Stuck In Beirut

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Extraction

That's what they called it. Let's go back to the night of the 18th. As I mentioned, I was getting really anxious to leave. I was disappointed in the US Embassy preparations, and I had decided to pursue my own risky route. The big concern was that airline seats out of Damascus were not guaranteed, and we could be stuck there for a long time. Then I received a call from my company. They had arranged for my safe passage from Beirut all the way back to Atlanta, GA. They hired a company called SOS International to do it. Its a sad sign of the times that such a company even exists and specializes in this line of work. We jumped on the offer.
Wednesday morning, the 19th., we went and picked up our suitcases from the house in Beirut and then took a taxi and met with the SOS team at 11 Am. We boarded buses with another 120 persons and headed for the Syrian border. It took us 7 hours to clear the border, including having to walk across, dragging our suitcases. We got to the hotel in Damascus at 4 AM on Thursday morning 7/20. We stayed in Damascus until Sunday the 23rd. when we boarded a flight to London, and the next day, on the 24th., we boarded the plane to Atlanta.
We had several memorable moments during this ordeal. The first one was on Wednesday when we heard a very loud explosion not too far from us in the car. Turned out Israel was starting to target trucks on the roads and they just blew-up one behind us. Had we been ten minutes behind schedule, it would have been real ugly. Another one was when we thought that we lost one of the suitcases, just as we got to the airport in Damascus to leave to London. It was a tense 2 minutes before we relocated it. The third one was on the plane to Atlanta, 20 minutes into the flight. They started looking for a doctor to handle a medical emergency. Thank God it was resolved without having to land or turn the airplane back.
We also experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during those few days. First, after getting the call, we had to face the facts that we were leaving our family behind. We felt like we were abandoning them, but we knew it was the right thing to do. the second was at the Syrian border. We got there at the same time that the German Embassy was evacuating 800 of its citizens. It took a long time to clear everyone. The biggest disappointment was the hotel in Damascus. To keep us as a group, SOS found a convention center to house us. The rooms there were an afterthought. Some people had to bunk 20 to a room with one bathroom. Luckily, we have family living there and we stayed with them instead. The weirdest feeling for me was when the flight was taking-off in Damascus. I wanted to clap because we were finally leaving the area, but I also wanted to cry because of the way we were leaving it. The biggest irony was that half the on-board magazine was about the beauty of Lebanon and Beirut.
Despite all this, we are thankful for everything. We feel much luckier than some friends that are still making their way out. We are thankful that no one was hurt or injured during this trip. We are thankful for the warm reception we received once we got back home.
I will continue monitoring the situation in Lebanon. I will continue posting my thoughts on it and commenting on how it affects us. I will continue praying for a quick resolution.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mission Accomplished?

We made it home yesterday. We are tired, but safe and consider ourselves very lucky. Our thoughts are still with the friends and family members we left behind and we pray that they will make it out safely as well. My thanks go to all of you who wished us luck and prayed for our safe return. I am also thankful that I work for a company and a manager who really believe that the safety of an employee comes before anything else. The reaction to our ordeal has been overwhelming and trully humbling. People whom I haven't spoken to in several years found ways to reach out to us and ask about our well-being. I came to the office today and found yellow ribbons everywhere and a huge welcome home banner above my office door. By the way, it felt comforting to actually fight traffic at 6:30 in the morning. Finally, thanks to many encouraging comments, I will keep this blog going for a while (under the same name because our mind and spirit are still in Beirut) and I plan to post a step-by-step account of everything we went through over the next few days, so please stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The beauty of the Internet and Cyber Cafe

It seems help is finally on the way, but I still don't have any details beyond what I read in the papers and receive via e-mail. So I am making my own alternate arrangements which is not an easy task. I decided to follow what ever materializes first, so hopefully we will on our way back home soon. My sister left yesterday and finished the first leg of her trip safely.
I am sad to report that my brother-in-law's aunt passed away earlier today. I spoje with him and offered my condolences. He correctly stated that it is a loss for everybody.
I started receiving many comments on this blog site. Its really amazing. Total strangers are wishing me a safe trip home and praying for my safe return. People who support Israel are expressing their simpathy,offering their solutions and making their own predictions. The most amazing part is people commenting on other people's comments and getting into mini arguments. I also really appreciate all those who have taking the time to write and let me know they miss us. A good friend at work has been trying to convince me to do this for a while. We debate middle-east affairs at work. Unfortunately it took a huge event like this to get me going. Its actually very therapeutic to be able to put your thoughts and worries into words at the end of the day. Its also amazing that I can sit in front of a computer, on the sidewalk outside a cyber cafe in the mountains of Lebanon and communicate with people from all over the world with various backgrounds and diverging views. Hopefully I will re-visit these notes after I get back home and laugh at my own political comments and predictions.
In the meantime, I will continue to pray for a peaceful end to this tragedy, the safe return of all hostages and the return of the Lebanon I love and care for.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The gloves are off

