Once more on to the Chinook as Sister Celia takes her leave again

Sierra Leone: Civilians are left to fend for themselves again as Westerners leave, fleeing an army of rebel fighters bent on seizing power
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Sister Celia had been here many times before. As she boarded an RAF Chinook by the swimming pool at the Mammy Yoko hotel in Freetown yesterday afternoon, there was little doubt in her mind that she would soon be back. "We don't want to go but we have been ordered to," she said.

Having lived in Sierra Leone since 1968, Sister Celia has been evacuated so often that she regards it as an occupational hazard. "I suppose you get used to it in a way so I've taken my annual leave now and will not be coming back until my two-month break is over."

By mid-afternoon, the first phase of the British operation in Sierra Leone was drawing to a close. Those who wanted to leave and who had the papers to do so had left and the makeshift helipad at the beachfront Mammy Yoko hotel in Aberdeen, the city's western-most district, had fallen silent.

This was the gathering point for British, European Union and commonwealth passport holders - the fortunate few able to flee a country threatened with yet another bout of bloodletting and civil war.

When I arrived in Freetown in the early hours, the operation was in full swing. The evacuees were gathered around the pool. Nearby, time and time again, RAF Chinook helicopters descended in a green glow from the night sky, disgorged their cargoes of armed paratroopers with their kitbags and waited, rotor blades clattering, to take out the scores of evacuees, mainly women and children.

As they pushed forward, huddled against the downdraught, they were herded towards the helicopter by British soldiers carrying the heaviest bags and the frailest evacuees. This was a remarkably orderly operation. There was no sense of panic. It seemed as if the very arrival of British troops here has done much to restore a semblance of calm to a capital traumatised by rumours that rebel soldiers were about to take the city.

As one Chinook had unloaded its cargo, the load master - clad in night vision goggles, Kevlar body armour and bulbous aircrew helmet - beckoned Sister Celia and her three fellow nuns to safety.

"We missed the last helicopter flight a few minutes ago and we are not going to do that again," she said.

"I never get frightened here, but things have got rather tense in the last few days.

"We saw a line of United Nations vehicles driving past our house and we did not know if they had UN staff inside or rebels. But then we saw they were towing other vehicles and knew it could not be the rebels - they would never do that; they would just throw them away."

Allan Jones, a Welsh missionary who has spent the past 10 years in Sierra Leone, boarded the helicopter with the nuns. "We are OK because we can leave," he said. "It is the ordinary people of Freetown, the ordinary people of Sierra Leone, who deserve the sympathy of the world."

At the main gate of the UN compound in Freetown, a small group of civilians tried to persuade British diplomats that it qualified for evacuation. Standing in the sweltering midday heat the civilians asked time and again to be let in.

"I am sorry but you will have to wait," came the answer from one of the diplomats whose job was to check applicants against the criteria agreed by the Government.

Applicants needed a British, EU or commonwealth passport and people like 25-year-old Ngabba Sonsiama, who only had a Sierra Leonean document, did not qualify. "But you must let me in," he said. "I have no future here. I have no chance of an education. You must let me through."

He remained disappointed last night and prepared to spend a second night sleeping on the pavement with his 11-year-old brother, Komba.

Hala Daklalah was luckier. Married to a Lebanese trader and born in Sierra Leone, she nevertheless held a British passport and was allowed, with her two children, to board one of the Chinooks.

The flow of evacuees dwindled as the day wore on and the mood of the city became muchcalmer. As the sun lowered over Freetown, the last paratroopers to arrive relaxed under the palm trees surrounding Mammy Yoko's swimming pool.

But this is no holiday. There is nothing idyllic about this particular mission.

Mark Austin is a senior foreign correspondent with ITN