Monday, 2 August 2010

'06 Evacuation

Danielle, of This Is Beirut, asked me about my experience of the evacuation of British citizens from Lebanon during Harb Tammuz in 2006.

My apologies if this is a wall of text. You’re forgiven if you can’t face it. It’s not a particularly funny subject, but I’ve found that the Lebanese, much like the Brits, have a very dark sense of humour. So I shall endeavor to lighten it up a little.

I was living in Achrafyie (an area of Beirut, for my fellow foreigners) at the time, and getting to the store to pick up my copy of Prestige was getting a little tough on account of the sporadic bombings and overflying Apaches. The wife (she of Glen Close-esque tendencies) and I headed a little north of the city to stay with relatives who, at that point, still enjoyed access to a wide range of Lebanese society magazines and, just as importantly, running water.

Ensconced nearby the American Embassy, we felt a lot more secure. After all, the Israelis wouldn’t be dropping munitions near to GW’s boys. I called up the British Embassy and registered - previously I hadn’t bothered - letting them know where I was and asking what I was to do.

In true understated British style, I was told to watch BBC World. I blinked, “The BBC? As much as I love Trevor McDonald, I don’t think he’ll be of much use to me,” I said.  Anyway, much to my amusement I was told that information would be passed through the news bulletins. I know that the budget for rescuing expats who have chosen to live in far flung places is probably pretty small, but surely Her Majesty’s Government could do better? Apparently not.

 Sir Trevor MacDonald, pillar of the
British Establishment

Anyway, after a few days of waiting and watching Trevor and Co. pontificate on Lebanon, sure enough, we were told to head down to Forum de Beyrouth the following morning. The wife and I drove into Beirut along with a stray Canadian friend we’d picked up on the way out the city and down to the Forum.

Forum de Beyrouth

In the car park was an enormous throng of people all clutching little burgundy-coloured passports. I met up with a bunch of bewildered British Council teachers, who were looking around a little wild-eyed. It was all very orderly and somehow reassuring. There’s something about Brits in crisis mode that’s very reassuring: “The world’s ending? Well, you just stand here in line and Bob will take care of you. There’s tea on the other side of the barricade.”

The majority of people were all being very restrained, stoic even. However, we were being interviewed by a news crew, Sky if memory serves, and we obviously weren’t conveying the sense of drama they were after. When asked if we were afraid for our lives our answer was, “No, not really.” Given that there were twenty or so Royal Marines with an assortment of light arms standing fifty metres away, this was the obvious response. Realising that we were too sensible to get her the ratings she needed the correspondent headed off and hunted down a woman who was wailing, and I mean wailing, about, of all things, the heat. Yes, apparently the British Embassy had failed miserably because they hadn’t provided an awning to keep us cool. This was a woman from Liverpool who’d been working for a health-related NGO.

Needless to say, given the situation the Embassy was doing a fine job. I looked around in vain for a woman willing to give this harridan a slap, but to no avail.

We were swiftly processed and were soon bussed down to the dock. There was a tense moment between the Marines and the Lebanese Army before we were handed over to our British escorts. I have to say, I felt for the soldiers. Unable to intervene in the conflict, they were reduced to babysitting fleeing foreigners. At all times they treated us with the extreme courtesy that I’ve been accustomed to since moving here. The moment passed and we were soon aboard HMS Bulwark, a Royal Navy troop ship that was to ferry us to Cyprus.
HMS Bulwark, not the most impressive of vessels

We were assigned rooms, four or more people to an office maybe 1.5x2 metres in size. Ours was labeled “The Buffer’s Room”. Wondering who, or what, the Buffer was, we dumped our backpacks and took a stroll around. It was at this point I came across the most glamorous evacuee ever seen. She was a Lebanese-Brit wearing full makeup, heels that could be classified as deadly weapons and designer shades. Tottering about on her mile-highs, she was demanding to know why her family was crammed into a single, small room. Loudly. This was a bit rich given that the ship was overflowing with evacuees and that the crew were set to sleep in the cargo hold or in the corridors, but there you go. I’ll never forget the sight of a 18-year-old sailor trying to explain to this woman that she had it as good as it was going to get while apologizing profusely. Along with the cursing Liverpudlian it’s my abiding memory of the trip. They were a minority, but then it’s always the crazies who make the biggest impression.

