EVACUATION FROM LEBANON – JULY 2006
TWO MINUTES TO SUNSET
It was the call that thousands had been waiting to receive: “Can you make it to the Port of Beirut within three hours?”
Thousands of people now were haranguing their national embassies on an hourly basis. Priority lists seemed to lie in disarray, as those people in close proximity to the embassies in Beirut waited outside, even banged on the walls, in an attempt to ensure they were amongst the first to safety. Evacuation, for many, had become the Holy Grail. Our speedy decision to get out of Beirut when the bombing began had seemed prudent for days, especially as our Beirut hotel overlooked the Port of Beirut which had now been targeted, but as the days wore on, and Byblos itself was the subject of missile attack, we felt increasingly fraught by the perils we would face on our way back into Beirut to catch any ships. Bombs and kidnapping were becoming harsh realities for us. In recent days, we had started to stay out of public places as the possibility of Hizbollah kidnappings by Hizbollah became real. In fact, we had little idea of the reality of our escape that lay ahead of us.
The News We were Waiting For..
When the news came that we could leave at 9.40am, it was with heavy hearts and silent prayers that we packed up those bags we were allowed to take within the strict weight limits, leaving carry cots and other all non-essential items behind, and paid substantial sums of money for a taxi-driver willing to take us into Beirut. The jovial texts we received from our friends in London meant few people really understood quite how perilous that journey was. In the previous days, the roads around Byblos had been struck and the Lebanese army called in.
As we drove towards a city under smoke, tears spilled with pain for the people we were leaving behind. I felt like a traitor deserting ship, even as I knew I had to get out. Ordinary stories of ordinary people that we had met will haunt me forever.
The night before we left, we had met three 40-something women, friends who had left Beirut the night the bombing started in Dahiya, in the southern suburbs. They told us they had lived there, in the Christian parts of that quartier for 30 years, throughout the civil war without once leaving their homes for fear of destruction. Now their homes lay in tatters and phone lines were so bad they could not even check on loved ones in the vicinity. Their grim warning rang like funeral bells in our ears as we left: “Get out friends, whilst you can. This is only the beginning”.
By lunchtime, we had made our way safely, but in extreme trepidation along empty streets heading back to Beirut, for the Forum building. Word had not yet got out that ships were leaving from this area of the port, so the queues were comparatively short. There was a sense of urgency to everyone’s actions, as the Lebanese army stood guard strategically around the building. Yet again, we were forced to discard yet more belongings at the gate to the Forum. Piles of suitcases and bags, filled with possessions had begun to form an ugly scene of distress at the entrance to this exclusive club for those lucky enough to get out. Even the baby’s pushchair was considered to be excess in these circumstances. It was the first tiny taste of what being a refugee would feel like, albeit that we were wealthy refugees, with credit cards, whose governments helped us out of the battlefield.
The Mechanics of Departure
Once into the Building, a surreal air took hold. The holding centre was a massive empty warehouse, filled with British army personnel, embassy staff and FCO staff walking around with walkie-talkie phones in an attempt to normalise this insanely abnormal situation. About 500 people waited, with unexpected calm, in scattered plastic seating out of the heat. There were about 56 Australian nationals, and the majority of the other evacuees were of dual nationality, or British, of Lebanese descent.
Many people had young children, and the sound of screaming, hot and unhappy babies and children was prevalent, as mothers tried to find ways to change nappies, or breastfeed privately, amongst a mass of people. Even as British and Lebanese staff were unfailingly helpful, trying to assist lone women with their bags and reassuring people that everybody would get on the boats, barely disguised concern was mounting that there would not be room for everyone.
Women sat quietly crying, at the thought of loved ones left behind. A group of teenage North Londoners sat behind us, chattering with exaggerated machismo about the bombs they had dodged and of which they could boast about to their classmates. Worried students from the American University of Beirut showed me a green leaflet in Arabic, which had been dropped by Israeli planes warning them to get out of the area. A 34year old man, sitting with his child on his lap, could barely contain tears as he moved quietly to the next stage of processing the evacuation. A young British girl who had been on holiday could only talk, rather unhelpfully, about the Titanic. All around us, there was relief, mixed with anger and fear.
