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Evacuation from Beirut

Written by Ruth Edens
August 4, 2006

On Sunday July 9th I left Beirut for Dhour El-Chweir, Mount Lebanon to spend a week as the representative of the U.S. and the United Church of Christ at FDCD’s annual “International Work and Study Camp.” There were nearly thirty young adult participants representing the U.S., Holland, Germany, Denmark, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, and Lebanon. This diverse group was to work on breaking down stereotypes and creating dialogue across the cultures and faith communities.

Together only for a week, now we feel like family. Openly sharing stories of culture and faith, we also witnessed the beginning of this war and were evacuated together. On Wednesday, July 12th we were on a field visit outside of Saida. We cut our schedule short for the day because of bombing to the south. It is not unheard of to have some “rough days” at the border, and, at the time I didn’t think anything about it. It wasn’t until the runways at the Beirut Airport were hit that I started to worry.

On Thursday, July 13th we continued on with our plan of visiting Harissah, Byblos and Bourj Hamoud. Better to tour, we thought, than to sit inside watching the news. It was hard to get our minds off of what was taking place in other parts of the country, however it was nice to be temporarily away from the TV and the onslaught of discouraging news. Everyone came equipped with cell phones and the calls started pouring in. Frantic parents, concerned friends and colleagues tried to find out how we were and what we going to do. When it came time for us to go to Bourj Hamoud, a neighborhood of Beirut, my friends and I decided to go in to Hamra “just in case.” We retrieved passports, laptops, prescriptions, clothing and anything else we could grab. Hamra Street on most days would be alive with people shopping, sitting in cafés, or taking a walk. Now most stores and restaurants were closed. Except for the occasional car, the street was empty. We gave ourselves 30 minutes to go to our apartments, grab what we wanted and meet so we could travel together back to the group. It wasn’t until I was standing in my room looking at all my “stuff” that it really struck me. What is it that I really need? I quickly went over the worse case scenario with my roommate, how we would communicate and where we would both go. Standing in the living room, looking at the apartment that I fell in love with back in March, my heart was breaking. Surely I would wake up with relief from this dream. We all met up at the agreed upon internet café on Hamra street, each sending emails home saying we were O.K.

Thursday night was the first time I heard bombing. It is a sound and memory that divides time. I was sitting outside, safe in the mountains, hearing the sound of the destruction of the country I have come to love. I was glad to be with the others. We needed to help and support each other. Talking to the Lebanese helped because, sadly, they have memories of war. They could reassure us that we were fine because the ground would be shaking if the bombs were close. I didn’t know what to feel after that news, probably sad that they knew this.

It was hard to decide at the time whether to stay in the safety of the mountains or try to evacuate. By this point the main road to Damascus from Beirut had been bombed, so we were trying to decide what was the safest route for our group. Once it was decided that we would be leaving the feeling of uncertainty vanished, but the fear of friends and their safety became more and more real. Finally we had to say “goodbye” to those who would not be leaving with us. I can’t explain the feeling and, for me, the actual physical pain that I felt in saying that kind of goodbye. Life has changed for us all, the “bubble” in which we lived has been destroyed.

On Saturday, July 15th we boarded a bus that took us on the back roads of the mountains to the border of Lebanon and Syria. When we arrived at the border the road coming from Lebanon was being bombed. Because of our circuitous route we arrived safely at the border crossing. We entered the building knowing it could be bombed at any moment. Fortunately we passed through the Lebanese border crossing quickly. Once at the Syrian border we easily obtained Syrian visas. They welcomed us right in.

We continued on to Damascus, where we had to say goodbye to our Danish friends. They were able to get a plane leaving the next day to Denmark. Another “goodbye” that was very difficult for all of us. We had experienced so much together and became so close that to be separated felt strange. I am thinking of my friends in Denmark, and know they feel as strongly about everything as I do and are trying to make a difference in their own communities.

While in Damascus we picked up a family who had also left Lebanon in hopes of reaching Jordan. The father was originally Lebanese and had left in 1982 for Brazil. At some point he moved to Paraguay. He had not returned to Lebanon until 2 weeks before the war began so that his children could meet their grandparents who live in the south of Lebanon for the first time. They were never able to meet. The grandparents were unable to travel north alone after the war began, and the father and mother did not want to risk traveling. They had two little girls, ages three and five who only spoke Spanish. Although I studied Spanish all through school, my language skills are rusty at best. The girls were sweet and enjoyed teaching me and laughing at me. It was a good diversion and their laughter lovely to hear!

We when reached the Jordanian border we had to wait for what felt like hours. I know that we were there for at least an hour because some of us had to get Jordanian visas before getting in the arrival line. One of the interesting parts to me was how the Jordanians in our group felt responsible for the rest of us. J Now we were their guests and they wanted to make sure that we were cared for in their country. Again, it felt like family.

At around 1 or 2am we arrived at our hotel in Amman. It had been almost a 12-hour trip, and emotionally draining. It really hit when I called my Mom to tell her I had arrived safely. To me that day had just been about getting through to the next border, sleeping when I could, and making sure that we were all okay. I don’t think any of us had processed what we had done that day. But to call my Mother and hear the relief in her voice was powerful. Both Mom and Dad had been strong and confident on the phone every time we talked while I was in Lebanon. But now that I was out and safe, I believe she was able to breath easier.

We then spent the next day searching for flights for the remaining participants who needed to get home -- sad to be looking for flights knowing that more “good-byes” were in store. Leaving my friends, I feared that I would forget about what was going on in Lebanon. Forget the friends that I had left behind. We all knew that no one else could know what we had gone through together. We just have to continue to hope that by telling our story, we can help people join us in our commitment to peace for the Lebanese people and for everyone in the region.

Now, traveling with my parents in Turkey, all of my memories of Lebanon are bittersweet. I know how Lebanon was, the real beauty of it. Even if I am able to go back to Beirut, it has all been changed. I don’t know if my friends and colleagues will return. I know the life I knew there is in some respects is over. So my memories are wonderful but full of sadness. I also have to admit to feeling guilty. I know that I shouldn’t, and fear that this somehow sounds ungrateful to those who helped to get me out of Lebanon. Yet, I know that I was able to leave while others could not. So that I did leave is hard to cope with.

In closing I would like to ask all of you to remember ALL of those being affected by this war. Please pray for those who are there because there is nowhere else for them to go. I write because I have a responsibility to share this story: my experience during the evacuation, and the violence that continues. We all have the choice to sit idle or to work for change. I believe that there is enough hope and love out there to build a better world.

Ruth Edens serves as a Global Mission Intern appointed by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She serves as program staff of the Forum for Development Culture and Dialogue based in Beirut, Lebanon. Her ministry is possible because of funds provided by the Week of Compassion of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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