Skip to main content

Features

No way out

Israelis flee south, Lebanese flee west, but for thousands too poor or too ill to leave-and for U.S.

No way out

Tom Charara relishes the Lebanon of his youth. Though he's lived in the United States for more than 30 years, Charara, 50, remembers his childhood home as a "romantic" place full of beauty and tradition. "It's a place you long for all your life," he told WORLD. But on a trip with his family to the Middle East in July, Lebanon quickly became a place he longed to flee.

Charara wasn't alone. After intense fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon on July 12, thousands of U.S. citizens clamored to leave the country. Good news in wartime wins little attention, but in just over a week, the U.S. military managed to evacuate safely some 12,000 Americans under precarious hot-zone conditions. Another 20,000 foreign nationals left Lebanon by late July, traveling to Cyprus or Turkey by boat.

With air and road travel shut down by Israeli bombs, long lines formed at the U.S. embassy in Beirut as officials scrambled to evacuate U.S. citizens by sea. For the Chararas and thousands like them, Beirut's port became a launching station for those embarking on U.S. warships, Saudi-owned commercial ships, Norwegian cargo ships, and other transport carriers. Troops handed out water and military rations to evacuees who waited to board for hours in the Mediterranean sun. Evacuees hauled bulky suitcases down the rocky beach, and U.S. Marines stood at the water's edge, lifting children onto naval vessels and helping others to board. For Marines the humanitarian effort marked a sober milestone: It was the first time in more than 20 years that U.S. Marines had landed in Beirut after a 1983 suicide bombing linked to Hezbollah killed 241 Americans at the U.S. Marine Corps barracks. The Marines left Lebanon a few months later, never to return, until last month.

For the Charara family the trip to Beirut also was weighted with significance. Charara and his wife, Rola, made the costly journey with their two children, ages 7 and 8, to visit Rola's ailing parents. "Her father is terminally ill," says Charara. "We wanted our kids to know their grandparents."

The family had just set up a temporary apartment in the Haret Hreik neighborhood in Beirut when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with a massive air attack aimed at dismantling Hezbollah.

Haret Hreik is the most densely populated neighborhood in south Beirut, with 15-story apartment buildings and streets packed with shops and people. The area is also considered a Hezbollah stronghold. The Chararas' stay there would be short.

During the first night of Israeli attacks, bombs fell on the outskirts of the neighborhood. "I knew they were trying to empty the square," said Charara. The next morning as his wife ventured out to get food for breakfast, "two huge bombs exploded 100 meters away," he said. Charara grabbed his children and his wife and fled.

Scores of others fled as well, and the scene on the street was "pure terror," according to Charara: People barely clothed or still in pajamas jammed the streets at the early hour "running away as fast as they could."

The Chararas would not return. Over the next few days, Israeli bombs laid waste to the neighborhood. Buildings and homes lay in ruins, mounds of concrete and rubble filled empty streets, hanging wires crisscrossed impassable roads. Still, a few days later, members of Hezbollah remained in the streets, even taking a group of journalists on a tour of the destroyed district.

By then the Chararas were across town at Rola's parents' home, where they spent three days in "misery" listening to "constant bombing." When rockets destroyed a strategic bridge leading to the airport about 50 yards away, Charara's children cried and begged their father to "please make it stop."

Charara spent part of those three days at the U.S. Embassy trying to cobble together an evacuation plan for his family. Embassy officials were overwhelmed, and Charara decided to take matters into his own hands. He moved his family to a hotel near the American University of Beirut (AUB), figuring that Israel would be less likely to aim an attack near a large group of Americans. While at the hotel he arranged for a taxi to take his family across the border to Syria during the night. They waited three hours for the taxi but it never showed up.

Depressed and desperate, Charara had another idea: Maybe the Americans living at the university near his hotel would be evacuated first. He convinced a security guard at the school to let him onto the campus.

An AUB administrator told Charara that a chartered bus would arrive at noon to take students and faculty to Beirut's port for evacuation. It was 11:50. Could he make it to the hotel and back with his family in 10 minutes? "I never knew I could run that fast," Charara said, but he managed to return to the school on time with his family close behind him. Within an hour they and 122 other Americans were on their way to the port.

After several hours filling out paperwork, the exhausted evacuees joined more than 1,000 Europeans boarding a Norwegian cargo ship bound for Cyprus. Charara was elated to be getting out, but grieved at the thought of leaving his extended family, especially his ill father-in-law, whose access to medical care is now cut. "I had tears in my eyes," he says. "The hardest part was leaving those behind that have no way out."

At least 600,000 Lebanese are looking for a way out, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. That's the number of people the agency says have fled their homes and remain trapped in war zones. Jan Egeland, the top UN humanitarian official, called for $100 million in immediate aid for Lebanon, but said it would take billions to rebuild a nation that had just completed years of reconstruction after a 20-year civil war.

Lebanese citizens trying to flee targeted areas have faced danger and death: Israeli bombs are killing Lebanese evacuees in caravans, some carrying women and children. Hospitals are overflowing with the injured, many suffering from lost limbs and severe burns. Security officials say the fighting has killed more than 400 Lebanese and more than 40 Israelis. Thousands more are injured, many seriously.

Israel insists that it doesn't want to harm civilians, and says the casualties are the result of rooting out Hezbollah operatives and bases intertwined with civilian life. Egeland accused Hezbollah of "cowardly blending" among civilians.

Israelis who live near the border with Lebanon are long familiar with Hezbollah's tactics. Hezbollah flags are always visible from the fenced demarcation zone, but the militants' rocket launchers hide in villages and cities folded into the hills of south Lebanon.

