LARNACA, Cyprus — Hoda Sobh was at a relative’s house in south Beirut two weeks ago when the Israeli bombs began to fall — first on the airport runway and then, moments later, on a bridge just 200 yards away from her family’s house.
Her children started screaming, and Sobh immediately gathered them up and ran for shelter.
In an instant, she said, she was transported back to her youth, when Lebanon’s civil war turned her country into a war zone.
“Even me, I forgot what it was like,” Sobh said a few days afterward in the departures hall of Cyprus’s Larnaca airport, where she and her husband were trying to get the family on a flight to Montreal. “I’m still shaking. I need time to accept what’s happening.”
Sobh and her family are among the tens of thousands of dual-citizen Lebanese fleeing the country in the wake of fighting that has revived fears of Lebanon’s destruction and set off a passionate debate about Lebanon’s future and the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
For the tens of thousands of foreign citizens caught in Lebanon when the fighting began, the primary exit route from Beirut has been by way of Cyprus, an island nation in the Mediterranean, some 130 miles away. In a complex operation involving the transfer of thousands of people every day, foreign armies and embassies are using Cyprus as a way-station to get their nationals home, first ferrying them out of war-torn Beirut by ship and then putting them on commercial and military aircraft in Cyprus, bound for home.
Many of those fleeing the fighting say they are not so much going home as leaving home.
“I love Lebanon,” said Micheline Touma, a native of Beirut. Because her two children are American citizens, Touma was able to leave Lebanon on an American-chartered commercial ship, the Rahmah, which arrived July 25 at the Cypriot port of Limassol after a six-hour journey. Left behind was Touma’s husband, who owns a gas station in Beirut and has two elderly parents there.
“I don’t know when I’m going to see him again,” she said. “He told me to go and he would follow when he can.”
Like many residents of Beirut, Nagib Debs left the capital for Lebanon’s mountainous north when the bombing began. But when Israel bombed a television broadcasting station on an adjacent mountain last weekend, he decided it was time to get out.
Debs, who was in Larnaca on July 24 trying to find his way back to his job in Dubai as an engineer with the Bin Laden Group, said he didn’t understand why his country was being bombed.
“Everyone knows, from George Bush down to the standard American citizen, that the one to blame is Syria,” Debs said. “Why is Syria safe today, and why does nobody raise a finger toward Syria? Why does Lebanon have to be the battlefield every time?”
Israel’s bombing campaign has engendered a wide gamut of reaction among Lebanese fleeing the country. Opinions range from those who say that the campaign is maliciously indiscriminate and is driving more Lebanese into the arms of Hezbollah, to those who hope Israel will rout the Shi’ite militia and flatten south Lebanon and its fanatics in the process.
“They should hit Hezbollah, not everybody else,” said Sam Mohamad of Dearborn Heights, Mich.
“There’s always fighting in Lebanon. It never changes,” said Faour Kodr, who is from Jaloub, just north of the Israeli border. “I support Hezbollah. Hezbollah is Lebanese. I’m Lebanese, too. I support my country. I think of Hezbollah as the Lebanese army, not as a militia.”
“Forget about Sunni, Shi’ite, Catholic. We’re all Lebanese; we’re all Arab,” he said.
Touma, who is a Maronite Christian, said that claims of Lebanese unity in the face of Israel’s bombing campaign simply are not true.
“It was Hezbollah’s mistake, and they deserve to pay for it,” she said of the outbreak of fighting. “I wish the Israelis could destroy them all, get them out of the planet. They’re fanatical, crazy people. All they care about is fighting. They’re brainwashed. If they don’t care about life, they shouldn’t live.”
Tony Terz, a native of Beirut who became an American citizen when he lived in Los Angeles for a time, said he wished Israel could take over Lebanon and make it as normal a country as the Jewish state.
It seems the divisions of Lebanon’s civil war two decades ago are still in place.
Many Lebanese in Cyprus said they understand why Israel is attacking Hezbollah but not why the bombing campaign has resulted in the loss of so many innocents.
“I knew the Hezbollah felt cornered, so I’m not surprised they did something, but the complete and utter disproportionate destruction by the Israelis is just mind numbing,” said Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Skulte-Ouaiss is originally from Sudbury, Mass.
Israel says that its bombing campaign is focused, targeting Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon and south Beirut and trying to limit civilian casualties. Many Lebanese in Cyprus confirmed this, saying that Lebanese in north and east Beirut are mostly staying in their homes and not taking up residence in bomb shelters. Many, however, are fleeing the bombardment for Lebanon’s north or for Syria.
Those fleeing south Lebanon frequently told tales of narrow escape. Ellis Aboud, a 15-year-old from Queens whose family moved back to Lebanon four years ago, said he could feel the ground shaking under his house in Harouf when neighbors’ homes were bombed.
“We had a room in the middle of the house with a big rock wall, so we went there whenever we heard the bombs,” he said.
Sobh, who is originally from Tyre, in southern Lebanon, said a friend had informed her that a Tyre neighbor whose children were students in her husband’s math class were all killed when their house was leveled by an Israeli bomb.
“If I had the chance, I would just be in Lebanon fighting,” interrupted Sobh’s 13-year-old son, Mohamed. “I’d fight with Hezbollah.”
For the Cypriots and foreign embassy officials receiving the exhausted evacuees in Cyprus, the only hint of the divisions among the Lebanese is their attire, which ranges from hijabs to skimpy T-shirts.
Cypriot officials say the flood of evacuees has overwhelmed them. Hotels up and down the island’s southern coast are fully booked. The airports are not equipped to handle such large crowds, and the foreign warships anchored just off the coast provide an ominous backdrop to Cyprus’s celebrated beaches.
Some evacuees are sleeping in refugee camp-like facilities with little privacy and uncomfortable conditions.
“I’ve been here for three days,” Terz said. “I got out of the camp because the camp was terrible. Everybody’s nervous, everybody’s going crazy. It’s dirty. There are poor shower facilities.”
“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety,” said Larita Abel, a U.S. Air Force nurse who was dispatched to Cyprus from New Mexico to aid with the evacuation. “People are suffering from lack of sleep. They’re worried. They’re overwrought.”
At the airport in Larnaca, even the workers are on edge, trying to deal with the chaos and crowds that are three times as big as usual during the peak summer season.
Rushing through the crowded airport after finally having obtained his ticket to Dubai, Debs said he hopes to return to Lebanon soon.
“I hope one day we can be good neighbors,” Debs said. “I don’t have any problem with the Israelis. My problem now is the Israelis are destroying elsewhere where they should be. They’re not only destroying roads, bridges and the economy. They’re also destroying people like me.”
“This is the danger,” he said. “The good people, the educated people, will leave. And the bad people, the ones who can get brainwashed by Hezbollah or Syria or Iran — these are the ones who are staying in Lebanon.”