cairo evacuation

This is the first of many long posts to come. I apologize for my complete absence over the course of the past week- as a result of the current situation in Egypt, I’ve been either Internet-less, busy traveling, or trying to piece together my plans for the next semester. Here’s an update on my life since January 31st. I intend to blog about the protests themselves, which began on the 25th, but that’s next on the to-do list. I still have a lot of planning and paperwork to do, so I don’t have a ton of time to blog, but I’ll do as much as I can as quickly as possible!

Up until the 31st, Alex and I had been living in our apartment pretty normally. The protests were mostly affecting life in the city centers of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, and we lived in the smaller residential area of Dokki. We did run into demonstrations and clashes between protesters and riot police almost accidentally, the metro stopped functioning, and the threat of looting affected our neighborhood, but we were content at home. I’ll delve more into those details in my next post. The internet and mobile phone service were completely blocked on Friday, the 28th, due to plans for major demonstrations immediately following afternoon prayer. The next day, mobile service was reinstated, but texting still was not functioning. By the 31st, we had been without internet for days, and were mostly communicating via our landlines. Stores had begun to run out of supplies, most notably cell phone minutes- neither Alex or I had enough phone credit to make outgoing phone calls. We stayed updated through our TV, and literally woke up in the morning, turned on BBC World or Al-Jazeera English, and watched events unfold until we went to sleep that night. Our parents had figured out how to call us, so my mom resorted to reading me e-mail updates from my university and the Education Abroad Program over the phone.

As of Sunday the 30th, the threat of looting and complete absence of the police caused many embassies to begin evacuating their citizens. Alex and I heard rumours that the AUC dorm population was quickly decreasing as schools pulled out their study abroad students. That day, the US Embassy had put out an announcement that US citizens should leave Egypt as soon as possible, and unnecessary travel to Egypt should be canceled. I didn’t think much of it- the news tended to be overly dramatic, and I assumed that the warning was mostly for tourists. Furthermore, at that point, we had not heard anything from our programs about evacuation- my coordinator (and one of my favorite people in the world) Fadi had briefly mentioned it in passing, but I had no idea that plans were being made. From our perspective, we were perfectly fine. Our neighborhood was being guarded by the fathers, sons, and doormen of the area, who were armed with wooden sticks, knives, and fire. Looters had not entered our street, and things seemed to be calming down. We were all set with our TV, backgammon board, books, and enough food to feed a small army for a month. The worst seemed to be over, and we went to bed comfortable in our apartment that night.

My program, however, thought differently. I was woken up at 2 AM by a call from my mom, who proceeded to read a series of e-mails to me. The first assured parents that it was not safe enough to transport the students to the airport for evacuation, and recommended that we all stay boarded inside our apartments until things calmed down. I sighed with relief and was comforted by the fact that I wouldn’t have to leave Egypt. I had been nervous that programs were overreacting and making rash decisions in pulling their students out, and saw this as a chance to stay and wait things out longer. I actually almost said “I told you so” to my mom, who had been telling me to get on a plane home for the past day or two, until she started reading the next email. This one was radically different from the first. The program coordinators had suddenly decided that they would be able to transport us to the airport, and had now settled on the fact that we would be evacuated THAT DAY. The message outlined every move we would make- from pick-up to shelter to communication to the flight. I was in shock. Since when were they seriously considering evacuating us?! And why hadn’t I heard anything about this? How were we supposed to find out? Why didn’t Fadi call us? Do I have to go? Does this mean I should start packing my bags? The message prompted a million more questions than it answered.

I immediately ran into Alex’s room and told him the news. Neither of us could believe it. It was 2:30 AM, and according to the message, I would be picked up at 9 AM. This put Alex in a completely ridiculous situation. He was not in my study abroad program- he had literally transferred to the American University in Cairo from University of Texas for the year, so he had no coordinator or supervisor to tell him to evacuate or help him in any way. I would be leaving him alone with no flight scheduled, no way of contacting anybody, no transportation, and our entire apartment, which was in his name. It was completely unfair. We sat and tried to make sense of the situation for awhile, until I finally got a phone call from my program organizer, Fadi, at around 3 AM. He explained that yes, the evacuation decision was final, and that I would be picked up by a security team at around 10 that morning. Apparently, he had been calling the rest of the 19 participants for the past hour or so, and I was pretty far down on the call list, so he had been arguing with the other students already. None of us wanted to leave. So, when I asked what would happen if I refused to evacuate, he wearily but bluntly stated that it was not an option. If I didn’t cooperate, my insurance would be completely thrown out the window, I would forfeit the program’s offer to pay for my flight home and food and shelter during the evacuation, the US Embassy would not help me find a flight or way out of Egypt, and I would no longer be a student at UC Santa Barbara or the American University in Cairo. The study abroad program between AUC and UCSB had been completely abandoned and terminated at this point- there was no going back. A van would be at my apartment in 7 hours.

