Taking the Long Way Home from Lebanon
“Relax people,” the Eddie Bauer-clad embassy official shouted through his bullhorn. “This is not the last day of evacuation. Everyone who wants to evacuate will have the chance to do so.” Our tiny family—me, my husband, Walid, our 7-year-old daughter, Petra—stood on the narrow Dbayeh bridge overpass about three kilometers north of Beirut. We were above the seaside highway that leads to the resort town of Jounieh in a crowd of 1500 people. We had arrived at 6:20 a.m. on Friday, July 21, the ninth day of the Israeli siege in Lebanon. It was now 9:05 a.m.
The embassy official who had just spoken, along with two similarly-outfitted cohorts who took turns yelling at the crowd from atop two putty-colored Lebanese army transport trucks, was like one of the government Meals-Ready-to-Eat we would be offered ten hours later: unimaginative and tasteless. On this, the third day of the U.S. full-scale evacuation of Americans from Lebanon, embassy employees couldn’t be bothered with the reasons why a crowd like ours doesn’t relax on command. Our trio of Foreign Service sideshow barkers refused to put the dozens of Marines and Lebanese Army soldiers loitering behind the trucks to work organizing the crowd. They refused to prioritize families with babies or toddlers and elderly people — two subgroups already succumbing to sun and heat exposure — even after many among the crowd shouted for the officials to do so. Instead, we departing nationals were human livestock being shunted through a six-foot-wide metal gate leading out to a razor wire-lined series of checkpoints in front of the rocky beach along the Mediterranean Sea from where we would depart.
“Relaxing” for us meant either enduring the 14-hour queue that would permit us to begin our physical evacuation from the tiny, missile-pocked country where my husband was born, or returning to my in-laws’ apartment in East Beirut where our challenge would be to get Petra sleeping before the 10- to 20-ton bombs that fell each night on the southern suburbs were unleashed, and would otherwise terrify her. We could then return to Dbayeh bridge tomorrow or the next day with the hope of diminishing crowds and a smoother departure. Petra made the decision for us after a desperate mother of an overheated two-year-old nearly trampled her: “I still want to leave Lebanon today,” she said shakily. Sweat beaded on my husband’s tanned forehead. I knew he was furious that our daughter had nearly been injured by one of the frequent eruptions of this frustrated crowd. I felt paralyzed and helpless. Our choices were few; we stood and waited.
The eight-day preamble to our evacuation weighed on me: an average of 4000 explosive devices per day had been dropped on or fired at Lebanon. I was shell-shocked and jittery. During those eight days of bombing, dealing with the American embassy had been farcical. I had registered the three of us to evacuate via multiple faxes, the State department’s website and by e-mail to both general and personal local embassy addresses. I never received confirmation of this registration. I reached the embassy by phone twice, after hours of dialing. The first time, Monday, July 17, I was told that our registration to evacuate could not be confirmed, ever, and that initial transport to Cyprus would cost $3,000 per person. The second time I managed to get through by phone, Thursday, July 20, an embassy official told me that there were no charter flights to the United States once we reached Cyprus and that all other details of the evacuation were “top secret.”
Meanwhile, I had learned that the Dbayeh bridge overpass was the meeting point for evacuation through a friend in New York who had alternately bullied and charmed her way to Washington’s Lebanon Task Force by phone, and then passed the information on to me in e-mails. While I was surprised by the indifference and at times, contempt, the embassy officials displayed toward us that morning, nothing that I had learned from or about the embassy in the eight days prior had prepared me to expect better. The late morning heat intensified. As I watched a half-emptied, two-liter bottle of Soha water fall onto the quiet highway below us, I overheard a man with an Oklahoma twang tell an elderly woman what he had gone through so far that day: “All of my blood is from south of Marjayoun,” he said. “This morning my sister drove me, my wife and our two kids from there on back roads to reach this port. We had to get out and walk at some spots so the car wouldn’t bottom out.” He pulled a navy blue bandanna out of his back pocket and wiped his neck while he leaned on three hefty suitcases stacked in front of him. “The drive up from the south took four hours,” he said. “We’ve got to get on a ship today; we can’t get back to where we were last night.” Angry tears hit my cheeks from behind my sunglasses. How dare the embassy officials tell this crowd to relax, I thought. So many of us have risked our lives already just to get here.
