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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

State Department Evacuation

Once we decided to leave Egypt, the only questions remaining were how and when. We had to get to the airport and needed a backup plan. If you have been watching Tahrir Square on television you know it is empty in the morning. No Egyptian is going to get up early and start protesting here. Especially when they were up late the previous night protesting. The 6:00 p.m. curfew had been moved up to 4:00 p.m. and then to 3:00 p.m. by Monday.

We packed light, closed up our apartment as best we could, and called a few people to let them know that we were going. "But why?" we were asked. Some people here are still optimistic. It is in their national character. My neighbor assured me that he and other neighbors were guarding the streets at night and shooting only whenever they saw anything suspicious. Well, yes, but...

He did insist that we use a known taxi driver, escorted us to the taxi and gave specific directions on what route to follow.

As the taxi pulled up onto the ring road (the freeway loop that surrounds Cairo) I noticed the first signs of violence. There is a small concrete block house adjacent to the ring road that houses police who frequently operate out of it to stop speeders, operate driver's license checks and the like. The windows were charred and the roof missing. Later, every other police check point along the road was in ashes. I had hoped to pass Carrefour department store along our route to see if there was any sign of the rumored looting. Instead, we took the road past the Citadel and I noticed several local vigilante roadblocks made with trees and lumber that had been active the previous night. They were still manned by people with sticks and rods. Fires smoldered nearby.

The army was out in force! Not just the armored personnel carriers that we had seen on television the previous day. Full blown tanks sat by the dozen along the road past the Citadel and throughout the suburb of Nasr City. The soldiers didn't look particularly friendly. Some of their weapons were on the primitive side. Rifles looked more like a Springfield or an Enfield with a bayonet rather than an AK-47 or M-16.

We hadn't called the embassy for specific directions. I didn't imagine they were answering the phone or providing helpful hints. Later conversations with other evacuees confirmed this. This left us with the question of "Where are the flights for the Americans?" There are three separate terminals at the Cairo Airport. Each has multiple "Halls." With no one that we asked having a clue what the answer was, we started looking at the Terminal and Hall where Delta and KLM operate. Now it is not surprising that we couldn't find anyone who would know from where these flights were leaving. You can't find anyone who knows where KLM operates either. We only know it from having been there before.

When we were ready to leave Terminal 3 and try Terminal 1, we ran in to someone who had found the answer. Terminal 4. We headed to that non-existent terminal and ended up at Hall 4, terminal unknown.

But the folks standing in line looked like they were headed for the U.S.A.

The young lady and her mother in front of Linda had finished most of their tour and needed to get home before the Super Bowl. "Going back to Wisconsin?" I asked. It turns out they were headed to the other city. Soon we were in a real line and I noticed that this woman was talking to someone and answering questions. The person asking the questions held a TV camera under his coat and casually conducted an interview for the Today Show. A couple of other folks in line were interviewed in similar clandestine fashion.

The line was pretty long when we arrived around 1:30,

It wasn't moving very fast. Later we learned that there would be six flights out this day, that they would go to Istanbul, Athens and Cyprus. Due to the curfew, the State Department was supposed to be out of there by 3:00 but maybe...

We had brought food. The State Department handed out water and juice. We waited.
Evac-4 Evac-6

We ate our cookies and our sandwiches and we waited.
Evac-5 Evac-3

Then it became evening and we waited some more.

During all this, Hall 4 continued to function in its usual role as a charter terminal. This meant that we would have to open up space for busloads of passengers to come in and catch their planes.

Probably, the most interesting departure we witnessed was when a fleet of perhaps 15 shiny new Toyota Land Rovers cruised in, security men with crew-cuts and sub-machine guns hopped out and I wondered if a plot to kill all the Americans standing in a crowd was underway. In retrospect, I suppose that it was just the front end to this event taking place:
A US military plane landed at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus on Monday afternoon ferrying 42 US embassy officials and their dependents from Egypt.
We really didn't have much to complain about though. This description of how things were going at Terminals 1, 2 and 3 is quite appropriate:

There have been scenes of chaos at Cairo's international airport as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.

On Monday, there were reports of shouting matches and even fist fights as thousands of people seeking a flight home crammed inside the capital's new Terminal Three.

In an attempt to reduce tensions, the airport's departures board stopped announcing flight times - but the move simply fueled anger over canceled or delayed flights.

Check-in counters were poorly staffed after many Egypt Air employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3pm to 8am curfew and traffic breakdowns across the city.

"It's an absolute zoo, what a mess," Justine Khanzadian, a 23-year-old graduate student from the American University of Cairo, said.

Khanzadian, who was among those waiting at the airport for hours to leave, said "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."

By midday, an announcement filtered through the crowd instructing groups of Danish, German, Chinese, British and Canadian passengers that their governments had sent planes to evacuate them, prompting a stampede toward the gates.

Standing, sitting or lying on the concrete, sipping State Department water, surrounded by Americans telling their own stories of "My Trip to Egypt." certainly beats that.

There is lot's more to tell before we depart. I'll leave that for another day.

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