We sat for some 6 hours in hot, uncomfortable conditions, but believing we were all safe. As the afternoon drew on, the patience people had shown, mostly out of immense gratitude that they were being taken out, began to wear thin. Pictures had been shown the night before on Lebanese television of foreign nationals being left behind as boats filled up. There were only three coaches to take 500 people the 5 minute journey from the Forum to the port at Gemayzeh. Polite as the officials were being, many in the crowd were beginning to wonder whether the increasing delays of up to an hour between busloads was due to renewed bombing in the central Beirut area. Mobile phones had been banned, however, out of security concerns and the news channels or internet, a lifeline for so many of us during the past 8 days, were not available to us. Nor were we told which port we would land in, which many of us felt indicated the level of anxiety about whether we would be able to leave that night.
Finally, at about 5.15pm, we boarded buses to take us to the Port. As the sun began to set, we remained sitting at the Portside for almost 2 desperately long hours. There were 27 people on our bus who had problems with their documents. An English family had overstayed their visa, other dual nationals had problems with their passports. It was perhaps our misfortune that we were seated on that bus. We were not allowed off the bus, or onto the boats so long as the whole bus did not have clear permission to leave.
Embassy officials swarmed in, anxiously looking at their watches, telling us if we had not left by 7.15pm, we would not be on the ships tonight. 35 minutes to sunset. What would happen, a man behind me muttered, if we did not leave by then? Had we not been granted safe passage by the Israelis, for whenever we left port?
Agitation began to break out. Two men started to fight, and raised voices with the Lebanese officials, as well as the young British army men who had been called in from Cyprus to assist. The Israelis had given us a window by the Israelis in which to leave. Nobody truly believed we could be attacked sitting in British buses, but equally, no-one knew where the threat might come from.
As the embassy staff began to stream around the bus, urging us to leave immediately, passengers began to realise that maybe safe passage had not been guaranteed after sunset. Disbelieving voices echoed within the bus windows: How can our government be powerless to ensure that we are safely removed, people asked. Children began to scream with hunger and frustration. The Lebanese bus driver gave his dinner of bread and cheese to three children who were crying.
The Night is approaching
Night began to fall, and the British officials now were boarding the bus to say the boat had to leave now. None of us could understand why, amongst the priority ships leaving that day, this bus had been allowed to pass with so many problematic cases. We watched the Greek auxiliary warships, and the American ferry sail out of port long before sunset. There was no television crews, no reporters. The Port had fallen silent. Everybody else had boarded the ships, and we remained the very last people. As tension rose to almost indescribable levels, the bus set off without some of the last cases which had not been resolved, and drove us at speed to the HMS Gloucester.
The atmosphere was tense, prepared for war. Military personnel stood with massive guns at each side of the ship, special forces were roaming the ground. We were told to get on the ship that minute or be left behind. Everybody, everybody was looking at their watches. One navy officer told us as we queued to get on, without our bags, that we had a definite window. If we did not make it, the Israelis would bomb anyway. Somehow, we were the last two to get on the ship. The navy lads warned us conditions would be hot, cramped and difficult below deck. As my claustrophobia began to take hold, I knew there was simply no choice. I had to climb the steep steps below deck, or be left behind on a port without support.
As I cast my last glance at the city I had fallen in love with, its terracotta walls turning crimson under the final rays of the sunset, the beauty of that last moment was scarred by the knowledge that the bombardment was due to start any moment now, perhaps it had already begun.
Conditions on board
It was hot, cramped and conditions were far from ideal. People were sweating, both out of fear and heat. Some people started to laugh out of pure relief to be away. Young New Zealand girls, also being given passage, as they bounced above us on the bunks, were being sick and complaining of shortness of breath in the heat. I, however, was listening anxiously to the overheard announcements the captain was making to his crew. They were told to prepare themselves with anti-flash clothing and equipment, and that the ship would be leaving at the top speed of 32 knots immediately until we were out of Lebanese waters.
My eyes turned to the notices affixed to the walls about what action should be taken in the event of chemical attack as I watched the navy cover themselves in protective gear, surreptitiously so that most passengers barely noticed as they tried to get comfortable or fan themselves with bits of cardboard. Other naval personnel cheerily shouted “Cheese or tuna sandwiches” to drown out the announcements. Most people, thankfully at that moment, remained blissfully unaware that the navy personnel were preparing themselves in case of attack.
