Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Poorer Nations Scramble to Evacuate Their Citizens

July 26, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The Ethiopian Consulate was filled Tuesday with young women, almost all of them maids and nannies trying to get back home.

And at the Iraqi Embassy, yet another bus pulled up with poor laborers seeking passage to Baghdad, hoping to return home even though it would mean returning to another war zone.

Throughout the Lebanese capital, embassies and consulates are attempting to extricate fellow citizens from the fighting that began July 12.

For Western nations such as the United States, the effort has involved the costly use of ships or helicopters. For poor countries, the job has been a struggle, one that finds their officials navigating the intricacies of Lebanese law while finding a way to finance transportation, food and lodging for the thousands seeking to go home.

It can also involve making arrangements for people with little money and a lack of knowledge about what is needed to leave the country.

Many of the Ethiopian evacuees have had to make their way from south Lebanon, where the fighting is the heaviest. Others in Beirut want to leave because of fears the Israelis will intensify their shelling of the city. The exodus makes for a major headache for the tiny consulate staff, which in normal times does little more than renew passports.

"Many of them are illiterate," said Adem Nurhussen, the acting Ethiopian consul general. "Some don't even know what a passport is and most have run away from their sponsor, so they are illegal. And some sponsors want $2,000 or $3,000 just to give them their papers back."

Often, said Nurhussen, working here is a form of indentured servitude that is almost impossible to quit, much less leave.

"In the Middle East, that is a very big problem," he said. "They often have their passports taken away from them immediately at the airport. Sometimes there is harassment and beatings. If they run away, the sponsors report them to the police. And sometimes the sponsors are so angry they just say the papers are lost."

Betlhehem Mulu, a consulate employee who has been trying to help the stranded workers, said there also were stories of employers who fled to safety, leaving their maids behind to fend for themselves.

One woman had her clothes and other belongings dumped at the front door by employers who then took off.

Mulu said most are now overjoyed that help in financing the trip home has arrived. Among others, that aid comes from the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group that often assists Third World countries when their citizens are stranded in a disaster.

Vincent Houver, who is overseeing the operation in Lebanon, said his organization had issued an appeal from its headquarters in Geneva for $12 million to provide assistance. He said the group had been approached for help by a number of countries, including Ghana, Iraq and Vietnam.

"We got numerous requests from countries who didn't have the ability to evacuate," he said. "Some people just got dropped off in front of their embassy."

The logistics for such an operation can be a nightmare, Houver said. In Lebanon, for instance, chartering a bus to the Syrian border costs about $3,000. Then there is the fare for the flight home. The border itself is difficult to negotiate, especially for people who have few, if any, travel documents.

In addition, those seeking to leave face major economic decisions that also affect relatives. Expatriate workers often send much of their salary home, Houver said.

"It's not a matter of leaving and coming back in two weeks. They know it's a one-way ticket," he said. "An entire family might depend on money that's coming from here. It could be a bit of an embarrassment as well. For them to decide to go home is not a lighthearted choice."

As a result, Houver said, "people are changing their minds on a daily basis."

"It depends on the bombing."

On Tuesday afternoon, various diplomatic missions were crowded while others were practically empty. At the Ghanaian Consulate, one man sat in the waiting room.

"The majority of the civilians are household workers," said Michel Haddad, the honorary consul. "Thank God that until this moment none have been injured or killed."

At the Iraqi Embassy, the consul was busy directing a crowd, mostly men, onto the 15th bus to leave in the last two days.

He said many would be going to Baghdad, but others would travel only as far as Damascus, the Syrian capital.

In all, he said, about 650 Iraqis have been evacuated from Beirut, some tourists but many more workers.

Many of those workers, who were in Lebanon illegally, saw the evacuation as a kind of holiday.

"It's a free ride, a free meal, free accommodations and free papers," the consul said.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|