Alongside the British bases, the island played a crucial role in helping thousands of fleeing civilians from Sudan
Cyprus has been lavished with praise for its crucial role in evacuating thousands of civilians fleeing war-torn Sudan, with “not a minute of chaos” on the island.
At the heart of the operations in Cyprus is the Zenon Joint Search and Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Larnaca, unveiled in 2017, through which almost 2,700 civilians from 28 different countries reached safety.
“They were exceptional, I was so impressed and so was everyone who was there,” Rita Severis, Canada’s consul in Cyprus, told the Cyprus Mail.
When the conflagration erupted in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum on April 15 few expected that Cyprus would play a pivotal role in the evacuation of thousands.
Indeed, Cyprus was likely not on the radar of the mothers who hurriedly packed small bags with basic goods for up to four or five children and raced across the embattled capital to reach the aircrafts which were to whisk them to safety.
But when it became clear that Cyprus would be involved in that operation, there were some on the island who were nervous – could the country rise to the high task?
British Royal Airforce planes and service men and women from Akrotiri base flew to Sudan to pick up British and other citizens and brought them back to Larnaca airport from where they were repatriated. The last flight arrived on May 4.
“We supported Cyprus and the British High Commission in the delivery of the Estia plan, setting up the Larnaca airport to receive evacuees from multiple nations, supporting their welfare and onward movement,” the commander of the British bases Peter Squires said.
“There was not a minute of chaos,” Severis emphasised.
That’s despite 500 people arriving in one night, as confirmed by Andreas Zacharia, deputy commander of the centre.
He explained to the Cyprus Mail that is largely thanks to the extensive planning for precisely such a scenario.
But quietly, there were some who expressed reservations: Could the various government departments and ministries really link up and coordinate under such circumstances?
For many, their views of the state institutions are coloured by sclerotic government bureaucracy but that portrayal was swiftly dispelled for those present during the evacuation operation.
Zacharias explained that the plans were quickly enforced so that all the required state institutions and embassies could swiftly coordinate under emergency conditions.
That meant embassies, consuls, the foreign ministry, the army, civil defence and a further wide array of agencies jolted into action – achieving swift results.
Along with facilities for temporary stay, the centre hosts areas for various agencies to facilitate the sudden arrival of fleeing civilians – such as immigration and customs officials.
Asked about the praise Cyprus has received, Zacharias was modest.
“That is the essence of the plans, so that when every single person knows their role and responsibilities then everything can slot in to place and there is a strong base from which the operations can springboard,” he said.
“This was proven in practice for the first time that indeed our plans worked well,” he added.
Zacharias pointed to the last time Cyprus played such a pivotal role in safeguarding civilians, when in 2006 neighbouring Lebanon saw tens of thousands flee conflict with Israel.
Then as now, Cyprus became the safe port of call.
“Under a previous similar situation, back in 2006 with evacuations from Lebanon, certainly today we are significantly better prepared for such scenarios,” he said.
Asked for his personal view of Cyprus’ role in the evacuations from Sudan, Zacharias shifted tone.
“Certainly it’s our job, we receive daily training and we’re always ready for such situations but when it comes to such sensitive humanitarian issues – I myself am a refugee and in Cyprus we know what it means to be displaced – it is very emotional.
“It’s very emotional when you are assisting people – who for whatever reason – have been required to leave behind their homes at short notice and find a way to a safe country to save their lives,” he said.
The deputy commander of the centre emphasised that: “When you see small children holding small bags with their most essential items as they are forced to get up and escape then certainly you feel a great sense of accomplishment for having been able to make a small personal contribution to helping vulnerable people.”
The deputy commander explained that aircraft landed near the old Larnaca airport and civilians were then transported to the rescue centre.
Once there, they received immediate care and officials from the state and embassies helped them get their paperwork and further travel plans in order.
“Plans are annually tested and evaluated through exercises but of course in a real-life scenario such as the recent events we are now even better suited to be even better prepared,” he emphasised.
The operation in Sudan was described by the UK government as the “longest and largest airlift” by any Western nation.
Cyprus – the EU’s easternmost point and closest to the Middle East – proved itself in the hour of need, living up to the high expectations set when the rescue centre was inaugurated.
At the time, former President Nicos Anastasiades said its operation “once more evidences the fact that Cyprus is a reliable bridge between Europe, North Africa, and Near and Middle East”.
For Severis, Cyprus achieved just that.
“There were mothers arriving with four or five children in just summer wear but arriving at 4am in the freezing cold at Larnaca, after being on a military aircraft for four hours after having travelled for up to two days in grueling conditions to reach the aircraft.
“And yet they were so dignified and grateful, I’m so proud that Cyprus did its job beautifully,” she said.