I decided to try something different for my blog in November. For 11 days, I’ll post stories from the war that didn’t make it into the recently published Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.
While recovering from our evacuation experience in July 2006, I wrote a debriefing journal, while memories were still fresh. I predicted that the stress of that time in our lives would erase details that could be helpful to remember later.
I almost incorporated this added information into the email pages of the book, but decided that realism would be ruined and the urgent feeling of their brevity would be lost.
Now I offer you these details as an added-value bonus to supplement the rather sparse treatment found in the book.
16 July 2006
My visualization of huge holes in roads and bridges had been placed in my mind by our neighbor Kamel, who had been watching the newscasts on TV. He told us that every bridge or road with sand below it was destroyed all over Lebanon.
I was to discover that the damage wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought when we were actually driving north a few days later. I was surprised that the road was in pretty good shape and that there was still a crossing over the Litani River. However, it didn’t help to have these images in mind when we were debating whether to stay or go.
In the end, these misconceptions were partially overcome by watching many cars head north and not come back. A few friends had called us to confirm that they had reached safety after only a couple of hours of scary driving.
In emails, I initially mis-reported that the bombs we heard, fell in the al-Bass Palestinian camp. I was later to learn that the hits landed beyond the al‐Bass camp, somewhere close to Bourj Shmelli, even further away. I felt bad about the inaccurate report since it caused a friend in Beirut to be very concerned for a family in the camp.
The next several days would accentuate this confusion and second‐guessing. The escalation was sending bombs nearer to Tyre than had ever occurred before.
The population of the city was swelling from people escaping the surrounding villages to take refuge. Residents of the city were changing locations based on where they thought they would be slightly better off. No one could guess where the Israelis were likely to consider targets.
On our way to the Edmond’s house we noticed a long line of men waiting for bags of bread at Tyre’s main bakery. The few people on the street were returning home on foot with the single bag of Arabic bread that they had been allowed to buy. Rationing had already gone into effect.
We arrived at Edmond’s house just a little later than we planned to. I had driven cautiously on the road that was most distant from the Palestinian camp of al‐Bass, still thinking it had been the hot area from the day before.
I circled around so that our car was facing south on the opposite side of the street. I figured that was okay since I could just pull a U-turn and drive on the wrong side of the divided street for a while if I needed to quickly go north. I wanted to be on the far side of the road because it was more distant from the building (possible falling debris) and not in the way of rapidly moving northbound traffic.
Once in the house, we nervously awaited the arrival of Denis’s family. They called and told us of bombing activity in their area at the time. The road close to the al‐Nijme hospital had been bombed and left impassible, but they were sure there were other routes they could take once it calmed down a little.
From the Sea‐facing balcony of Edmond’s apartment, we could see the neighborhood of Jelal Bahur and its massive unfinished buildings, left over from the last war.
Their construction had not been completed before the end of the war, so the government had frozen their progress because of non-compliance to building codes. Palestinian squatters had created a makeshift camp next to the skeletons of 15-story buildings lining the road.
Among these buildings, we could see that the Lebanese Army had situated armored vehicles and trucks in a pattern designed to avoid losing more than a single one in case of any shelling. We wondered if this would be considered a target for the Israeli warplanes and, if so, what danger that would pose for us, being on the far side of a rather large field.
The others arrived about an hour later, and we felt comforted being all together.
Edmond prayed for the lunch his wife had prepared for us, and predicted that it would be a meal and a day that we would never forget. He didn’t know how right he was.
In the middle of the meal, two blasts struck in quick succession. The shockwaves rocked the building with the same sensation of sitting in a car on the side of the freeway when a semi‐truck drives by at high speed. We instinctively all cringed and ducked from the mind‐numbingly loud boom.
Edmond leapt from his chair and ran to the door to direct us into the hallway in the center of the building where we would be the safest. We stood there for a few minutes, and tried to guess about where the bomb had hit and whether we were in immediate danger.
We could kind of tell that the blasts had been centered northeast of our building, but had been surprised that there had been no warning sounds at all.
None of the windows in the apartment provided a vantage of the destruction, but we believed that the only possible target could have been the Jebal Amal hospital on the other side of the block.
