Scouts begin S. Korea jamboree evacuation over extreme weather challenges
Scouts stand in line near a coach during preparations to leave the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, North Jeolla province on August 8, 2023. Tens of thousands of scouts were being evacuated from their problem-plagued South Korean campsite on August 8 ahead of a typhoon, as the scout chief said the challenges were unprecedented in a century of global jamborees. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP)
(AFP) - Tens of thousands of scouts were being evacuated Tuesday from their problem-plagued South Korean campsite to safer areas ahead of a looming typhoon, as Seoul scrambled to accommodate and entertain them.
The mass exodus is the latest blow to the jamboree, which has already seen hundreds of scouts fall ill during a sweltering heatwave, prompting the early withdrawal of American and British contingents as complaints over site conditions mounted.
More than 100 police cars and four helicopters were deployed to escort buses carrying the scouts out of the camp site, with President Yoon Suk Yeol cutting short his annual holiday to help manage the fallout from the jamboree, which has been a PR disaster for his administration.
"This is the first time in more than 100 years of World Scout Jamborees that we have had to face such compounded challenges," Ahmad Alhendawi, secretary-general of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, said in a statement.
He said the massive event, which brought together about 43,000 scouts to a campsite in South Korea's North Jeolla province, had been "very unlucky with the unprecedented heatwave and now the typhoon".
At the sprawling campsite in Buan on Tuesday, tens of thousands of scouts were packing up their tents and belongings and queuing to get onto buses, with Korea Special Forces on hand to help with the evacuation, AFP reporters saw.
The government sent more than 1,000 buses to ferry the mostly teenage scouts away from the site to areas mostly around Seoul, saying they would be accommodated in university dormitories and other public facilities.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said the government would ensure participants could be "safe and comfortable" at their new lodgings, vowing that the jamboree programme would continue.
He said he hoped the scouts could "finish their schedules with a happy heart", with the government later announcing a K-pop concert in Seoul, as one lawmaker even called for a special reunion of megastars BTS to salvage the jamboree.
At the site, German volunteer Axel Scholl, 62, told AFP he was "at his limits" working to safely evacuate all the scouts in the heat.
"The worst thing about all of this is... It was for the kids. I'm 62 years old but this was all for the kids. Now they all go home disappointed. It should have been such a nice experience," he told AFP, wiping away tears.
He said Poland -- which will host the next jamboree in 2027 -- will have learned a lot about what can go wrong from this year's experience.
"I feel very, very sorry for the Korean nation and Korean people because I think they would have loved to present their country, their culture, their community in a more positive way," he added.
- 'A really great time' -
Korean media have called the jamboree "a national disgrace," saying that authorities had six years to prepare but even so the site had poor drainage, rudimentary showers and toilets, and participants were afflicted by gruesome bug bites.
Following a deluge of online complaints from parents, government organisers admitted there had been "shortcomings" in the area of hygiene and the scout chief acknowledged in a post on LinkedIn that the event had a "bumpy start with... services and facilities".
But scouts at the campsite told AFP they were sad to leave.
"It was really hot, but we had a great time. It took some while to get used to the circumstances but the youth, they had a really great time," Nicola Raunig, 27, Austria scout unit leader, told AFP.
"I'm sad it will end now," she said, adding that she had hoped participants could have enjoyed "the whole experience".
"But we will make the best out of it," Raunig said.
Typhoon Khanun, which has killed at least two people in Japan, is due to make landfall in South Korea on Thursday, forecast to bring heavy rain and strong winds of up to 160 kilometres (100 miles) per hour -- powerful enough to derail a moving train.
Organisers had insisted the event would continue despite the challenges, but on Monday they confirmed the scouts would be evacuated and the campsite closed due to the approaching typhoon.
© Agence France-Presse