I decided to try something different for my blog in November. For 11 days, I’ll post stories from the war that didn’t make it into the recently published Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.
While recovering from our evacuation experience in July 2006, I wrote a debriefing journal, while memories were still fresh. I predicted that the stress of that time in our lives would erase details that could be helpful to remember later.
I almost incorporated this added information into the email pages of the book, but decided that realism would be ruined and the urgent feeling of their brevity would be lost.
Now I offer you these details as an added-value bonus to supplement the rather sparse treatment found in the book.
22 July 2006
Embarking from Jounieh on the Orient Queen
On this morning, we said our goodbyes again with everyone at the convent outside as we were getting into Denis’s car. There were no less meaning in them, but the hugs were also saying, “we hope you make it this time and don’t come back.” Three days in a row of splitting up took its toll on our emotions. They didn’t want to have to worry about us anymore. We didn’t want to continually come back reclaiming all the clothes and food we had donated to them. Who’s gonna actually get to eat these Honey Nut Cheerios?
When we unloaded the car and joined the crowd, it had looked hopelessly large and unruly to me again. We were moved back all the way to the center of the overpass to create more space. There were different red shirted people far ahead of us that were using their bull horns effectively to communicate future steps. However, it looked like we were hours from there.
Then I got my big surprise. Because of the slope of the overpass, I hadn’t been able to notice that most of the space between the distant group and us was not filled with people, but was empty! We hadn’t moved for a few minutes because they had taken another group just before we had arrived.
Soon, a large amount of people were allowed to head to the next station. It was only then that I noticed there were rope cordons just ahead of us that were designed to keep us into organized groups, which they were letting through in systematic fashion.
Within about fifteen minutes, we had made contact with the red shirts, who were standing atop massive Marines vehicles, relaying the step‐by‐step process we were about to embark on. The best news of all was that they immediately told us that our group would certainly be traveling that day.
They joked that we had been selected to win a free cruise. The process had begun, or perhaps I should say the processing had begun.
We would have made it past this step more quickly had it not been for the idiocy of our fellow travelers. Some families had sent the father ahead to arrange for the rest while the mother and children waited comfortably in their cars, half a mile away. Others had left their baggage in cars so they wouldn’t have to carry it the whole time and had to go back because they’d also left their passports in them. One family had to go back to the car because they hadn’t initially brought their wheelchair bound elderly father with them.
Gideon was strapped to his mother in the front-pack, and wasn’t extremely happy to be locked in there. Naomi was more mobile and spent her time moving from daddy’s shoulders, to his hip, to sitting on his foot. She got comfortable on the foot and then got disrupted every couple minutes to shuffle ahead another yard or so.
It took us awhile to the other side of the Marines trucks, where we had actually started the process two days earlier. We didn’t mind because we felt safe with how we were being handled and there was movement. We could see hundreds of people ahead of us and hundreds more had arrived and moved up behind us. The waiting stations had large gaps of empty road between them, which added to the distance we had to travel with our bags and children, but meaningfully added to our personal safety.
At this point, we were in the hands of the US Marines and were being guarded by special Lebanese forces as well. People were stationed at each post and answered our questions, as they were able. We were informed that a hovercraft would land on the beach nearby to ferry some of us to a Navy vessel. They weren’t able to tell at this point whether our particular group would go that way or by cruise ship.
It was starting to get hot, and there were gaps in the shade tents. If you were lined up on the wrong side of the tents, they didn’t help much because the slant of the morning sun covered half of the people in line, depending on the direction that the line was traveling from station to station.
Naomi made friends and drove over the bags of a neighbor in line with her dump truck and backhoe. The next time we moved, we went quickly and got separated from that guy, named Wally. He motioned to me from a distance that he had picked up her wayward little construction worker that went with her truck. I responded by telling him we’d get it from him on the boat.
Kimarie had almost been caught in one of the moves while she hastily changed the children on two plastic chairs that she had pushed together. There weren’t any garbage cans, so we had to just throw the dirty diaper balls into the corner of the barricades where there was a bunch of other garbage.
At about the third stop, we were finally required to actually do something. They had set up long tables that they were using to open and check all the baggage that people had brought with them. This was a short stop for us, but as I have already mentioned, many of these people were tourists with their full sets of Samsonite with everything but the kitchen sink inside.
While we were waiting we noticed that several of the Marines had ice cream, and were slyly eating it in the back of a truck. Some of our neighbors joked about offering them money if they would share. By this time, people had gotten more or less friendly with each other and were beginning to tell each other their stories. We were the only ones in our vicinity in line that had escaped from the South and many wanted to hear of our experiences. We told of our perilous drive several times.
After that station we moved around a corner, within easy sight of the Mediterranean Sea. We discovered we were at some kind of Lebanese military base. Lebanese soldiers marched back and forth between nearby barracks.
