Monday, July 24, 2006

The voyage out

Jay Saxon '05, who was studying Arabic in Beirut this summer, was evacuated from Lebanon earlier this week. He writes from Budapest, Hungary.

Hello everyone,

I apologize for the delay in writing this, what should be my final update to you all after everything that has happened in the last two weeks. I am now back in my apartment in Budapest, where I will be for an undetermined amount of time, until I can move my plane ticket home. I have had a chance to process the last few days, and will do my best to describe what it was like for us on the voyage out. I use that word very intentionally, "voyage," because that is precisely what it was. I have gone into extensive detail, because many of you have emailed me saying that you appreciate that; accordingly, I will understand if you don't read all this. I'm selfish, in a way; this is my chronicle of what happened, but it is through all of you that I find reason to record it.

Despite our attempt to be constantly on our guard and ready, for days, to leave at a moment's notice, the call still caught us by surprise. It was about 12:45 last Tuesday afternoon, and I had just run upstairs to wash my hands. I had been with Nick, Rachel and Lindsay, eating a lunch of peanut butter and jelly ricecakes (all the bread we could find was old and stale, or moldy, or both) and making a giant mess, when Michael came running up the stairs and said "we're going, grab your bags, there's a bus waiting." We immediately panicked, because despite our best preparations, we were shocked.

I don't know if I've mentioned before that the State Department said we'd only be able to take one bag weighing no more than 15 kilograms (~30 pounds) if we were evacuated. Accordingly, my friends and I all re-packed our suitcases. I had one bag ready to go, just a backpack with my most valuable items and some clothes. Everything else I repacked in my big suitcases, labelled with my address, and left to be shipped back (when and if that becomes possible). I inventoried everything, so I'd know what was where, and it was surprisingly easy to make decisions. When you know you could be running for your life, it's very easy to look at something with disconnected eyes and determine in a heartbeat whether you need it or not. Accordingly, my emergency bag contained everything of value, whether sentimental or monetary — my computer, extra hard drive with my pictures from the last year, iPod (pretty hard to replace 9,000 songs), a few small souvenirs from Lebanon that I felt I'd earned the right to carry away, a handmade card from Cléo, and some clothes — and nothing that I didn't have to have.

When I ran down to the bus, I was wearing six shirts, and had my sandals strapped to my bag. If I got one bag, I was putting as much in it as possible. Most people from our program who could get out were going. The Brits all stayed behind, as the British embassy claimed they were taking them out soon thereafter, and sadly, the non-U.S. and non-British citizens were still waiting. There were, however, a few Americans who chose to stay. I know of 7 who are still there currently (or at least were a couple of days ago), and I hope they are safe.

The bus took us south, to the port of Beirut, which is right by downtown in the heart of the city. There were a surprising number of cars on the road, though certainly far less than would be typical on Lebanon's main coastal highway. We could see a warship far off the coast, and smoke still rose from the burning fuel tanks of Beirut International Airport. I'll admit to being a bit edgy on the drive down, as roads were still being bombed. Tensions were also very high — there was a lot of complaining, more sniping and unpleasantries than would have been typical between those on the bus. I could chalk it up to days of frayed nerves and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but that would be too dismissive. Stressful situations bring out a person's true colors, and the colors of many of our fellow program participants appeared unfortunately murky.

We fully expected a cruise ship to be awaiting us, considering the number of emails we'd received relaying news reports from home that the U.S. had contracted the Orient Queen to pick up stranded citizens from Lebanon's shores. We were in for quite a surprise.

(I should mention, of the following two paragraphs, that the information is drawn from what we were told piecemeal by LAU's Dean of Students, who was coordinating our evacuation, and the crew members on the ship, who were mostly if not all Filipino, and some of whom spoke decent English. I don't know for certain if it's accurate, but it's the best I can do)

Awaiting us was a Norwegian freighter, specifically a car carrier, that had been diverted from its delivery of vans and earth-moving equipment to Saudi Arabia to rescue Norwegian citizens stuck in Lebanon. The boat was massive, certainly far more space than was necessary to evacuate roughly 175 Norwegians, and so the Norwegian government had apparently contacted several embassies, including ours, and instructed them to send high priority evacuees to the boat immediately, which explains why we were there.

