Backstory: The few and fortunate who escaped Beirut

The open-air landing craft listed suddenly sideways, sending children tumbling into their mothers. Bags fell over. A salty wave splashed over the side, drenching those on one side.

But as the US military boat pushed away from the pebble shore on the outskirts of Beirut, bearing hundreds of American citizens away from the growing crisis in Lebanon and toward safety, the relief of those on board was evident. A few laughed nervously, while others waved to US Marines onshore or pulled out cameras to snap mementos of their departure.

Packed in among those headed to the USS Trenton, a warship just offshore, were23-year-old Rana Zayek and her new husband, Nassar Sokhn,from San Francisco. When the Lebanese-American couple had planned their wedding at the flashy Casino du Liban, outside Beirut, they thought it would be fun to introduce American friends to the cosmopolitan capital of the country their families are from. Hundreds were invited, including at least 20 who planned to come from California, where Ms. Zayek works with foster children and Mr. Sokhn is a software engineer.

But two days before their July 14 wedding, Hizbullah, the Lebanese Islamist group, staged a raid into Israel, killing eight soldiers and capturing two. Israel's response was immediate and sustained, raining bombs on Lebanon. And with Hizbullah launching rockets into northern Israel and Israeli troops engaging Hizbullah guerrillas on the ground, the couple found their wedding coinciding with war.

They went ahead with the wedding, but it wasn't the event they'd planned. None of their San Francisco friends made it (the Beirut airport was bombed). While 147 Lebanese family and friends came, "half of the guests left by dinner," Zayek said sadly, her new ring twinkling in the Mediterranean sun.

A week later, the young couple was waiting for evacuation near a beach outside Beirut with thousands of other American citizens. Twenty-five thousand Americans were trapped in Lebanon when the fighting erupted, along with tens of thousands of other foreign citizens.

"We only had a honeymoon for one day," Sokhn laughed. "Then we decided we better try to get out. We called the embassy again and again, but no one could tell us what was going on."

They were told they'd be contacted when a concrete evacuation plan had been arranged. But no one ever called. Meanwhile, rumors were flying: one said the US government was charging $4,000 to get out (in fact, the evacuations were free). Eventually the local news said that Americans were to meet at the Dbayeh Bridge in Beirut. They went and were sent away because the boats were full that day. Last Friday, a week after their wedding, the couple and some of their American relatives returned at 4:30 in the morning.

"We were afraid they were going to send us away again," said Zayek, exhausted after hours of standing in a chaotic line for evacuation registration. "We were right on the bridge and people were pushing and shoving. We were like animals," she recalled after being processed and awaiting to board the landing craft.

"Until the marines came," her husband chimed in, gesturing to soldiers in desert fatigues handing out military rations – known as MREs or meals ready-to-eat – and water. "They were much better. They were very patient, very polite. But outside it was bad."

***

By the time Sokhn and Zayek boarded the USS Trenton, it was packed. The Trenton, which has a normal capacity of 800, was carrying more than 1,500 evacuees, plus crew.

Inside, sailors helped passengers carry bags through narrow corridors and up steep metal staircases. Children slept on mattresses stuffed into tiny nooks. Before the ship even left Lebanon, the trash cans in the bathrooms were overflowing and water covered the floor, but the crew was unfailingly polite and cooks dished up plates of fried chicken in the mess hall.

"Did you actually see any bombs?" one stocky teenage boy in a baggy sport jersey asked another as they stood in line waiting for dinner.

"Nah," said the other, with evident disappointment. "But I heard them."

Up on deck, Hala Abinader, a 27-year-old Lebanese-American who recently moved from Manhattan to London, was fortunate to have boarded early. She found a cot overlooking the clear blue sea, and lay reading a paperback novel.

If smoke hadn't been rising from the cityscape on the horizon, and her right foot hadn't been in a cast, she might have been on a pleasant holiday cruise. As it was, she was fleeing the place where she'd gone to spend a pleasant vacation with friends. She broke her foot, she admitted, running from the sound of a falling bomb. It fell miles into the ocean, and no one else had panicked. But never having heard a bomb before, she'd been terrified nonetheless.

She was angry, tired, and worried. "The embassy has done the worst job," she groused. "They've been treating us like cattle. I've been sitting outside for hours.... They had no priorities. It should've been women and children first. All they said was anyone who had four kids could go ahead," she laughed. "Who has four kids?"

She grew suddenly somber, thinking of friends and family left behind with no way out and no foreign government to help them. "I think this time it's going to be really bad. The economy isn't strong enough to sustain something like this. It's such a shame, because people there don't want this."

***

The USS Trenton steamed northwest through 120 miles of calm seas before docking in the Cypriot port of Limassol early Saturday. Its tired passengers were shuttled by bus to the International Fair Grounds in the capital, Nicosia.

There they joined hundreds of other Americans among bright-orange cots set out in a florescent-lit exhibition hall. After days of waiting, here was another wait: this time for flights home.

Mohamad Rawas and his 4-year-old daughter, Samar, spent 24 hours at the camp in Nicosia. That was after 17 hours on the MS Ramah, a US-hired Saudi passenger ship which had mechanical troubles en route. He and his daughter had been scheduled to fly home to Los Angeles the day bombs destroyed the Beirut airport – and they witnessed the bombing as they drove there.

"When [Samar] heard the bombs, she jumped," he recalled. "And I tell her it's just fireworks."

By Sunday, Mr. Rawas and his daughter, remarkably clean and neat in head-to-toe pink, had finally made it to the Larnaca airport. They were to board a military plane bound for Newark, N.J. How they'd get from there to their home in L.A., he wasn't yet sure. But he was relieved to be out of Lebanon, where he'd gone to visit his sick mother.

"Thank God she hasn't been giving me a hard time," he sighed, looking at his daughter playing with another child. "We've still got a long way to go."

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