Escape from Lebanon
July 13, 2006 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Help me get my sister out of Lebanon!

She's an American citizen, and is visiting our family over there along with several other American family members. She's staying in a village east of Beirut (reportedly free of Hizbollah activity). She has access to her cell phone for now, but no Internet. Israeli aircraft have taken out a nearby bridge which is connected to the road to Damascus.

Currently the US embassy says they have no plans for evacuation of American citizens and has told her to sit tight.

What can I do from here to help her get out? Who should be I talking to?

What should she be doing?

Sorry to be in panic mode but I'm hoping somebody here can help
posted by onalark to Travel & Transportation around Lebanon (60 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sorry for your worry, and the danger you feel your sister may be in. I've traveled in the Middle East, and based on today's news reports, I think I'd concur with the advice your sister is getting from the American embassy. She should stay put at the moment, and look for local shelter just in case, if her accommodations are on upper floors.

The Israelis have made travel into or out of Lebanon much harder today, and have said they are planning more attacks immediately. Now is not a good time to be on the road with thousands of other people, fleeing, in situations where panic can quickly ensue, in the midst of additional military action. If her current lodging and contacts are at all tenable, I think she should stay put for the next few days.

In such situations, doing things deliberately, with the best information and resources you can gather, is vital.
posted by paulsc at 7:30 PM on July 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks paulsc, my current advice to her is to stay put. She spent the night tonight in a basement. Pardon my sheltered First World lifestyle getting a rude Middle Eastern conflict wake-up call :(
posted by onalark at 7:36 PM on July 13, 2006

That's good advice.

It sounds like the Israelis, who apparently have gone completely fucking insane, retain just enough sanity to only be attacking infrastructure, rather than civilians directly. As long as she's not near a power plant, water facility, or bridge, she'll probably be okay. If she is near any of those things, I'd suggest finding a spot further away.

Beyond that, there's really not a lot to be done... I don't think she can fly out, because the Israelis have disabled the airport. She'll probably end up being forced to travel to another country and fly home from there. Just eyeballing it, Cyprus might be a possibility... she'd have to find a boat, though.
posted by Malor at 7:42 PM on July 13, 2006

A thought... if there's an embassy in Cyprus, you might contact them and see if they can help you with getting your sister through Customs and to an airport. They might even know who would run the ships in the area.

If it helps, I'm reasonably sure that your sister will be fine... this is a big annoyance, and there is a small danger component to it, but it's not imminent absolute disaster by any means. As paulsc is saying, moving before she has a clear and precise plan for extraction would be a bad idea.
posted by Malor at 7:47 PM on July 13, 2006

I wonder what would happen if she tried to go to Israel, with her U.S. passport? Not something I would want to try, but it could be a possibility if things get sketchy.
posted by delmoi at 7:51 PM on July 13, 2006

Tell her to go check into the most expensive hotel she can afford, preferably one close to the embassy.
posted by frogan at 7:57 PM on July 13, 2006

Cyprus might be a possibility... she'd have to find a boat, though.

Naval blockade. No boats.
posted by frogan at 7:58 PM on July 13, 2006

Not really like Israel's all that safe -- NYT: "...the militant group Hezbollah loosed a hail of rockets and mortar shells that killed two Israelis and sent thousands into bomb shelters." [source]

I'm not trying to make this into a political discussion -- I'm just not sure that Israel is a great option either. If this opens up into full-blown war, I'm not sure what'll be the best place to be. Probably more like just the least worst place, actually. Going to Damascus might be smart, but looks like the Israelis already denied that out, and as paulsc says, travel in general is a difficult proposition.
posted by incessant at 8:02 PM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: There is a rhythm to every armed conflict, that comes from the needs of both sides for maneuver and logistics. Knowing when to move in whatever pauses occur is important for refugees, which is what your sister and other family members will be once they hit the road.

In the next two days, I think the Israelis are going to do a lot of additional damage to roads, bridges, and other civil targets in Southern Lebanon, by airstrike mainly. After that, I believe they will be sending armored units into southern Lebanon. There may be a pause, then, three to five days from now, in air operations around Beirut, if Israeli armor starts into southern Lebanon.

The most likely way out for people in the area of Beirut will be by boat to Cypress or to Turkish ports. But I think it may be as much as a week or more before Israeli blockade boats begin allowing commercial operators to make such voyages, and it will still be up to Lebanese forces to make such evacuation measures possible. If there is going to be an organized evacuation of American nationals, it will occur sometime after that, most likely on chartered Turkish, Cypriot, and Greek boats. She must stay in touch with the American embassy, particularly if she or other family members change location. She and your other family members should be very careful about offering money, especially cash in significant amounts, for transportation.