Cruise liner this ship was not. I will preface this by saying I am extremely grateful to the Norwegian government for welcoming us as their guests, and am grateful we were able to get out of Lebanon so quickly. That said, the ride was miserable. The ship was enormous, but it was meant for freight. We heard that the ship had carried a herd of cattle before us, and while I don't know if that was true or not, I do know that there were roughly a billion flies on the ship, and that it smelled horrible. The biggest problem was that it was overcrowded — one crew member told us there were 1,175 us on board. There was a crew of 22, many of whom spoke no English, and there was nowhere for us to sit. There was a small indoor area, where the crew would normally rest, and it was already full of people lying in hallways, small children running everywhere, belongings bursting from every corner. The smell was that of a kindergarten classroom, combined with sweat, urine, and stale perfume; of course, there was no shortage of flies. Given the conditions inside, our group of students (having arrived last, before the ship left) opted for the top deck of the ship, which was relatively clean, and received a fresh breeze and ample sunlight. It didn't seem so bad, at the time. More on that qualification in a moment.

There were three bathrooms on the ship. As they emptied into small septic tanks, you couldn't flush toilet paper, and (as is typical in the Middle East and Africa) there was a small trashcan next to the toilet where one was supposed to deposit used toilet paper. This is fine for 22, but not for 1,200. Each bathroom had a two-foot tall stack of feces-covered toilet paper, in addition to as many flies as that would sustain, and it smelled like rotten death. In one of the bathrooms, someone had vomited all over the floor, and the smell permeated half of one of the two sections of indoor cabins. The floors of the hallways were muddy (not from water, mind you), and I spotted at least one water bottle in which someone had urinated and then thrown on the floor. You can now understand why we stayed outside.

The novelty of the trip wore off quickly. We left near sunset, and had wonderful views of the Lebanese coast as the ship pulled away, but shortly after departure, the feeling of "Are we there yet?" had already set in. About an hour out, two Israeli gunships began to tail us, and followed us for about two hours until they appeared to lose interest, and began to drift back towards Lebanese waters. They were replaced by a US ship, which was anticipated, as we'd been told we'd receive a military escort, but here we got more than we bargained for, as I will explain.

There was no food on the ship, or at least not much. Nine members of the Norwegian Red Cross, who had boarded the ship to assist with the evacuation, had already distributed MREs (U.S. Army issue — how did they get there?) to children on the ship, which was understandable, as the ride was supposed to last 5.5-7 hours, we were leaving at dinner time, and many people had already been on the ship several hours. There was water, so we didn't go thirsty, but after several hours, stomachs were growling, tempers were growing short, and we were all rather grouchy. After the US ship had followed us for a while, we suddenly stopped, right in the middle of the Mediterranean, and the US ship stopped as well. There was confusion briefly, immediately followed by a commotion on the starboard side. We had a bird's eye view, literally, from the top of the ship (I would estimate we were roughly seven stories up from the water), and could see a small rubber raft with an outboard motor pulling up alongside us, containing five or six men dressed in all black, all of whom surrounded a large package with some sort of canisters. People began to freak out, not having any idea what was going on. My first thought, honestly, was " U.S.S. Cole," the US warship that had been bombed by al Qaeda in Yemen, by suicide bombers on a boat just like this one. Yes, I was overreacting, but considering the past few days, I don't know what to say in my own defense, other than I sometimes tend towards pessimism.

When our ship's crane began to lower, we realized that this must be something benign, and it certainly was — as it turned out, it was the Navy Seals, bringing us dinner. They uploaded a net full of boxes of food — to be precise, hot chicken sandwiches, Country Time Lemonade, Planter's cashews, and Pringles. The feeling on the boat was something approximating ecstasy; it had been roughly 12 hours since many people had eaten. Unfortunately, for some it would be many more.