I hung up the phone and sat for a few minutes, with no idea what to say or do. I felt as though my study abroad experience was being pulled out from underneath my feet, and all of the work that I had done to become comfortable with the language, city, and people was useless. I had the perfect class schedule set for that semester, a cozy apartment, a kitchen full of food, a position teaching English prepared, and a dance performance scheduled for the next week. All gone. I didn’t know what to say to Alex- I was upset that I was being forced to leave, but at least somebody was looking out for me and ensuring that I would be safe. He had no idea where to turn, and we had no way of contacting anybody. After about half an hour of sitting there in a daze, I dragged myself into my room and faced the task of packing all of my belongings. I felt like a zombie, just going through the actions. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I would be leaving Cairo and going back to the States- I was completely mentally prepared to be away for the entire academic year. Packing felt like I was just going away for a short vacation, and I had to stop myself multiple times from thinking that I could just leave small things at the apartment because I would be back eventually. It took me about two hours to sort my things into two suitcases, a small duffle bag, and a backpack. As I was packing, I was hit with various thoughts: I hadn’t bought souvenirs for my family, because I was planning to make one big shopping trip at the end of the year. I had never visited Dahab, or Aswan. I wouldn’t be performing with the Folklore dance group that I had been practicing with for that entire semester. We wouldn’t be able to go to a football game, and I doubted that the Egypt vs. USA game that we were planning on attending the next week would even occur.

I took one last cold shower (we never did figure out how to get a constant supply of hot water). By then, it was around 6 AM and I had a few more hours in Dokki. This was the worst part- I had to just kill time, knowing that everything that I did would be the last of it. Alex and I tried to cook and eat some of the food that we had just stocked up on. I made a salad, and we ate some of the chocolate that he had brought back from Geneva a few weeks earlier. We took one last walk around the neighborhood. It was eerie how calm and normal it all was- I was being evacuated from the country, but there was absolutely no sign of unrest in the streets other than the extinguished bonfires from the night before. The men guarding the streets had sat around small fires to keep warm while they watched out for looters. Now, kids laughed and ran through the streets, adults walked to work, and small shops began to open their doors. Stray cats and dogs basked in the rising sun. It was a beautiful day out.

At around 10 AM, I got a call from Fadi, who explained what would be happening that morning. A van driven by a trained private security officer would come to pick me up. The van would be marked with the company logo, and the man had credentials to show me. We would be taken to a “safe haven” in Maadi before going to a hotel for the night. Our flight would depart the next day. Up until this point, I had heard that we would be evacuated to London, but now apparently we were being taken to Barcelona. From there, we would arrange flights back to the States. He sounded stressed, but assertive. Soon after speaking with Fadi, I got a call from my security officer, and the evacuation was under way. The emails that the parents were receiving sounded almost too good to be true- they were extremely detailed and seemed rock solid. At this point, I realized that the evacuation looked good on paper, but we were still in Egypt, and the reality of it was that Egyptians will be Egyptians- it’s almost impossible to get them to do things any other way. My “security officer” was a man in normal clothes who spoke almost no English. He loaded my luggage into the van, which already had one other student inside. It was obvious that the van did not have enough luggage space. For the next two hours, we ended up driving around the streets of Dokki and Mohandiseen, looking for the three other students that we were supposed to be picking up. The man had no idea where any of their apartments were, and resorted to the good old Egyptian GPS system- pull over and yell through the window at people until someone points you in an obscure direction.

We ended up finding only one of the other three students, and the driver made no mention of the other two that we were supposed to pick up. At one point, one of my friends in the program, who had been picked up by another van, called me to tell me that his van would be picking me up soon- I had to tell him that I had already been picked up by somebody else. For some reason, we then started driving towards downtown Cairo, directly into Tahrir Square, the heart of the city and protests. I think that we were trying to get to Maadi through the usual route, or were supposed to pick up somebody who lived near downtown- I still have no idea what was really going on. Despite the protests, Cairo still had its notorious bad traffic, so we slowly inched towards Tahrir. This time, our surroundings were a little different. Military men in uniform were stationed along the road, and tanks formed road blocks every few blocks. Police vans, which had been long abandoned, littered the side of the road every once in a while. Most of them were tipped on their side and had been completely torched, like the one in the picture to the right. We rode into downtown on the 6th of October bridge, right in between the Ramses Hilton on the left, and the NDP headquarters on the right. A couple of days earlier, the NDP building had been set on fire by protesters- and this is no small building. No attempt was made to extinguish the fire, so the building was now a mere shell of charred black exterior, its windows busted through. Black smoke still snailed out of its lower windows as we drove past. Walls, police vans, and tanks had been marked with anti-Mubarak graffiti in both Arabic and English. As we drove past, I attempted to take pictures of the remnants of the protests of the past few days, but military men pointed at me through the window and solemnly shock their heads no. They did not allow pictures to be taken of anything army- or police-related.