We were placed into another line along the shady side of a large open building with a viewing grandstand. It was here where we would be registered for one of the boats by a row of officials at laptop workstations. Though we could see the buses that we were meant to board, it proved to be a long wait.
We didn’t know why at the time, but apparently one of the cruise ships had filled up and we were waiting for another boat to open their manifest records. The next to do so was the Navy vessel. Several hundred people just ahead of us were processed and then the line stopped again. We were about 20 people back from the head of the line, which represented the final stop to us for the morning.
We watched as the hovercraft noisily arrived with sea spray flying in every direction. The people in front of us were marched over to the beach and loaded onto the hovercraft and taken out to into the distance on the surface of the water. This process took some time, perhaps because they beached the thing too well and had a hard time getting it back into the water.
We waited for yet another new manifest to be transferred. By this time we were really tired, but grateful that we were going to ride in a comfortable cruise ship.
Just before we started processing again, the US ambassador to Lebanon arrived in a huge military helicopter on the yard directly in front of us. He came out and shook hands with several of the officials that were processing us and then moved over toward the crowds of people. He greeted us, hoping that we were comfortable, assuring us we would be taken care of.
Shortly after he passed us, we heard him ask if anybody knew of Americans still trapped in the South. I couldn’t help but wonder if anybody had ever really known that we were there. Though there was a big reassuring smile on the ambassador’s face, his entourage of security personnel were eyeing us as if they suspected this was all an elaborate plot to hide an assassin in our midst that would finally have his opportunity to leap up and throw a knife in his heart.
Finally, the officials fired up their computers again and we were told that a representative from each family should go to a booth with all the passports, while the rest of the family continued to a seating area to wait. I went with the passports, entered info into the computers, and received four strips of red construction paper with the number 1 on them. This meant that we were to get on the number 1 bus.
I rejoined Kimarie and the kids and we started to leave to get on the bus, when we realized that Gideon was covered with very sticky chewing gum, which someone had smeared over an entire plastic chair. We really couldn’t believe that something like this had to happen right at this moment in the middle of everything else. Kimarie got some help from another woman with some hand cleaning gel and they managed to get most of it off and de‐stickify the rest of it.
We got on the bus, and waited. At least we were sitting down in comfortable seats. There were many more people who needed to be processed before the six busses were filled and ready to convoy down to the ship.
Naomi attracted the attention of one of the serious security guys for the ambassador. He was caught waving and smiling at her through the bus window when the ambassador returned to leave. I think he was embarrassed, but he did turn to wave one last time as we finally drove away.
We traveled along the coast, heading south toward the port, along miles of land that was being developed for future commercial buildings. After awhile, we joined up with regular traffic. We drove by a Burger King, which I wished we could stop at for lunch.
We arrived at the port entrance whose guards had misdirected us days before and were directed in. We caught sight of the huge and magnificent Orient Queen, which was to carry us to safety. I heard a few of the others on the bus catch their breath in amazement. Boarding a cruise ship wasn’t an ordinary experience for any of us.
The next step was to be registered with the Orient Queen before we could board. We received four slips of white paper with “meal” printed on them and a key card for a state room. We found out later that some didn’t get a room and had to sleep on deck in reclining chairs.
We boarded the vessel over the gang plank and followed a rather tired looking European-accented woman in a short maid’s skirt to our room through a maze of hallways one level above the entrance in the center of the ship.
By now we had spent some time with many of our fellow travelers. Some of them we had enjoyed and some had greatly offended us. It just goes to show that we’re not required to like everyone in the world.
We prepared a rather inadequate meal from snack foods that we had brought with us and ate it quickly. Kimarie wanted to go up on deck to see the ship leaving the port, and she took the kids while I rested.
Early on, I heard an announcement that the galley was open for dinner, but decided that I would wait until after I had rested a little while before braving the crowds again. About 45 minutes later, they came on the loud speakers again to say that the galley would close in 15 minutes. We had missed the opportunity to eat the only meal we were apparently to be served.
The ship was still loading passengers as the sun set. Kimarie came back with the kids before it left the port. She bathed the children, we made a place for them on the floor, and then we slept.
It was later that we heard the ship’s engines finally start and pull us out of Beirut harbor on our way to Cyprus. I knew we were being escorted by US Navy vessels past the Israeli naval blockade. I thought of how ironic it was that the Israelis were now indirectly “protecting” us from Hezbollah attacks though they had so recently been throwing bombs at us.
I still didn’t feel completely safe until I imagined that we were past the blockade. We slept well and were allowed to continue sleeping until morning, though we actually docked in Limassol around 1 AM.
We did have one disruptive incident in the night, when Naomi awoke after having rolled under my bed. I heard her muffled, panicked cries and instantly awoke and stuck my hand down there and pulled her out. It took me some time to fall back asleep.