By 11 p.m. on July 21, the Oklahoman and his family were sleeping in one of the khaki, 16-person tents the Marines had set up on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Nashville. We boarded the ship at 9 p.m., after a Marine Landing Craft Unit (LCU) transported 350 of us at a time from Lebanon’s shore to international waters, where the American military ships remained for safety. Stepping on the LCU was like being adopted by a compassionate family after spending time in abusive foster care. The military men and women we spent the next 19 hours with were astonishingly selfless; they fed the 1,116 evacuees on board their ship from their own cafeteria. They gave up their own blankets, berths and sleep so that we could rest. They brought water, juice, milk and medicines to those who needed them wherever they were on board. They took the time to escort exhausted children and stressed parents to bathrooms, showers, telephones and computers. They helped people locate suitcases in order to retrieve toothbrushes, fresh clothes or teddy bears. Ironically, only the military treated us gently during the evacuation. The embassy punished us for having been in Lebanon in the first place.
Walid and I sat on two of the hundreds of green cots lined up in the open air of the Nashville’s flight deck, talking to two Navy yeomen. Petra slept on a third cot, wrapped in two gray wool blankets the Marines had provided. The yeomen told us the aging Nashville had been used during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, although the two 20-year-olds weren’t sure whether the ship was then transporting American evacuees out of Lebanon, or delivering Marines to the country for the peacekeeping effort that followed the invasion.
At 2 a.m. that night I lay watching the stars twinkle alternately with the remaining lights of Lebanon’s northern coastline. It was a good night as far as civilians caught in war zones go. I could hear bombing but it wasn’t close. It was the first night of the siege that I didn’t have a moment of pure panic—not just in reaction to the bombing of bridges and other infrastructure that came within a kilometer of Walid’s father’s mountain house, where we stayed from the morning Beirut’s airport had been destroyed, but also to the rising tension I felt being an American woman with an American child in a country being destroyed by an overly aggressive Israel and an overly tacit America. Before we left the glow of the coastline off our starboard side, my chest tightened thinking about what we were forced to leave so abruptly—decade-long friendships that get tended primarily during the two months of each summer, sanguine family members who’d refused to depart with us because they feared losing their residences to the refugees flooding every intact locale, our daughter’s first summer camp experience, eagerly anticipated but then cancelled after three days’ attendance. My time in Lebanon each summer permitted me to see things differently than I see them in the United States, thanks to my husband, his family, our friends and this tiny, seductive country with its many contradictions. If the American government would have taken a different position with regard to Israel’s aggression, 15,000 other American citizens and I may not have needed to evacuate. The friends and family we left behind would not have suffered so.
We reached Limassol, Cyprus at 3 p.m. on July 22. The ship’s journey took nearly eight hours—docking and disembarking another five. For the next three days we waited for instructions from the American Embassy in Cyprus. Flights to the U.S. were unable to keep up with the volume of evacuees coming in on ships. The three-day break was a welcome rest. Walid and I, along with other Lebanese-American evacuees we befriended at the hotel where we stayed, cowered involuntarily each time a jet flew across Cyprus skies. In our heads we knew we were safe from Israeli bombs, but our bodies were still on high alert. I slept like a corpse while in Cyprus, never waking, never moving during the night. But daytime sounds of trucks rumbling, air conditioners surging on or off and even heavy doors slamming triggered the same kind of visceral discomfort that ordinary jets did. In this half-relaxed, half-unraveled state, we arrived at the tiny Pafos airport on July 25 to board a charter flight with 500 other evacuees. I recognized many of them from the day on the Dbayeh bridge and the night we spent on the Nashville. The Cypriot employees at the tiny, three-gate airport were kind to us. They asked the arriving evacuees to wait as they set up orange cones and yellow hazard tape to form a winding check-in line. Within 20 minutes of our arrival, American Embassy officials from the Cyprus evacuation team charged in to the airport terminal and again started yelling at us.
“Listen up! Everyone must take four steps back or no one will be permitted to enter the line,” one goateed official shouted. I could hardly believe that we were being yelled at again. No one was pushing. Many were seated. There were simply a lot of us crowded into a small airport terminal waiting to check in. After about 30 minutes, we had complied with all the line formation rules set by the embassy officials. We formed a neat queue.
