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.
17 July 2006
Enroute from Tyre to The Convent in Lebanon
I awoke too early, with a headache and sensations of vertigo. I certainly didn’t feel well enough to perform the driving feat of my life, much less walk across the room. After eating a piece of Arabic bread, drinking some coffee and taking some aspirin, I gradually recovered. Kimarie had to cover me by keeping the children from tugging or climbing on me.
The morning was dismal. There were what looked like fog banks hanging over the Sea and sun, but that was impossible for the time of year. What we were looking at were clouds caused by burning gas stations.
The Israelis made up for the lack of visibility by flying unmanned drones over the city that made distinctive, low‐pitched buzzing noise as they spied on movements within the city. The sound was as if God was shaving with an electric razor.
We got a call in the morning from a dear friend from the village of Bourj Rahal, just north of Tyre. This village had been pounded the night before and they were preparing to make the drive north to get their kids out of the area. They invited us to join them on the road, for safety in numbers and to lead us, but they were ready to go and wanted us to be there immediately. The plan for the rendezvous on the road was pretty sketchy, so we decided to release them to go on without us.
When we gathered to make a decision, it was unanimously decided to attempt the drive. I found out later that Denis had been rather solid the night before about staying, but then had heard God tell him to, “Lead them out.” When he learned that we were prepared to go, he made the executive decision quickly and we sent off final emails and packed the cars.
As I was in the parking lot, packing, one covered lady asked me if we were driving alone or going in a group. I told her that we planned to go to the Resthouse and join a convoy. When she asked if she could come with us in her car, I told her that we were heading there now and that if she wanted to she would have to go there immediately.
Another guy was strolling by and noticed a jagged, silver dollar sized piece of lead shrapnel resting on the hood of the car next to ours that must have been thrown there from the explosion across town the day before. As we drove away, I waved to the neighbor who had fed us the day before, who was standing outside his building. The look in his eyes was a mixture of hope for us, and desperate insecurity for himself.
Denis drove the lead car, a Honda minivan, with his and Edmond’s family inside. We were to follow them all day in our Pajero. As we arrived at the Resthouse, Denis and I expected there would be crowds of people like the day before, preparing to leave. Instead, there were only a few people trying to decide what to do.
Denis went to find out what arrangements could be made for a guide while I prepared our vehicle. I increased our visibility by cleaning all the windows, and I duct taped a small white sheet to the roof so that it would be clear that we were non‐combatants to would‐be bombers above us. It occurred to me that Hezbollah folks could just as well put white sheets on their cars, and that it probably wouldn’t make a bit of difference in the end, but it felt good to be doing something that seemed at least reasonable.
Denis returned with news that there was nobody available who knew a safe or open route and that everybody there was waiting to join the Hariri convoy that was going to leave in several hours. Denis said he thought we should just go ahead and go without them. He reasoned that he knew the roads pretty well and that there would be other cars we could follow. At least we could stop and ask directions, as was the normal Lebanese custom.
Denis began the journey out of Tyre by taking a detour to drive by the building that had been hit the day before. It was only two blocks out of our way. He had once lived in the building next door to the one that was bombed. It had previously been a proud concrete building of about 12 stories, but as we rounded the corner we could see that it had been cut in half.
What remained of the top of the building was a jagged, diagonal, pointing tip, starting at its high point in the Southwest corner and sloping down at roughly a 75 degree angle to the north. There were gray rubble and a layer of concrete powder covering the ground in all directions and visible damage to the surrounding buildings.
The road through the neighborhood was impassable so we turned around and went back in the direction that we had come and nervously passed the Lebanese Army base, which was the first of many possible targets with which we were to come into proximity that day.
Driving in Lebanon on the best of days is a much tenser affair than in the West, where I often think you can drive in your sleep. In Lebanon, cars regularly come within an inch or two of each other. The necessary peripheral vision consists of a semicircle extending in front of you from ear to ear. Double passing around blind corners is not uncommon. Even being familiar with driving this way for 7 years, it was to be a marathon day of grueling proportion.
[The Convergence chapter of Coffee & Orange Blossoms includes the dramatic details in the story of crossing the Litani and Awali Rivers.]
As we neared the oil storage tanks at Zahrani, prior to Sidon, we noticed the skies darkening and saw the smoke rising from the remains of the gigantic iron hulls and the caved in remnants of the main interchange of the freeway between Nabatieh and the coast road, whose construction had only been completed in the last few years.