Greetings from the mountains of Lebanon. Although I am technically no longer stuck in Beirut, the adventure continues. To my friends, co-workers, neighbors and family who have been following my notes, I apologize for not posting anything sooner. We were a little busy the last couple of days trying to find a new base away from the sounds of war. The kids were getting scared and asking questions we could not answer. Anyway, we are fine and have everything we need for now, Thank God.
Meantime, the fighting has escalated. Israel is not letting up on the civilian population. The aunt of my brother in-law was seriously injured overnight, sitting in her apartment, minding her own business. Althought some people echo the international sentiments that Israel has the right to defend itself by any means, and although I still believe they are excercising maximum self-control, I still fail to see how destroying Lebanon and killing innocent people serves anyone in the long term. These injuries are not happening as a result of collateral damage. Just because HizbAllah employs terrorist actions and because Lebanon was incapable of controlling them, does not give the world the right to remain silent while the carnage continues. Its as if Lebanon and the Lebanese are a price that everyone is willing to pay on the war on terror. I find that difficult to believe from my adopted country. I now have an idea of how the people of New Orleans must have felt after Katrina devastated their city and the government took its time to help them. The Lebanese government knew that the price to force HizbAllah to disarm was going to be pretty steep, and that they could not afford it. It was like a tumor on your hand, and you want to keep postponing the operation. Israel was ready to act and it is now cutting off the arm at the shoulder while everyone else watches from the sidelines. I hope things will calm down again soon, that the hostages are safe, that this war stops in Lebanon and does not expand to the entire region.
The people here in our adopted mountain village are very nice. The owners of the building where we are now staying gave us their parking spot (a luxury in tight spaces) and have bent over backward to ensure we have everything we need. Still, I would not wish this situation on my worst enemy. It was difficult to find any sleep last night. Too many thoughts running through my mind. We are waiting for the US goverment to tells us what the evacuation plan is going to be, and we decided to wait it out right here for now. Many people who fled to Damascus are stuck there waiting for flights to Europe, so I still consider us very lucky. I saw hundreds of people drive by on their way from Southern lebanon to the Bekaa valley, only to hear later that the Bekaa was heavily hit that night. A trip that normally would take 2 hours is now requiring 10 or even 12 hours to complete. May God lift this condition on everyone and may they find peace and happiness wherever they end-up.
I am looking forward to getting back to work. I don't think I will have any difficulty making tough decisions anymore. My projects will be delivered ahead of time, under budget and above expectations. That will be a very welcomed return to my routine.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


I am mentally and physically exhausted. I have never before had to make life and death decisions, literally, just to be forced to re-evaluate them 30 minutes later. This involved the decision to leave or not to leave. If so, how? When? Via which route? What about just riding it out? All the while, the sounds of war are growing louder. The bombs are getting bigger and getting closer. The kids, bless ther hearts, are taking it well. Except they don't understand why we keep telling them one thing, then doing another. Bottom line thought, we are all in good health and have all our basic needs satisfied thank God. So the suitcases are packed, but we are waiting for a lull in the action before we make another final final decision.
The feeling on the street is that the taking of the hostages may have been very foolish and miss guided, but that Israel's reaction has grown very disproportionate in terms of punishing the Lebanese population as a whole. Everyone is also very disappointed in the world community's failure to secure a quick cease-fire. Meantime life goes on. I saw people stopping their car at the edge of a blown-up bridge, crossing it on foot and exchanging car keys with people coming from the other side. I have to believe that they knew each other, but it struck me as an ingeneous solution to an impossible situation.

Vacation Cancelled

Well, it seems these guys have more patience than I do. They want to keep fighting. The situation is not getting any better. All roads out of Beirut to Syria have come under attack. Some are still passable, but at great risk.
The US is coming to the rescue. Not of Lebanon, but at least of the Lebanese Americans. Rumors are flying about the timing and means of the evacuation from Beirut. Most likely to Cyprus, so we are keeping an eye on our e-mail and an ear on the telephone, hoping to hear something soon.
The kids are very disappointed that we are cutting our vacation short. I just hope that all will go well in the next couple of days. We can always go on another vacation.
I am getting a lot of e-mails from friends and family back in the US. Those short notes mean a lot to us and really make us feel that people care about our safety and care about our safe return. I hope I will be able to adequately express my thanks to them when I see them again.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What a difference a week makes

