Evacuation was massive undertaking

Canberra Times (Australia)
July 30, 2006 Sunday
Final Edition

THE Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade knew it had a
worse-than-normal crisis on its hands when the news that the Israelis
had bombed Beirut International Airport came through on Thursday,
July 13.

Over the next few days, department officers worked frantically around
the clock preparing the largest evacuation in Australia's recent
history. The complexity and size of the task has been lost in the
sea of early reports of panic- stricken Australians trying to flee
the carnage. The evacuation was bigger than that for the 2004 Boxing
Day tsunami, the Bali bombings or May's East Timor airlift.

Between 20,000 to 25,000 Australians were estimated to be in Lebanon
when the Israelis attacked. Those in Lebanon flooded the embassy and
friends and relatives sought DFAT help.

An Armenian junior dance troupe, stranded by the conflict, was among
the first to attract attention. With 45 young performers and 36
parents and supervisors, the troupe took refuge in its Beirut hotel
as the bombs rained down.

The troupe had to be a government priority, and it was. With the
airport down, and no ferry available, buses were the only option.

By Monday the troupe was out of Lebanon, albeit via a roundabout route
that took it north into Syria and then back south to the Jordanian
capital, Amman.

With Damascus, the Syrian capital, choked in congestion, the Amman
choice proved wise. The troupe was home on Thursday, July 21, a week
after the first bombs fell on the airport.

By Thursday of last week, 4515 Australians had been evacuated from
Lebanon, 3767 on Australian chartered vessels, 582 on ferries chartered
by other governments (350 by the British and 200 by the Greek navy)
and 166 on government-organised road convoys. In addition, Australian
chartered vessels evacuated 1236 foreign nationals.

The head of DFAT's consular division, Rod Smith, observes that in
one day they lost the airports, the port was blocked and the main
overland route to Syria was bombed. With some understatement he says,
"This severely limited our options."

The evacuation of 4500 people was an enormous undertaking, he says.
"It's never been done before."

The morning after the airport bombing, DFAT opened its crisis centre
and the first meeting of the inter-departmental emergency taskforce
was convened.

The first emergency response team of half a dozen officers left
Canberra on Saturday headed for Beirut. A small team was sent from
Cairo to Damascus and others went to Larnaca in Cyprus and Mersin
and Adana in Turkey.

Over the weekend, DFAT carried out detailed work on the evacuation,
expecting the first large-scale sea move by chartered ferry on
Wednesday.

But in a war zone things do not always go according to plan. With
governments around the world bidding for boats, the Turkish ferry that
was booked did not arrive, leaving Australians and many people of other
nationalities stranded on the docks. Nevertheless, on Wednesday and
Thursday, with the help of other governments, hundreds of Australians
got out.

In the end the sea operation that was planned for Wednesday started
on Friday and continued until Tuesday of last week.

The Mediterranean is not Australia's back yard, as it is for France
or Greece. Australia does not have a naval presence there and had no
instant resources to call upon.

Closer to home, over the past few years Australia has managed the
evacuation of its nationals and all foreigners from crises in the
Solomon Islands, East Timor and Bali.

Over about the same period of time as the Lebanese evacuation,
Australian defence personnel evacuated 1000 people, including foreign
nationals from 30 different countries, from East Timor. The first
Bali evacuation did not have anywhere near the numbers as the Lebanese
evacuation but did have the added problem of handling severely injured
and burnt people.

In Lebanon, the United States used a helicopter air bridge to put
people into their missions and back-loaded it with US citizens they
wanted to evacuate.

The first Australian emergency response team got into Beirut thanks
to a British air bridge.

Contrary to popular opinion, the embassy stayed open to the public
for all but one day - Friday, July 14 - when it was closed to the
public for security reasons. However, even with this public closure
the ambassador and her small team were at their post, writing cables
and sending back reports.

Normally the Beirut embassy is staffed by three DFAT, three Department
of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and one Australian Federal
Police officer, plus locally engaged staff.

Since July 15, the Government has deployed 228 additional staff
overseas to assist with the evacuation.

The Beirut embassy got 31 extra, DFAT 14 extra, the AFP two, and
Defence 15.

In Canberra, more than 450 staff have been working on the crisis.

Immigration Department spokesman Sandi Logan says staff worked 18-hour
days keeping the embassy counters open.

Television captured the images of passengers disembarking from the
ferries in Turkey suffering terribly from seasickness. But what they
did not reveal is that the Immigration Department officers had had a
double dose, having travelled on the vessel to Beirut and returning
on it to Mersin.

The war added greatly to the complexity of embassy work.

People arrived without appropriate documents. So many people turned
up without passports that emergency passport stock had to be shipped
into Beirut.

The computerised passport system enabled identity verification but
there were other complications. Immigration was confronted by people
with their fiancee or their spouse, whom they had married in recent
months. They wanted visas issued for their partner immediately,
a request that could not always be met.

Logan says in some instances clients demanded to see the ambassador
and made "a bit of a scene at the counter area". The handful who could
not be granted visas left the office with an understanding that the
department could not break the law.

The South of Lebanon, which was being most heavily targeted by Israel,
presented particular difficulties. But a convoy of buses and taxis
was organised to Sidon.

Staff from Canberra and Beirut worked the telephones engaging taxis
to pick people up from their houses in surrounding villages to join
the convoy.

It was never going to be good enough to get people out of Lebanon
and leave them stranded in another country. As a result DFAT, which
was aided in its logistics operation by Defence personnel, managed
an airlift from Cyprus and Turkey, sometimes via Frankfurt. This was
organised despite stiff competition for charters and landing slots
from other countries trying to do the same for their citizens.

In its efforts DFAT was supported by Centrelink, the Emergency
Management Authority, the Department of Community Services, Families
and Indigenous Affairs, the AFP, Defence and Qantas. At last count
close to 4000 people had made it back to Australia.