About half‐way to Jezzine, we passed close to a bombed building that had been hit recently enough to still be smoking. We couldn’t tell exactly what the building had been, but it looked to be some sort of factory.
After passing Jezzine and getting around the source of the river, the sense of relief became palpable, not only within our own car, but also with the rest of our fellow refugees on the road. There were Western news film crews filming the streams of cars. At every wide spot on the road’s shoulder, folks were pulled off eating their lunches, smiling, in an almost festive attitude.
Kimarie and I saw a guy on the side of the road that looked like Mustafa’s brother, then realized that it was him! We spoke to him as we drove by in the slow traffic. He had escaped with his family. We didn’t have time to ask him where he was heading or if he even had a place to go.
By this time, we were seeing much more traffic going the opposite direction. This wasn’t because people were headed south, but because we had gotten far enough north that there were some safe places now behind us. The cars that we were passing contained refugees from Dahia in South Beirut, escaping to the mountains of the Shouf as we had.
Just before reaching Beit Eddine, Denis stopped to rest and eat. I was getting tired of driving and hungry, but felt uneasy and impatient to continue our trek until reaching our destination. I had a vision of myself entering the convent we were headed for, and kissing the registration desk. But it was a necessary stop. Everybody needed a bathroom visit as well.
We ate dome baked cheese or Zataar sandwiches which came from the eager lady standing at the oven outside her restaurant, as fast as she could cook them. Denis asked everybody in the nearby vicinity if they could tell him which of the possible routes was still navigable. He spent a good deal of the lunch break getting directions.
We also called the convent on my cell phone to make a final confirmation that there were open rooms and that we were planning on arriving that evening.
As we were finishing our meal, our neighbors from across the hall and from the 12th floor drove by and stopped to greet us. There were 9 people packed into a Mercedes sedan, looking about as happy as anyone could be under the circumstances. We were relieved and grateful to see them safe and smiling. They chatted with us for 5 or 10 minutes and then continued on with Damascus, Syria as their destination.
We learned from the restaurant owner and from others later that many of the Shiite Muslims that were moving out of the south who had no place to go were being taken in and given shelter and food in the homes of Christians and Druze. This was so incredible to us, and we wondered at the fact that so much love and unity could be possible among people who had been fighting each other in civil war only twenty years earlier.
After lunch we struck out again and wound around back roads and small villages until we reached the massive Beirut‐Damascus highway, under which we needed to pass. Once again, we found ourselves on deserted roads, and the creepy silence of the countryside increased the magnitude of the destruction that faced us.
The 6‐lane concrete bridge continued to be suspended by massive pillars, hundreds of feet above us, but we were looking at the sky through holes that had been blasted in it from side to side with re‐bar bent in all directions. On the ground next to the road we were driving on below, the grass was burnt and blackened.
The shadows lengthened as the afternoon wore on, and we still had about two hours of driving left. We didn’t feel like we were in any danger any more, being in Christian country, but we were still anxious to reach our destination, and ignorant of the exact roads we were to take despite the fact that we had maps.
Denis began stopping more often to ask directions, which caused me to get annoyed. At one point, he pulled over so quickly on a tight corner, that I almost rear‐ended him. The bus that had been following me, blasted its horn and its driver angrily made his way around us.
We were getting weary. The adrenaline of danger was wearing off and leaving us exhausted, but still needed full driving concentration.
Eventually, we were able to turn west and down the mountain to the main north‐south coast highway again. As we neared the bottom of the hill, I caught glimpses of caravans of cars like the ones we had seen in the mountains, pulled over for a break, with people embracing each other in relief and tears, having escaped some pocket of horror somewhere in the country.
We came out just north of Beirut and continued north through Jounieh and up the mountain again to the convent. We pulled up with gratitude to God for the day’s survival and as I approached the desk to make good on my plan to kiss it, I saw Edmond had beat me to the marble surface with his own lips. We quickly withdrew to our rooms to shower and rest.
Throughout this day of traveling, Naomi and Gideon had hardly uttered a shout or cry from the back seat where they had been strapped to their car seats. They quietly played with each other, napped, or looked at the scenery out the window. I can’t help thinking that they knew that we were in some danger and instinctively didn’t interfere with our progress. I do know that the trip would have been so much more of a nightmare if they had been fussy, shouting or crying.
The drive that had taken us maybe two hours the last time we drove to this place for a retreat – on this day had taken 7 hours with alternative routes, heavy traffic, and high stress.