Last week, the streets of Beirut were full of happy tourists enjoying their vacations. Today, the streets are deserted because travelling is dangerous and fuel is in short supply.
Last week, the flags of various countries participating in the world cup were hanging from most balconies. Today, they are replaced by banners calling for the destruction of this and that.
Last week, the people were celebrating the Italian win in the world cup by driving around in the streets with honks blarring and Italian flags flapping in the wind. Today, we are bombarded by loudspeakers touting the merits of resisting the occupiers.
In this new atmosphere of fear, without electricity and without freedom of movement, it is difficult to forsee what the future holds. I am still optimistic that all the efforts for a cease-fire and a quick resolution to the hostage situation will bare fruits in the next 48 hours. I think that cooler heads will prevail, mainly because I don't see how Israel's continued attacks on the Lebanese bridges and infrastructure are going to lead to the release of the hostages. I also fail to see how HizbAllah rockets attacks on a few cities in Northern Israel will lead to Israel decision to return all the occupied territories.
BUT, I am also having to consider the alternative. And that is, that this will turn into a protracted conflict which will not be over anytime soon, because it will not be easy to attain a clear victory for either side. Specially if foreign powers continue to interfere.
Lebanon continues to be the main casualty here. Most foreign tourists have already left. The entire tourist sector is in disarray and many people who were counting on this seasonal influx of cash are licking their wounds. The government will have to raise Millions of Dollars to repair the damages caused by this war. Not to mention over 60 civilians killed and hundreds wounded so far. Unfortunately Lebanon cannot be immune from the surrounding conflicts, and the Lebanese will continue to demonstrate their resilience when facing tough choices. As my son said earlier today: "This vacation is turning into a real adventure". Hopefully it will have a happy conclusion.

Escalating tension

Around 4 am last night, we woke up to the sounds of bombs exploding and fighter planes circling. The Israeli air force continues to isolate certain areas of Lebanon by destroying bridges and roads. The bombs fell less than 10 miles away from us. Meanwhile HizbAllah continues to be defiant while the Lebanese government continues to watch from the sidelines.
Our hopes rest on the sea of talks and negotiations going on in the entire region between all the parties. The war of words is definetely at the shouting level, but nobody is really listening or paying attention to what the others are saying. In my opinion, Israel is still restraining itself by not carpet bombing massive civilian areas. Not sure why. Maybe they are afraid to hit there missing soldiers who might be held in a potential target area or maybe they are preparing the ground work for a massive operation. Nevertheless the death toll is rising on both the Lebanese and Israely sides. I am quite sure those innocent civilians do not appreciate this game of cat and mouse.
Other outside parties are weighing in with their own threats. The camps are divided between those who support and those who condemn HizbAllah action and Israel's reaction to it. Rumors of evacuations of foreign nationals are flying. Calls for peace and calm are having no effect yet.
This weekend will be critical in determining whether the situation will be resolved soon with the return, somehow, of the kidnapped Israely soldiers or with the beginning of a major ground offensive.
We hope and pray it is the first scenario that unfolds and that all the suffering comes to a quick end.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Interrupted vacation in Beirut

I woke up this morning to the news that the Beirut International airport was bombed. The problem for me is that I am in Beirut on vacation. Why you ask? Because I am of Lebanese origin and this is my way to stay connected with my extended family. I come every year, along with Millions of other Lebanese from all over, to enjoy the beaches, the night life and the good food. All my plans came to a screeching halt yesterday when the news came of the attacks on the Israely soldiers in Southern Lebanon by HizbAllah. Israel reacted and now I am wondering if the airport will open in time for me to return to my job.
Opinions vary widely in Lebanon. Some support this courageous act against a sworn enemy and think its a legitimate way to put pressure on Israel to return several fighters it has been holding for over a year. Others condemn it as a foolish act that will only bring destruction and suffering on the civilian population. Did it have to happen this way? Wouldn't a more diplomatic approach work better? Is Israel's reaction justified? Will it bring on more long term issues? When do you cross the limit of self-defense and begin mass punishment?
I don't know the answers to all that. I certainly had nothing to do with the attack, but I am having to explain all the images on TV to my 10-year old son and my 8-year old daughter and having to calm their fears. Thankfully Israel has not yet attacked the power plants, but it is threatening to do just that. That would add another layer of tension and escalation to the situation. Hopefully this will be all over in a couple of days and the Lebanese will be able to go back to pretending that all is well in their beautiful country. The long term issues will remain because no one has the patience nor the will to tackle them and the region will keep falling further and further behind the rest of the world.