One thing you should do, if you can, in the next hours, is to make arrangements for alternate communications, in case your sister's cell phone network stop working. If she cannot call internationally from where she is, do you have common contacts in Syria or Europe that she might be able to reach, or who can reach her? (Beirut still has many phone exchanges which are actually local exchange calls to Damascus!) FOAF (Friends of A Friend) etc. Any one who will relay messages into a conflict zone can be a valuable resource for people trying to stay in contact.
posted by paulsc at 8:12 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest staying as far away from bridges, rail/bus stations, major highways, power/water facilities it looks like that's what Israel is targetting.
And frogan's idea is good too. In such skirmishes embassies are the last things to be targetted by other countries. So any hotel near the US embassy should be safe. Israel ain't touching US embassy in a 100 years.

Beyond that I'd say just keep following the US embassy's advice. Here's hoping your sis/family stay safe.
posted by forwebsites at 8:25 PM on July 13, 2006

incessant, presumably if she got to Israel she could simply fly back to the States from there. That said, travel around the Israel-Lebanon border doesn't sound like a great idea right now.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:31 PM on July 13, 2006

Syria is still reachable, and thousands of foreigners are making their escape. Israel only bombed the main highway to Damascus.
posted by evariste at 8:45 PM on July 13, 2006

not to derail, but if we could keep the "[country or political group of your choice] are fucking insane" comments to a minimum, it would certainly help those of us who are worrying about our friends and family in the region. my family is within a hundred miles of yours, onalark, and i'm hoping all of our families are going to be ok, whatever side of the political fence they're on.
posted by judith at 8:55 PM on July 13, 2006

My friend who spends a lot of time in conflict areas (but not the Middle East) is here and says to either stay put and keep a low profile if the locals think it's safe as they generally know best but if possible (and only if it's with minimum risk) find the hotel with the CNN journalists are staying and either check in or hang out in the bar there in the evening enough to make sure they know you are American and where you are staying. Write it down for them. Supposedly the journalists and international observers etc will all be in one place. He also said that, in general, don't advertise your presence and carry your passport.

Good luck, I hope your American family is able to get out and you Lebanese family is OK.
posted by fshgrl at 9:46 PM on July 13, 2006

I concur that she should follow the embassy's advice. But bear in mind that, as much respect as I have for our consular officers, they're not going to come swooping in with a chopper to extract your sister. Don't expect the embassy to do much in situations like this besides offer advice.

If she must go somewhere, I would second what others have said, that she should stay in-country, but find a safe place. That's not as impossible as it sounds--based on the news reports I've seen so far (that's an important qualifier), Israel has been striking targets of obvious military value, such as the airport, Hizbollah bases, etc. Look at what the NGO people are doing, and do that.

Finally, if she absolutely must leave the country, I would suggest she get herself to a border crossing. Any border crossing. There she will find countless others like her in the same situation and learn from their experience.

She and your other family members should be very careful about offering money, especially cash in significant amounts, for transportation.

I agree she should be careful, but this advice, if too strictly adhered to, will prevent her from ever getting anywhere.
posted by Brian James at 9:59 PM on July 13, 2006

it's probably best to stay near beirut, but don't go south as it is becoming a war zone. the least likely place to be bombed is in the maronite area of becharre.
posted by quarsan at 10:21 PM on July 13, 2006

For the people saying 'go to Israel'...

I am not even sure that there is a border crossing as such, and the area around that border would be pretty nasty right now...

For the people saying 'go to Syria'...

Normally US citizens need a visa to go to Syria. Syria does not have an embassy/consulate in Lebanon, so she will not be able to get a visa. Unless she wants to risk it and claim refugee status at the border, that is not an option either... (note: Lebanese citizens do not need a visa for Syria)

Another vote for sit put, avoid obvious targets and wait for the naval blockade to allow passenger traffic, or for the airport to be repaired.

