On Sunday morning, 292 Australians managed to get on a plane leaving for Sydney from a military base in Lima, Peru. Many were not so lucky. They now face an uncertain future in a country under full military lock down.
Around 200,000 Australians have flooded back into the country since March 17. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would not name an exact figure, but thousands of Australians are estimated to be still be stuck overseas, from Italy, to Panama, to Nepal.
There are more than 100 Australians still stuck in Peru, with no immediate prospect of help. This is one of their stories.
Karolina Ristevski left for Peru with her husband — for his son’s wedding — on March 14, two days before the first domestic restrictions on “non-essential gatherings” came into effect, and 11 days before Australia announced a travel ban for all citizens.
“We landed on the 15th. By the time we got to our accommodation, the Peruvian president [Martín Vizcarra] was on TV announcing that Peru was in full lock down, effective midday the next day,” she told Crikey.
The military patrol the streets and their trucks block the highways. Police guard the bus stations. A curfew is enforced between 8pm and 5am. People cannot leave their house without a mask, and foreigners cannot walk the streets without their passports.
“We simply didn’t have time to get out before the full lock down came in,” Ristevski said.
Over the following weeks, a commercial charter flight was organised by tour company Chimu Adventures with assistance from the Australian government.
“We were told about a private charter with seats that cost $5000 or $10000 for business class — and we understand that, we’re not asking for a free flight,” Ristevski said.
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On Sunday at 7am the couple traveled to the military base airport, where repatriation flights were leaving for destinations all over the world.
“There had been some kind of miscommunication, and they said we weren’t on the list,” she said.
“We were met by the Australian embassy representative who simply said this has nothing to do with the government and we cannot help you. This is our Australian embassy. I couldn’t believe it.
“I took my mask off and burst into tears. It was the first I really felt hopeless.”
Ristevski said the approach of the Australian officials was in direct contrast to that of other countries.
“The Peruvian government, police, military have been so, so helpful. Someone from the military approached the Australian embassy representative on our behalf and said ‘Australia is the only country who has left their own citizens behind’,” she said.
“I’ll never forget that.”
She said even people leading the repatriation efforts for other countries offered to help.
“The people transporting Japanese citizens, the guys who were taking the people from the UK, and the Polish, they all saw if they could help,” she said.
“The Japanese plane said they would take us, but they weren’t sure if we’d be trapped in their airport. I couldn’t believe the contrast between that and the actual representatives of our country saying it wasn’t anything to do with the government.”
Meanwhile, 24 New Zealanders had been pulled off the private charter, because the Australian Government refused to let them transit through Australia.
“People have to realise that while the government is saying they’re doing all they can to repatriate us, this just isn’t true,” she said. “The Australian embassy representative told me to my face that the Australian government has no plans to take us home.”
DFAT referred Crikey to a joint statement from Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, saying government support for commercial airlines conducting repatriations is being considered on a case-by-case basis.
The statement made it clear there were no plans for assisted departures such as those conducted in Wuhan, and some Australians may simply have to remain where they are.
“And now we just have to wait,” Ristevski said. “We don’t know pilots or people who have private planes, so we just have to wait for someone to organise a flight.”
An open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on March 28 from members of “Aussies in Peru” — a Facebook group that has organised around the issue — says they have received only two emails from DFAT.
“The emails aren’t at all personalised,” Ristevski said. “They just tell you to follow the social media accounts.”
“We need information from the Australian government, we need facts. We can’t rely on the gossip and fear that passes through our group Facebook chat.”