Onscene: Pain, Joy, After Leaving Lebanon

Sitting aboard the USS Trenton as it leaves Lebanon, Ellie Khater is crying. But unlike most Americans aboard this amphibious assault ship, her tears are not those of joy over escaping a country tumbling into war. The 43-year-old mother of four is sobbing because the clashes between Israel and Hizbullah have forced her out of her adopted home in Kherbert Kanafar, a small village where her husband’s family has a fruit orchard and where the New Jersey native has lived since 1994.

The Khaters decided to leave Lebanon after Israeli airstrikes hit nearby villages and roads, cutting off most escape routes. Their harrowing drive to Beirut on a bomb-damaged road was terrifying; now the prospect of going back to America breaks her heart. "Lebanon has become my country and it's is horrible beyond words to be leaving behind my extended family, my friends, my life," she weeps.

The Khaters were among the thousands of foreigners trapped in Lebanon when fighting broke out 10 days ago. On Friday, an estimated 4,000 Americans were scheduled to leave for Cyprus in what Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, the U.S. Marine Corps officer commanding the operation, calls a "voluntary withdrawal." A similar number have already been evacuated over the last two days, with the United States chartering ferry boats and rerouting seven naval ships to help Americans trying get out. Helicopters were also deployed to fly out humanitarian cases like the elderly and disabled.

Jensen shrugged off criticism that this help had been late and slow in coming compared to efforts by other governments. “This logistical effort is virtually unprecedented,” he told a NEWSWEEK reporter while watching the evacuation operation on a beach in Beirut. "The operations are getting better day by day. We have gotten everything I have asked for [from] the Pentagon and even some things I have not.

Nonetheless, some Americans remained critical of the U.S. operation. They spoke of chaos when it came to registering with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, saying that even those who had registered multiple times were not contacted when evacuation vessels arrived in port. Family and friends in the United States were often more successful in getting information than those actually on the ground in Lebanon, some said. George Abihabib, a Bostonian in Lebanon to visit his parents, says he struggled even to get confirmation that the U.S. government knew he was in the country. "We e-mailed, we even hand-delivered the registration form and heard nothing," he said as he stood in line in Beirut to register for a Cyprus-bound boat Friday. "Even eBay sends you a confirmation, and we got nothing from anyone." In Brenda Fawaz's case, it was a niece in Tampa, Fla., who contacted her to say that there was a ship coming to get Americans out. "It's been three days of hell," says Fawaz, of Trinity, Fla.

Some were more stoical about their plight. Hazar Deeb, a store manager from Tampa, describes the arrival in Larnaca, Cyprus, as disorganized. "About 400 of us were stuck in the hallway, and it was hot.  We were thirsty. People were fainting, throwing up, and kids were screaming," she says, sitting on an orange cot at the makeshift American holding center at the Cyprus International Fairground outside the capital of Nicosia. "But then again, nothing is perfect."

Meanwhile, Cyprus is struggling to accommodate the evacuees that are flooding into their island nation as a transit point on their way home. A member of the European Union since 2004, the country is a popular vacation spot, and many hotels were already filled with tourists when the arrivals poured in from Lebanon. Cyprus’s own political strife has not made the situation easier. Years of clashes between nearby Greece and Turkey have left the Mediterranean island divided into the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and a Turkish-Cypriot zone in the north of the island. While local residents can now move freely between the two areas, the Turkish zone lacks infrastructure and has been able to offer little logistical help in accommodating the new arrivals.

The ports of Larnaca and Limassol, in the southern Greek-Cypriot section of the island, are the points of entry for the vessels. As they arrive, the evacuees funnel into a lounge marked by a range of national flags set up to direct citizens to the right spot. Officials who lack flags have handwritten signs with notes like HONOURARY CONSULATE OF LITHUANIA. Some escapees are able to leave quickly--Denmark was one country that had moved almost all of its nationals out on chartered flights by early Friday morning. Australians are housed in hotels along the south coast. Americans are being taken from the port to the holding center, where there are more than 1,000 camp beds with army-issue gray blankets. Evacuees are given breakfast and lunch before being bussed to chartered aircraft bound for Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia; citizens must then find their own transport the rest of the way home.

Though people often have to wait hours to be assigned a flight, most are just glad to be out of Lebanon. Tsolig Chamlian, a Waltham, Mass., resident who immigrated to the United States 26 years ago, says she would have paid anything to have left. "It was frustrating in the beginning, but I understand how much work it took by the U.S. government to organize, and in the end we were treated like first-class citizens, not at all like refugees,” she told NEWSWEEK. That’s a sentiment Jensen would have appreciated. "We are not tired,” he said as he watched the boarding in Beirut. “You do not get tired of helping Americans."