The idea that this evacuation process was supposed to increase my safety was completely ridiculous, and the students made sure that our “security officers” knew it. Over the course of the past week, I had been able to ensure my own safety, stay away from dangerous protests for the most part, and take care of necessities. Within my first two hours of being under the “security officers’” care, I had been taken to every single place in downtown Cairo that had been on the news for the past week- the exact places that we had been seriously warned to avoid by the program. In this picture to the left, the Cairo Museum is pictured on the left, and the NDP Headquarters is on the right side of the photo- that’s the building that was completely torched. A military officer stands in the middle, checking ID cards. You can see how close the NDP building is to the museum- this seriously concerned many Egyptians when the building was aflame. While we were driving through the area, the students questioned where we were being taken, who was in charge, who actually spoke English, and why we couldn’t have just stayed in our own apartments, or at least just taken taxis to the meeting place. The “officers” spent hours wandering around Cairo, lost and confused. The military had closed down most of the roads into downtown (obviously and understandably), which was apparently where our vans needed to go to pick up another student. The “security officers” argued with the military men, stating that they were transporting Americans and should therefore be allowed through. Playing the “I’m an American” card works sometimes, but this time, the guards did not budge.

Finally, we made our way towards Maadi, a wealthy neighborhood which had been intensely hit by looting over the course of the past few days. Temporary road blocks had been set up by civilians who were stepping up in the absence of the police. Tree branches, old tires, cement blocks, and pieces of metal blocked the flow of traffic while civilians asked for ID for everybody passing through. We made our way towards a residential street, and finally stopped in front of an apartment building. Most of the security officers got out of the vans and discussed the situation amongst themselves. According to the email, this was supposed to be our “safe haven” to meet and recollect ourselves. Instead, two random women approached our van and said something about the group caravaning someplace. They offered no names or ID. We finally figured out that these were our supposed “security coordinators”, and that they worked for the secure evacuation company, iJet, that the UC system had hired to get us out of Cairo. The head woman, Elaine, was a feisty Irish woman with wild blonde curly hair and a very strong personality. She immediately bumped heads with most of the students when we demanded more information, and maybe some food for lunch. None of us had slept, we were upset and frustrated, and now hungry on top of it. She was not the most comforting or empathetic person- instead of explaining things, she absentmindedly mentioned that our “safe haven” was actually a friend’s apartment that had a couple of empty couches if we really needed it, and then complained about how she hadn’t slept and needed cigarettes.

By this point in the protests, curfews had been set daily. The first day, curfew was from 6 PM – 7 AM, but each day was extended. That day, curfew was from 3 PM to 8 AM. Most people blatantly ignored these rules, but organizations (such as businesses, most taxis, and restaurants) officially followed them. After briefly meeting us in Maadi, Elaine told us to get back in the vans and sent us to the J.W. Marriott, a nice new hotel in New Cairo, only a few minutes away from the airport and the AUC new campus. Because of the curfew, she wasn’t willing to ride with us to the hotel and risk being stuck there when the curfew began, so we were sent off completely on our own. The “security officers” rode along in our vans, but didn’t know any more than we did, didn’t speak much English, and a couple of them even fell asleep during the ride. The entire journey to the Marriott was littered with military tanks along the side of the road and crowded roadblocks for ID checks. Most of the time, the driver would show his ID and we’d be okay, but a few times, the military officers asked to see all of our passports. We started to pass them to him, but it seemed that once he saw that they were all American passports, he nodded okay and let us on our way without actually checking them. I had heard rumours that the reasoning behind all of the ID checking (both by military and civilians) was to catch looters, because people believed that the looters were actually Mubarak’s secret police officers and government employees who were being paid to cause havoc. Looting would encourage people to stay home and guard their own property instead of standing out in Tahrir Square and protesting. Some of these claims sound a little too much like conspiracy theories, but as time goes on, there is some credit to them- looters are unwilling to show ID, because that proves that they are actually police and government officers with state IDs. Some looters have even been caught and searched, only to reveal that they do have government ID on them. BBC World just confirmed this today, and had physical evidence of the ID cards.

