GABES, Tunisia: After being robbed by Libyan soldiers and huddling in a transit camp on the Tunisian border for several days, some 400 laborers fleeing Libya found themselves on perhaps the strangest stretch of their odyssey — a ride home in three German warships.
Late Saturday, the Egyptian workers lined up along a dock in the Tunisian port of Gabes, a three-hour bus ride from their transit camp on the border. Over the next few hours, they moved aboard three vessels for the journey to Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
The German navy had set up an airport-style check-in on the dock. The 412 refugees registered their passports, were assigned ID numbers and matching luggage tags, opened bags for inspection, had their temperature taken by a doctor and then climbed up the gangway.
"I am very pleased with them," Abdel Hamid Mutajalli, 23, said of his hosts.
"They have a good system. There is no chaos here," Mutajalli, who had worked as a house painter in the Libyan city of Tarablus, said as he waited to show his passport.
For the German navy, it was the first refugee rescue mission, said a spokesman, Lt. Marco Huede, and nothing was left to chance. The vessels brought along an Arabic translator, leaflets in Arabic explaining the rules on a warship — absolutely no smoking! — and traditional Arabic food for the three-day journey.
"We tried to address the cultural differences," said Huede. "We are not cruise ships, we are warships, but I think we’re pretty well prepared for this and made it as pleasant as possible."
Since the early 1990s, a reunited Germany has emerged gradually from its postwar diplomatic and military shell — committing soldiers to missions from Kosovo to Congo.
Germany currently has more than 4,000 troops serving in the International Security Assistance Force in northern Afghanistan. Until recently, officials generally avoided using the word "war" — because of sensitivities about Germany’s militaristic past — to describe the unpopular mission in Afghanistan.
The refugees boarding the German ships were among some 200,000 who fled Libya over the past two weeks as fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi escalated. More than half of the refugees crossed into Tunisia. Thousands have been repatriated while thousands more are still stranded in the border camp.
Among the refugees were some 145,000 Egyptians, along with Bangladeshis, Vietnamese and workers from several African nations. Libya had been a magnet for foreign laborers until the uprising against Qaddafi erupted in mid-February.
Many of the laborers who crossed into Tunisia told the same tales: They were stopped at Libyan army checkpoints and forced to hand over cash, mobile phone cards and other belongings before being allowed to move on. On the Tunisian side, they first slept in the open near the border and then moved to a transit tent camp.
From the camp, buses have driven refugees to an airport in the town of Djerba, where several dozen special flights have taken off in recent days. Others have gone to the ports of Gabes and Zarzis.
The German warships — the frigates Brandenburg and Rheinland-Pfalz and the supply ship Berlin — had been on a training voyage for young officers in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean when they were rerouted to Tunisia, said Huede.
On Saturday, the warships pulled into Gabes. The Brandenburg and the Berlin anchored offshore, while the Rheinland-Pfalz docked. After the refugees boarded the Rheinland Pfalz, they were taken from there in small craft to the two ships offshore, while the luggage was transported separately in a speedboat shuttling back and forth.
The refugees will sleep in huge hangars in the belly of the frigates where helicopters normally are stowed away. Mattresses have been spread out on the floor, and each hangar has a large TV offering Egyptian fare.
Huede said that for the crew of 690, including 52 trainees, the mission is an exciting change from their routine and a chance to learn something new. The army and air force have been involved in humanitarian missions in the past, but the navy has not, he said.
For refugees like 29-year-old Mahmoud Ahmed — left penniless after Libyan forces beat him with sticks and took 1,000 Libyan dinars ($815) — it’s a chance to finally get some peace on the last leg of his journey home.
"As far as the arrangements are concerned, this is 100 percent," he said before boarding the frigate.
In related news, four US military planes carrying more than 300 Egyptian refugees from Libya left Tunisia for Cairo on Sunday, the US military said.
"Last of 4 DoD (Department of Defense) C-130 flights 2day carrying Egyptians home fm Tunisia has departed Djerba" airport in Tunisia, Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Laplan posted on Twitter.
He added that the aircraft carried 328 passengers on Sunday, making a total of 640 over the past two days.
US embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth O. Colton earlier told AFP the first C-130 transport plane with 82 passengers on board landed at Cairo airport shortly after 3:00 pm (1300 GMT).
The US aircraft were part of an international effort to deliver refugees from unrest in
Libya. The same operation repatriated 312 Egyptians overnight.
European countries and the United States on Thursday began airlifting more than 40,000 Egyptians who had fled Libya for Tunisia, to avoid chaos and epidemics spreading at makeshift camps on the border. –Additional reporting by AFP