Monday, 31 January 2011, began early and lasted late. My alarm clock went off at 5am, after I’d been asleep for only four hours. For the last several nights, I’d averaged four hours of sleep a night. As someone who needs eight or nine hours each night, let me tell you: I was beat. Already.
Nevertheless, I got out of bed and headed toward the shower. As I went into the bathroom, I heard the squawk of the emergency radio and paused to listen. It was the same announcement I’d heard the last several mornings: Curfew is still in effect. The streets are not secure. The embassy is closed until further notice. Do not try to approach the embassy unless your supervisor tells you to and arranges secure transportation for you. Stay off the radio unless it’s an emergency. The same announcement would be repeated throughout the day, unless something happened to change it.
But today I wouldn’t be able to hear it. I was evacuating.
I showered and dressed. Ate breakfast. Went through my mental list of things that had been packed, trying to figure out if any substitutions should be made—I was at the weight limit for our luggage and beyond the limit of what I could carry on my own, so additions could not be made without corresponding subtractions. Jeff and Alexa woke up. Jeff held his baby girl, not sure when he’d be able to do so again. She was evacuating with me.
We’d been told to be ready the moment the vans pulled up. They’d be leaving at 8. At 7:30, Jeff went downstairs to get the car seat and reported that people were gathering already. We decided to head down as well. We spent the next two or three hours sitting in the common room, waiting for the buses to show up. I chatted with a couple of other ladies who were evacuating, one who—like me—wouldn’t have left of her own volition but was being pressured by her husband’s managerial hierarchy; another who was so conflicted that she hadn’t made the decision to leave until one o’clock that morning. I envied her the choice. Jeff continued to hold Alexa. I watched them, drinking in the sight of them together.
Finally the vans pulled in and we began loading. We had too many people to fit in one load, but we managed to fit anyway. The vans were needed to pick up other evacuees in other locations—we already were running behind schedule, and no one wanted to waste the time for a second trip unless it couldn’t be avoided. We crammed in for the 15-minute drive to the commissary compound, where processing would occur before the caravan of buses left for the airport.
As we drove through Maadi, I was struck by how quiet the streets were. It made Friday morning—the typical quiet time—look like rush hour. Almost every street we passed showed the remnants of the barricades set up by last night’s vigilante militias: a stack of sandbags here, a pile of junk metal there. A tank sat in each major intersection. I wished I had my camera, but with all the things I had to carry, I'd made the decision to leave it in my carry-on bag, despite knowing that I would miss some great pictures. It was the right call, but ... oh, the pictures I missed!
Just two turns from our destination, we stopped. A group of Egyptian men surrounded the front of the vehicle. After a short conversation in Arabic, our driver made a U-turn through the pass to the other side of the divided road. We drove a few meters—passing through a small crowd of waving, smiling young men—then turned right and began a convoluted journey that eventually led us back to the main road a scant distance farther down than where we were stopped. From my new vantage, it was easy to see that relatively permanent road blocks had been erected, and although most vehicles could maneuver through if they went slowly and carefully, our larger vehicles simply wouldn’t fit.
After that, we arrived at the commissary compound quickly. People and bags—one checked, weighing less than 44 pounds, and one carryon per person—were unloaded, and the vans sped off to collect more evacuees. We were directed to a long table where we checked in, and the administrators made sure that appropriate travel orders had been issued for everyone. Those who were low on cash had the opportunity to collect an advance against their travel per diem. We all waited around, making trips into the commissary as necessary to use the bathroom and buy travel supplies, until the order was given to start loading the nine or ten waiting buses.
As the buses were loaded, I stood aside with a few others. The dependents from my husband’s office planned to travel together so that we could help each other along the way, and most had not yet arrived. Several of us have small or multiple children (one family has four), and two young girls were traveling without any parent, as dad had to stay and mom was already in the States when all this began. Those with no or older children planned to stay close and help those of us who needed it. So the few of us who had arrived watched the buses fill and eventually leave without us.
Finally everyone had arrived. There were no more large buses, so we loaded up into a smaller tour bus, packed in like sardines. Our luggage was tossed into an open cargo truck, and we could only hope none of it flew out on the bumpy roads leading to the fast, smooth sailing of the Autostrade. We were content, though—our support group was intact.
Tanks were in abundance as we made our way to the airport. One young boy excitedly counted 35 or so. They sat in intersections and alongside the busy road—traffic outside of Maadi was lighter than usual, but definitely there. Soldiers stood near the tanks, lounged on top of them, or sat nearby. Atypically, none seemed to notice cameras aimed at them, even when those cameras were pressed to the window as we passed slowly by.
Soldiers turned us away from the first airport gate we approached. We backtracked, turned around again, and went to a different gate, where we were allowed entrance. As we approached the arrival hall that would serve as our departure hall, I saw masses of people milling around outside: the evacuees, “official” (diplomatic passports) on one side of the doors, “non-official” (tourist passports) on the other. American law states that non-official U.S. citizens are to be given equal opportunity as official citizens to evacuate in these situations, so each plane would carry half official evacuees and half non-official evacuees.
