Tale of two cities for US evacuee: Beirut and Baghdad

LARNACA — For one Arab American helicoptered out of Lebanon, life has been a tale of two troubled cities and two safe havens — the world’s superpower and a holiday island in the sun.

After a nightmare which lasted five days and nights, Rana Dahbour, 29, born in Baghdad and married to an American Lebanese, was Thursday finally headed home on an overnight plane to Boston chartered by the US government.

Rana and husband Rabih had travelled to Lebanon for a two-week vacation for the Maronite traditional ceremony of having their baby Anthony’s locks shorn for the first time at Mar Charbel, a spiritual home of the Christian rite.

On their way back, at Beirut International Airport on July 13, the dark reality of the Middle East struck home. “Out of the blue, after we had checked in our luggage, we heard three big bangs. We were really scared because we thought they were going to bomb us in the terminal,” said Rana.

Israeli warplanes had crippled the airport, bombing its three runways.

“The security people told us: ‘Don’t worry, they won’t bomb foreigners and tourists’,” she remembers. “It was a mad dash to get our suitcases back and then we had to wait outside the airport for the family to come get us.” The wait outside was also scary, at least until hordes of journalists arrived at the scene, breaking the eerie silence.

From their refuge at a house near the US embassy in Awkar, perched on the hills north of Beirut, the couple had a bird’s eye view of all the action, a front-row seat to the bombing of the ports and the Shiite southern suburbs.

“Every time they bombed we could see puffs of smoke. After a few days, the sky was covered with dark gray smoke. You couldn’t see Beirut any more, you could barely see the Mediterranean,” she said.

They were finally evacuated by US Marines, armed with machineguns which they practice-fired from the helicopter as they flew for some 50 minutes low over the waves, to the British air force base of Akrotiri on the Cypriot coast.

For Rana, it was another homecoming.

On August 2, 1990, Rana was on holiday with her parents in the nearby coastal resort of Limassol only to wake up to the news that Saddam Hussein’s tanks had rolled into Kuwait, sparking yet another Middle East crisis. Abandoning their Baghdad home as well as friends and relatives whom they had only left behind for a vacation, she, her two brothers and parents ended up spending six months in Cyprus before emigrating at first to California.

“At first, I was young and on a holiday island so it didn’t bother me until I got to America,” said the blue-eyed Rana. “I left without saying goodbye, so it hit me hard. I missed Baghdad.” She said it took more than a year “to accept the fact that there is war over there and it’s too dangerous.”

“Up until then, I thought we have lived through war before, why can’t we do it again?” she said, referring to the savage Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. “Then I realised we would have had no future there.” And as she escapes Lebanon, Rana has mixed feelings.

“I feel terrible for the Lebanese staying behind. I can’t imagine being in their situation. Five days of hell was more than enough for me. They all keep saying we have been through this before,” she said.

“But I just can’t live without knowing what is going to happen to me the next day.” Rana, who was headed home via Manchester in northern England and Baltimore, near Washington, said she would have trouble putting her Lebanon holiday behind her, when she goes back to work as a pharmacist. “I’m going to have to forget about everything I saw, especially the gruesome images on local TV and in the papers of people burnt alive in their homes and cars, of ordinary people and children reduced to skeletons,” she said.

Rana has no regrets over her parents’ choice of where the future of their children lay. “I don’t miss the craziness of the Middle East. Everything is predictable over there in the States. I feel lucky I moved to America when I did,” said the young mother.

But she also feels a debt of gratitude to Cyprus, which even at the peak of the tourist season is serving as a kind of Noah’s Ark for a flood of evacuees from a Lebanon in flames.

“When I first left Cyprus, 15 years ago, I always wondered when and how I would come back here. I never imagined this,” she said, as scantily-clad tourists mixed with relieved but exhausted evacuees at Larnaca airport.

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