5 days in the life of Stephen Burges

Britain's new honorary consul in Eritrea returns after helping compatriots to flee the country
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Indy Lifestyle Online
MONDAY: Arrived at Heathrow with many of the 112 people who left Eritrea with me on Saturday night, and met my wife Laura and four-week- old son Jacob. It was really good to see them again. We had been planning to stay in Eritrea for another year with my American company, NRCE; I'm a water engineer but I had just been invited to become consul, a part-time job. I thought it was minimal work and I would get lots of invitations to parties. The British Embassy in Addis Ababa was the first to suggest people consider coming home. A lot of people said, "I'm not going to leave", but we still needed exit visas. I took everyone's passport down to the immigration department and they did a job-lot. On Friday, we were just stepping out of the consulate when we heard jets fly over and saw a Russian MiG plane drop three bombs. They were aiming for the airport, two miles south of Asmara. I phoned London to tell them we had a problem.

TUESDAY: Slept for most of the day, recovering from being up for several days without sleep. On Friday night, we were still struggling to get landing permission, and that's when we were worried because we knew that if the bombers came back next day and hit the airport, it would be even more difficult. It had been a lot of work just to get to that stage. The workload doubled after bombing started because everyone wanted to leave. We were updating our lists every hour. We managed to get about 60 VSO people on an American charter flight. I negotiated with the Americans and said, `Can I have 29 seats on your military flight?' We sent 21 British families to Frankfurt, plus eight Canadians and Australians. Lots of other ambassadors were phoning me up and saying, `How many can you take?' On Saturday, the Ministry of Defence got into action seriously. We went to bed at 2am and were up again at 5am; then the jets came over again and there was a lot of anti-aircraft fire and explosions. People were calm, but I was panicking at times and people were losing their tempers. I was very glad when the Eritrean Civil Aviation Authority gave landing permission, but I had been told the RAF would land at either 10.30pm, 11.30pm or 11.50pm. We couldn't see them, and I had 10 minutes of serious worry. I didn't want to go through another day of that. But then I went out on the tarmac and there was a Royal Marine leading the show.

WEDNESDAY: Another day sleeping and spending a lot of time with the baby. When Laura was 32 weeks pregnant she had some problems, so she flew up to Israel and got the air-ambulance to Tel Aviv, then on to my parents' home in Cambridge, England. She's been here for two months, but was planning to come back to Eritrea this week. She's glad to have me back. It's our first baby, and he's a tall one. I'm quite tall, too. Unfortunately, all our baby stuff is back in Eritrea: we're hopeful it's all still there and we'll see it again. We were both disappointed we couldn't go back because we've set everything up there.

THURSDAY: Went to see my grandfather who's isn't very well; he has cancer and is having treatment in Southampton. It was lovely to see him, and we took Jacob, who shares his surname and is the fourth generation. I haven't really followed exactly what's going on in Eritrea.

FRIDAY: A shopping trip to Marks & Spencer to get some clothes. We came out on Saturday with nothing. I just had a briefcase on the plane and a spare T-shirt. We're now staying with my best friend here in Brighton. It's difficult for us to go back, but if people do start going back and I get the chance to, I would certainly like to take up the consul job again.

Interview by Rachelle Thackray

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