We unloaded ourselves—de-pretzeled ourselves, actually—from the bus and headed to the back of the long, winding line on the official side of the doors. The truck with our luggage made its way toward us, then parked while the luggage was unloaded. As they were unloaded, the bags were placed in long lines stretching across the driveway. I saw one of our bags and went to claim it. “Don’t touch that!” A man barked at me. “It’ll make them all tip over; someone will get hurt. Just wait.” Surprised, I turned to one of my fellow evacuees. “He yelled at me, too,” she admitted. Unsure as to the problem—the bags were being placed in a single layer, so even if they tipped over, they wouldn’t touch anyone, much less cause injury—I watched as all the bags were unloaded. When the go-ahead was given, I joined the others in gingerly stepping over all the not-my-bags to reach mine, then pulled it out of line. Sure enough, the bag beside it fell over—and landed harmlessly on the ground, not even causing the anticipated domino effect.
Our group organized ourselves pretty well. The two of us with infants were responsible primarily for our own babies, two or three kept an eye on the 11 mobile children, and the remaining two or three made sure that all the luggage kept up with the group as we inched forward. Before too long, one of the security guys approached us. “Am I to understand that you’re a large group of single moms traveling with a bunch of small children?” Affirmative responses all around—the two without children were particularly critical to our group, so there was no way they were being left out of anything. “You’re exactly the kind of group that we want to expedite and get on your way. Follow me.”
We followed him toward the front of the line. Progress was slow, as children were corralled and made to help with the copious amounts of luggage, but eventually we made it. The security guy told us to “wait here” while he went to arrange things for us. Within just a few minutes, I heard an abrasive voice: “You can’t stand here, this is a traffic lane, I need you to move NOW!” It was the same guy who had yelled at me over the luggage. As we laboriously moved ourselves and all of our bags onto the sidewalk, clearing the wide and deserted driveway where we’d been parked by our security guy, he continued to yell. Finally he went away. I overheard our de facto leader telling another member of our group: “You know, it was weird, the first thing he said when he came over was ‘what office are you with?’ What does that have to do with anything?”
Shortly after that, our security guy came back, an apologetic expression on his face. “Between when they told me the policy and the time it took me to find you and bring you up here, the policy changed. They’re not expediting groups like yours anymore. I’m sorry.” He helped us make our way back to the end of the line.
Hours passed. Diapers were changed on changing mats laid out on the grass. Snacks and water were distributed and consumed. For the most part, we didn’t move. Telephone conversations revealed that the first planes that were boarded, before we even arrived at the airport, were stuck on the tarmac waiting for approval to depart. The ambassador herself was making phone calls trying to get the evacuation planes cleared. The Regional Security Officer made an announcement that they were trying to get us all out that day, but some may have to spend the night at the airport because of crew rest laws kicking in as a result of departure delays, especially for the two planes that were scheduled to make two round trips. It was getting chilly, and I was glad that I’d packed for a potential overnight in some freezing European city (we wouldn’t know what city we were going to until we were assigned a flight).
Finally there was significant movement. Another plane obviously was being boarded, as the line ahead of us decreased by a third. Children again were corralled to help us move ourselves and our bags to our new position. The security guy who had tried to help us before came to give us an update. While he was speaking with some, another security guy approached me, as I was standing off to the side and couldn’t hear what the first was saying. He told me what to expect with numbered cards and such, which we would receive once we’d been assigned to a plane. Then he said “Now that all the groups with connections are gone, the rest should be able to go according to plan.” Excuse me? He must have been exhausted and frustrated to have let that little tidbit slip.
Not long after, I was approached by the first security guy who had tried to help us. “How old is your little one?” Almost seven months. “We’re taking infants under 12 months first for the next flight.” Great, can the whole group go? “No, only immediate family members. But we’ll be upping the age limit as we clear the little ones, and we may be able to fit everyone on the next flight, so you may end up together anyway.” Thanks, but I’d rather stay with my group. I need them. “If everyone doesn’t fit, the ones who are left may have to spend the night here.” That’s fine. “It’s going to get cold, and they may not be able to go inside.” I’m prepared for that. Thanks for your concern, though. “Ok.”
A few minutes later, security guy number two, the exhausted and frustrated one, approached me. We repeated the same conversation, with only minor variations.
