It’s time to evacuate

If you’ve watched the news recently you’ve probably caught glimpses of those who have fled. Thousands of people trying to cross a boarder in a scramble for safety. There’s the reunion scenes at airports, husbands hugging wives for longer than usual, families re-united. Ever wondered what it’s like to be evacuated? When we arrived in Jakarta eleven years ago, the riots and subsequent evacuations that followed were still fresh in people’s minds. I asked a friend if I could share her story.

When I looked out of our apartment window, the view had changed dramatically, what was usually a stunning view of glimmering lights over a city skyline, was now burning buildings with the sounds of fire trucks and ambulances. Instead of the usual bustle of taxis, bajaj and cars below, there were now tanks on the street and I could hear gun fire. We’d been told the office would call with details of what was going to happen next, when they rang, my husband wrote down the details of our meeting point. He said initially it was just women and children being evacuated, the men were to stay behind. When will you come? What do I take? Do you think we’ll come back? I was pregnant, this wasn’t in the plan.

Some of the women were crying as they got on the bus, consoling children who were asking why their Fathers weren’t coming with them. They told us the men would come if the situation got worse, we were all thinking the same thing. How could it get any worse? It didn’t feel real. We hardly said a word on our way to the airport, it was almost a stunned silence as we looked through the bus windows, spot fires everywhere, it wasn’t the city we knew. 

When we arrived at the airport there were soldiers standing next to tanks with guns. The Occupational Health and Safety guy was waiting for us, we all knew him, he was the funny guy, the one that made the jokes at the beginning of the defensive driving training, told you to put smoke detectors in your house and made sure you reverse parked. This time it was different, there were no jokes, he was making sure we had passports, medical documents. He told us the company had secured a plane to Singapore, stick together, follow me.

It was chaotic inside the airport, we were shoulder to shoulder, people were desperate to get out of the country, they were asking how much and then offering to pay more. The rules were being broken, people were pushing, I kept my hands over my pregnant belly and just prayed we were going to get on that plane.

Can you imagine?

In every location we’ve lived in, there has been some sort of hiccup that has made us consider packing up and heading home. When there isn’t the backup of family or lifelong friends nearby, you start to ask yourself where you’d go if you had to get away quickly.

When it comes to evacuations you don’t always have to be based in a country that begins with the phrase “war torn” or ends with “stan” to find yourself in trouble. Ask those who felt safe in New Orleans just before being hit by Hurricane Katrina, who then found themselves in a city that looked more chaotic than the Gaza Strip on a good day.

Remember the quarantined Canadians and those who were based in Asia when the world was talking about SARS or Avian Flu. Perhaps you were in Mexico around the time of H1N1? Whatever the case, when it happens it usually happens quickly.

For a friend of mine, it happened this week in Libya. Her world changed dramatically in 24 hours. Her Facebook page went from a reassuring almost don’t be silly “we’re all fine, nothing happening here” to “the children and I got the last flight out before the airport shut down, we’re in Malta, but my husband is still there”. For three days we heard snippets of what was happening “he can hear machine guns firing throughout the night” and then finally, thankfully, “he’s on the Tarmac, he may have to go to Gatwick, but he’s safe”.

Sadly, when you ask an expat to describe the feeling of evacuating there’s a common sentiment that runs with every story. They’ll talk about the exhilaration of getting home, but also the guilt, the constant thoughts of those they left behind.

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