On the fringe of a revolution

2011-02-14 00:00

A LOCAL couple are relieved to be home safely after a journey that should have taken less than half a day turned into a five-day nightmare when they got caught up in the anti-Mubarak protests in Cairo, Egypt.

David and Nadia Sampson of Merrivale were on a two-week holiday in Egypt when the protests first started. “We weren’t really affected, but on Friday, January 28, things started to escalate. We watched what was going on in Tahrir Square on BBC and CNN. That night we could not sleep because of the tanks and military vehicles moving into the city from a nearby base. In the morning the hotel lobby was full of police and they wouldn’t let anyone out. The local police station had been burned down; we could see protesters in the streets and smell teargas in the air. The tour guide took us to the airport long before our flight on Saturday night in case we couldn’t travel later.”

What they did not know then was that they would spend the next three days and nights stuck in the airport with little food or drink, unable to wash or sleep properly. The government-imposed information blackout meant they had no ATM, cellphone or Internet access. As they recount their nightmare, the couple readily agree that they are still exhausted and traumatised by their experience. “I won’t be leaving my home for a long time,” Nadia says.

Although some flights still continued to arrive at the airport, many flights out of Cairo were cancelled, leaving thousands of people stranded, desperate to leave.

“There were tourists as well as Egyptians trying to get out and it was absolute chaos. The airport was completely unprepared for a crisis like that. There was no official communication about what was going on, flight information systems just shut down; we were left to fend for ourselves. We never saw any South African Embassy officials, though we were told they did come once.

“Once the supplies in the shops ran out, there was nothing as the airport was locked down — no access in or out. When stocks did arrive sellers took advantage of the situation to demand exorbitant prices — we paid R40 for a 750 ml bottle of water and about R50 for a two-finger KitKat chocolate. Riots broke out when airline staff handed out food packs from grounded flights. There were pregnant women, children and babies caught up in the chaos.

“As the days passed people’s tempers got more and more frayed so fights became common — it was every­one for himself. At night the airport was freezing so we made a bed from salvaged packing materials and took it in turns to sleep on the floor and watch the luggage. We could sleep for only about 20 minutes before the cold woke us.

“The airlines just abandoned their passengers and wouldn’t help — we had tickets on Egypt Air, but another flight we managed to book on was also cancelled. Eventually the glass doors of the Egypt Air office collapsed under the crush of people trying to get in so the security personnel started beating them with batons.

“The only countries that took care of their citizens were Turkey and China. Turkey flew in with supplies and rescued their citizens at no cost. Chinese officials arrived, cordoned off a section of the airport to feed and take care of their people and then flew them all out in planeloads.”

After three days stuck in the airport, the Sampsons were able to get on to a flight to London, but had to pay an additional R15 000. “The flight was only half full even though it took off hours late because nothing was working in the airport: no flight information boards, no staff on check-in counters or boarding gates. Things worked by word of mouth, by people sharing information, and we were just lucky to find out what to do and where to go. When the plane landed at Heathrow the whole cabin broke into applause — we were so relieved to be safe,” says Nadia.

Because they missed their connecting flight to Johannesburg, they had to stay a night and a day with family in London. They eventually arrived in Johannesburg on Thursday, February 3, five days after they first set out.

“We want to warn people that they should travel with cellphones and take contact numbers for emergencies because they cannot rely on the international airlines. They just deserted their passengers, and the only way to get out was to buy new tickets, which was despicable,” adds David.

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