The Norwegians in charge of the boat took the food and gave the Americans only enough for about 70 people; there were a minimum of 100 Americans on the ship, and probably more. This was the food paid for by our tax dollars, brought by our military for us, out risking their lives to protect us and to ensure our safety and comfort, and we were denied that food. After we told the Norwegians that some people hadn't eaten, they flat refused to give us more food (despite several boxes remaining), and instead began to dole it out to children on the ship. These were the children that had already eaten about 4 hours before, and we sat there and watched as families sent their children up time and again to get sandwiches; from our perch way up high, we would see families amass three cans of nuts, two cans of Pringles, and five or six sandwiches, then horde them and refuse to share them with anyone else. A number of my friends, including Lindsay and Rachel, went without any food, while families of four had enough for twice that number. It was a dismal lesson in the darker side of human nature, and of how selfish people can be. It was really disgusting, particularly when these families would encourage their children to cheat others out of dinner. Granted, it was only a short boat ride, but it's really the principle of the thing. The behavior was appalling, that parents would actually encourage deceptive, lying behaviour in their children, and when they knew that others were hungry. I will note, without passing judgment, that those families doing this were the Lebanese families. I don't know what that says about Lebanese culture, and about its values, but it cannot bode well for their empathy towards fellow man, or for the resolution of the conflict at hand.

For sake of disclosure, yes, I did eat, and yes, I am slightly ashamed. If it's any consolation, the food was better than any steak dinner I have ever had.

It was shortly after "dinner" that we began to regret our choice of location. The top of the deck was cool and breezy during the heat of the day, but as night waned, it became cold and wet. I found myself bundled under a blanket with Lindsay, also covering myself with the kif (the head clothe that Arab men wear) I had bought, and the two of us were huddled with Michael and Rachel for warmth. We slept fitfully for a couple of hours, and woke up wet and shivering. I finally gave up and walked around the ship for a while, noticing the occasional sandwich sitting untouched by a sleeping patriarch, before the lights of Larnaca, the Cypriot port that beckoned us onward, began to twinkle far in the distance.

Eventually, everyone woke up and we pulled into port about two hours later, though it was then another hour before we could get off. There was some brief excitement, as relatives of those on board (including mine) told them by phone that Anderson Cooper was waiting for us on the dock below, but when we unloaded, he was nowhere to be found. I was grabbed by a Fox reporter, who asked the predictable stupid questions that I now realize every survivor of any kind of tragedy, great or small, must detest with a vehement passion, but I fought back the urge to vent with bilious candor and instead said we were fine, the voyage was a piece of cake, and that we were just glad to be out. When he asked me if I was scared, I didn't really know what to say, as "yes and no" isn't really a satisfying answer, so I simply dodged the question and got on the bus to go through customs. Thankfully, unlike George Bush running offstage, I found my escape door to be unlocked.

The rest of the night was a blur; the State Department had set up a mobile registration center, and was assisting Americans with hotel reservations, travel home, and other affairs. Michael, Lindsay, Rachel, Nick and I tried to check into a hotel, but (no surprise) the owner tried to jack the price up from what she'd told the State contact, so we gave up and went straight to the airport to arrange for flights out.

Lindsay left on the next plane to London (she is now safe at home), whereas Michael, Rachel and I rented a sporty red coupe and went to Michael's family's apartment in Zygi, Cyprus, a small (and by small, I mean barely extant) fishing village betwen Larnaca and Limassol. We spent the next two days driving around Cyprus, seeing the few sites there and trying to make sense of the previous week and a half. Michael had seemed non-chalant the entire time, but when he told us that the knot that had been in his stomach for the last six days was finally gone, I knew that he'd taken it about the same as the rest of us.

Cyprus was a strange experience. For those of you who have been to Gulf Shores, the Cypriot coast looks just like that — tacky — but more spectacular. Most of the good beaches are tourist ghettoes — massive, sprawling, overpriced resorts; cheesy restaurants, karaoke bars and strip clubs; and kitschy tourist shops selling the ubiquitous (I quote one of Michael's favorite phrases) "Cheap Shit You Don't Need At Really High Prices." To be fair, in less developed areas, the mountains, and the cliffs that fall into the sea, are amazing, albeit very arid and mostly devoid of tall trees, save for the inland mountains which are covered with pines at higher elevations.

It was very relaxing to drive around for two days, without anything to worry about but freeing our minds, but even on Cyprus we couldn't avoid conflict. I won't go into a long history lesson, but Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974, and claims that the north is the "Independent Sovereign Republic of Turkish Cyprus." As Michael commented, if they have to have a sign at the border proclaiming their sovereignty and their independence, then they are neither; facts reinforce his sentiments, as Turkey is the only country in the world to recognize the North's sovereignty.

