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American woman flees Sierra Leone terror with 18 orphans

June 2, 1997

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) _ Pinkie McCann-Willis was supposed to get married over the weekend to a Nigerian peacekeeping soldier stationed in the balmy, seaside capital of Sierra Leone.

Instead, the American woman found herself in a mad dash to save 18 children caught up in a bloody military coup and facing abandonment unless they could be airlifted to safety.

``It was just awful, it was terrible,″ McCann-Willis said Monday after arriving with the children in Conakry, Guinea, from the USS Kearsarge, where they were flown by U.S. helicopters.

The helicopters airlifted about 1,200 foreigners from Mammy Yoko Hotel in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, from Friday to Monday while mutinous soldiers who staged last week’s coup became locked in a tense standoff with Nigerian soldiers. The Nigerians, including McCann-Willis’ husband were trying to restore the ousted civilian government to power.

Qualifying for evacuation wasn’t a problem for McCann-Willis, 49, who heads the Freetown office of the Indianapolis-based Americans for African Adoption agency.

The agency, founded in 1986, arranges adoption for children in east and west Africa. McCann-Willis, a native Californian, has been its representative in Freetown since October.

But it was a different story for the 18 orphans, all Sierra Leonians with no U.S. ties to make them eligible for evacuation by U.S. Marines.

McCann-Willis and the children spent the first days after the coup holed up in the agency’s Freetown compound, running low on food and wondering whether the mutinous troops outside would attack.

``The children were flat on the floor. We were hiding in the attic. We had soldiers outside the gate with their AK-47s trying to get in,″ McCann-Willis said.

By the weekend, she knew she had to make a run for it. Her attempts to charter a helicopter for the children failed when the coup leaders refused to open the country’s airport to commercial traffic.

So she piled all 18 children into the back of her pickup truck and sped across town to the Mammy Yoko hotel to appeal for space on the American helicopters.

``First of all, they said no. I was faced with the decision: Do I leave, or do I stay?″ McCann-Willis said. She took a chance, jumping on a chopper to the USS Kearsarge, the first stop for evacuees, and launching an appeal for the African children to be given permission to come on board as well.

The U.S. State Department gave the go-ahead, and on Monday the orphans were among the last people to be flown out of Freetown by the Americans. From the Kearsarge, McCann-Willis and the children flew in helicopters to Conakry.

While most evacuees were heading from Conakry to London on jets chartered by the State Department, McCann-Willis was faced with a potential immigration nightmare if she tried to travel with the children.

Legal papers to arrange for their exit from Sierra Leone for possible adoption in America were lost when fire destroyed the social welfare office in Freetown, she said.

The adoption agency’s founder, Cheryl Carter-Shotts, said in Indianapolis that all the children had been paired with prospective families in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand and that she was working on arranging their visas for travel, despite the lack of official paperwork.

The children, wearing tiny helmets and bright orange life vests for the helicopter trip, didn’t seem too worried about their fate as Marines fussed over them. Most of them were left orphaned by Sierra Leone’s civil war, which erupted in 1991.

Sierra Leone’s president and rebel leader signed a peace accord in November to end the war, but fighting has resumed in recent weeks.

The leader of the coup blamed the government for the failure of the cease-fire and said he took power to restore peace.

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