 Crazies - Memorable...

Talking to the crew was a humbling experience. The average age of the sailors and marines was about 22 or 23, or so it seemed. They had been at sea for four months and had been heading home for leave before being called to Beirut to evacuate our sorry selves. Enroute they had stripped the entire ship down to the bare minimum, dumped tonnes of equipment in Cyprus and all before heading into a war zone, they hadn’t slept in two days. Nevertheless, they were courteous to the point of embarrassing us, offering everything they had to help. There’s something about taking a Mars Bar off a guy who’s bent over backward to help you that feels very, very wrong.  Luckily I’d stocked up on cigarettes and was able to throw them around like manna from Heaven. I spoke to one boy, boy, as that’s exactly what he was, and he told me that he had booked a holiday in Spain with his girlfriend who he’d last seen four months ago. The plane had carried her and her mother off to the resort the day before. I immediately felt a sense of shame. To which he replied, “It’s the job, isn’t it?” with an, honest, smile on his face. I’m not sure that I would have been so gracious.

Another encounter that stands out was meeting an officer of around 40 years old. While having a smoke on deck he told me that it isn’t uncommon to evacuate a group of useless expats from far flung locales. He’d done it “four or five” times in the past ten years. Africa, the Middle East and South America see it all the time. It’s interesting to think that, in times when the British military is so maligned in the eyes of many of its citizens, let alone people in this part of the world, when called upon these people provide a fantastic service to not only their own citizens, but also to those living in disaster zones.

On the way of out Beirut’s port we were buzzed by Israeli aircraft and two of their motor launches powered toward Bulwark before veering off at the last moment. Speaking to the crew later on I sensed a clear feeling of disgust toward the Israeli forces as a result of buzzing vessels on a humanitarian mission. In retaliation to this provocation the anti-aircraft defenses of the various British ships “lit up” the incoming aircraft whenever they popped up on the radar, meaning that somewhere over the middle of the Mediterranean an Israeli fighter pilot probably got the fright of his life when told, via flashing red lights no doubt, that he had just been targeted by a Ship-to-Air missile. Serves the arsehole right.

An IDF Motor launch - Not very frightening

In any case, we arrived in Cyprus in the early hours after sailing all night. We were registered and bussed to RAF Akrotiri, an air force base that the RAF has maintained for years. On our arrival we were given mobile phones, in return for a deposit in the form of our passport, and told to call whoever we needed to. That done, the local community supplied blankets, clothes and other essentials spontaneously. I even saw toys for the children. Masses of food were then supplied as per the standard operating procedure of the British armed forces – When in doubt eat. And drink tea. Lots of tea.

The rest was uneventful, we caught a charter flight from Cyprus to London and I was home around 30 hours after leaving the Forum.

My wife was bussed out of Lebanon into Syria a day or so later with her family. We were unmarried at the time, so she didn’t get to experience the pleasure cruise, much to my eternal shame. Her experience was more frantic than mine. However, whenever asked about it, she dissolves into incandescent rage at the situation. And rightly so.

Anyway, that was my experience.

Nothing like as dramatic as those we left behind.

Being evacuated from Beirut is something of a family tradition, my mother was evacuated by the US Fifth Fleet back in the 1970s. I’m hoping that my children will be spared a similar experience … but I don’t hold out much hope.

Oh, and we met The Buffer in the end. He was a lovely man.

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Also, thanks to Mustapha of for linking to the Glen Close post. I'm a big fan of his blog and was flattered to appear.