Dividing the two "countries" is a UN buffer zone that is literally a war zone; it is full of bombed out buildings and debris, untouched from the end of the conflict 32 years ago. We walked to the Turkish side (you have to walk, you can only drive across in a few places in the country) and it was literally another world. I should mention, they won't stamp your passport, as Greece won't recognize it (sounds familiar), so they stamp a sheet of paper and tell you not to buy cigarettes or alcohol because you can't bring them back. As well, to cross from the south to the north is like stepping back in time; on the main walking street within the southern half of the old walled city of Nicosia, there are a McDonald's and a Starbucks three blocks from the dividing line; six blocks north, on the other side of the line, the buildings are falling apart, there are no Western establishments, and Turkish Cypriots who have no jobs mill in the streets. We didn't stay long, in part because of the heat, and in part because we were all three tired of conflict and bullshit, and wanted to get back to the comforts of all that which is Western. For lunch that day, we ate at McDonald's, and it was heaven.

Two days flew by, and we went to the airport on Friday night. It was a complete circus. When we arrived at 9:30, we couldn't even sit down, because there were families with children sprawled everywhere; finally, we cleared off one table (yet another country where people don't bus their own trays, and trash was everywhere) and traded pictures on our computers (it's good when everyone has the same brand of camera) before Michael left for Tel Aviv. Rachel and I then spent a miserable five hours napping fitfully and trying to wile away the hours by drinking bad gin with lukewarm tonic water and trading stories of college antics. Our flights left just after 4 in the morning, and we said goodbye to each other and to the land of our temporary asylum. When Rachel hugged me and said she knows she'll see me again, I have no doubt that she is right.

I am now back in Budapest, with enough clothing for three days, and trying to make sense of everything running rampant through my brain. I've been to dinner with friends here twice, and I already don't know what to say; I hope I will have found my voice by the time I get back to Alabama. That may be awhile, as the earliest flight home from here is August 9, so I may be stuck for a couple of weeks. I have no right to complain though, as I'm comfortable and safe, though hot, and thankful to have traded the flashes of artillery for the shimmering glow of the summer Danube.

As for when the conflict will end, I have no more insight than anyone watching the news. I do know that both sides are stubborn and arrogant, and that both are entrenched for the long haul. When the Israelis say they will not cease until Hizballah is disarmed, I do not doubt them. Neither do I doubt that Israel alone will ever accomplish that goal. The only solution I can see is for the Lebanese government to work with Israel to disarm Hizballah and secure the borders and territory of Lebanon. Because this will not happen, I don't think I can return to Beirut (which I swear I will do, one day) for a very long time. If the hatred continues much longer, there won't be much left there to see.

I am in the process of distilling my thoughts into a much more cogent piece of writing, hopefully that can be published somewhere; if and when I complete it, I will send it to you. Until then, there are a few links which I have found that I think are particularly relevant, interesting, or cogent, and I share them with you now:

  • The Independent of London has run a piece on the rhetoric used, of late, by the Bush administration, as regards the ideal of "the preservation of life" as opposed to the administration's policies on the Middle East. The article speaks for itself.
  • This article describes why we discouraged our friends from leaving through Syria. Inshallah (Arabic for, approximately, "God willing"), those remaining who must evacuate that way will make it safely. Let us pray they do.
  • For a particularly relevant and timely take on this situation by a psychologist, read this.
  • For a good all-around perspective, see this.
  • Finally, for those with Facebook who are interested in photos, my friends from Beirut are adding photos of our time there and tagging my name, so go to my profile and check my photos. Some are silly, from drunken revelry before the fighting, and many are from after the bombs started and during the evacuation.

That is all. I have done my best to include on this list every person that has sent me good tidings, but I have undoubtedly omitted many; again, please forward this to anyone you wish. For now, I am safe, though disconcerted, and free, though bound by worry and sadness. I thank you all, truly and sincerely, with all that I have, for your support and your kind words of encouragement, and especially for the 237 emails you have all sent me in the last 10 days. Usually people complain that email is a burden, but to me, you have all been a blessing — as I said, spiritual nourishment.

Inshallah, I will be able to thank you all again in person, and soon.

Very Sincerely,

Related: Jay Saxon first wrote for this blog on July 13. He wrote again on July 16 and on July 19, alerting readers that he had finally been evacuted. His original letter from Beirut is available on our main site.