`I may be the last man off the island'

Phil Davison, in Little Bay, watched the first group of frightened evacuees bid a sad farewell to Montserrat

It Was a pathetic sight. The British citizens of Montserrat, one of the most friendly peoples in the world, lined up yesterday to leave the little Caribbean island they were born and grew up on, unsure whether they would ever return. Even as they boarded a ferry to an uncertain future and looked back at the island's lush northern hills, most were still wondering why they were evacuating after a week in which the Soufriere Hills volcano barely hiccuped.

Charlotte Ryan, 31, was the first to leave, with her 10-month-old baby daughter, Alteener, and her 12-year-old son, Aydan. Her sister Deborah wept as Charlotte carried three heavy bags across a bumpy field to check in with Royal Navy personnel from HMS Liverpool. Like most families, they were hoping to fly on to Britain as soon as possible. "It's too scary here," said Charlotte. "I feel bad about leaving, and I don't know whether I'll ever see my island again, but I'm all stressed out." Asked what he expected to see in England, Aydan replied: "Snow."

The man who stamped the emigration forms for the evacuees, chief immigration officer Sergeant Kenneth Winspeare, said he, too, would probably leave soon. "I may be the last man off the island. I may have to stamp myself out.

"I can never find another place on earth that I will love like this. It's sad, but it doesn't seem viable any more. The volcano has raped Montserrat. We've now come face to face with reality. You love the country, you love your family, but if they tell us it's not viable, what can you do?"

The immigration officer said people were confused by mixed signals from Britain on the safety of the northern part of the island. "You're told the north is a safe zone. Then you're told to wear a helmet and to shelter under a strong roof. What message does that send?"

Only 16 people, of 590 who have registered to evacuate, turned up yesterday to take the first ferry out. They arrived in small pick-up trucks, carrying two suitcases per person in line with British instructions, and filed through a series of emigration procedures. Since the incoming ferry from Antigua was delayed, the Navy fed them a snack lunch before driving them in a yellow school bus to the jetty.

Many of those preparing to leave do not even have two suitcases of belongings to their name. They have lived as refugees for two years since the island's capital, Plymouth, was first evacuated. Plymouth is now under volcanic ash, and most Montserratians live in miserable conditions, squeezed into an area little bigger than the City of London.

"I'm British. I'd like to go to England but I don't know anybody and don't have any money to live on," said Priscilla Allen, a frail 63-year- old. "So I'm going to stay with my son in Antigua [the nearest island] and come back when the volcano quietens down."

Eleanor Riley, a 34-year-old mother of four, has lived in the corner of a tent for the past nine months. She cradled her 11-month-old baby girl Celine, who has spent most of her young life sleeping on the same camp bed as her mother behind a hospital-style cloth partition stamped "a gift from the British people".

"We'd like a bigger gift from the British people, like maybe a house to ourselves, a toilet, a bit of privacy, a bit of dignity. We are living like animals here," said Eleanor.

She introduced me to most of the 27 people living in the military-style tent, then walked me the 30 yards to her wooden shack kitchen - with no gas or electricity, only a charcoal barbecue - and the further 100 yards across a field to a row of pit toilets. "The local government is supposed to empty the toilets, but we haven't seen them for more than three weeks," said Eleanor, apologising for the overwhelming smell.

Only a couple of miles away, a couple of hundred better-off expatriates are also staying put. They have invested their futures in this island, and are not about to abandon their homes. At her villa in Woodlands, just inside the zone considered "safe" from the volcano, Donna Emmanuel, from Florida, took her pet iguana Lizzie for a swim in her pool. Like most expatriates, the Emmanuels are letting refugees or journalists sleep in their home, because there are no hotels left on the island.

Determined not to give up the ghost, Donna's husband is helping organise a calypso concert here on 15 September, to run parallel with the big Aid for Montserrat concert of superstars in London. The Emmanuels adore this island, and their love is requited by the locals. They spend most of their day communicating around the world on the Internet, telling people of Montserrat's plight.

The other night, I watched over Donna's shoulder as she looked at Internet photographs of Plymouth, taken from a Royal Navy helicopter, including the Emmanuels' destroyed furniture factory on a street known as Lover's Lane. "That was Breezy's school," Donna told me, pointing to a photo of a destroyed building. Her 13-year-old daughter, like all other children on Montserrat, now has no school.

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