Anyways, we finally made it to the J.W. Marriott, only to find that many other tourists had the same idea as we did. The front gate was surrounded by cars trying to get through the gate before curfew started. Drug and bomb sniffing dogs circled our vans. We pulled in front of the hotel and unloaded the luggage, and then realized that we really had absolutely no idea what was going on. Did we have a reservation? What name would it be under? Who’s paying for this? When are we leaving for the airport? Etc, etc, etc. We ended up standing in front of the hotel, surrounded by luggage for a good 10 minutes before going inside and just sitting in the lobby. Elaine only answered her phone sporadically and gave vague answers, so we tried to check in ourselves and find some food. It was 3 PM by then, and I hadn’t eaten since around 7 AM that morning. The hotel had some kind of reservation for us under the security company’s name, but seemed just as confused as we were. We were completely on our own. At first we were told that we would all have single rooms, and filled out forms in which we were listed as the “kaliphornia” group. This prompted plenty of jokes over the course of the night- “I’d like to make a call to Sophie Kaliphornia… that’s Kaliphornia, with a K and a PH”. The hotel, which also had no access to the internet just like the rest of Egypt, had no form of payment on file, no knowledge of our situation, and no solutions. We ended up sitting in the lobby for about three or four hours, eating burgers and trying to contact Elaine or Fadi for answers. Finally, at around 7 PM, one of the group members was finally successful in organizing rooms for us to share- two to a room, but we had to put our credit cards down on the reservation. It was actually a very nice hotel, but we were not very pleased with the situation- we had no idea who would be paying for our $400 rooms, and our only instruction was that we had to be up and ready to leave by around 9 the next morning.

Elise (another UCSB student) and I headed to our room, and I literally sat down on my bed and immediately fell asleep fully dressed, with my shoes still on. It had been an absolutely insane day- none of us had slept at all the night before, we were emotionally upset at the situation, and completely unsure of the future. I woke up a few hours later to change into pajamas, but easily slept until around 7:30 the next morning, only interrupted by a couple of phone calls from my parents to check in on the progress of the evacuation. Apparently, the parents were being sent wonderfully informative, calming emails, while the students were stuck with the reality of the evacuation. It was actually a nice hotel, and we ended up getting food, but it was aggravating to be forced into such a tumultuous situation. I kept my mouth shut for most of it, but most of the boys in the group were not shy in confronting Elaine and the other officers to voice their complaints. At one point, we were almost convinced that Elaine was an insurance scam. This first day, she avoided questions, didn’t answer her phone, and was completely disorganized. To be honest, if we were ordinary tourists, we probably would have been very grateful that these people were helping and organizing things for us somewhat, but we had been happily living on our own in Cairo for the past week during the protests. Since we were forced to go through this, we expected it to be an improvement to our own personal solutions.

The next morning, Elise and I went to the executive lounge and ate the free breakfast there- we actually were pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to be there, but some maintenance men let us in the door and nobody questioned us, so we went for it! The entire group met in the lobby with all of the luggage and waited for further instruction. We continued to angrily call Elaine, who had only told a few of us any information. Suddenly, she demanded that we all be in the lobby and ready to go at 11 AM, when she would arrive. We complied, and she stormed in the hotel lobby, approached our group, and started complaining about how she hadn’t slept and had “two cats, a cockateel, and random friends eating tuna” in her apartment. Oh, and something about how she usually wears heels. It was a very strange situation, but I had slept well and decided that I would just be happy to get on a plane that day, so I left the complaints and confrontations to the boys. The rest of the group immediately demanded that Elaine sort out the payment for the rooms. Up until that point, we hadn’t been allowed to check out because there was no payment plan for the rooms, and we were not willing or able to pay for them ourselves. Elaine told us some story about how she was in charge of security, not finances, which did not help the situation. She was in charge of our evacuation at this point, and had taken us to this hotel. A few snappy remarks later, she approached the reception desk and somehow figured the situation out herself after quite a few phone calls.