My claustrophobia, combined with the realisation that the measures being taken by the staff were because the bombing had begun as were leaving Port, became difficult to contain. Later, members of the crew confirmed to us that as we were leaving the Port, there had been 15 Israeli hits overhead. Other members of the crew told us that they had prepared for war completely as they reached the Port, and particularly as we were getting ready to leave. Passengers who heard this expressed angry disbelief that the Israeli campaign was so intense that even British citizens could not be assured safe passage. One man asked aloud whether civilians of any nationality had become fair game.
Somehow, despite the terrifying intensity of those last minutes in the Port, we got away. Most passengers, but not all, had been unaware of the developments around us. After about half an hour, the naval crew took off their anti-flash clothing, and people were taken on deck to smoke or stretch their legs, a handful of passengers at a time. The crew of HMS Gloucester were amazing. As about 500 people invaded their “home”, they gave us their own food rations to make us comfortable. They handed us chocolate bars and did everything possible to make everybody feel safe. A few people were agitated, demanding more food or being impatient about the length of time the journey took. Most of us expressed immense gratitude to them for giving us their beds and food. As people wandered around on deck, horror stories spilled from their mouths, as though the sudden safety of the warship allowed them distance from the stoicism they had had to show over the past week.
One Australian Lebanese woman told of how she and her family had had to sleep in the bath for 5 days, without food, as the houses all around them were hit by bombs in the villages near Tyre. She told of how cats and dogs were eating dead bodies, which lay littered in the streets as people were too afraid to go out and bury them. Another man told of how a bomb had hit the spot he had been standing in just 20 seconds before he moved in central Beirut and showed me the injuries he had received from the bruising as he had been thrown into the side of the road from the impact.
A French-British family told us how the French embassy had suggested they leave their 3 children, one of whom was still breastfeeding, behind with Lebanese family, so that the parents could get out safely. An Australian dancer, who had been working on contract in Bahrain, said that the Australian embassy had had no obvious priority list but had asked people whether they had enough money to support themselves, whether they were fit to travel and whether they were in a safe spot in the mountains. British groups, on hearing her say this, reported that there had been no similar questions from the embassy staff, but a re-iteration of the advice to stay put, and stay safe.
An 8 year old Australian Lebanese girl played “bombs” on her bunk, as she described how her family had driven through the bombing from the South Lebanon taking two days to get to Beirut. Almost everyone had painful stories of family and friends left behind. As the ship left Lebanese waters, many men and women cried at the devastation left behind.
One American-Lebanese man told of how wheat and vegetable factories near his home had been hit and how food had run out. Others told of their concerns that businesses were collapsing in Lebanon now daily, and that the newly-emergent tourism industry was ruined, maybe for as much as ten years.
Most people, of every nationality, expressed anger and disbelief that Israel had been allowed to conduct such outrage on Lebanon as a country and people, and there was real anxiety that once the foreign nationals had been taken out and images faded from the headlines, the remains of Lebanon’s civil infrastructure and society would be destroyed quietly and with complicit denial of reality by the international community.
Seventeen hours after we set off, we reached the safe haven of Cyprus where the British High Commission and the Army conducted the most organised, and welcoming return we could have imagined. This morning, people are waking up and beginning to realise what they have gone through. Hotel guests look dazed and anxious as they walk through the lobby, barely daring to watch the news for fear of what they may see. Lebanon’s summer tourist trade has arrived here in Larnaca for a few days. People of all ages are trying to get home, but questions lie scattered everywhere here. Many of the naval crew told us they had never seen mass evacuations of nationals on this scale before.
How is it possible that thousands of European, American and other foreign nationals are forced to fell in huge-scale operations from the Israeli bombing in Lebanon, and yet our governments refuse to speak out against it? There are no safe passages either within the country, or even out of it if things do not work quite to plan. Many inside Lebanon wish to see Hizbollah disarmed, but the Israeli offensive goes well beyond Hizbollah and has done so from the outset of this new war. If Israel has no quarrel with the Lebanese people, as it claims, its actions are destroying them and their country anyway.
Our experience made us question whether we were safe from harm too: It appeared there was a window of time in which all guarantees of safety, for everyone in Lebanon, had been thrown away. It feels surreal that we are now safe. We cannot forget that we are the lucky ones, those who had opportunities, money and help to flee.
Two minutes from sunset, and we may not have been so lucky.
20th July 2006