Cover Story

No way out

Israelis flee south, Lebanese flee west, but for thousands too poor or too ill to leave-and for U.S. and Arab diplomats detangling a war on civilians-weeks of continued attacks in the Middle East leave

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

Tom Charara relishes the Lebanon of his youth. Though he's lived in the United States for more than 30 years, Charara, 50, remembers his childhood home as a "romantic" place full of beauty and tradition. "It's a place you long for all your life," he told WORLD. But on a trip with his family to the Middle East in July, Lebanon quickly became a place he longed to flee.

Charara wasn't alone. After intense fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon on July 12, thousands of U.S. citizens clamored to leave the country. Good news in wartime wins little attention, but in just over a week, the U.S. military managed to evacuate safely some 12,000 Americans under precarious hot-zone conditions. Another 20,000 foreign nationals left Lebanon by late July, traveling to Cyprus or Turkey by boat.

With air and road travel shut down by Israeli bombs, long lines formed at the U.S. embassy in Beirut as officials scrambled to evacuate U.S. citizens by sea. For the Chararas and thousands like them, Beirut's port became a launching station for those embarking on U.S. warships, Saudi-owned commercial ships, Norwegian cargo ships, and other transport carriers. Troops handed out water and military rations to evacuees who waited to board for hours in the Mediterranean sun. Evacuees hauled bulky suitcases down the rocky beach, and U.S. Marines stood at the water's edge, lifting children onto naval vessels and helping others to board. For Marines the humanitarian effort marked a sober milestone: It was the first time in more than 20 years that U.S. Marines had landed in Beirut after a 1983 suicide bombing linked to Hezbollah killed 241 Americans at the U.S. Marine Corps barracks. The Marines left Lebanon a few months later, never to return, until last month.

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For the Charara family the trip to Beirut also was weighted with significance. Charara and his wife, Rola, made the costly journey with their two children, ages 7 and 8, to visit Rola's ailing parents. "Her father is terminally ill," says Charara. "We wanted our kids to know their grandparents."

The family had just set up a temporary apartment in the Haret Hreik neighborhood in Beirut when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with a massive air attack aimed at dismantling Hezbollah.

Haret Hreik is the most densely populated neighborhood in south Beirut, with 15-story apartment buildings and streets packed with shops and people. The area is also considered a Hezbollah stronghold. The Chararas' stay there would be short.

During the first night of Israeli attacks, bombs fell on the outskirts of the neighborhood. "I knew they were trying to empty the square," said Charara. The next morning as his wife ventured out to get food for breakfast, "two huge bombs exploded 100 meters away," he said. Charara grabbed his children and his wife and fled.

Scores of others fled as well, and the scene on the street was "pure terror," according to Charara: People barely clothed or still in pajamas jammed the streets at the early hour "running away as fast as they could."

The Chararas would not return. Over the next few days, Israeli bombs laid waste to the neighborhood. Buildings and homes lay in ruins, mounds of concrete and rubble filled empty streets, hanging wires crisscrossed impassable roads. Still, a few days later, members of Hezbollah remained in the streets, even taking a group of journalists on a tour of the destroyed district.

By then the Chararas were across town at Rola's parents' home, where they spent three days in "misery" listening to "constant bombing." When rockets destroyed a strategic bridge leading to the airport about 50 yards away, Charara's children cried and begged their father to "please make it stop."

Charara spent part of those three days at the U.S. Embassy trying to cobble together an evacuation plan for his family. Embassy officials were overwhelmed, and Charara decided to take matters into his own hands. He moved his family to a hotel near the American University of Beirut (AUB), figuring that Israel would be less likely to aim an attack near a large group of Americans. While at the hotel he arranged for a taxi to take his family across the border to Syria during the night. They waited three hours for the taxi but it never showed up.

Depressed and desperate, Charara had another idea: Maybe the Americans living at the university near his hotel would be evacuated first. He convinced a security guard at the school to let him onto the campus.

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