Evacuation

Like millions worldwide, I have been following the events unfolding in Egypt with great interest and concern.  Having grown up in Pakistan in the 1960’s I experienced numerous outbreaks of rioting and coups that often kept us out of school for weeks due to bomb threats, so reading about the turmoil in Cairo has brought back some interesting memories. This evening a headline from Reuters particularly caught my eye:  Governments scramble to fly citizens out of Egypt. 

Governments started arranging for planes on Sunday to bring home citizens stuck in Egypt, where violent protests of the rule of President Hosni Mubarak have given way in some parts of Cairo to looting. The United States and Turkey offered to evacuate citizens wanting to leave and major airlines including Lufthansa and Air India said they would send additional planes to Cairo and Alexandria…..U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs said on CNN television that U.S.-government sponsored flights will be leaving Cairo on Monday.

 As I read the report, I couldn’t help thinking “been there, done that!”

 In December of 1971 war broke out (again!) between Pakistan and India. The short version is that East Pakistan (which was separated from West Pakistan by 1000 miles of India) was demanding independence, and the establishment of a new state, Bangla Desh. Since the center of military and political power was all in the West, they weren’t about to let the region go without a fight.  India took sides with East Pakistan, and even though most of the fighting took place in East Pakistan, India launched strikes to destroy key military installations in the west, many of which were in and around Karachi, where we were living. For a good round-up of Time’s coverage of the war, this is a good site to visit.  http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110130/wl_nm/us_egypt_tourism

 Our family’s experience of the war was primarily being on the receiving end of nightly air raids conducted by the Indian Air Force.  Fortunately, our house wasn’t near any strategic installations, so we weren’t terribly worried about a bomb landing in our neighborhood — unless it was dropped by accident, of course. Nevertheless, when the air-raid sirens sounded each evening we dutifully turned out the lights to comply with the forced black-outs and hauled our bedding and radio to the floor space underneath the stairs (we’d been told it was the strongest part of the house) to settle in for a long night.

As soon as the sirens stopped the anti-aircraft guns began firing, lighting up the sky with tracers and explosions. There weren’t always enemy aircraft in the skies, but if they were up there, the troops in charge of defending the city were determined to blanket the sky with flak, just in case. More than one night we had casings of shells land in our yard.  Fortunately, they were Not un-exploded.

After a few days of fighting, the US State Department decided to mount an evacuation of American citizens from Pakistan.  We were told that a Pan Am plane (raise your hand if you remember that airline!) would arrive to ferry us all to the safe city in the region, Teheran, Iran. All we had to do was show up at the airport. 

Believe it or not, this was a tough decision for my parents since they and some of their colleagues in the education and religious community did not have multiple entry visas. Departing the country meant that we may never be able to get back in, but staying  meant being at risk if/when the fighting in Karachi escalated.  Since we had ridden out previous wars which were mercifully short my parents and their colleagues (after much prayer) decided not to leave, even though the US Consulate officials told us there was no guarantee that the fighting wouldn’t get worse and that there would be another opportunity to get out. “Check in with us every day,” they told my dad.  “But otherwise, you’re on your own.”

The Pan Am 747 came and scooped up almost everyone else in our ex-pat community: our teachers and classmates from Karachi American School, businessmen and their families, and ‘non-essential personnel’ from the Consulate. Ours was one of only 5 or 6 American families that stayed.

We quickly settled into a war-time lifestyle. A curfew was imposed on the city and only lifted for a few hours in the afternoon during which my dad would jump into our little blue VW Bug and head off in search of food and other supplies. My mom decided that the best way to kill time and keep our minds off the air-raids and occasional dog-fights (as in air-to-air combat) that played out in the skies above our house near Hill Park was to bake Christmas cookies. So we baked Christmas cookies.  All day, every day. For about a week. I got so sick of Christmas cookies that to this day I cannot eat one. At night we would again retreat to the floor underneath the stairs, with our trusty short-wave radio so we could learn what was going on from the BBC.  The local media only had one main narrative:  WE ARE WINNING, WE ARE WINNING, which we were fairly certain wasn’t true.

The 4th day of the war saw a particularly devastating bombing raid on the city that hit the oil storage tanks at the port, sending a black cloud of smoke into the air that eventually obliterated sunlight and covered the entire city. Things did not seem to be quieting down.

Two days later an official from the US Consulate called to tell us that they had intelligence reports that India was planning to launch a ground invasion against Karachi.  He said that the British and the Canadians were planning one more round of evacuation flights to get out the remaining foreign nationals and strongly urged my father to take this opportunity to get out. The plan was for the evacuation flight to be over a two-day period, with the Canadian Air Force flying out women and children the first day, and the British Royal Air Force flying the men out on the second day. The reality was that the timing was such that they were not certain the British RAF would get in/out on the second day.

The curfew was lifted in the early morning and the remnants of the ex-pat community flooded the airport. The scenes I am seeing now on TV are reminiscent of the scenes at the airport that morning. My mom, sister, and I said good-bye to my dad and boarded the Canadian Air Force plane.

It was a tough departure because we didn’t know when (or where) we would see him again.  

(Stay tuned for the rest of the story……)