Evacuation From Beirut (Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation)

I am one of the many American students evacuated from Lebanon in the last week. I've been asked to write about the experience, which I do gladly but with the significant caveat that the reader understands that my experience was nowhere near as tragic and intense as the experience of the average Lebanese in Beirut at this time. For me, even before war broke out, my stay in Lebanon had a sense of unreality--of being so remote from my usual experience that I imagined myself more a character in a fiction than Callie Lefevre in reality. In its opening chapters, it was a wonderful, romantic story, slightly more exciting than the usual study abroad story because of the greater potential for discovery and adventure in the Middle East. But even when the story turned somewhat frightening and sad, it was still a story, more or less. I always held within me the comforting knowledge that my home stood waiting for me, on a little undisturbed cobblestone street in Philadelphia, if only, like Dorothy, I could get back to it. Beirut is not my permanent home, and its concrete and glass high-rises that have become piles of grey rubble don't house the memories of my childhood or of aunts and uncles opening their doors to holiday feasts. To see a pile of grey rubble and know that it was your home, to see the body of a seven year old girl in little blue pajamas and know that it was your younger sister (who yesterday smuggled a baby chick into the car so it would be safe from the bombs) is real experience on a very different plane than the one I occupied.

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View of Ras Beirut from the Corniche, the wide street that runs between the sea and the AUB campus

I arrived on June 27 to start the CAMES summer Arabic program at the American University of Beirut (AUB), an intensive six and a half week course that would have covered material equivalent to my second year of classical Arabic. My plan was to jump up to third year Arabic when I returned for my sophomore year at school in the fall. There were about 70 other students in my program, mostly American, British and other Western Europeans. It was a promising summer. I had spent a month in Beirut two years ago, in January of my junior year of high school, living with close Lebanese family friends, Najwa and Omran. I remember it being cold then, and windy. Much of the downtown area was still under construction, recovering from the Civil War. In that whole month I saw only a handful of other Americans in the city--including the teachers and administrators at the American Community School, a high school where I took a couple of classes.

But this summer was different. The huge, blue-topped Hariri mosque had finally been completed and the downtown area looked beautiful with its Parisian-inspired cafes and restaurants. The Green Line was now a hot-spot for nightclubs and bars, and Ras Beirut, the western, cosmopolitan edge of the city that houses the American University, was filled with foreign visitors. By now I was old enough that Najwa let me walk to her apartment from campus on my own. I felt completely comfortable exploring the city with other students from the CAMES program, and going out at night to Rue Monot, Achrefiah, and the downtown area, where the best nightclubs are. Beirut was my city for the summer. The perfect place to be young and on the cusp of life.

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A group of my classmates in front of "The Largest Stone in the World," the first stop on our field trip to Baalbek, in the north of Lebanon, July 8th. The blue-topped mosque in the background was later hit when Israel bombed the area.

My first two weeks were intense, as though (to use my generation's favorite metaphor) my life were on steroids. The normal gestation period of everything from making friends to learning a language seemed artificially altered. I quickly figured out how to balance spending time with Najwa and Omran, with going out with friends from the program, with doing my school work. My Arabic class at AUB was like boot-camp: we had class from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm, and then about five hours of homework. But the two professors in my Intermediate section, Rima and Hussein, did their best to come up with creative activities--we'd act out skits, put on a fashion show, write love poems, etc., to bolster our spirits and keep us engaged. By the middle of our second week of class, I was pleased that I was finally understanding case endings, and how to conjugate in the dual form. During the week of July 10, a couple of my girlfriends from the program started planning a weekend trip to Damascus, but I wrestled with the question of joining them because we had to give oral presentations on Monday, and study for our midterm the following Friday. I had no way of knowing that by Saturday my program would be cancelled, my professors unable to leave their homes, and my friends panicking as they tried to figure out a way to evacuate. As it turned out, I did go to Damascus that weekend, but not in the way I had hoped to.

News of the Hezbollah ambush of Israeli soldiers came on Wednesday, June 12th, as I was sitting in the AUB computer lab with my friend Emily. A friend of hers from home had emailed her, concerned about the situation, so Emily went to a news website to read more about it. I shrugged and told her not to worry about it, it was no big deal. When I was in Beirut two years ago, an Israeli tank had crossed the border and Hezbollah had opened fire on it. I told Emily these things happen all the time, and the Lebanese are used to it. I went back to emailing my mom, who had just bought a plane ticket to come visit Beirut during my last week of class. I was very excited, because she hadn't seen Najwa since the Lebanese Civil War, and I knew how happy Najwa would be when I told her my mom was coming.

