“I feel born again,” said a jubilant Nabil Lahdhiri, over the phone. Nabil is the General Manager of Corinthia Khartoum, and one of the employees evacuated in a recent daring and intense operation. He has worked with Corinthia for 23 years and managed Khartoum Corinthia for the last two years.
This was not his first experience of an evacuation. “In February 2011, I was evacuated from Libya with other Corinthians with the catamaran. But this time, it was a terrible affair. Our hotel is near the President’s Palace and the Military Headquarters; we were in the thick of it. Snipers were active. It was difficult to sleep even in the hotel since bullets did pass through windows and lodged in inside walls.”
Insider Plus also contacted Jhonny Mariano, Executive Assistant Manager Operations in Corinthia Khartoum. He, too, was with his colleague Nabil during the Libya evacuation in 2011. But he considered the Khartoum experience much more dangerous. “This was one of a kind. Two strong forces are opposing each other forcefully and with determination.”
Jhonny, however, added that he had not expected the fighting to escalate so much. “It was a lot calmer in the beginning. Now you hardly see anyone in the streets of Khartoum. It’s a ghost town.”
“Most embassies were evacuating their staff. When we saw that, we felt we should leave too.”
Contact was made with Corinthia’s Head Office. Corinthia Chairman, Alfred Pisani, together with CEO, Simon Naudi, were anxious to have the evacuation of all the 18 staff who were non-Sudanese and non-EU citizens. The operation was managed and directed from Corinthia Malta by Jean-Pierre Schembri, Company Secretary and Chief Administrative Officer of IHI, and Ignace Bauwens, Managing Director, Middle East, Asia and Africa Corithia. “I had sleepless nights,” said Jean-Pierre. “I was in continuous contact with all who could assist. I could not afford to leave any stone unturned. Too much was at stake,” confessed Jean-Pierre, who was still visibly affected by the trauma. He explained that the number of employees to be evacuated was 18 non-Sudanese and non-EU citizens. After acknowledging the sterling help offered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the EU Delegation in Sudan, he narrated the two daring attempts to evacuate. “The first time was during the night. There was a plane organised by Sweden that was planned to carry the Corinthian evacuees who, alas, did not manage to arrive at the airport.”
Jhonny Mariano offered the reason why. “On April 26, we attempted to leave but did not make it. We were escorted by a militia belonging to one of the factions and were shot at twice. So we decided to return. We planned to leave on the morning after, but this time without any military protection to avoid a similar experience. We all left unaccompanied but with the blessing of both factions who operated the checkpoints. It was the result of much labour, discussions and diplomatic work by Corinthia, EU and some embassies.”
Jean-Pierre explained that the wait at the airport the following morning was highly tense. The evacuees had no food. “We negotiated one seat and then increased it to two seats on an aircraft organised by Norway. These two travelled to Jordan. Of the 16 left, there were five Egyptians, who managed to get on a plane organised by Egypt. Each step was one sigh of relief but another step towards the unknown. Eleven were left, of which three decided to go their way and cross the border to Egypt. The last 8 were Filipinos. Through high level contact, we discovered that Greece was assisting in the operation. It happened that Malta’s Foreign Minister, Dr Ian Borg, was in Athens meeting the Greek Foreign Minister. We contacted him urgently and asked him to assist. The Greek Foreign Minister quickly responded to Dr Borg’s request, and finally, the eight evacuees took a flight to Athens, Greece. We all could, at last, breathe one long sigh of relief.”
The following day (April 28), the Times of Malta proudly bore bold headlines: ‘Corinthia’s employees in Sudan airlifted out.’
Corinthia had worked in silence for obvious safety reasons. It manages the Khartoum Corinthia on behalf of its owner. However, its policy has always been the absolute safety and welfare of its staff. Its philosophy has always been to be an uplifting experience for staff and guests. This time it was not solely uplifting but also an airlifting one!
Corinthia could then come in the open and publicly thank all those who assisted. On April 28 April it stated on social media:
“Corinthia Group wishes to thank all those involved in safely evacuating its personnel at its hotel in Khartoum, Sudan. A special thanks go to the Maltese Foreign Minister, Dr Ian Borg and his Ministry. We also want to thank the Greek and the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the EU delegation in Khartoum, Sudan, the European External Action Service, and the European Parliament.
Our Group has always made the safety of its Guests and Employees our top priority. Had it not been for the support of all involved in the evacuation, the safety of our personnel would have remained in grave danger. Our heartfelt thanks go out to all these people and institutions.
Insider Plus feels proud that Corinthia would never relinquish its duty of care for its staff at any time, whatever the difficulties and dangers.
Insider Plus could not resist asking a simple question: were the evacuues confident they would manage? Jhonny Mariano admitted that he suspected that if the fighting factions wanted to cause them harm, they could have done so from the first day. “So, I harboured much hope that this was correct reasoning, But in my heart, I know there was no easy formula. I worried that some persons from one faction would enter the hotel, and hence the other faction would have felt justified in attacking the place in full force.” There was a couple of seconds of silence over the phone. Then Jhonny slowly uttered: “I cannot thank Corinthia enough. Do you know? We were the first Filipinos to return home to the Philippines. Others are still trickling in.”
Nabil Ladhiri answered clearly: “No, I did not fully believe we could be evacuated or saved. My only hope was Corinthia. I knew Corinthia would not leave us astray. I knew it would do more than was expected to save us. And I was completely right.”
And how was their homecoming? Jhonny has a wife and three children. “They were worried sick. I had reassured them over and over again, but reassurance is no certainty. When we saw each other, it was very emotional. I felt the impossible had happened. I have not yet managed to sleep. The story keeps returning. The fear and adventure still run through my veins. But at least I am here with my loved one.”
And Nabil? “I have a wife and a son. When our first attempt to leave was frustrated, we all felt dejected, but I kept my wife and son in my mind and spirit and was determined to meet them again. I had tried to calm them about my safety, but naturally, I, too had my doubts. Then when it happened, when I saw them in front of me, I felt I had attained the impossible. I was born again.”
Both Nabil and Jhonny’s voices betrayed their vivid emotion. We respected their wish to relax and forget for a while. So, we parted.
Insider Plus sends its warm embrace to all the Khartoum Corinthians and salutes the brave humanitarian efforts that once again proved that the Spirit of Corinthia surpasses the harshest difficulties and hurdles and injects a unique sense of camaraderie amongst all the Corinthia Family.
We look forward to witnessing and cherishing better times in enchanting Sudan and the return to normality of that iconic Corinthia Hotel set among the landscaped gardens at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers.