An archaeological team's request to stay in Amarna, Egypt, where the situation was calm, was denied by the regional security organization. Evacuation of eight students and three faculty members began in earnest when the U.S. State Department recommended that Americans leave.
By Alison Hewitt for UCLA Today
It was Saturday in Egypt, four days after anti-government protests began, when Hans Barnard and his archaeological team got back to their lodgings after a long day in the field. They found a message from local security forces: They had to leave.
Barnard, a UCLA assistant adjunct professor and one of the faculty leaders of the eight-student team, conferred with the other faculty. They knew about the protests, but all was calm in Amarna, a rural area 200 miles south of Cairo. The Internet shutdown that same morning was the only unusual sign. The UCLA Archaeological Field Program and its predecessors had been in Amarna for 30 years, and had built friendships and trust with the local community.
The dig site in Amarna
"This appeared to be the safest place to be in Egypt," Barnard said.
But the regional security organization denied their request to stay. They were told they had until the next morning to pack. About to be pushed from their safe haven in Amarna while unrest in Egypt grew, the group had only one reasonable alternative, Barnard said: getting to Cairo as fast as possible and somehow finding 11 plane tickets out of the country.
Barnard and his students were among the many people safely evacuated from Egypt early Tuesday morning by iJet, the University of California's emergency evacuation insurance provider. Overcoming unreliable Internet connections and phone lines, UCLA and UC staff and faculty managed to communicate with colleagues and students in Egypt to get them on a chartered flight from Cairo to Barcelona, Spain.
The plane evacuated 19 UC students studying abroad in Cairo and 11 members of the archaeological team. Among those groups were six Bruins: four UCLA students studying abroad in Cairo, and another UCLA student on the archaeological team with UCLA faculty member Barnard.
Bringing control to chaos
"It has been intense," said Hadyn Dick, the executive director of UCLA's International Education Office. Her office was one of many that devoted days to evacuation efforts. "This is fairly rare. It was a pretty extraordinary effort and coordination to make sure that everyone had a plan to come home."
Dick helped connect everyone over phone and e-mail. Her e-mail trail shows a flurry of messages at all hours of the day, linking UC's Office of Risk Services, UC's Education Abroad Program, UCLA's Office of Insurance and Risk Management, iJet, UCLA Student Affairs and several other offices.
She comforted worried parents with news about their children and passed on updates about the archaeology team from Barnard, via his wife, Willeke Wendrich, a UCLA Egyptologist.
While Dick tracked the students, Dean Malilay, UCLA's director of Insurance and Risk Management, searched for other staff and faculty traveling in Egypt. Most Bruins register their trips with UC Trips, making it easier for Malilay to find them in emergencies.
"If you make your travel arrangements outside of UC Travel, you need to log on to UC Trips and register the trip," Malilay advised. "Otherwise, you won't be in the system and we won't know you're there." Even so, Malilay found one unregistered staff member whom iJet was then able to reach to plan an evacuation.
When the U.S. State Department upgraded a travel alert for Egypt to a warning on Sunday and recommended that Americans leave, evacuation plans began in earnest.
"When that happens, it's standard policy in the UC system that we will cancel a UC program and get students out of there," Dick said.
A 200-mile journey to safety
Students studying in UC's Education Abroad Program at the American University in Cairo were already close to the airport, but the archaeological team in Amarna had to somehow travel 200 miles to get to their extraction point.
Layesanna Rivera, a UCLA senior who arrived at Amarna just three weeks earlier to join the archaeological survey, said the news was a shock.
"One of my group members told me — I thought he was joking. Nobody was panicked, but we were upset about leaving," Rivera said after arriving in Barcelona.
"Hans [Barnard] and [the other instructors] were straight with us about what they knew, and they really kept people upbeat and positive about everything," Rivera said. "Our team had really bonded every day in the field and after work, so if someone got scared, we were all supporting each other and cheering each other up."
With the Internet down all day Saturday, it was hard to separate fact from fiction, Rivera said.
The team tapped friends in a neighboring city who helped them rent a van and a taxi for the trip to Cairo. On Sunday, less than a day after they got the directive to leave, they caravanned north with an armed police escort – a common practice for groups of foreigners traveling in Egypt, Barnard said. But the new curfew imposed by the government stopped them short in Beni Sueef, about 50 miles south of Cairo.
On Monday morning, the drive continued past routine checkpoints and sobering views of tanks in the street, Barnard said.
"The intersections were guarded by tanks," he said. "We never felt in danger." In fact, with all the waiting the group had to do for transportation and at checkpoints, "it was extremely boring. But, of course, no American sees a tank in the street, so everyone was excited and took pictures."
Back in Los Angeles, Barnard's wife, Wendrich, relayed news of the overnight delay to Dick, who passed it up the chain to iJet as the UC groups struggled to get to Cairo. By Monday, all the UC groups had made it to the city and waited anxiously for their Barcelona-bound flight, scheduled to leave Tuesday afternoon. But there were complications – that was same day that protesters had urged a million people to flood Cairo streets demanding President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. Rumors abounded that Mubarak would disable cell phone communications.
Dick updated the stateside group via e-mail on Monday night: "Tomorrow's protests could result in delays (at best) or grounding of flights (at worst). iJet is working on various contingency plans and is prepared."
"Hans and the group will go to Terminal 1," wrote Wendrich, who could still reach her husband on his cell. "If the telephones are switched off, that is the meeting point where iJet can find them."
"I will forward to iJet," replied Cheryl Lloyd, director of UC's Risk Services, in an 11 p.m. e-mail. "I, too, am concerned about phones being shut off."
"I think we are all understandably nervous," Dick wrote back. "Holding my breath and grateful for your help."
It was harrowing, Dick later said. "We were relatively confident that the flights would continue to be allowed to take off after curfew, but everything kept changing by the minute. We were literally getting updates saying that we might have to do it all over again tomorrow."
A successful evacuation
The team arrived at the chaotic Cairo International Airport on Tuesday.
"Thousands of people are trying to get out, so there were masses of people at the airport," Wendrich explained. "All the offices in town were closed, and the only way to arrange tickets was at the airport, especially with the Internet and phones down."
But the groundwork was well-laid — the flight took off with all on board.
"We were very happy when it was in the air," Dick said. "It was early in the morning our time, but there was a lot of cheering via e-mail."
Despite the disruptions in the 200-mile exodus to Cairo, getting to Barcelona went smoothly, Rivera said.
"We were in contact with a representative the whole time we were headed to Cairo, so every time something didn't work out, there was a plan," Rivera recalled of the two-day journey. "A lot of unexpected things happened, but they handled it very well." Now, she and the rest of the group are lining up commercial flights home.
For Wendrich, who was in the uncomfortable position of having her husband, students and dig site at risk in Egypt while she was on the other side of the world, her own knowledge of the country after living there for years and repeated research trips helped her keep calm. The protests were largely peaceful until Wednesday, she said.
"Of course, there was cause to worry, but there's also reason to be hopeful," she said of the unrest in Egypt. "But I was very impressed, especially with Hadyn [Dick], who really was at her e-mail night and day, and also with iJet – they were very much on the ball."
Like her colleagues and students, Wendrich has high hopes for Egypt.
"I stopped living in Cairo 10 years ago because I saw so much corruption and abuse of power," Wendrich said. "Something needed to change, and it was a 'when,' not an 'if.' So I'm not at all surprised this has happened, but where it leads is the question.
"There are many great people in Cairo, but also many rotten apples," said the Egyptologist. "If they can manage to create a democratic government, they have the right people to do so."