Anxiety marks return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't the violence in Lebanon that bothered Virginia Radford so much as the trip home.

"Yeah, you heard bombs falling, but I felt fine. Lebanon didn't feel like a war zone at all," the Marymount University sophomore said yesterday, moments after landing at Baltimore's airport along with hundreds of other U.S. citizens fleeing the fighting in Lebanon.

"The only time I was uncomfortable was when we had to leave."

With her mother looking on disapprovingly, the 18-year-old criticized the evacuation as disorganized and chaotic.

A second wave of 697 evacuees landed early yesterday in three successive flights at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, joining the first 140 Americans who repatriated here Thursday.

Seven additional evacuation flights are scheduled to arrive here this weekend. The ordeal has left people tired and frustrated.

"In Cyprus, they served us ham sandwiches," said Radford, who had been in southern Lebanon visiting a college friend. "Everyone's Muslim, and they served us ham sandwiches."

"Don't get political, Virginia," pleaded her mother, Susan Radford. Many aboard the plane were Lebanese-American Christians, for whom eating pork is acceptable.

Radford's blithe acceptance of bombs on vacation was unique among yesterday's evacuees, many of whom burst into tears of relief as soon as they entered the BWI international terminal. But her complaints about the evacuation were echoed by others.

Most evacuees interviewed said the initial leg of their journey from Beirut to Baltimore took place Wednesday aboard the U.S.-chartered Orient Queen cruise ship to Cyprus.

Those who arrived here yesterday described spending as long as 18 hours in a U.S.-run transit camp in Cyprus before being airlifted to Baltimore on chartered flights.

"There was no order [on the boat]," said Brenda Fawaz of Trinity, Fla., who was vacationing in Beirut with her Lebanese-born husband and three teenage children when the Israeli bombing campaign began July 12. "People were crying, babies were screaming. ... It was unbearable."

There weren't enough beds and supplies at the makeshift Cyprus camp, said Amina Makki of Dearborn Heights, Mich., whose Beirut vacation was also cut short by the escalating conflict.

"The U.S. Embassy in Nicosia is one of our smallest posts in Europe, if not the world," said State Department spokesman Justin Higgins. "And to go from zero to 60, so to speak, from a light workload ... to handling hundreds of American citizens arriving at a time, many with certain logistical challenges of getting them back to the U.S., is a difficult work environment."

The State Department plans to establish an additional transportation hub in Turkey, to ease the burden on Cyprus.

Despite the complaints, most evacuees expressed gratitude for U.S. help in getting them home. According to State Department estimates, about 25,000 Americans were in Lebanon when the conflict with Israel erupted, and about 8,000 have reportedly requested evacuation. Many are coming through BWI.

ATA Flight 6193 arrived at its Baltimore gate at 1:57 a.m. yesterday, carrying 243 adults and 17 children, BWI officials said.

One of them was Mireimme Islek of Long Island, N.Y., whose broad smile turned to sobs when she saw her husband among the anxious family members jockeying for position at the terminal's reception area. It had been three days since she and her two young children left her parents in her native Beirut to try to return home.

Her relief at being home was marred by anxiety about the family she left behind. "I don't know what's going to happen to them," she said.

Mahmoud Shamseddine was not aboard the first flight, to the dismay of his sons, Abdul Shamseddine and Abdul Karim Shamseddine, who had driven from Boston to pick up their 86-year-old father and keep him in the United States, where his liver cancer treatments would not be disrupted by warfare.

"He's an elderly man," said Abdul Shamseddine, who drives a taxi in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We expected they would put him on the first flight."

Also disappointed was Ali Dar- wish, a wholesale car importer from Boston who was waiting for his wife and three young children. He and his family had been vacationing near the Lebanese city Tyre, which is close to the Israeli-Lebanese border, when hostilities broke out.

He returned to Boston midway through the vacation to attend to work after his daughter was born prematurely in Lebanon and hours before Israeli airstrikes crippled the Beirut airport.

Darwish assumed that because of the birth, his family would be granted an expedited flight. "I haven't slept for six or seven days," he said.

He had planned to return to Lebanon on July 27 to escort his family to the United States but instead had to monitor his wife's distress by cell phone. Three days ago, he said, an Israeli F-16 dropped two 500-pound bombs on the house next door to where his family was staying, killing three children, an elderly woman and a teenage woman.

"I told them, 'Pick up whatever you can, get your parents and get out,'" he said. His wife and children made it on time to the meeting point north of Beirut where the chartered cruise ship was picking up evacuees, only to be told by a State Department official there that the infant girl, Rawan, was ineligible for evacuation because she didn't have a U.S. passport.

Another official overruled the technicality in time, but just barely, Darwish said. "She was the last person to get on the boat," he said of his wife, Nada el-Saidi. "That's how much stress and how much horrible time she went through."

At 5:15 a.m. the second of three evacuee flights touched down in Baltimore, and Darwish's family was aboard. He collected the blue bassinet from his wife and showed the sleeping infant to the assembled television news cameras.

"It was a horrible experience," said a visibly exhausted el-Saidi. "I hope that it will never happen again. I hope that peace will come over the world."

After the second round of evacuees and family members left, the terminal quieted down, but not the Shamseddine brothers' concern for their elderly father, who had not arrived.

"Well, I'm starting to get worried now," said Abdul Shamseddine, who passed the morning chain smoking Marlboros outside the terminal.

The arrival of the final flight of the morning was announced shortly after 6:30 a.m. The two brothers stationed themselves at each of the exit points evacuees could take and watched for an old man in the wheelchair that they had requested for him.

Mahmoud Shamseddine did emerge, but not on wheels. Looking robust beyond his years, the octogenarian strode out of the terminal and greeted his sons with three kisses apiece. He had no complaints about his long journey, except one, which he relayed to his son in Arabic.

"The next time he comes here," translated Abdul Karim Shamseddine with a smile, "he'll go with a Middle Eastern airline. Because of the language barrier."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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