Denis wanted to go and see what had happened, but I didn’t think his plan to go down and walk around the corner to investigate was a good idea. I could tell that his daughters didn’t want him to go out either, but he had to check and make sure that his car was still okay.
A neighbor lady arrived to check on us and to give information. She said that it wasn’t the hospital that was hit, but a 4‐story building next to it, which had been the home of some Hezbollah official. We started wondering what other Hezbollah connections existed in this neighborhood and realized that the idea that a place could be “safe” was really questionable.
Shortly after Denis returned and confirmed the lady’s report and that his car was okay, the second two bombs hit their target. Kimarie and I scrambled to grab the kids from the floor where they had been playing with various toys. Naomi looked up fearfully with whimpering and tears as we whisked them out.
Again, there was no warning before the blasts and we still don’t have any idea whether the bombs came from planes or ships. The four hits combined to reduce the nearby concrete building to a flat pile of rubble. It was believed that there had been approximately 10 people sheltering in the building who were killed.
We saw a backhoe turn the corner to attempt to rescue people, but in this kind of destruction there is little hope of survival. Glass was blown out at the hospital next door and debris thrown everywhere. Patients were milling around the lobby, unsure if they should stay or go.
Up to this point we had thought of single apartments being targeted as in the 2000 helicopter attack. Now we understood that they were picking complete buildings to wipe out.
What followed was a hasty strategy session in which we once again debated the “safest” course of action. Edmond received two phone calls offering shelter for all of us. The first choice was the basement of a church in the presumably‐safe, Christian quarter of the city, but I pointed out that the nearby port could become a target.
A second choice was at the Evangelical school where Edmond had once been the accountant. In both of these choices we would have been sleeping on floors as refugees in makeshift bunkers, relying on what could be provided by our hosts. We also didn’t want to widen our circle of responsibility for decision‐making outside of our immediate group. We didn’t want others to be influencing or ruling our course of action.
That left us with the option of choosing one of our houses or attempting the drive to Beirut, which continued to seem unwise, though we were witnessing many cars leaving the area and chancing it.
We weren’t keen to stay at Edmond’s house, though it was actually probably safest with the nearby target already having been destroyed. The Heath’s house had a large “safe” basement, but their area was very hot at the time. That left our house, but no one was excited about being on the tenth floor of an exposed building on the seashore.
Then we remembered a couple of other options. The language center would not have been a comfortable place to sleep, but was located in a strong old building, with no known Hezbollah associations nearby.
The other fresh possibility was the vacant apartment of British friends. We went there because it was close to the ground floor and surrounded by other buildings, making it what seemed to be the most protected option.
We packed what food we could bring into two vehicles and made our way there, back into the center of the city of Tyre, which at that time had still not been struck directly by bombs.
After we arrived, Denis and I unpacked stuff and carted it up to the second floor, two‐bedroom apartment. We aroused the attention of the packed neighborhood.
The men in the street remembered seeing us around from before, so they weren’t as suspicious as the ones I had experienced previously. Edmond had once lived in this neighborhood as well, so many knew him personally. They had stories to tell of their own personal hardships.
One of the storeowners nearby listened to our story of being close to the shelling across town and then mournfully nodded as he told us that that building had belonged to his family.
The neighbor on the floor above us was a former student of Denis’ and mine. When he saw that we were casting our lot with them, he rushed to make us feel comfortable. He offered bread and vegetables from his own supply and went down to his family’s ice‐cream factory on the ground floor and returned with cones for everyone. He stayed for a while and debated with us about evacuations plans.
The neighbor told us a rumor that was circulating that foreigners were gathering at the Resthouse resort for evacuation from there, so Denis and I resolved to go and find out more. We also wanted to get some more supplies from my house, like water, fans and cushions for makeshift beds. We were going to be very crowded in this little house for who knew how long.
Off we went in my car. There was a great deal of people gathering at the Resthouse. We never actually talked to anyone inside. Denis saw a doctor friend of his who told us that the rumor was just talk, but that the Red Cross was planning some kind of convoy to head north and that the Hariri foundation was planning on doing the same thing the next day.
We saw our friend, Mustafa, getting into a overloaded car which was joining an unofficial convoy and heading for Beirut. He told us that he was going to attempt to be evacuated to Belgium since he had been granted a passport and work permit from there in the past year. I don’t know what happened to him after that.
