Sunday, July 21, 2024
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    A DIPLOMAT from south Down went from running the Belfast Marathon to helping people fleeing for their lives from wartorn Sudan. Lisa Gill was part of the UK Government’s successful operation to rescue more than 2,450 people – the longest and largest evacuation by any Western nation. The 31-year-old works for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and was despatched to Cyprus with the UK Government’s Rapid Deployment Team to help British nationals being airlifted out of the east African country.

    She received her orders to deploy just hours after crossing the finish line of Belfast’s 26-mile race. Lisa, from Downpatrick, said: “To say it was quite a full-on week might be an understatement. “Most runners were hopefully rewarding themselves with a bit of pampering after putting themselves through the marathon – but instead I was picking up body armour to assist with an international crisis. “After the marathon, I was absolutely knackered. My body was so tired. I went to bed at eight o’clock because I knew I’d best try to recharge my batteries, as there was a chance I’d be needed to support the unfolding situation. “I’d run the marathon on the Sunday and by Wednesday I was in Cyprus meeting people who had fled for their lives. Many with very young children. “But there’s no way I would ever complain about any of my aches and pains from the marathon when you heard firsthand the hazardous journeys people had been through escaping the violence.”

    More than 600 people have been killed since brutal fighting broke out on April 15 between Sudan’s military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. More than 700,000 people are estimated to have been forced to flee in fear with humanitarian aid workers amongst those who have been killed. The UK Government contributed more than £250 million in humanitarian support to Sudan over the past five years and has just committed a further £5 million of lifesaving aid to help those displaced from their homes by the violence.

    Rapid Deployment Teams were sent to Khartoum, Port Sudan, Cyprus and Saudi Arabian city Jeddah to support British nationals needing help. Lisa said: “All the flights I was working on were coming out of Port Sudan in the east of the country. “I was meeting people off evacuation flights and tasked with spotting if anybody needed medical attention, distributing food and water, organising their onward travel to the UK, and providing a warm welcome and after what was a long and, in many cases, traumatic journey to safety.

    “You can imagine that people were stressed and exhausted, so you answered any questions they had and just provided reassurance that they were now safe and offered some comfort after goodness knows how many days of fear. “Sudan is eight times the size of the UK. I supported one young woman, who had actually driven over 500 miles east from Khartoum. “It was her first time travelling on her own and her car had broken down. She’d been caught up in the fighting, so understandably was traumatised. “To add to the stress, her baby wasn’t very well, so we had to take the baby to hospital for treatment. It must have been terrifying.” Lisa added: “I didn’t personally deal with any people who had gunshot wounds, but there were people arriving in Cyprus who had been injured in the violence. “It was amazing to witness the British military, Home Office, FCDO staff – both overseas and in the London crisis centre, authorities and partners like the British Red Cross and personnel from other countries all pulling together for one shared goal. “I feel proud to have been part of the longest and largest evacuation of any Western country. At the end of the day, we got over 2,400 people out, so we will have undoubtedly saved lives as the fighting raged across Sudan.” Lisa joined the FCDO in 2019 and this was her second Rapid Deployment Team operation. She was sent to the Poland-Ukraine border last year to assist people fleeing following Vladmir Putin’s barbaric invasion.

    She said: “RDT deployments are pretty full-on. While you get a briefing before you land, you don’t fully know what to expect until you’re on the ground. “Due to the nature of crisis work, you feel the eyes of the world are focused on whatever situation is unfolding. “Missiles were exploding in Lviv just across the border and it was incredibly poignant to see the volume of people arriving daily in Poland with everything they could carry. “A big moment for me was evacuating a flight for children with cancer to hospital care in the UK, as it was too unsafe for them to remain in Ukraine. “My family were actually pretty laidback about it all, although I’m not sure they realised how close I was to events in Ukraine. It was only when I got back and was showing them pictures that they fully realised. “When I told them I was collecting body armour for the Sudan deployment they were naturally a bit concerned. “I was originally told I was to go out to Sudan but because of the change in posture we were able to operate from Cyprus. “I think my family were relieved, although I was more than happy to go where the need was greatest. You do not sign up to RDT for a quiet life.” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “I’m incredibly proud of the vital work that people like Lisa are doing to help the most vulnerable in response to humanitarian crises around the globe – often in very challenging circumstances. “People from across the UK have been at the very heart of our efforts to help people fleeing Sudan in their hour of need, and I am grateful for their tireless service and dedication. “The UK has coordinated the longest and largest evacuation of any Western country and brought 2450 people to safety from Sudan.  Our priority now is to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it and to continue to press.

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