As she is visting family, then she will normally be with people who have lived through civil war, invasion and occupation, so she should heed their advice.
posted by nielm at 2:38 AM on July 14, 2006

what Brian James said
posted by matteo at 3:40 AM on July 14, 2006

Onalark -- Good luck to you and your sister. For what it's worth, I'm not so sure that travelling to ANY border would be safe at this point. I agree about the "finding other Americans" part, especially journalists. Stay away from big and useful things. Keep a low profile. Guard the passport.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:16 AM on July 14, 2006

I just wanted to throw this in there, from CNN

Americans in Lebanon were urged to consider leaving the country, and U.S. citizens were advised to defer travel to the region

posted by killyb at 6:17 AM on July 14, 2006

Well that's mighty helpful of them to urge Americans to leave. What are they supposed to do, swim for it?
posted by Justinian at 6:49 AM on July 14, 2006

She should plan for contingencies, including a few strange ones for good measure. This does two things:

1. Keeps her mind occupied, which prevents irrational decisions.
2. Puts her in the position of ad libbing off of a well thought out plan rather than operating in fight or flight mode at a time when milliseconds may count.

The advice in this thread should certainly go into her planning process but at the moment she has the "luxury" of time to think and that is what she must capitalize on. Quickly, and in an organized and methodical way.
posted by jwells at 7:14 AM on July 14, 2006

FYI, the US Embassy in Lebanon has been granted authorized departure status for non-emergency embassy employees and family members of embassy employees. I don't know if you've seen this yet:

State Department Travel Warning 7/13/06
posted by srah at 7:28 AM on July 14, 2006

Your sister will be safe physically. I have family members in Beirut, and my mother is trapped in the south of Lebanon while visiting the village. The Lebanese have good survival instincts, you mentioned she has access to a basement which is a luxury a few have, ask her to remain where she is.
I would advise her to try not to panic I know first hand what can such a situation during war do to you emotionally. You too don't worry too much, she will be okay. it is good that she know people there who can calm her down, keep her company and keep her updated and translate the news to her. If she needs more help or internet access or has any requests or even a place to stay, I can put her in contact with my family in Beirut. Just let me know.
posted by convex at 8:35 AM on July 14, 2006

Regarding my advice about offering cash for transportation:

In these kinds of situations, people with automobiles and a supposed willingness to help foreigners with money have been known to do so. But it is also the case that people who appear to be willing to help foreigners have, in fact, been (and here's the tragically ironic part) well paid operatives for organizations who see foreigners as bargaining chips, news stories, and leverage.

I'm just urging the poster to advise her sister to be carefully circumspect negotiating transport for money with strangers who seem to have automobiles, fuel, and a willingness to take risks for money. The embassy in Lebanon will know of legitimate NGO (non-governmental organizations) offering refugee assistance and transport, and is the focal point for any official U.S. efforts for arranging any official evacuations of U.S. nationals. But it's a confusing time, and the staff there are stressed, and will perhaps be operating with degraded communications systems, if the Israelis continue to attack targets in the telephone and power systems in Beirut. It would be good to wait, if possible, for workers from the Red Cross/Red Crescent and other recognized humanitarian organizations to establish a public emergency presence, if the U.S. embassy does not have better advice in the coming days.
posted by paulsc at 10:32 AM on July 14, 2006

This CONTRADICTS advice given above:

Do NOT head towards Syria.
posted by dragonsi55 at 10:52 AM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: I need to put in some of my own information here, in case anybody else is referring to this thread for information.

Syria has opened the border to international citizens trying to leave. American citizens should call 963-11-333-1342 (the American Embassy in Damascus) if they're having any trouble at the border. Israel has bombed many of the main roads to Damascus; road conditions vary, but it may still possible to get to Syria from Lebanon.

The US embassy in Beirut has not been answering their phones for the last 12 hours, however the Department of State has set up a task force which can be reached by calling: 888-407-4747. All American citizens should be registered through the Department of State website.

My sister was forced to leave the town she was in due to nearby bombings and has evacuated with our Lebanese family to a more remote village. She's scared shitless, but all we can do from here is tell her to sit it out and put pressure on the US government.
posted by onalark at 11:58 AM on July 14, 2006

More info, contact telephone numbers in this CNN article:
posted by Dunwitty at 2:05 PM on July 14, 2006

Here are two facts worth bearing in mind:

If your sister's passport contains an Israeli exit or entry stamp, she will be denied entry into Syria.

