Sharing both sides of a story of conflict


The conflict is as close as the touch of a keyboard -- particularly for relatives and friends of young Americans in the Middle East.

Many exchange students and visitors in Israel and Lebanon have been blogging, posting online and e-mailing to tell people back home they are all right and to express fear of the bombing and shelling.

"I am very scared," Stephanie Kallab, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student, wrote a few days after the conflict began. She and more than a dozen relatives attending a family wedding were stranded in Hadath, a town south of Beirut, Lebanon, as missiles rained within earshot.

"I hear every single bomb and bullet exchanged," Kallab wrote in a widely disseminated posting on the social networking site "Every way out of Lebanon has been blocked/bombed, so we are all just stuck here. Right now, the entire family is ok, and we are just waiting. Please keep me in your prayers, and I hope to leave soon. Don't be too worried; just pray that the American embassy organizes some sort of rescue."

In response, Kallab's best friend, Leona Say, 20, in Washington, wrote back to say that she was "so relieved to hear that your family has not been harmed" by the bombing.

"I will pray for your safety," Say wrote. "It scares and horrifies me that they are bombing the Shiite suburbs south of Beirut!! It sounds awfully close to you."

In the end, it took 10 days for Kallab and her family to be evacuated by U.S. Marines to Cyprus. They are now home, most in the Baltimore area.

"It was the most terrifying experience of my life," Kallab, a Bryn Mawr School graduate, said at her Towson home. "Every night we had to sleep with the windows open. We couldn't lock the windows because we didn't want the glass raining down on us if we got hit. It's not like we were sleeping, anyway."

After she returned home Monday, Kallab posted another message: "I am safe and sound and very happy to be in the States. Thank you for all your prayers, support and concern -- it really helped me."

Another American, Lana Asfour, 25, had been vacationing with relatives in Lebanon when the conflict began on July 12, after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

She fled Beirut on July 17 on an arduous, 15-hour bus ride through Syria to Amman, Jordan. In a message a day later to dozens of friends and acquaintances, Asfour recalled first hearing about the conflict's escalation a week earlier, as she lay on a beach in southern Lebanon.

"All of a sudden I get a call from my mom telling me to leave immediately because Israel had started bombing areas close to where I was," Asfour wrote. "I left and shortly after that, the highway I used to get back to Beirut was bombed."

The next morning, she learned that her father's flight from the United Arab Emirates to Beirut had been canceled because the runways at Beirut International Airport had been bombed.

"I thought that I was having a nightmare," she wrote. "I continue to think that I am having a nightmare."

During the evacuation, in a bus carrying 50 people, Asfour wrote, "We were all absolutely terrified and knew that our bus could be attacked at any point as we were going through tunnels and driving on highways, all along the coast."

In a telephone interview yesterday from Dubai, Asfour said she had composed her two lenghty e-mails "to let people know I was OK and to make myself feel better, because when I got to Amman I was still in shock."

Asfour, who most recently worked in Tufts University's administrative offices in Boston, said she received many responses, some from people she didn't know. "Initially, I was kind of surprised at the reaction, but then I thought: 'This is a good thing,'" she said. "People need to know this."

A third American, Noa Naftali, in her final year of studies at Technion American Medical School in Haifa, Israel, said by telephone Monday that her four classmates had been evacuated to the United States after the fighting began.

"I'm the only one left here," said Naftali, who decided to stay and was moved to a hospital in Hedara to finish the last five weeks of her residency.

She had kept in touch with her parents in Hartford, Conn., by e-mail and phone. Her mother, Gloria Naftali, said that since the fighting started she sometimes communicated with her daughter two or three times a day. Once Hezbollah's missiles began to hit Haifa, "she just couldn't take the fires and explosions," Gloria Naftali said. "She does a lot of studying at night, and she doesn't like to be alone in the house when the bombs are going off."

Gloria Naftali was critical of reports from the region -- whether from bloggers or conventional journalists -- that she said portrayed the Lebanese people as the "only" victims of the conflict. "The Israelis are just as displaced," she said.

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