It was clear the embassy officials were feeling defensive. When Walid thanked one of them as we neared the check-in desk, sarcasm tainted his reply: “Really? We did something right? How about that? We finally did something right.” I still struggled to understand why the officials in Beirut had treated us so badly, so I spoke with embassy officials posted at each bend as our line advanced. I expressed my gratitude for their assistance in helping us get home to the United States. I also compared the orderliness of this departure with our Beirut departure. Though I didn’t anticipate easy answers or bureaucratic warmth, I wondered out loud why evacuation was so chaotic in Beirut. One official answered, “We’ve been telling you for three years not to come to Lebanon.” (The “three year” distinction baffled me. Was he referring to the amount of time we’d been at war in Iraq?) Another official said, “We didn’t know. There were only 3,000 Americans registered in Beirut.” (Again I was stumped. France had 4,500 registered, I’d been told, and their embassy in Lebanon phoned potential evacuees beginning July 13, the second day of the siege.) But another Foreign Service worker’s comment revealed a much darker sentiment: “Just wait. The people back home are wondering why they have to pay for this.”
When this official spoke, implying that the real Americans watching CNN in their living rooms in the heartland of the U.S.A. somehow resented the government assisting Americans evacuating war-rocked Lebanon, I nearly gasped. My first thought was, “We are the people back home!” But I realized we weren’t. Not in his mind. I took a step back and looked at the evacuees standing in line. Many of them were dark-skinned—either because they were tanned from summer sun, or because they have that beautiful Mediterranean skin that my husband and daughter have, or both. Many were speaking a combination of three languages that I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing in Lebanon: French, Arabic and English—sometimes all three in the same utterance. About one-third of the women in line wore the abaya, the head scarf favored by Muslim women in Lebanon, whether they are Shia or Sunni. Many women, scarved or not, traveled without their husbands, and managed young children. I had done the same many times over the past seven years with my own daughter—because my work or Walid’s work schedule could not be synchronized for the same arrival or departure dates. For the first time during the evacuation, I realized how particular a group of Americans we were. I realized that the embassy officials here in Cyprus, many of whom had been flown in from quieter outposts—Honduras or St. Petersburg, for example—viewed us with a certain amount of contempt, the same kind of contempt we encountered in Lebanon from the American embassy. We were the crafty Lebanese who had somehow managed to establish dual citizenship in the United States. Or, we were the irreverent Americans, who thought we could ignore the warnings of the State Department, regardless of our reasons for wanting to travel to Lebanon. Or, we were the Arab-Americans, with strong ties to potentially dangerous elements of the “terrorist” world. Risky people. People the real Americans couldn’t trust. I felt a tired, hopeless sadness. I was no longer a real American in the eyes of those Foreign Service workers. I was a kind of second-class American—disobedient, opportunistic, dangerously foreign—because of who I had married and where I chose to go for my summer vacation. I had felt this way at other times during my marriage and travels with Walid. But this time was more potent.
The charter flight we boarded that evening took us first to Manchester, England, then to Baltimore, Maryland. The British pilots and crew on the red-and-white painted Travelcitydirect.com plane were polite and accommodating. When we landed in Baltimore International Airport at 1:30 a.m. on July 26, Chris McCabe, Secretary of Health and Human Services for the State of Maryland, boarded our plane. He welcomed our flight, the thirteenth to arrive in Baltimore from Cyprus that week carrying evacuees from Lebanon. McCabe gave a short, emotional speech, reminding the 500 people waiting to disembark that we’d been through “a great trauma” in Lebanon. He described the many services available to us in the special airport terminal designated for our repatriation: temporary housing, loans for domestic travel, medical services and language translation. In addition, he told us, there would be ample food, water and even childcare assistance available if any of us needed to remain in Baltimore’s airport before traveling to our ultimate destinations in the United States. At the end of his remarks, he said, “God bless you, and welcome back.”
I felt weary—mentally, physically and psychically—and McCabe’s seemingly heartfelt speech comforted me. Walid, Petra and I exited the plane, zoomed through the immigration process referred to as repatriation and collected our three small suitcases from the baggage terminal exclusively reserved for evacuees. As we stood in one final line, a State Department worker wearing a red, white and black plaid, button-down shirt and khaki pants smiled warmly at me, then said “Welcome home. The food at the courtesy table is all halal.” He spoke the words, “all halal” as if they were a code, then handed me a white business card with the following words printed on it: “The U.S. Department of Defense is seeking information regarding activities that could be harmful to American citizens or interests within the United States and abroad. If you have any information please call (240) 413-3327. All calls will remain confidential.”
Walid, Petra and I took an Amtrak commuter train home to New York City at five a.m. that morning, after a breakfast of turkey sandwiches and orange juice provided by the State Department.
Lynn Love, who began her writing and editing career at the media arts monthly, Afterimage, writes about science, the arts and culture as a freelancer in New York City.