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Southlander recounts evacuation from terror-torn Noumea

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Rosie Fea

27 May 2024, 5:33 AM

Southlander recounts evacuation from terror-torn NoumeaStranded New Zealanders board a NZDF Hercules to escape the terror of Noumea. Photo: Brian Johnston

The month of May has been anything but typical for local Manapouri resident Brian Johnston.

Manapouri resident Brian Johnston was caught up in the current political unrest while holidaying in Noumea. Photo: Supplied

Instead, the president of the Playwrights Association of NZ found himself trapped inside the harrowing storyline unfolding in Noumea, alongside other holidaying Kiwis.

Since the 12th of May, the capital city of the French island New Caledonia has seen dramatic political and civil unrest result in 6 deaths and widespread destruction.

Terrifying riot scenes and violence escalated after the French government declared intentions to grant residents who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years the right to vote in provincial elections.

Brian, who was on a solo holiday to relax and explore the island, was one of the people evacuated by the New Zealand Airforce and returned safely home on Friday.

News of the terror was first broken to him on Tuesday the 13th, “a morning that will forever be etched in my brain,” shared Brian.

What was a day intended for a visit to the Cultural Centre, instead saw him struck with disbelief when a lady standing at a bus stop alongside him asked where he was going and replied with, “have you no idea what happened last night?!” 

The days that followed played out like a “surreal” alternate universe, as a 12-day state of emergency was enforced by the French government as well as a 12 hour curfew from 6pm to 6am, which still continues.

All supermarkets closed and smaller shops quickly ran out of food.

“The locals had to queue up for up to an hour to get a few baguettes."

"All the cafés, bar restaurants, shops and places of work closed, and there were no buses or taxis running,” said Brian. 

Fortunately for Brian, he had been moved to a hotel called Chateau Royal, which he says was the main hub of activity in “the efforts to get ‘us Kiwis’ out as the civil unrest escalated.”

Existing inside the hotel, around 50 Kiwis, 12 health professionals, a NZ Consulate rep and a rep from the Ministry of Forgein Affairs and Trade (MFAT) watched as news broke about the environment around them, and streamed onto televisions and through daily update meetings. 

An interesting experience for Brian, a born storyteller, to witness the way news channels can dramatise a situation.

“Throughout this ordeal I never felt unsafe. The entire staff went above and beyond to make things comfortable for us,” he says.

“We weren’t like hostages stuck in our rooms. We could meet up for dinners, be by the pool, use the facilities,” saying the main thing for him was keeping perspective.

“It was often the WhatsApp group chat we had that escalated the fear, as people understandably got more wound up.”

But for Brian, it almost became all consuming hearing those ‘pings’ of collective panic going off all the time.

“As the days went on, the anxiety ramped up as people were concerned we’d never get out.” 

Outside of the hotel however, Brian says compassion was minimal.

“The way French authorities treated foreigners was pretty appalling.”

Saying they were peppered with constant promises they would get out ‘today’, and then having the option taken away, leaving the group of Kiwis awaiting a return home being treated like a “political football.”

“The French insisted on doing it their own way, which meant New Zealand authorities couldn’t come in to assist.” 

The first evacuation took place on the 23rd of May, which saw 48 of the most vulnerable visitors flown to Auckland on a NZDF Hercules plane to Auckland, and with the arrival of President Macron the following day no further flights out of Noumea were permitted.

The French authorities soon granted permission to allow their military planes to evacuate the next 48 people.

“This required the ‘lucky ones’ sit on a bus for 90 minutes at the hotel waiting for a police escort to the domestic airport which didn’t turn up,” says Brian. 

Soon it was his turn, on a well planned and well executed third flight out on the morning of the 24th.

After rigorous questions and checking of luggage and medical histories, the evacuees were led in single file fashion to a desk where three French officials checked their passports before boarding the Hercules 130 plane. 

To Brian, the precision to the military process was astounding.

“It reminded me of what it must have been like in WWII checking people’s identity and passports.”

The flight on a military plane was “quite an experience.” With all passengers given earplugs, and all communications being conducted by a type of sign language.

After a 4 hour journey, they were finally home.

“I was so relieved to be back on New Zealand soil.” 

Knowing there are 140 odd Kiwis still left in Noumea wanting to come back, Brian says he owes his thanks to his friend Peter’s tenacity in phoning the MFAT office in Wellington pleading a case for him to be on the flight.

“I truly believe I’d still be in Noumea if it weren’t for Peter’s unfailing support. I will be forever grateful to him – a true friend, indeed!”

And as for the playwright in him now reckoning with fresh content to transform into writing, Brian knows there’s absolutely something in this ordeal to create from.

But for now, normality is the priority.

“I just want to settle back down, get my feet back on the ground. It’ll take a bit of processing what just happened, it really will,” he says. 

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