No Escaping the Memories

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Like any survivor of a catastrophe that took the lives of others, they all seem to feel a certain degree of guilt. That much was clear earlier this week, when four recent evacuees from Lebanon talked of their harrowing experiences, and how their relief at getting out of the war zone has been tempered by their continuing concern and sadness over the thousands more left behind -- both the living and the dead.

At a press conference at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City, people like Ayah Bdeir, 23, made clear that while they feel lucky to be alive, their haunting experiences in Lebanon have followed them home. "For the past five days, a feeling of constant guilt [has been] lingering in my subconscious," says Bdeir, who arrived in the U.S. last weekend. Bdeir was raised in Beirut, and left her mother and sisters behind. "I was in Lebanon when the war broke out, and the reason I feel guilty is that I escaped."

Each evacuee was in Beirut for different reasons, but all of them were there for the same one- to speak on behalf of those who weren't so lucky. Some of them had seen firsthand how Beirut had recovered from the destruction left by Israel's last invasion in 1982 and the country's own civil war, only to be leveled once again. The city was readying for a tourist influx, says Lina Shehayeb, a Lebanese-American who was in Beirut for a family vacation. When Shehayeb heard the news that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped by Hizballah, she didn't think twice about it. "I thought they might attack a Hizballah corner somewhere in the South, we didn't expect this kind of reaction." When the bombings began, she says, "everyone was totally shocked and disgusted."

For Yasmin Hamidi, 25, the war was all she experienced on her first trip to Lebanon. Beirut's international airport was bombed on the day she arrived. She was visiting with her uncle's family, in an apartment close to some of the heaviest bombing. "A couple of times we were bombed directly near our home — one bomb hit a truck that was parked near our apartment," Hamidi says. This bomb hit an hour before she was meant to report to the American embassy for evacuation. "When that happened, I thought, Well maybe I'm not supposed to leave Lebanon.'" Hamidi did however make it to her home in New York — via military helicopter, two planes and a Greyhound bus. Shehayeb returned through the embassy, as well.

Ayah Bdeir, by contrast, was left to her own devices. She and her sister, both Canadian citizens, attempted to leave together and were advised to evacuate with the Canadian embassy. "We felt a lot of people needed [their help] more than we did," she said. "We heard rumors that 25,000 Canadians were trying to evacuate. So we decided to do it on our own." A taxi driver was willing to take her and her sister to the Syrian border. Ever since the war broke out, he'd been driving people back and forth across the border at least twice a day. It took them 40 minutes to get to the border, "and yet, they were the longest 40 minutes of my life," she says tearfully, "I can't remember a time when I was so scared, or my heart so heavy."

Hamidi doesn't see how these attacks will benefit Israel. "With every bomb that was dropping, people were becoming more sympathetic [to Hizballah]," she says. "The hate, frustration and despair is growingfor a whole new generation of Lebanese children."

The evacuees are frustrated that the situation has not changed for the better in Lebanon. "The real story is the people who can't leave, the people left behind," says Stephen McInerney, 31, a resident from North Carolina who was in Beirut to work on his masters thesis in Middle East studies at the American University of Beirut before evacuating the country with the help of the American embassy. He has been talking to the press, writing letters and sending e-mails trying to get this message across to the media and government officials. Still, he admits, "I don't feel like I've made any difference, I don't know if I ever will."

The thousands of refugees in Lebanon are quickly running out of food, water and electricity. For these four evacuees, it's difficult or impossible to get in touch with loved ones there — which is all they really want to do. Ironically enough, Ayah Bdeir says that, "The last few days I was in Lebanon, all I wanted to do was to get out. Now that I have, all I want to do is go back."