VANCOUVER – A group of frightened Canadians who were among thousands of foreigners scrambling to flee Cairo’s escalating violence, arrived in Frankfurt, Germany late Monday.
Some were relieved that they managed to get out of a country that is being torn apart by populist anger. Others were already making plans to go back.
Brian Johnson, the deputy head of the Canadian International School in Cairo, was among some 174 Canadians who made it to safety on board a special Air Canada flight chartered by the federal government.
“We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised,” Johnson told reporters at the Frankfurt airport.
“People in Egypt have good reasons to protest: Widespread poverty, bread is expensive,” said the 51-year-old who left Egypt along with 34 of his teacher colleagues.
Tristin Hutton, a bush pilot from Fort Francis, Ont., said people were panicking as they tried to escape from Cairo.
“People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos,” said the 44-year-old who was in visiting his sister at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo.
“The terminals are full of panicking people. The ground staff is disappearing and at the gate, just before entering, we all together had to collect $2,000 for a policeman at the door,” he said. “He would not let us pass without paying.”
The Canadians were met at the airport by diplomats from Berlin waving a Canadian flag.
“Off course we are going to give them any help they need after their arrival in Germany. For example for getting home,” said Eric Walsh, the deputy head of the Canadian embassy in Berlin.
“I am sure it will work fine _ Germany is a country, where infrastructure functions.”
The evacuees now have decisions to make on what to do next.
Johnson said they are booked for three nights at a Frankfurt hotel and aren’t sure whether to wait in Germany or fly to Canada.
“Actually we hope that we can return to our school in Cairo after these three days,” he added.
“I will fly on to Ontario as soon as possible,” said Hutton.
Toronto resident Bill Parent, who managed to get out of Cairo on board a separate Lufthansa flight with wife Diane, described hearing gunshots in the neighbourhood where the couple was staying.
Parent described in glowing terms how the building’s caretakers “took on the role of the police” and protected the occupants.
“They took very, very good care of all of us,” Parent said. “I’m so impressed with the people who are charged with that responsibility. They’re poor, but boy, did they ever have heart and they’re wonderful and loyal people.”
Air Canada issued a statement later Monday confirming that it flew 210 passengers from Cairo _ including 174 Canadians.
The flight included a number of foreign nationals and other national airlines are returning the favour, said Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Lynn Meahan.
“If there is a need, other countries are also allowing Canadians to go on their flights.”
The second flight would depart the capital city on Tuesday, the airline said.
“We faced significant operational challenges because we do not normally serve Cairo and therefore have no local ground staff,” said chief operating officer Duncan Dee.
“We are now preparing a second flight to Cairo for Tuesday and will continue working with the federal government as required.”
Late Monday, a Foreign Affairs spokesman confirmed a second flight with Canadians had left Cairo.
Each of the Canadian passengers was expected to pay $400 to board the charters, Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Those who escaped Cairo’s chaos did so amid calls for a massive rally in the city’s downtown, where one million protesters are being urged to gather Saturday in a concerted and sustained effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
The protesters are widely expected to clash with police, who are returning to the streets after an inexplicable three-day absence marked by violence, looting and mayhem.
According to the Canadian government there are 1,200 Canadians registered in Egypt, but as that figure depends on voluntary registration with the Canadian Embassy in Cairo, the embassy estimates 6,500 are in the country.
Amid the turmoil, however, others found leaving impossible.
Magdy Rizk, an Ottawa resident who went to Cairo for a wedding with seven family members, including a seven-month-old baby, said calls to the Canadian Embassy were being forwarded to an emergency line in Canada.
“We want to go on that flight but there are no instructions on how to register for it. We are not even sure how Canada is organizing this,” Rizk said.
“We were coming for a wedding, which is cancelled now, but we never imagined that this would happen.”
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs was being swamped with callers to its emergency lines. Callers were nonetheless being urged to try the embassy at 20 (2) 2791-8700 or the department at (613) 996-8885 or (613) 943-1055.
After 20 minutes on hold, Rizk said, he was prompted to leave a voice mail.
Getting to the embassy in downtown Cairo is impossible, due to road closures and the dangers posed by roving bands of violent looters and protesters.
The embassy is less than a kilometre away from Tahrir square, where protesters are expected to gather Saturday.
“It’s chaos here,” said Rizk, who is Egyptian by birth. “Tanks are on the streets, looters are out. The government is trying to shutdown Tahrir square.”
On the streets of Cairo, anarchy reigns, he added.
“Normal people, families, are out on the streets putting up road blocks to protect their neighbourhoods. People are taking turns through the night to protect their posts.”
Saskatchewan native Earl Jones, trying to escape after a five-day vacation in Cairo with his wife Shirley, urged the federal government to send more planes and to do a better job communicating with those Canadians trapped on the ground.
“These planes that were sent (Monday) by the Canadian government, we had not enough notice to get on them because of the curfew and all the time it takes,” Jones told Saskatoon radio station CJWW.
Massive crowds, limited phone service and a largely disconnected Internet made making travel plans impossible, he said.
The couple got a first-hand look at the violence rocking the country when they saw staff at their hotel take to the streets.
“Last night, a bunch of tanks rolled by, and there’s about a hundred guys out in front of our hotel, all of them with four-foot pipes,” Jones said.
“We thought they were getting ready to attack the hotel, but then we found it was the cooks and waiters … protecting the hotel.”
Some travellers reported going through nine civilian checkpoints just to get to the airport on the outskirts of Cairo, in addition to the military checkpoints.
_ With files from The Associated Press.