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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 July 2006, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Welcome respite for evacuees
By Jenny Matthews
BBC News, Cyprus

Conditions are basic but friendly in Cyprus for those evacuated from the crisis in Lebanon by the British effort.

Coaches which have brought evacuees from Limassol port
Evacuees are bussed to the reception centre from Limassol port

Most of the Britons being flown to the UK from Cyprus end up waiting for their flight in a "reception centre" at RAF Akrotiri, the British air base on a southern peninsula of the island.

The centre is simply a converted aircraft hangar within the sprawling base area, which was full of planes and spare parts at the beginning of the week.

The evacuees are taken there by coach from Limassol port, a 20-minute drive away, where they arrive after a long sea journey from Lebanon.

Hundreds upon hundreds of camp beds stretch the length of the corrugated metal structure. There are several cots lined up against one wall, and seating areas with plastic chairs.

I never knew the British people could be like this. Please write that I am so full of gratitude
Damia Mouawad Abou-Chedid
Evacuee

Outside, green tents are scattered around the stony ground. They have various purposes - for security, showers, dinner - and for yet more paperwork.

It all looks fairly grim - but the military have made deliberate efforts to make it "more friendly", said Wing Commander John Conway, in charge of the operation.

"The people arriving here have been through a very stressful time. The last thing we want to do is add to that," he said.

"We want them to feel that they are in a caring environment, where they can relax and feel safe. And many do come here looking genuinely quite frightened, then you can see them literally physically drop, physically relax."

'Happy children'

Many civilian volunteers and military wives answered the call to come and "soften" the atmosphere, offering food, drinks, childcare or just a chat and a friendly face.

A cot and beds inside a hangar at RAF Akrotiri
A hangar at RAF Akrotiri forms makeshift sleeping quarters

The few dozen passengers waiting at the centre had the bored look of anyone undergoing a long journey, but were full of praise for the way they were being treated.

"It's lovely, the people are so nice," said Damia Mouawad Abou-Chedid, who was heading to the UK with her husband and three children, aged seven, four and nine months, after being caught up in events in Lebanon during a holiday from their home in Ghana.

"The ladies here are great. They have showered the baby, they have been helping me with the older girls too.

"They have given us lots of food and water, and there are toys which make the children very happy."

Stress symptoms

There are several medics on hand who can offer "basic primary care" to those who need it, send people to the camp hospital or even - Wing Cdr Conway thought there had been two cases of this so far - organise an "aero med" medical evacuation to the UK.

The "processing cell" tent for paperwork
The "processing cell" tent where paperwork is carried out

One medic, Corporal Hall, was helping an elderly woman in a wheelchair to get into a truck. He said the team had been very busy the first night of the evacuation - when the "most vulnerable" arrived - but their work had reduced to a "slow trickle" since then.

"Often the problem is that people have forgotten to pack their medication because they left in a hurry," he said.

Some people had been showing symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure, but on the whole people had coped with their ordeal stoically - "better than what I had expected, anyway".

'Full of gratitude'

Although the hangar is full of beds, Wing Cdr Conway did not think anyone had had to spend the night there.

Medic Corporal Hall
Medic Corporal Hall is surprised how well people have coped

"The aim is to get people flown away as quickly as possible," he said. "Our aspiration is that they should be no more than six hours from port to plane."

He said people had been arriving by coach every half an hour at peak times of the evacuation, and estimated that 1,200 people had been flown back to the UK from the base so far. But numbers were expected to fall off during the weekend.

Meanwhile, Damia Mouawad Abou-Chedid and family were gathering their possessions ready for their flight. Their three-hour stay at the reception centre was coming to an end.

"People have been so nice, I can't believe it," she said.

"I never knew the British people could be like this. Before I knew only about the Queen, or Prince Charles. Please write that I am so full of gratitude."




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
On board HMS Bulwark with evacuated Britons



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