The original plan was to depart from the hotel at noon and hopefully depart on a private charter plane at 3:30 PM, but that plan went out the window pretty quickly. We were still missing two of the 19 study abroad students- Elaine claimed that they had been trying to avoid the evacuation by hiding and not answering their phones. This issue is still questionable- both of the “evacuation escapers” eventually met us at the hotel and airport that day, and they claimed that they had never been called at all, or that the security vans simply could not find their apartments. I’m willing to guess that it was a combination of the students not being compliant, and Elaine’s lack of organization that resulted in this. By around 12:30 or 1, we all climbed into airport shuttle vans and made our way towards the airport. At this point, we had the 19 UC students, two Presbyterian College students who had been allowed to join our group just to get them to the airport, and one of the UC students’ mom, who had been visiting him in Cairo when the protests began. All of the sudden, Elaine became semi-competent at her job. She was able to arrange for all of us to get ourselves and our luggage in the van, ensured that Adam’s mom would be able to join us on the plane, and actually accompanied us to the airport, all while complaining about how many cigarettes she had smoked that day.

The airport was quite a sight. We were taken to a small side terminal that I had never seen before, which was designated specifically for private charter flights. It was PACKED. People lined the entire walkway in front of the terminal, and spilled out onto the grass lawn in front of it. They looked like they had been there for quite a while, and weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon- blankets were spread out, music was playing, people were reading books and chatting. We ended up camping out on the sidewalk outside of the terminal for a good three or four hours while details were arranged for our departure. A few of the students had brought guitars or purchased ouds in Cairo, so some played music, others watched movies on laptops, and the rest talked while we waited. Elaine was constantly on the phone- one of our students had left his jacket (with passport inside a pocket) on the airport shuttle, our plane had not landed at the terminal yet, and the curfew was about to start at 3 PM. Our 3:30 departure time soon became 5:30. Eventually, we were told to prepare to go through security. The jacket (and passport) was found, and Elaine had a few recent developments for us- she had spoken with a group of archaeologists from UCLA who had been camped out on the grass near us, and told us that they would be joining us on our flight to Barcelona. She also complained about the fact that she would probably have to sleep at the airport that night, since curfew had started, and let us know that the cats staying at her apartment were eating her bacon.

We lined up for security, and were given our “boarding passes”. Since it was a private flight, these passes were literally just a blank slip of white paper with no gate, airline, or flight number on it. We went through security and stood in a huddle inside a large room until a man shouted “Barcelona!” at us, and we followed him to an area to stack our bags (they were not marked as being headed to Barcelona at all- just left in a pile in a room), then waited around some more until he shouted at us again. We were literally just following around whoever happened to yell the name of our destination. Soon enough, we were put on a bus outside and driven to our plane. It was a pretty weird sight- the plane was completely unmarked. Normally, you’ll see the airline’s name and logo everywhere you look, but ours was pure white. The stewardesses spoke Spanish, so obviously it was based in Spain, but other than that we had no indicators of the origin of this plane. It was actually a little disconcerting- at least airlines have some sense of brand recognition, and have built up trust and respect in their name. I had no idea whether or not these airplanes were safe or approved by a larger organization.

At this point, the evacuation process improved tenfold. We each had our own row to sit in on the plane, and then some. We were fed and able to sleep for the 4.5 hour flight. Upon arriving in Barcelona at around 10 PM, we were the only ones in the terminal and picked up our luggage with no problem, and were met by a sweet old woman who knew who we were and escorted us to a large charter bus which would take us to our hotel. We drove past the Olympic athlete housing and a few buildings from the games before arriving at our hotel, which had a huge buffet dinner waiting for us! We all threw our luggage in a side room before descending upon the food and feasting. The Education Abroad Program director for Barcelona met us and gave us every piece of information about Barcelona that we could ever need- maps, weather patterns, country descriptions, phone numbers, and even a list of the UC students that were in Barcelona for that semester. It was fantastic. I ate as much food as I possibly could before heading up to my room to settle in for the night. We were told to call a company called Europe Assist the next day to schedule our flights for the journey back to California, and maybe squeeze in a little sightseeing while we were at it. I logged onto the internet for the first time in over a week and answered emails and Skyped (and spent way too much time on Facebook) for a few hours before going to bed. We were definitely spoiled- we all had an entire room to ourselves, food paid for, and even an hour of international phone time to use to call family back home. I had only heard good things about Barcelona, and couldn’t wait to get a feel of the city during my impromptu stay there.

This has turned into a pretty long post already, so I’ll stop here and cover my time in Barcelona in an additional post. To be continued!


1 Comment

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One response to “cairo evacuation

  1. Karen and Steve

    Steve and I have been thinking about you since the riots started and were so glad to get reports from your mom that you were fine. What an experience you have had! Your year has taken a turn you couldn’t have anticipated but will provide you with more experiences than the planned year would have. We know you will take full advantage of them and we look forward to hearing about them.
    Take care and stay safe. Karen

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