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Indian embassy fails stranded journalists in Beirut

July 17, 2006 21:25 IST

Crisis management is clearly something that needs to be taken seriously in the Middle East, especially at representative embassies. Even as the crisis in Lebanon escalated, Indian journalists stuck in Beirut claim that they got absolutely no support from their embassy in the city.

The glaring lack of technology, especially communication infrastructure, contrasted starkly with other embassies like that of the UAE and Kuwait that swung into action to help their nationals, providing 24-hour help lines, communication facilities and transportation.

This should also ideally serve as a wake-up call to most governments, who have foreign missions in the region, to fund their embassies to have world-class communication and service infrastructure.

Three Dubai-based Indian journalists were stranded in Beirut as the city was struck by bombs. On an official assignment to Beirut to attend a launch function organised by a technology company, the journalists rushed to the Indian embassy in the hope that it would help them get a pass to cross over to the Syrian border.

"The service we received was certainly not good," said Sathya Mithra Ashok, one of the journalists. "The embassy did not offer any official support. Also, it did not have any technology or communication infrastructure that could support a crisis situation."

According to reports, the officials at the embassy at that point had access to just three computers with a shared and fairly unstable dial-up Internet connection. International phone dialing facilities were also not provided to those stranded.

In contrast, the UAE embassy helped evacuate more than 2,200 UAE national holidaymakers following the bombings in Beirut. The UAE embassy in Damascus, Syria, has also been put on alert. The embassy of Kuwait responded to the situation by setting up a 24-hour helpline to help their citizens stranded in the city.

As phone calls began pouring in from other Indian tourists stranded in Lebanon, officials at the embassy suggested that the three journalists get together to round up others (who had by this time left their numbers behind at the embassy) and hire a bus.

This situation clearly exposes the lack of proper procedures and crisis situation planning. Gearing up with the right technology also makes matters a lot easier to manage such emergencies.

However, the Indian Embassy in Lebanon says that it has been trying to do its best, even with limitations that it has.

"In the past two days, over 60-70 Indians stranded in Lebanon have contacted us, and we are trying to do our best to reach them to safety," said Kartar Singh, Head of Chancery at the Indian Embassy in Beirut. "We have also given their names to the Indian Embassy in Syria and the government to support these people in any way they can and get them to safety."

Added Nengcha Lhouvurn, India's Ambassador to Lebanon: "It's a developing situation, and it's an extremely difficult one. We are improving our responses to the situation. There are several stranded Indians who we have helped cross the border. What the journalists experienced was more an exception than the norm."

Lhouvurn added that the embassy's infrastructure, while adequate in normal circumstances, might not be enough when thrust into a war situation. She also mentioned that with the embassy dealing with around 10 or 15 Indians at any one time, the level and scale was very different from the embassies of other countries.

"We are helping as far as possible. I am sorry about the journalists' experience," Lhouvurn said. "I will brief my staff on the issue."

Embassy officials also said that they had also been contacting Indian associations and places of worship, frequented by the Indian community, to help stranded tourists. Communication infrastructure has also been augmented, officials said.

Although it comes as a relief to everyone to find their staff and family make a safe return, this highlights an important issue for the Indian government to take under consideration: funding its embassies across the world, especially in volatile regions, to be able to swing into action, should the situation demand.

"The experience at the Indian Embassy in Beirut was disheartening," said Cleona Godinho, another journalist. "When we asked to call home, they claimed not to have an international dialing facility. But the real icing on the cake was all of them using a dinosaur dial-up connection. The main purpose of any embassy is to protect its citizens in a crisis.

"The scariest part of the entire ordeal of getting out of Lebanon was when we were stuck at the Lebanon-Syria border as we felt that it would be the next target. However, four hours, much frustration and frantic calls later, we just managed to escape, just before the Damascus highway was bombed."

Kavitha Rajasekhar Vivek in Dubai