French-led evacuation takes foreigners from Liberia

Thursday, June 12, 2003

ABOARD THE FRENCH WARSHIP ORAGE -- Evacuees from 38 nations crowded aboard the rescue ship, some giddy with relief, others guilty over loved ones left behind -- a wildly disparate group of merchants, aid workers and missionaries, united only by their salvation from the gun-wielding thugs overrunning Liberia's capital.

On the deck of the warship Orage -- which means "storm" in French -- American aid workers stared out to sea and worldly wise Lebanese merchants played cards. French sailors circulated among their 532 guests, tending to every need as they were evacuated from Liberia.

"The wine, it's OK?" Capt. Claude Chevalier, an Orage security officer, asked, hovering over a plank table of refugees at a dinner of croquettes.

Around him, French sailors crouched behind African boys and girls, cutting meat into bite-size chunks.

Dubbed Operation Providence, the French-led rescue mission docked in its port of rescue, the west African port of Abidjan, on Wednesday with 30 U.N. workers, 86 Americans, 18 French, and those from a host of other nations, down to one lone Nepalese.

The ticket to safety: a foreign passport.

Behind them, on the wave-tossed, rocky outcrop that makes up Monrovia, 1.2 million residents and refugees remained. They were caught in the crossfire as Liberian President Charles Taylor, a warlord-turned-president at the center of 13 years of civil strife in Liberia, tried to fend off rebel troops bearing down on the capital.

Rebels have fought an intensifying three-year war to overthrow Taylor, whose gunrunning and war-making has fueled many of west Africa's conflicts. The rebels gained momentum last week after Taylor was indicted by a U.N. court for war crimes.

The evacuation of foreigners started as Taylor's undisciplined forces, facing the endgame, preyed on the helpless citizenry -- looting fleeing travelers at roadblocks and stealing cell phones from refugees. They stormed homes to rob families crouched on floors.

As the French military Cougar helicopters took off with evacuees from U.S. and European Union compounds, explosions from fighting boomed in Monrovia.

Once airborne, Liberian girls in frilly clothes and hairbows aboard one flight clapped in joy -- relieved after days of tension.

British nun Margaret Pocock, in the same helicopter, stared ahead, lips pressed tight under gray hair. Pocock tended to children handicapped by polio and birth defects back in Monrovia. She had left a colleague behind.

Across from Pocock, Liberian-American Olivia Clarke clutched all she came with -- her girls and two lace-trimmed photo albums.

"It's got all my babies' pictures, all my high school pictures. All we have," Clarke explained later.

As each helicopter settled on the deck of the Orage, French sailors lifted out babies, hauled luggage, steadied the elderly.

Sailors ran a metal-detecting wand over Pocock's white habit, checking scrupulously for weapons.

Relief at rescue made some giddy.

Guilt at rescue overwhelmed others.

"I feel so bad," whispered Lucrecia Karinda, 18.

Lucrecia's Liberian-American parents had put her on board to take out her youngest sister, a toddler in pigtails who sat on a blanket across from her on the crowded deck.

"We have aunties and cousins there," Karinda said, alone in the crowd, a tear on each cheek. "So they couldn't leave."

George Williams, a Liberian, cradled his 13-year-old daughter Chadi. She was shot in the hand in the days before Monday's evacuation.

Chadi, who born in the United States, could flee as a U.S. citizen; Williams' four other children don't have foreign citizenship and had to stay.

"I left all the rest of my family behind," he said. "I feel very terrible, very truly terrible, to have left them to that fate."

French sailors gave up their bunks, sleeping on decks, so women and children could have beds.

The Orage's all-night bakeries turned out fresh croissants for breakfast.

Many evacuees disappeared below decks for the length of the voyage, felled by motion sickness.

Lebanese businessmen conferred mat-to-mat in their underwear on a gray early morning Tuesday, with the gray Atlantic lapping outside on the open hatch.

Lebanese make up much of the business class in West Africa. For some -- like restaurateur Maude Kassis -- this was their third evacuation from Monrovia.

"We are all in the same boat," Kassis, in tinted hair and oversize sunglasses, said Tuesday below deck, sipping coffee.

"Clean that up," he ordered in an aside as a Liberian-American baby turned his seasick head and vomited.

Chevalier, the Orage security officer, basked in the compliments that came his way with each turn among the evacuees. "Not bad, eh?" he said, smiling, hand on hip.

He dismissed any irony in the French rescue of Americans from an American-founded nation, at a time of post-Iraq Franco-American tensions.

"We have a long history of friendship, don't we?" Chevalier asked. "In Africa -- one day it is the French evacuating the Americans, the next day it's the Americans evacuating the French."

At landfall Wednesday morning, French martial tunes played over the intercom. First off the ship -- brought down on a stretcher -- was a pregnant woman who had gone into labor.

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