That night, when I went over to their apartment, Najwa and Omran were watching AlJazeera. We saw Nasrallah's press conference, and they translated for me the parts that I couldn't understand. He said that Hezbollah had been planning to capture Israeli soldiers since the beginning of 2006, in order to make a prisoner exchange. Nasrallah himself didn't know about this specific raid until after it had happened, he had just given instructions to grab Israeli soldiers as soon as the opportunity presented itself. It was clear to me that Hezbollah thought there were rules to this game. If they had prisoners that Israel wanted back, they would be able to trade them for some of the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners that Hezbollah wanted back. Nasrallah said that any Lebanese mother could understand Hezbollah's action, if she imagined it was her child in the Israeli prison. This was the only way to get her child back. The international community ignored the existence of these Lebanese prisoners, so Hezbollah had no other way to gain leverage than through this game of "prisoner-swapping".

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Me, Najwa, and Omran in their apartment

On Thursday morning, my elation about my mom's arrival dimmed. Israel had struck the Beirut airport in the early hours of the morning, and it would be closed now indefinitely. Rima taught class by herself all day, because Hussein couldn't make it in. Israel had also hit AlManar, Hezbollah's television and radio station in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hussein lived. He was ok, but the roads were torn up and it wasn't safe for him to try to get to Ras Beirut. Rima kept telling us not to worry too much, this stuff happens and you just get through it. "You like it here in Beirut, right?" We said of course, we loved it here. "Well, then you don't need the airport." But she was just putting on a cheerful face for us. She had a one-year old baby at home, and her husband was away. He was supposed to be returning from a business trip to London on Friday, and would no longer be able to fly home now.

That afternoon, the provost of the university held a meeting for all of the international students. Essentially, he told us not to panic. The university had made it through the whole civil war without being hit. He said AUB had its own generator so we would have electricity, air conditioning, internet, etc. even if the rest of Beirut did not. We also had food to last for four weeks if necessary. He asked if there were any students living in the southern suburbs (students sometimes get apartments there since it's an inexpensive area). Any students living off campus were invited to move into rooms on campus. I had heard from outside sources that AUB is widely considered the safest place to be in all of Lebanon. The idea of a university turning into a fortress was novel to me. Then again, all my life I'd dreamed of ivy towers--maybe this was what it was like to be a monk in medieval times.

Thursday afternoon was beautiful, though hot, so I decided to go for a jog along the waterfront to clear my head. There was not nearly as much traffic as usual, which was odd, but made my run very pleasant. I jogged past the AUB beach, and then past the old lighthouse and the new lighthouse, which occasioned an inner smile because we had just watched a documentary about Ras Beirut the day before, in which the keeper of the old lighthouse kept trying to prove the worth of his lighthouse, and express his bewilderment at the necessity of the new one. Two days later the new lighthouse would be hit and the keeper of the old one would probably understand the saying, "Be careful what you wish for."

In the evening I went over to Najwa and Omran's, and brought an overnight bag with me, because, given everyone's nerves, I didn't want Najwa to have to drive me back to my dorm at night. I did my homework while they watched the news. Najwa was sad because her son Fadi would no longer be able to come visit the following week. Both of her sons live in Dubai, where there is work. This is an unfortunate product of Lebanon's collapsed economy after the Civil War. Many of the young people leave the country after college to find a decent job. She only sees her sons a couple of times a year--and because of the current war, she won't get to see Fadi this time. I could feel the sadness settling around the living room as Omran switched news channels. CNN. AlJazeera. AlManar. He smoked cigarette after cigarette and occasionally clucked his tongue in disgust and sadness at the news.

But I couldn't feel sad just then. I felt angry, really, furiously angry. Why wouldn't they be able to see their son? Why wouldn't they be able to see my mom after all these years? Why was Rima separated from her husband, and Hussein trapped in a bombed-out neighborhood? None of them asked for this war. Why had Israel decided to change the rules? Because that's exactly what they did. And that night, Hezbollah realized that they had to play by different rules. Israel threatened to bomb Beirut itself, so Hezbollah said they would fire rockets at Haifa if Israel hit Beirut. But then, mysteriously, two rockets were fired at Haifa, and Hezbollah denied responsibility. At that point, I was furious enough to think that Israel had fired them itself, in order to be "justified" in hitting Beirut.

I went to bed knowing that Beirut would be next. But who knew where Israel would hit? I woke up at 4 am to the sound of bombs hitting what I later found out were the bridges around Beirut. Ironically, the sound of the bombing wasn't nearly as intrusive as the sound of car alarms triggered by their vibrations. I tossed and turned the rest of the night, my habitual ear plugs proving useless, and finally rose out of a nervous sweat to go to class in the morning.

