The Evacuation of a Nation
You have to hand it to the Swedes; they evacuate their citizens in style. Several air-conditioned stories of stores, restaurants and cafés were available to us while awaiting our evacuation. I have spent many happy hours in this very mall; back in the day when I lived in Beirut more permanently, me and my girlfriend were frequent guests at the Dunes movie theatre. It was a very bizarre experience to be awaiting evacuation in that very familiar surrounding.
How some of the people there had the nerve to complain about the way Swedish authorities treated them, I will never understand. One young man whined about having to wait for hour after hour in the posh surroundings of the Dunes mall; he felt he deserved financial retribution for his plight. I knew from an earlier conversation that he was a Sunni from an area of Beirut that had not been directly affected by the bombardment and from what I could tell, him and his family were not suffering from any illnesses or physical problems. I had to turn away just to avoid getting into a fight with this arrogant young man; there we were, enjoying every comfort imaginable under the circumstances, while people with no way out were suffering the harshest conditions not far from us, and he has the audacity to complain. I had nothing to say to him and made sure to stay as far away from him as possible for the rest of the journey.
After waiting for seven or eight hours in the Dunes mall we received word that there would be room for us on a ship chartered by the Australians (thank you, Australia!). Soon we were put on buses and driven through the unusually empty streets of Beirut to the port. I tried to take in as much of the scenery as possible since I have no way of knowing when I will be there again. I have departed from Beirut many times, but it has never felt this bitter. Once onboard the ship, I stood up on deck, looking out over Beirut in the afternoon haze, trying to comprehend what was happening. Helicopters, presumably American, were flying back and forth between Beirut and Cyprus, while warships patrolled the waters outside the Beirut port. When we departed I stood for a long time on deck, identifying my beloved AUB campus and the balcony of the room where I had spent the past ten days or so. I stayed on deck until Beirut disappeared below the horizon, and went inside in the hope to find a comfortable spot to spend the long journey to Cyprus.
We were lucky to have a fairly comfortable ship; a Greek cruise ship by the name of Kriti II. It was certainly crowded, but not to an unbearable point; after a couple of hours I even got to lie down on a couch for a while. The trip to Cyprus took us approximately seven hours. Although the process of getting all the people off the ship was somewhat chaotic, I realized I was, again, one of the lucky ones: two days earlier 1500 Swedes were evacuated, now there were only 350 of us. I think it is safe to say the process of checking our passports and registering us was a lot quicker this time. Once the registration process was over, we were separated into smaller groups and put on buses to hotels on various locations on Cyprus; we were to rest before trying to make the final stretch to Sweden.
Since Cyprus is now experiencing the height of its tourist season, the Swedish rescue teams have to go with whatever hotel rooms are available. Fortunately, in my case that meant getting to take a shower and sleep for three and a half hours at a four-star beach hotel. It certainly proved necessary, because after another two-hour bus ride to Larnaca airport on Sunday morning, we had to spend a good six or seven hours waiting in the summer heat, while scores of British tourist were hoarded to an increasing number of delayed flights.
Since I was a young healthy male traveling alone, I figured it my duty to help the Swedish evacuation personnel as best I could with their very difficult mission to get us out of there. I couldn’t do much, but I could help with the counting of heads and keeping the group of Swedish evacuees separate from the masses of tourists in the chaotic airport. In order to mark the end of the line of Lebanon-evacuees, I unpacked the Lebanese flag, which had been hanging from my balcony for the past week, and tied it to my suitcase. It was quite effective; instead of thinking we were fellow tourists and getting in line behind us, most vacationing Brits now gave us a strange look and passed us by, relieving us of the burden of constantly having to explain we were not in their line.
When a plane had finally arrived to take us out of there, and a counter was opened for us, we were led into the departure hall. Being last in line, I was advised by Swedish evacuation personnel to put the Lebanese flag away, since there were supposedly Israeli soldiers in the departure hall, watching over Israeli tourists en route back home. Two days earlier, they told me, the line of Swedish evacuees from Lebanon had accidentally ended up next to the line to the counter for a Tel Aviv flight. As a result, there had been some “friction.” They did not specify in what way. Not wanting to create trouble for the already strained Swedish evacuation personnel, I grudgingly put the flag away.
I have nothing but regards for the people from the various Swedish agencies trying to get people out of a war zone; they work day and night so that those in need can get home safely. Clearly, an evacuation from an ongoing armed conflict is not going to be a comfortable vacation trip. I will never understand those among the evacuees who complain loudly about the comfort of their trip back to Sweden. I do, however, believe they are a minority; the vast majority is as grateful as I am to the people working so hard to help us.
From what the Swedish personnel on the ground told me, the cooperation between the nations evacuating their citizens from Lebanon worked very well, with one big exception: the Americans. Since I normally live in the U.S. and appreciate and enjoy life there immensely, it saddened me to hear that the Americans on Cyprus showed no regard for the trouble they created for the evacuation operations of other nations. Apparently, the Americans did not even accept the airport authority; they simply landed whenever they saw fit to land, without awaiting clearance. Needless to say, this behavior is not helpful when the greatest evacuation since World War II is underway. Of course, it is very effective if you are a U.S. citizen, and since someone very close to me was supposed to be evacuated by the Americans on the same day, I admit I felt a certain comfort in the knowledge that at least she would be taken care of. With the greater picture in mind, however, it would have been nice to see the image of American arrogance proven wrong for once.
Be that as it may, at the time I boarded the plane that would take me to Malmo, Sweden, I had no idea whether or not my friend had been able to evacuate, and seeing the enormous military cargo planes from the U.S., I was worried she would have to spend a long flight over the Atlantic in one of those. In fact, I still don’t know exactly how she will be transported; when she called me yesterday she was on an American base on Cyprus, awaiting a flight to the U.S. Unlike her, I could look forward to a brief four hour flight from Cyprus before landing in southern Sweden.
When arriving in Sweden we were greeted by the soft-spoken women (and men) of a crisis team, trying to make us as comfortable as possible after our long and trying journey. There are times in your life you are proud of your country, and the reception we got in Sweden was one of those times. Not that I’m in need of trauma specialists, but there were many in our group from worse hit areas than mine, and many with memories from the last war. I’m sure the experience for those who have already fled one war was much more traumatic than it was for me. After a sandwich and coffee at the Malmo airport, I spent another eight hours on a bus to Stockholm before I reached my final destination. The entire journey Beirut-Stockholm had taken me almost exactly two days.
I’m still conflicted about having left. Life on an island in the Stockholm archipelago is as far as you get from life in Beirut under siege. It is no doubt nice to know that the rumbling in the distance is only thunder, but I feel disconnected from what is happening in a way I wasn’t when I was holed up in Beirut. I can still keep myself updated on what is happening through the Internet and TV, but I’m not there to see it with my own eyes. I’m no longer able to talk to people in the street; I am disconnected from the mood of Beirut and thereby disconnected from the plight of the Lebanese. But I will not forget what I have seen and felt during eleven days of living under Israeli siege; I will not forget what Lebanon is suffering at this very moment. As I bid you all farewell, I hope that this blog has in some way contributed to the understanding of the devastating situation in Lebanon today. Never forget the plight of Lebanon.