US ‘refugees’ flood into Cyprus

NICOSIA – Army blankets, a sea of orange camp beds and plain-clothed US marines patrolling the area: This is not a detention facility but a transit camp set up in the heart of Nicosia to process thousands of Americans fleeing Lebanon. Families chat and kids play with donated toys or watch cartoons on TV. Some are visibly exhausted by their ordeal, while others appear full of energy despite the 30-hour odyssey by sea from Beirut to Cyprus. The harsh realities of Middle East politics touching ordinary Americans on vacation was hard for some to fathom. «You see these situations on TV and feel sorry for the people. Now we are the ones that feel like refugees,» said mother of two Brenda Fawaz, 41, from Tampa, Florida. The US has established the makeshift camp to handle an estimated 6,000 American nationals expected on Cyprus in the coming days. Its embassy has rented 2,000 square meters of air-conditioned exhibition space in the Cyprus State Fair grounds. Some 700 people are being catered to in the guarded 1,000-bed facility. Most evacuees were happy with the facilities and said they were well looked after. Although there were gripes about arrangements to get people on charter flights home, most thought that the elderly and mothers with toddlers should leave first. «We have to be understanding and try and have a little heart for those with young children,» said Gloria Mansouraty, 56, from El Paso, Texas, traveling with her 21-year-old son Gabriel. «We missed out on our flight but people are losing their lives in Lebanon – it’s a horrific experience,» she added. Cyprus is struggling to accommodate thousands of foreigners arriving at the height of its tourist season as the island finds itself the main transit point for people fleeing Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. With its main international airport at Larnaca inundated, the airport at the tourist town of Paphos was being used for at least two charter flights to the USA yesterday. Hala Hakim, from Memphis, Tennessee, is convinced the war will continue for a «long time» and lamented that «half of Beirut is already bombed.» «I feel like the Iraqi people,» she said. The 33-year-old mother of two put a brave face on things after almost 48 stress-filled hours with no sleep. «They (the US authorities) are doing their best, but it’s no fun being in the same room as 500 people.» Many were happy to grin and bear it, knowing they would not be homeless for long. Any lengthy stay could turn the atmosphere from relief to frustration. The Americans insist that the turnaround will be quick. More than 2,200 American evacuees arrived in Cyprus early yesterday aboard the American navy transport vessel USS Nashville and cruise ship Orient Queen. More US and other nationals were expected late yesterday after their ship, the Samarra, was delayed in Beirut. California teenager Catherine Saideh is looking forward to «sleep and a shower» as soon as she gets home. «It’s the most scared I’ve ever been. We could hear the planes going over and we were praying ‘Please don’t drop it here,’» she said. Catherine, 18, traveling with her mother and two sisters, said information from the embassy in Beirut was slow to come at best. «We got on a list because my dad got us on it in the States,» she said. «Italy went and got their people out, France went out and the US was telling us to watch the Internet which wasn’t working.» The US Embassy is making arrangements to ensure that those who want to leave immediately will be able to fly out as soon as possible, although processing such large numbers is expected to take time. Charter flights are being laid on and estimates of the numbers of Americans – there are 20,000 in Lebanon – wanting to leave Beirut are growing by the day. Some evacuees have made their own arrangements but most are being dealt with by reinforced embassy staff in one of the largest voluntary military evacuations of Americans in decades. Cypriots feel abandoned as Lebanon arrivals mount LARNACA (Combined reports) – Cyprus complained yesterday it had been abandoned by the international community over the unprecedented sealift of foreign nationals from Lebanon to the tiny holiday island. Since the sea evacuation began in earnest on Monday, some 20,000 foreign nationals have come through Cyprus, the majority of whom have already departed for home. Estimates say these arrival figures could double before the weekend is out. «Up until now, Cyprus has been basically left alone and unassisted in its effort to help so many thousands of people,» Cypriot government spokesman Christodoulos Pasiardis told reporters. «This astonishingly large number is already challenging our acknowledged success so far and testing our infrastructure and the ability of Cyprus to effectively respond to this serious humanitarian problem,» he added. Cyprus has called for the immediate intervention of other countries, especially the EU, to help it handle the thousands of people from poorer countries who need to be swiftly repatriated. The key request is to make more aircraft available, especially for third-country nationals. Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India which have thousands of expat workers who want evacuating, have all requested Cyprus’s help in organizing the escape of their nationals from the bloodshed. «We are in a dilemma,» Foreign Minister George Lillikas told state radio. «We either continue our humanitarian effort with the means we have or do what others do and not allow non-Europeans to use Cyprus… We would rather that never happens,» he added. Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Turkey said that American evacuees fleeing the violence in Lebanon will go home via Turkey in the coming days after 1,000 Canadians arrived in the port of Mersin from Beirut overnight. «American citizens who are being evacuated from Lebanon will be transiting Turkey as they return to the US over the next several days,» the US Embassy in Ankara said. As many as four more ships were expected to bring more Canadians to Turkey from Lebanon yesterday, Canadian Ambassador to Ankara Yves Brodeur said. Buses take the evacuees from the port to the city of Adana, where authorities have turned a sports complex into a temporary camp. Brodeur said Canada had arranged charter flights to take Canadians from Adana airport to Montreal. «We’re working at a capacity of about 1,000 people a day,» he said. (AFP, Reuters)