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Rubble of destoyed buildings in Beirut on Thursday July 20, after the Israeli airstrikes. (AP photo)

In a sense, I was lucky that class was cancelled on Friday, because I was exhausted and shaken from the night before. Neither Rima nor Hussein could make it to school, so we watched Disney's The Lion King dubbed in Arabic, and then the other professors said we could have the rest of the day off. It was beautiful outside, so about 15 students in my program decided to go to the AUB beach for the afternoon. Daylight had taken the edge off the night's anxieties and I looked forward to an afternoon without classes as though it were a snow day. In Beirut do they refer to a War Day?

That afternoon, in spite of the Israeli warships lurking in the distance and the Israeli planes lancing the skies, my upcoming midterm loomed larger in my mind. Chalk it up to the myopia of college students. Only a handful of students from our program had left so far--to Damascus, or to Greece--but we assumed they would be back for class on Monday or Tuesday.

None of us imagined trying to leave. First, we loved Beirut. In a stack of cards from which other students had drawn summer programs in Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Yemen, we all knew we had drawn the Ace of Spades. Besides that, there wasn't a safe way out of Beirut. Everyone knew that the road to Syria was a four to six hour traffic jam, and then it would take another four hours to get a visa. And who knew how long that road would continue to be safe. I was content to stay right where I was. We even made light of the situation, joking about which strategic phrases we should learn in Hebrew and in Arabic. I remembered Robert Fisk saying in his history of the Lebanese Civil War, Pity the Nation, that his American friend got past an Israeli checkpoint by arguing that his tax dollars paid for their goddamn weapons. I figured we should probably learn that one in Hebrew.

After the beach, I did not go over to Najwa and Omran's for dinner as I usually did. With the approach of night, anxieties increased. I felt more comfortable staying on campus with the other students, just in case. A group of us met at the main gate to find a restaurant to have dinner. The streets near campus felt eerily deserted, and some people called to us from their balconies and doorways to ask us what we were still doing in Lebanon. As soon as we had sat down in the only open restaurant, two loud bombs went off in succession, and they felt disconcertingly close by. We decided to head back to campus and order pizza.

Now eating at a picnic table near the men's dorms, we suddenly heard the guys in the lobby yelling as they rushed out of the doorway. A bomb? Had the building been hit? In a sudden flash of panic, I tried to figure out in which direction to run. But then someone rushed over to tell us they were running to watch Hezbollah hit one of the Israeli ships. They had all been watching AlManar, and the Hezbollah had just announced they were striking back at the Israeli ships. They were cheering and racing to find a ring side seat on the roof. I lost my appetite and made my way back to the girls' dorms. Boys seem to enjoy the game of war more than girls do.

On Saturday, the prospect of extended war forced AUB to cancel our program. I learned the sad news in the morning, from students who had been so frightened they had camped out in the lobby overnight. Their suitcases were packed in case of an emergency evacuation.

Initially the University conceived a plan to evacuate us themselves-- by bus through Syria to Amman where they would put us in a hotel. The plan had a life of about an hour and a half. News about Israeli bombings along all the known roads to Syria made AUB reconsider. This was not going to be like our class trip to Baalbek. They referred us to our embassies for evacuation assistance.

At this point, I was so enraged at the general conduct of my government, I wasn't sure I could trust them to get us out. They had supported Israeli's bombardment of Lebanon under the aegis that it "has the right to defend itself". They had just vetoed a ceasefire. How could they conduct a safe evacuation without a ceasefire? Why would we not become legitimate targets of anyone as angry at American foreign policy as I was becoming? If Lebanon was crying for a ceasefire, WHY DIDN'T OUR GOVERNMENT AGREE TO IT? Why would anyone, EVER, not explore the possibilities of diplomacy in any given war? I couldn't see the faces of Bush or Condoleeza Rice without turning away in shame.

Personally I mourned the collapse of my perfect summer, all my plans with Najwa and Omran. I had spent months applying for grants to study Arabic abroad. But more importantly, it had been two years since I had spent a month with Najwa, a month in which time she had become my surrogate mother. Her warmth and kindness know no bounds. In our plans for the next four weeks we had woven our lives together--shopping, lessons in Middle Eastern cooking, visiting Damascus and friends in the mountains--we knew we would be warmed by these memories until the next time we could see each other.

