BEIRUT, Lebanon — As I stood at the port in Beirut on Wednesday watching the desperation on so many faces as they waited to board the Orient Queen cruise liner, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face for one fleeting moment.
The reason? I had just met one young boy who reached into his bag and showed me who he was bringing out of Lebanon to the safety of Cyprus: a pet frog named “Spitfire.”
While they weren’t supposed to bring any animals on the ship, the tiny pet wasn't noticed. The young boy’s primary concern was to be able to set “Spitfire,” which he had found here in Lebanon, free in Cyprus. All he really wanted to do was to make sure his pet frog would be safe.
It was a moment of lightness as over 1,000 Americans boarded the Orient Queen in the first large-scale evacuation of Americans out of Lebanon since Israeli airstrikes started more than a week ago.
A sense of relief
For many of the Americans leaving Beirut, there was sense of high anxiety finally being tempered by relief.
Teresa Douglas was making her way home to Memphis after an interrupted vacation with her Canadian boyfriend, who was being evacuated by his government.
“On one hand it was best thing that could happen — that we could both be called up at the same time — and on the other hand the worst thing to be separated,” Douglas said. "Hopefully we’ll meet up in Cyprus.”
As we said goodbye, Douglas tried to relax on the deck of the Orient Queen with a cold drink, saying it was the first opportunity that she’d really had to feel like she was not going to be wounded or killed.
Process to continue until last American out
In response to questions about the delay in American evacuations,U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said it was complicated to arrange something such a large-scale operation, but that now things are running smoothly and the ships and the helicopters will continue to ferry Americans out until the last is out.
When asked if he had a timetable on when the evacuations would be complete, he said, “No. We will keep doing this until the last American who has expressed an interest in leaving has gotten out.”
The Orient Queen will return tomorrow, and other ships are also being chartered in an attempt to create a continual shuttle to Cyprus.
A secretive process
The process of notifying Americans that they are leaving is a somewhat elaborate process.
The U.S. Embassy has been collecting the list of names of American citizens here, and either embassy officials or the State Department in the U.S. then make a call to tell people to be at “X” location at “X” time and to have their bag — which can not weigh over 32 pounds — and their papers and passport with them.
Then people go to the location, which is over by the U.S. Embassy, and they are processed there for the first time.
The process here includes getting a big rubber stamp on the arm with indelible ink — it looks sort of like a tattoo — to identify that people have already begun to be processed. One woman said that she felt like a "marked woman" as she was leaving, but she said she was glad to be leaving no matter what.
People then get on a bus to the port. At the port, they are processed two more times, including going through Lebanese formalities. Once their passports are stamped, they make a short walk over to the ship and walk up the gangplank.
Once they are on the safely on the ship, a lot of people were sitting down, drinking beers and relaxing. In fact, some people told me that really this was their first opportunity they had to had to take a deep breath and feel like they were in a comfort zone.
One of the groups consisted of Kelly Kassab and her husband, Faouzi Kassab, whowere sitting on the deck of the Orient Queen with their 8-month-old twins, Liam and Nathan. They are from Medford, Mass., and had traveled over here because Faouzi is a Lebanese-American and it was important for them to bring their newborns to be baptized here.
They told how, two days after their children had been baptized, the shelling had begun. With such young children in their care, of course, they are very anxious; however, they also said that despite everything that has gone on, they would not trade the fact that they has been able to get their babies baptized in their homeland — and that it’s now an event that they will doubly never forget.
Dan McWhorter, a telecommunications executive from Basking Ridge, N.J., was also taking a breather before the Orient Queen set sail. McWhorter said he had been working in Baghdad and found it no small irony that he found himself being evacuated from Beirut after spending so much time in violence-plagued Iraq.