Hezbollah began regularly firing Katyusha rockets on random cities in northern Israel in 1982 in response to Israel's occupation of Lebanon. Despite a negotiated settlement ending Lebanon's civil war (1990), a UN-brokered agreement not to target civilians (1996), and Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon (2000), rocket attacks have held steady. In April 1996 Hezbollah fired 777 Katyushas into northern Israel, wounding 62 civilians and five soldiers.

The headlines sketch a steady campaign of terror against Israelis that helps to explain Israel's sudden and ferocious retaliation:

Aug. 20, 1997: "Hizbullah showers northern Israel with rockets" (Irish Times)

Aug. 27, 1998: "Rocket salvo in Galilee tests Israeli resolve" (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

June 27, 1999: "Katyushas Kill Two in Kiryat Shmona" (Globes Online)

June 13, 2003: "Hizbullah fires over Galilee" (The Jerusalem Post)

And on and on. The most recent noted attack before July, when Hezbollah rocketed Haifa and captured two Israeli soldiers near the border, was in May, when residents in Kiryat Shmona were ordered into shelters after a series of rockets hit near the city.

What's different about the latest Hezbollah attacks is the reach of its missiles. The bulk of its arsenal consists of short-range, inaccurate rockets-supplied by Iran, most believe-but those are gradually being replaced by longer-range missiles. A decade ago Hezbollah was hitting targets 12-24 miles from the border inside Israel; recent weeks' attacks on Haifa, Tiberias, and Nazareth show a capability of up to and beyond 40 miles. Hezbollah is believed to possess a growing number of missiles reaching up to 124 miles from the border-or south of Jerusalem.

Some of the worst Hezbollah-inflicted damage in Israel is centered in Nahariya and Haifa. In Nahariya, apartment buildings are burnt out and streets are empty, while many shops remain closed. Locals estimate that well over half of the city's 56,000 people have fled.

In Haifa, residents endure daily bombings by Hezbollah, and hospitals treating the injured have reached capacity. At the Rambam Medical Centre, doctors say many of the casualties they've encountered were wounded by ball bearings packed into missile warheads. Yossi Heder, 39, spoke to BBC from his ninth-floor hospital room and described how he and his fellow employees were struck by ball bearings that "went through bodies like cheese."

The bomb killed eight of Heder's colleagues and injured 14 more. It was "a very fast death" for those who died, he said.

In Kiryat Shmona, Tiberias, and other cities, a kind of new normal is setting in nearly three weeks after attacks intensified. Many families remain in shelters during the day but do errands and other business at night because "evenings are safer," health worker Beverley Timgren told WORLD from Tiberias. "Generally Hezbollah is not firing at night because you can see the trail of fire," making it easier for Israeli forces to pick out the launcher location for counterattacks.

But residents are anxious and weary from constant bombardments. One couple from Nahariya asked Timgren, a Canadian who once worked in south Lebanon and now runs a dental clinic in Tiberias, if they could return with her to Jerusalem. The wife is seven months pregnant and the couple has a 4-year-old son. "Everyone wants to be on the move because it's hard to live under this stress," said Timgren.

Despite long living under the Hezbollah threat-even once having her home hit with a rocket-Timgren says she is more dismayed by the suffering across the border, where she had some e-mail contact with Lebanese friends last week. "Israel says it is after Hezbollah, but when you see the casualties on TV, the destruction of offices and residences, I think rather than reducing the threat they are going to increase it." With Israel saying it will create a security zone inside Lebanon, Timgren said, the decades' cycle of attack, retaliation, and invasion continues. For south Lebanese who remain refugees in Israel, having fled from Hezbollah after Israel pulled out in 2000, "What was the point of losing everything?" she said.

Charara tried not to think about the suffering and death his family left behind while sailing on the cargo ship that took them from Beirut to Cyprus. Instead he focused on taking care of his kids and calming other evacuees.

Taking care of his kids involved making a bed out of spare life jackets: The huge cargo ship had only limited quarters and lounge areas for a small crew. The 1,100 people on board tried to find comfort on the metal floors and only three small bathrooms.

Fourteen hours after the ship left Beirut on a zigzag course, it landed in Cyprus early the next morning. Officials from the U.S. Embassy met the group with "food, water, and comforting words," says Charara.

Embassy officials arranged a charter plane for 140 Americans that night. When the Chararas arrived in Baltimore among the first evacuees to reach America, "there were at least 300 people to meet us," says Charara.

U.S. officials, Red Cross volunteers, and counselors met the group, helping them transition. Most evacuees were "distraught and dazed," says Charara, who was surprised to get a glimpse of himself on television news coverage that morning. Looking exhausted and disheveled, he thought: "That's me?"

Charara says a "comforting" U.S. official shadowed him his entire time in the airport, helping work out kinks with connecting flights. Back at home in Long Beach, Calif., the Chararas discovered their neighbors had filled the neighborhood with yellow ribbons. Charara, who is Muslim, says his neighbors, who are Hassidic Jews, welcomed them home with relief and tears.

But the crisis isn't over. When Charara talks to his family by phone in Lebanon, he hears the bombing in the background. He feels guilty for being safe at home. His children have "bounced back," he says, but it is harder for his wife, who's been in America for 11 years.

Israeli attacks on civilians are embittering the Lebanese toward Israel, said Charara. "The more they hurt civilians, the more the Lebanese will support Hezbollah." Charara says he believes Israel has a right to defend itself, but not if that means "indiscriminately killing civilians. . . . It's unconscionable."

Charara, who was supposed to be on vacation until the end of the month, says he planned to head back to his job as an aerospace engineer at Boeing a week early. He can't bring himself to enjoy his vacation. He can't even bring himself to listen to music anymore: "I keep thinking about the people who are listening to bombs."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.