Mayssa El Khazen evacuation from Beirut PDF Print E-mail
Written by Malek el Khazen   

Mayssa El Khazen is a Lebanese-American who recently graduated from Clark University in Worcester, MA. Evacuated from Lebanon by the U.S. Navy, she presently is living in Boston.

Published article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2006, pages 16-17  by Mayssa El Khazen

 I ALMOST TRIPPED on Dbaye's rocky and sandy sloping beach as American sailors led more than 800 people toward the USS Whidbey Island on July 22. Looking up, I saw the gigantic LSD-4 awaiting us offshore. The evacuees were in a hurry to board, pushing and carrying their belongings. Mothers shouted to their kids, ordering them to stay close, and holding their hands whenever they could. The sailors rushed to help, especially women and the elderly carrying heavy bags.

A Hovercraft transported us to the ship. For 15 minutes we sweated, as there was no window to open for fresh air, and the loud noise of the craft deafened us. When we finally boarded the Whidbey Island, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before, with columns of tanks and amphibious assault vehicles lined up in the ship's hull. A woman fainted from the heat on the Hovercraft and sailors rushed to her aid. A boyish-looking sailor instructed us to move on and gave us a brief history of the vessel before welcoming us aboard. As I look back, I can see that this was an exciting experience. At the time, however, I was filled with fear, anger and anxiety. I did not want to leave Lebanon, least of all in these circumstances while my country was being destroyed.

Ever since its civil war ended in 1990, I had watched Lebanon?s slow but audacious reconstruction. Several billion dollars and years of hard work had been invested in Lebanon's revival, especially the tourist sector, and I joined my fellow Lebanese in praying that the turbulent civil war years were over for good. There was optimism in the air, and 2006 was shaping up to be a banner year for tourism, with a projected two million tourists bringing a much-needed boost to the local economy.

But the promise of this long-awaited summer was shattered in a day as, in the words of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Israel bombed Lebanon back 20 years, a destruction to which I was a witness. The day of infamy was July 12, 2006, when Israel launched a massive attack to punish all Lebanese civilians for something with which they had nothing to do. Seeing pictures of Israeli girls writing with love, from Israel on bombs that killed Lebanese children, my distress grew. Never before had I felt so powerless as I witnessed my beautiful country being bombed into rubble.

As the Israeli campaign continued, I watched all facets of life in Lebanon come to a halt: uncollected trash reeked in bins, vehicles lined up at gas stations as fuel supplies dwindled, store shelves were emptied as people rushed to buy anything they could get their hands on.

Lebanon was officially under siege, as Israel bombed every major bridge that connected its cities. I watched as Beirut's newly built international airport burned. Isolated from each other and the world, we were surrounded on air, land and sea. Imports and exports came to a complete halt. To further compound the problem, Israeli warplanes bombed trucks carrying wheat, water and other supplies on the pretext that they were carrying military supplies to Hezbollah. Commercial boats also hurried to leave, fearing that they, too, would be targeted by the Israeli air force.

With each passing day, I watched as our lives ground to a complete stop. Our only entertainment, disturbingly enough, became trying to predict where the next bomb would land. Everyone stayed home, sitting in front of the television while listening to Israeli planes flying above, followed by the bombs and explosions. It became impossible even to visit a friend or family in a nearby city. Every night I kissed my father and went to bed praying to God to wake me up from this nightmare. The next day, however, my anger would only grow as more civilians were killed and I watched world politicians discussing our suffering over a cup of tea and a piece of pastry.

Ninety of Lebanon's bridges, five maritime ports, three airports and other infrastructure have been destroyed, in addition to homes, schools, mosques, TV stations, ambulances, civil defense stations, electricity bases and telecommunication antennas. In the south, entire villages have been wiped out.

Life for civilians caught in the war zone became a nightmare. Nor did Israel attack only Hezbollah Strongholds. Its missiles and bombs fell everywhere in the country Beirut, Jounieh, Zahle, Bhamdoun, Baabda, Bylos  and, of course, virtually the entire south. The war has affected every single Lebanese, including children. I wish the planes would go away and the bombing would stop so I can go back home to Ayn Ba'al, said 6-year-old Hadi. But his village of Ayn Ba'al in southern Lebanon has been destroyed. Like thousands from that region, he is now a refugee in his own country. In the first month of the Israeli assault, more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians have been killed and more than 3,500 wounded.

Farewell, Lebanon

On the ship, I was one of more than 100 evacuees led to a windowless cabin. With bunk beds stacked almost to the ceiling, there was no room even to sit, and I felt imprisoned. Despite the close quarters, however, the sailors treated us as well as possible under the circumstances. After a brief wait, we were lead to the mess, where dinner was being served. Not in the best of moods, I thanked a sailor for his help and sat on the floor. "How long will the trip be?" asked the woman next to me. "About eight hours," he responded. I was terrified. To be stuck for eight hours on this ship not to mention the additional waiting time here and in Cyprus seemed like an eternity.

As tears rolled down my cheeks, I was overcome with anger toward everyone who had brought this upon a people who least deserved it. I was angry at Hezbollah for provoking the conflict and giving Israel an excuse to attack us. I was angry at Israel for inflicting on us the most destructive, unbalanced, immoral and inhumane form of punishment. I was disgusted at the international community for giving Israel a green light and making us endure the daily horrors and killings we witnessed, despite the Lebanese government?s efforts to bring about a cease-fire. Lebanon had become a playground for Syria, Iran, the U.S. and Israel to settle their scores, and I was furious at Israel for flouting dozens of U.N. resolutions since 1948 and forcing us to comply with Resolution 1559 to the letter.

"Would you like some Doritos?" offered a 10-year old boy sitting on the ship floor next to me. By now, my wet face was covered in tears. I smiled and wiped my face as I nodded. The boat had finally left the shores of my homeland. Accompanied by a sailor, I went on deck and watched Lebanon grow ever more distant. People were still trying to contact their relatives as their cell phone reception slowly faded. The sailors were very friendly and engaged the evacuees in an effort to make them feel a little better.

The night sky was startling, dark and littered with a million tiny stars. I could smell the fresh scent and hear the calm waves of the beautiful Mediterranean. I didn't know whether to feel lucky at having the opportunity to leave or cowardly at leaving my family and friends behind.

As the ship pulled farther out to sea, I felt that all my dreams were shattered. But, deep down, I knew that we, as Lebanese, will survive and that Beirut, too, will rise again, as it has so many times in the past, and become as resilient as ever.

I pray and still cry for my Beirut.

 

Mayssa El Khazen is a Lebanese-American who recently graduated from Clark University in Worcester, MA. Evacuated from Lebanon by the U.S. Navy, she presently is living in Boston.