A few minutes later, the guy who liked to yell came up, trailed by the other two. Both of the nice ones looked embarrassed and a little worried. Not a good sign. I don’t recall all the details of this conversation, but I was ordered to leave the support of my group, the group that my husband had told me to be certain to stay with, the group whose help already had been needed time and time again. “You have no choice,” he said to me. “I’m responsible for her,” referencing my daughter. I remember my response to that unbelievable statement: “No, you’re not,” with a measure of steel in my voice. “I’m responsible for my daughter.” His responsibility extended to keeping looters and potentially dangerous opportunists away from her (and from the rest of us) while we waited our turn to board a plane; I was and am responsible for everything else, including keeping her fed, clean, and warm—all of which I was prepared to do even if we did spend the night outside that airport. I had planned and packed for four days of travel in conditions ranging from hot to snowy. One night outside in Cairo’s chilliest was not going to be a problem; I wouldn’t even need to break open the checked bag, as blankets, extra clothes, and bottles all were stored in her diaper bag. All I needed was the willing assistance of my group to help hold her, prepare bottles, or guard and move bags.
In the end, I acquiesced to separating from my group and taking the earlier flight—not gracefully, not even politely, but with open hostility and anger—only because my husband also had told me that no matter how heavy-handed and dictatorial this guy became (I’d complained about him in earlier phone conversations), I was not to resist him so much that I risked being sent back to my apartment instead of evacuated. (My husband knows me well enough to recognize temptation on the horizon.) There were two more confrontations, though: one when he insisted that I move myself, my daughter, her car seat, her diaper bag, my backpack, and our two suitcases immediately, without help, while I was holding a screaming baby and trying to prepare a bottle for her; and one after I’d checked in and tried to move to where he’d told me he wanted us—inside, where Alexa could be warm—only to be told that I couldn’t go inside yet. I was livid at that point: he was so concerned that my daughter be warm that he was forcing us to separate from our group—whom we needed—but once he’d accomplished that goal, we were left to wait outside in the cold anyway?!? I found myself grateful that my hands were so full; otherwise I’d have had a hard time resisting the urge to wring his neck.
After another half hour or so, one of the women in my group approached me. She told me that the mom of an infant younger than Alexa had gone willingly into my plane load, and that a mom of two and a mom of four had been forced, like me, as they filled the plane with progressively older children and their families. There were two seats left on my plane, and one of them was designated for a helper from our group. In the end, my plane carried five adults, six young children, and two infants from our group. We left behind two adults and the five oldest children.
We made our way through security and checked our bags. After passing through passport control, a short bus ride took us to the plane. One member of our group took Alexa’s car seat as I carried the baby. When I reached the top of the stairs and tried to claim the car seat from the flight attendants, who had taken it from my friend, they refused to give it to me. “We don’t know how many passengers there will be. There may not be enough seats.” There will be; my baby was counted as a passenger, and she has her own seat. State Department regulations require it, and State Department regulations require that I use that car seat. “We don’t know. We need to keep it here. We’ll put it in the cargo hold and you can get it in Istanbul.” You can keep it here, in the front of the plane, until the plane is completely boarded. Then there will be an empty seat beside me for my daughter, and you can bring me the car seat once you see that there’s room. Don’t put it in the hold. She’ll need it during this flight. “Okay, we can do that.”
Eventually, finally, the plane was fully loaded. As soon as I heard the announcement that all passengers were aboard, I flagged down a flight attendant, pointed out the empty seat beside me, and requested my daughter’s car seat. Her face brought to mind the phrase “deer in the headlights,” but she disappeared up the aisle. Several minutes later, she came back. “The seat is in the hold. I cannot bring it to you. I cannot get to it.” In a firm but controlled voice, I replied “You can and you will. It was not supposed to go into the hold. Get it.” At least, I thought my voice was controlled … the man three rows up who turned his head to see what the fuss was about may not agree. Several more minutes later, the flight attendant timidly approached me again. “What color is your seat?” Orange. But I saw another orange one up there, too. Mine is the Chicco. Finally, after another several minutes, I saw Alexa’s car seat being held aloft, over the heads of seated passengers, approaching me. As I buckled Alexa in, I hoped that the drama was over for the day.
Not so, but at least I had nothing to do with the rest of the day’s drama. An elderly passenger toward the front of the plane suffered from faintness and vomiting en route to Istanbul. He was attended by two doctors on board; they gave him oxygen and had him lie down. Upon arrival in Istanbul, he was taken to a hospital. I have no idea who he was or how he’s doing.
We landed in Istanbul around 2am on Tuesday, 1 February. I had left my apartment 18-1/2 hours earlier. It would be another 25 hours before Alexa and I arrived at my mom’s house. We left Istanbul around 6am, then made two more connections before arriving at the local airport 45 minutes from my hometown. Luckily, Alexa allowed me to sleep a good bit on the way. I was informed by flight attendants and other passengers that as I snoozed, she smiled and cooed at anyone and everyone who passed by our row.
Upon arrival in the United States, I discovered that the authorized evacuation under which I had left Egypt had been upgraded to a mandated evacuation. That information did make me feel slightly better about being forced to leave, but still … then and now, I yearn to go back.