We headed back to my house and spoke with many of my neighbors who were very concerned about our plans. They offered to drive with us and lead us out by car. These were very sincere and concerned offers, but we also realized that everyone we were with during these days had the impression that if they were in our proximity they were safe, because the Israelis wouldn’t dare to hurt Americans. We wished we were so sure of that.
We talked to Abu Omar from upstairs. I could never communicate well with him because he always spoke formal Arabic. We also saw Kamel and his son from across the hall. They said that the family was going to move back to their apartment because they changed their mind about which place was safer.
His son gave each of us a decorative chocolate that his sister had designed and wrapped with his photo and a graduation cap to commemorate his completion of college a week earlier. I wasn’t very hungry for chocolate. It went uneaten.
I left a fan and several pillows in our house, since I still wasn’t sure whether or not Kimarie, the kids and I would be staying there that night. We had reasoned that we were only a few blocks away and that the kids would sleep better in their own beds. However, what happened next changed our minds.
Denis and I had already returned to the new quarters with all the extra stuff and moved everything up to the apartment. At the time of the explosion, we had been sitting with the neighbor that had brought us ice-cream, and discussing whether or not the gas station a block away was a concern as a target. After the blast, he jumped up and ran out quickly.
Again, we couldn’t really tell how far away the bomb had landed, or what it had hit, though it sounded loud enough to have fallen right next to us. We didn’t have to wait long, however, before the news spread throughout the neighborhood that it had been a tall building in the neighborhood of the Roman Chariot Track.
This last attack was very concerning to us because prior to it, we had considered that the Israelis were not planning on targeting anything inside the actual city of Tyre. Now we realized that there was truly not going to be any “safe place,” and we began the debate again of driving to Beirut with a convoy the next day.
It was already getting dark, and much too late to consider doing it that day, especially with so much activity happening. We continued to hope that there would be a long enough break in jet activity for us to make a break for it with reasonably less risk.
The government electricity supply was cut simultaneous to the last attack, and the neighborhood generator connection had been cut when our friends had left on their trip to England, to save the expenses for a month in which they weren’t planning on being there. Also, for some reason, the water supply was not working, so we began to suffer from the humid heat with no fans to circulate the air.
On top of the distress of the day, our bodies received the additional trauma of overheating with no way of cooling down except trying to sit still. Children, however, do not understand the concept of staying still in order to avoid sweating, and we certainly couldn’t blame them for constantly wanting to be held and comforted.
Our last meeting of the day was a group discussion of whether we should stay or go the following morning. Each person was given the opportunity to share his or her impressions and ideas. Many wanted to stay put in this safer place, but some thought if the shelling was light the next day, that we should go.
There was a possible option of the two American families being evacuated directly from the Resthouse, but there were two problems with that plan. First of all, we didn’t know if we would be included in an evacuation because we hadn’t heard from the embassy to confirm that they knew we existed.
The other reason that we didn’t want to evacuate directly from Tyre was that Edmond’s family needed to get to safety in Beirut and we didn’t want to leave them in Tyre.
We had also had many emails advising us to stay put until some nebulous ceasefire happened. At the end of the meeting no decision had been made and we resolved to sleep on it and talk again in the morning. I think Kimarie had been the only one at the time to really want to leave in the morning.
I didn’t sleep well at all, partially because of the heat and partially from endlessly thinking through options for the following morning. During the meeting, I had been pretty set on staying at least one more day to take a break from the near misses we had just experienced.
The media and our friends were continuing to say, “Stay put.” However, I kept visualizing alternate possibilities for the drive to prepare myself for the eventual likelihood that we would be driving north.
What would I do if Denis’s car was bombed in front of us on the road? What if we couldn’t cross the Litani with the car? Would there be heavy shelling? Would we be dodging bombs like so many Hollywood action flicks?
But the more I thought it through, the more I became convinced that staying in this stiflingly hot, small apartment for another day would be more draining on our energy than it would be to just go and hopefully get it over and done with for better or worse. I didn’t want to think about sitting and waiting and debating. Even dangerous moving would be better than sitting still. I resolved to vote “go” in the morning.