As American plans for evacuating its citizens promised to be protracted and disorganized, as well as potentially risky, I began investigating an option that my University had made available to me when they had subscribed to International SOS services. International SOS is a form of insurance that offers travelers emergency evacuation when circumstances of illness or war warrant their aid. Princeton University had given me their card to carry with my other documents. The Dean of Study Abroad, Nancy Kanach, had contacted them at the first sign of hostilities. The Harvard students in our program were also SOS insured, and so were the Dartmouth students studying in a different program, as I would later find out. Yale's policy was with a similar service called Medex, I think. So the Ivies had all purchased first class tickets out for their students and students from other colleges and universities would have to wait for the American embassy to get its act together. Our evacuation had all the class divisions of the Titanic.

Qualms about unequal privilege were just part of what made the decision to go with SOS difficult. First, leaving Beirut now meant that I was accepting that this war would continue to ravage the city, and not just blow over by Monday morning as we had originally thought. What if I waited for the US Embassy? Maybe the violence would have abated by the end of the week and we wouldn't have to leave at all. Second, SOS's plan was to bus us to Damascus, and then fly us to Cyprus from there. Could I trust that the road through Tripoli to Damascus would not get hit while we were en route? Hadn't I seen newsreels of whole families blown to pieces as they heeded Israeli calls to evacuate? While I was trying to decide, two spots along the road we would take were bombed. The other Princeton student, my friend Emily Norris, wanted to wait for the embassy evacuation.

Saturday night the two Harvard boys whom SOS had evacuated that day, called from Damascus to say that they were now being coddled in a three star hotel. I hate to think that that is what tipped the scales. They also assured us that SOS was coordinating with UN forces. That is, I think, what did it. I was relieved that Emily agreed to come along with me, but I also knew that if anything happened to her on the way, it was my fault.

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Crossing the Syrian border

I have to say, I never cried once while in Beirut, it was only upon leaving that my emotions overtook me. As I watched the sea and the mountains slide by our window, guilt and regret overwhelmed me. I was abandoning a people and a place very dear to me. Until then, I had never really understood how someone could write a song about a place, about a city. Now I understood that fierce love of place, that love for the way the sunlight feels in the morning, the way the sea looks in the afternoon, and the way the orange trees smell at night.

We didn't know it at the time, but our safety was being guaranteed by the Israelis throughout our journey. We were following a UN convoy that had clearance from Israel. Apparently, the SOS leader of our convoy was friends with one of the U.N. officials, who let him know exactly when the U.N. would be evacuating their non-essential personnel. Israel assured the UN that they would not hit this particular northern road during a certain window of time. Our seven SOS buses had only one half hour lead-time through critical northern passes. One tunnel, in particular, was described as Israel's next hit if they were to completely seal the borders. As we sped through the tunnel, I held my breath and Emily's hand. You always see headlines at times like this: "Princeton Coeds Killed in Israeli Attack on Borders." Later you will make joke headlines: "Princeton Coeds Fire Back On Israeli Fighter-planes with Verbal Puns."

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U.N. vans at the Damascus airport as we pull up

The rest of our journey went relatively smoothly because the SOS had clearly developed nerves of steel and were evidently trained to deal not just with military attacks, but with the obnoxious behavior of clients like Halliburton and Merrill Lynch executives who were ticked off that their business trips had suddenly devolved into a long, tedious, bus-ride. I kept in contact with Najwa until my SIM card stopped working at the Syrian border. We spent about four hours there while the SOS members arranged for us all to get visas. I was very impressed with the way the SOS leaders managed us--there were about 75 of us, I believe--and how calm they seemed. I was tired of making decisions myself and relieved to put my fate in their competent hands.

Well, we did get out. We spent about three hours in the Damascus airport, which was teeming with Lebanese citizens trying to evacuate, and then left on a plane that SOS had chartered, at about 5 am. There were so many empty seats on the plane, as there had been on the buses as well, that I just wished we could have grabbed people in the airport and taken them with us.

We reached Cyprus at about 7 am and, as is so often the case, that was when I became most miserable. I'd been awake for 24 hours, and was completely disoriented. When we checked in to the resort hotel that SOS had booked for us, they were already serving continental breakfast, so we decided to eat before heading to bed. The breakfast was a lavish feast in the classical sense--figs, dates, cheeses, sweets, etc. I looked out over the landscaped pool area and the beach, the outdoor bar, the waterslides, and as I took a bite of cucumber I felt my eyes well up. What could be more ridiculous than my sitting there?

I am back in the states now, and my friends keep telling me how sorry they are that I had to go through all of that. But I know their sympathy is wasted. Or I should say that it is mis-directed. Instead, think hard about the people who remain in Beirut, the 86,000 evacuees living in parks and schools, the 360 dead and counting...the children without parents, the parents who will never recover from the loss of their children...