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Long shifts, hard work and 7 nations combine to make airlift possible


Long shifts, hard work and 7 nations combine to make airlift possible

Largely hidden form the public eye, hundreds of civilian and military personnel from seven different countries have been working day and night to make the UNHCR/NATO airlift possible - with a big helping hand from airbase's host country, Turkey.
25 October 2005
Tents and blankets are loaded onto a British NATO aircraft at Incirlik airbase in Turkey.

INCIRLIK, Turkey, October 25 (UNHCR) - It was 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning at the Incirlik airbase, near Adana, in southern Turkey. The weather was getting colder, and the temperature had fallen to around 9°C. Eleven hours earlier, when 21-year-old Erdogan and the rest of his team started their volunteer shift, unloading tents and other relief items from huge trucks, it had been a balmy 30°C.

As the night air grew even chillier, Erdogan and 30 other Turkish soldiers accelerated their efforts. Their aim was to unload two more trucks waiting on the tarmac outside before Sahur, the last meal before the day's Ramadan fast was due to resume, at 4:00 a.m. When asked if he was exhausted, this diminutive young soldier responded with a categorical "No."

He explained why: "I know very well the sufferings of the people over there. I had the same experience in the Marmara earthquake, in 1999. The five-floor building, in the basement of which we were living, fell down. I was rescued three days later. So I know how terrible it is to be an earthquake victim."

Few of the people working in the relief operation at the Incirlik airbase have quite the same experience of earthquakes as Erdogan. But they still have a good understanding of the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims in Pakistan. They are all very well aware that a single tent can save the lives of several Pakistani kids, who are still living out in the open, two weeks after the earthquake there.

It is this understanding of, and sympathy for, the Pakistani victims that unites Turkish, American, French, Italian, Greek, British and Danish personnel around this extraordinary relief operation. The Turkish government has taken responsibility for transporting 10,000 tents, 203,000 blankets and 2000 stoves from the UN refugee agency's warehouse in the western port city of Iskenderun, to the airbase at Incirlik. From there, they are being flown to Pakistan on C-130 aircraft belonging to six different NATO countries.

All these people have been working extra long hours, day and night, in Incirlik.

Ali Karaman is a 41-year-old truck driver - another of the hundreds of actors involved in the airlift. His role is to bring relief items from Iskenderun to Incirlik by road.

He said that he had just re-entered Turkey from Iraq, at the Habur gate crossing (not far from the point where Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet), when he got a call from his boss to continue to Iskenderun. From there, he was to load up and take to the airbase, another 400 km drive. This was a lot to ask straight after a tough and risky journey to Iraq and back, but Ali Karaman says he was happy that he was able to bring the tents to the base.

"If they ask me to go directly back to Iskenderun to bring more tents, I will go - even without a sleep," he said, as Erdogan and the others worked on through the night to unload his truck. Why? "Because the radio said that babies in Pakistan need a roof."

By the evening of 24 October, a total of 39 truckloads had made the journey since the airlift operation began a week earlier. After agreeing to help UNHCR and NATO run the airlift, the Turkish government sought the help of the army to provide the manpower and machinery to load and unload the trucks. The Turkish Truck Owners' Union also accepted the government's request to actually transport a total of 860 tons relief items from Iskenderun to the Incirlik airbase. The union then urged its member companies to volunteer to join the efforts.

The process of unloading the material from trucks at Incirlik airbase is long and labour-intensive. Each tent weighs 61 kg, and requires two soldiers to lift it to the ground. Ironically, the tents were originally manufactured in Pakistan, where UNHCR does much of its global tent procurement. The bales of blankets are also heavy, weighing 45 kg.

Unloading take place at the 'cargo deployment yard' next to the runway. Depending on the time of a convoy's arrival, and the number of the trucks involved, it may begin in daylight and continue until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. the next morning. If there are no trucks to be unloaded, US Air Force personnel (who are deployed at the base in accordance with Turkish-US bilateral arrangements) prepare the area for the next convoy.

They lay down on the ground some thick 2-metre poles which then have metal pallets placed on top of them by forklifts. When the trucks arrive at the base, they park next to these pallets, and some Turkish and American soldiers leap up into the containers and start to push out bails of tents, blankets and stoves. Other Turkish and American military personnel then lift these items up from the ground and place them on the pre-positioned pallets. When the pallets are full, the forklifts come back and move them to another corner of the yard where they're covered with plastic sheets and then nets to keep the plastic in place. They then wit to be loaded on a plane.

The American troops at the base are trained for this type of operation. "But practicing it is very different from the training," said Master Sergeant Olivia Lacour, Chief of Flight Traffic Management. "In training, you move the papers, you simulate.... In reality, you move the real things. My crew know well that if we move slowly, there would be delays in the departure of aircraft. This means that people could not get blankets, tents and other stuff that they need desperately."

The American soldiers, like their Turkish colleagues, are working 14-hour shifts on average. They wake up very early in the morning, work hard in the sunshine, and continue, almost non-stop, until early next morning by which time the temperature has plummeted again. They do everything. They pull up the tents, drive forklifts, lay down the nets, put on the plastic covers. "My crew gets very tired, but they understand that it is a very important task to save lives, and are proud of what they do," Master Sergeant Lacour said.

Captain John Almeida agreed with the Master Sergeant. "Our people work harder when they realise that the items go to the victims," he said, "and it is nice to see that there is a great mood of cooperation. The British aircrew, for example, come to help us with the packing during their very limited rest time. People in different parts of the world send us e-mails to ask how they could help us."

The last step of the operation at Incirlik starts with the loading of the aircraft of one or more of the six contributing nations. By the afternoon of 25 October, a total of 24 C-130 cargo flights had been loaded and flown from Incirlik, and a recently arrived U.S.-chartered Boeing 747 was being loaded. The flight takes around eight hours not including refuelling time in Baku or Dubai. Despite the long flight, the crews of the Greek, French, British, Italian, and Turkish airforce planes were enthusiastically approaching UNHCR staff present at the airbase to get giant UNHCR logos to stick on the sides of their aircraft.

Night-time loading takes some time under the floodlights. And then as the crews prepare to take off in their NATO C-130s, all the military, civilian and UN actors of the operation wish them a safe flight and ask them to pass on their sympathy to the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. Then, and only, can Erdogan go to bed and get a few hours sleep, before his next shift begins again.

By Metin Corabatir
at Incirlik airbase, Turkey