack, Lieutenant Commander Mark Wilson was content to waste the final hour of his harrowing six-month deployment to South Sudan by unwinding with a movie on his computer.
It had been a long mission that had taken its toll on the 30-year veteran of the Navy and the former Derwent Valley boy was ready to leave the United Nations camp at Bor, 200km north of the capital Juba and head home.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was deployed in July 2011 to help with peacekeeping and rebuilding after the nation gained independence from Sudan.
Australian defence personnel formed part of the contingent with Operation ASLAN.Suddenly the door to his accommodation in a shipping container burst open.
His New Zealand counterpart Jeff ran in and warned Lt Cdr Wilson that a crowd of 200 young protesters was approaching.
They were Dinka, one of three tribes in South Sudan fighting for control of the country. Their protests were over accusations the UN was favouring the rival Nuer tribe by housing rebels and looters.
More than 17,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) had actually sought refuge within the camp.
‘We went to an observation post and could see these guys coming,” Lt Cdr Wilson explained. ‘They were walking across the northern end of the compound where the refugees were camped.”
‘We got to where the refugees were and I heard on the radio they were starting to throw rocks and sticks.”
It then got much worse.
Bursts of AK47 gunfire sprayed above Lt Cdr Wilson as the protesters made their way over razor wire walls into the camp.
‘They weren’t just shooting at us, they were shooting at everybody,” Lt Cdr Wilson said. ‘My colleague and I looked at each other with eyes the size of bloody plates as we realised we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘There was so much AK47 fire. We realised if we didn’t run at that moment, it wouldn’t matter. So we just ran. We ran about 500m to the headquarters.”
The attack continued with rocket propelled grenades adding to the carnage. As the body count mounted and the injuries increased, Lt Cdr Wilson and his colleagues attempted to save as many refugee lives as they could.
Since his deployment as part of the United Nations’ 11,000 civilian and military personnel to the region between October 2013 and April 20014, Lt Cdr Wilson had found his past medic training in demand.
‘My previous skill sets included having a medical background to some extent because I was basically the medic on a landing craft when I was there between 1998 and 1999,” he said.
He became the guy called upon whatever the injury.
FOUR months previous (December 2013), Lt Cdr Wilson had been caught up in a coup in Bor City between rival Nuer and Dinka tribes.
All UN civilians had been evacuated in the lead-up, but 12 military liaison officers, including Lt Cdr Wilson, and a small group of troops from India, South Korea and Nepal were left behind to redistribute the UN jobs that had been vacated.
‘Everything had gone wrong and we were getting lots of gunshot-injured people arriving at the gate requesting treatment,” he said. Between the small UN clinics there were only 23 beds available and limited supplies, but the injured numbers soon swelled to over 200.
‘I had to do triage, prioritising between people that had limbs missing or worse,” he said.
Lt Cdr Wilson was dealing with heat in the high 40s as well as cultural and language issues and there were people who could not be saved.
Up to 12 people would die daily and body disposal was a big problem in the heat. That situation continued for the next month.
Lt Cdr Wilson was on call 24/7, catching sleep whenever he could, but it dealt an emotional toll.
‘That was hard, because you want to bounce off your best friend, who is your wife.”
With limited media coverage in Australia, there was little information being fed back to his wife Cathy and two children Stephanie and Conor at their home in Sydney.
His parents John and Margaret, both still living in the Derwent Valley, also would struggle without information. Moments to talk to them were rare.
Fifty-one people died that day last April – Lt Cdr Wilson’s last day in South Sudan – and more than 200 more were injured. Many more would have died if it had not been for his medical training.
Once evacuated, he made his way to Juba and returned to Australia. Lt Cdr Wilson was awarded the Conspicuous Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for meritorious achievement as a military liaison officer.
‘Getting the award has dealt with some of the demons if you like,” he said. ‘It’s been acknowledged. That’s really nice.”
With his harrowing experience behind him and his time in the Navy drawing to a close – he plans to retire within six years – the warm comfort of his native Tasmania still brings a smile to his face.
‘There is always a beginning point and that was the beginning. I’d love to be there.”
This article was originally written for The Mercury