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Female Bush Pilot Flies Relief Missions in South Sudan - 2002-08-09

From Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Liberia to Sudan, many African countries are in the grip of war. Reaching the war zones with food and medical supplies is a job very few people want. James Butty looks at an African bush pilot who flies where few have gone.

Heather Steward is a mother, a grandmother, and a businesswoman who has been an African bush pilot for 30 years. Her job has taken her over the war zones of Somalia and southern Sudan. Ms. Stewart's toughness and consistency have earned her the nickname "All-weather Heather." But from her point of view, it's just a job.

"To me, it's just a normal way of life," she says. "It's not anything different or unusual for me to do that. Obviously, there's a certain risk involved in it. But I've been very lucky, and I haven't had a problem."

Ms. Stewart first went to East Africa in 1972. She began by flying people who came for hunting safaris and others who came to set up hospitals. But with wars in Somalia and Sudan, she began flying in food and supplies. She also flew in doctors to treat the sick and wounded. Today, she runs her own bush airline, called Track Mark, which is part of an airborne relief operation carrying food, medicine, and people to southern Sudan.

John Muhoho, who is flight coordinator for the World Food Program in Nairobi, describes Heather Stewart as a heroine in the relief business. "Heather, as you've already gathered yourself, is a very tenacious lady who has been of great help to the South Sudan operation," he says. "Just to give you an example, about four years ago, when we have the big emergency in southern Sudan, most of the aircraft contracted were from Heather because there was nobody else who had a kind of wider kind of knowledge like she did. She has been flying into very small strips where most accomplished pilots would not even dare to go."

Ms. Stewart admits that flying in and out of war zones is a dangerous business. "I mean it's always a risk," she says. "But I mean I never take on, I wouldn't go in and take an unnecessary risk. If a situation I knew was very dangerous, then I wouldn't do it because what is the point of getting killed. So I don't try and go into risk, dangerous situations."

But still, Ms. Stewart point out that she has come close to being killed. "I've been shot at in Somalia," she said. "I was shot at, and my plane was shot up. And that's one of the reasons I decided to go and work in Sudan, because in Somalia, the situation was actually much worst than in Sudan."

Susie Reading, who is one of Ms. Stewart's five children, was born and raised in Africa. She stresses that the family is proud of her mother's humanitarian work. "Of course, we have our concerns like anybody would normally in such situation," she said. "But we are very proud of what she does and have complete faith in the fact that she's professional and knows what she's doing. You know, she's not only a pilot, she's also a fantastic family person. And this is just the way it is for us."

The war in southern Sudan is between the government in the north and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. Millions of people have died and millions more have been left homeless. Ms. Stewart flies relief missions only in the south. "I don't think I'm particularly trusted by the north," she says. "But then I don't fly into their areas. I only fly into the areas that are controlled by the SPLA. If I did, then I would ask their permission. But because I'm flying where I am, they may not give it."

Ms. Stewart is not concerned about whether the north trusts her or not because she sees her job as non-political. "My job as a pilot is to help the people there and sometimes taking on people who need help also," she said. "I am completely impartial, as it were, to the war itself. I'm not involved on one side or another. I just happen to fly in the south, which is controlled by the rebels."

All-weather Heather says she intends to keep on flying in and out of East Africa's war zones as long as she is needed. But she looks forward to the day when the wars will be over so that she can stop her relief flights and begin what she sees as a more positive mission: delivering development aid.