A number of people suggested finding out where the Americans or CNN reporters are hanging out. The State Dept. advisory warns Americans that these places are likely to be targeted in any anti-American activities, such as demonstrations, kidnappings, or bombings.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:11 PM on July 14, 2006

Contact your local TV station and all the media that you can think of: CNN, ABC, etc. If you have friends in public relations, ask them for the email addresses and phone numbers of journalists who are covering the situation. Maybe they can give some publicity to the matter and maybe somehow they can get her and other Americans out of there asap.
posted by onepapertiger at 4:14 PM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: For those of you following the thread, my sister had a really close call with an Israeli-dropped bomb this morning, but remains safe and in cell phone (Syrian network?) contact. A broadcast was made in English on the local Arab channels issuing instructions to Americans (sit tight, be registered, avoid demonstrations). We've been in contact with both of the Hawaii senators and her story covered half of the front page of our local newspaper Friday. I appreciate everybody's contributions to this thread, please add any late-breaking news and semi-reliable rumors (like the plans for the air bridge) as you hear about them.
posted by onalark at 9:14 PM on July 15, 2006

there have already been evacuations for citizens of other countries and they had no problems so far, more are planned - check the link for news updates
posted by funambulist at 5:25 AM on July 16, 2006

If your sister's passport contains an Israeli exit or entry stamp, she will be denied entry into Syria.

on the idea of heading into Syria, I don't know whether it's a good idea or not.

But I think your sister couldn't have entered Lebanon with Israeli notes in her passport, in any case. So Syria may be an option, at least in theory.

Also, I believe Canada are sending commerical ships into port there to evacuate Canadians. It's unclear whether that will work, or whether they'll take Americans as well, but maybe it's another thing to check out.
posted by cloudscratcher at 2:10 PM on July 16, 2006

This is a translation from a site called

23:55 כח פינוי אמריקאי של 2 מסוקים נחת על גג השגרירות בביירות

23:55 American evacuation force of 2 helecopters landed on the roof of the embassy in Beirut.

posted by evariste at 3:10 PM on July 16, 2006

Things sound bad for southern Lebanon. I hope everything goes okay for you and your family.
posted by Justinian at 3:47 PM on July 16, 2006

Response by poster: She wasn't in that helicopter, but hopefully she'll be out soon. Here's a local article about the situation.
posted by onalark at 6:29 PM on July 16, 2006

Just wanted to post and offer my best wishes for your sister and family. Please keep posting updates in this thread if you have any new information.
posted by cacophony at 7:38 PM on July 16, 2006

The "experience of a lifetime" -- NFS.

I wouldn't count on hitching a ride on any other countries' planes or boats. I can only hope that the lack of news on the US side is an aspect of secrecy rather than lethargy.

Justinian: Unfortunately, onalark's sister is in central Lebanon, and there's been warfare even as far north as Tripoli. There doesn't seem to be a safe zone.
posted by dhartung at 1:16 AM on July 17, 2006

apologies if you're already getting all this info, just putting it in, in case anyone else is using this as a reference

(AP) A commercial ship escorted by a U.S. destroyer will start evacuating some Americans from war-torn Lebanon on Tuesday and more military helicopters will be used to fly others direct to Cyprus, a U.S. official said Monday.

The plans stepped up as Israel appeared to be allowing evacuation ships through its blockade of Lebanon.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the commercial ship, the Orient Queen, which can carry up to 750 people, will take evacuees to Cyprus. A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Gonzalez, will escort it and the USS Iwo Jima may do so as well, he said.

There are some 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, and the U.S. Embassy has already advised those who wish to leave that they should prepare their bags _ one each person, weighing no more than 30 pounds _ and be ready for announcements on how to leave.
posted by cloudscratcher at 11:42 AM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the update cloudscratcher, for those of you who happened to be glued to CNN News, yes that was my sister being interviewed and launching into a surprise attack discussing the civilian casualties in Lebanon. The American public in the US is much better informed than most of the American civilians on the ground in Lebanon right now, I'm glad my sister's cell phone is still working. I believe she will be attempting to make the trip into Beirut soon to begin the evacuation.
posted by onalark at 12:12 PM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Official US Embassy message: "U.S. helicopters continue to fly American citizens with urgent medical problems and for humanitarian reasons out of Lebanon. Embassy personnel are now contacting Americans for a series of departures from Lebanon via air and sea. In order to ensure a safe and orderly departure, the U.S. Embassy is asking Americans not to move until they are contacted by Embassy personnel or by an American Embassy warden. All Americans who wish to travel will be transported, although not everyone will travel at the same time."
posted by onalark at 9:10 AM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: She's alright. I think things have been much quieter in Charoun, the current town she's in. She was in Soufar when she was nearly killed by Israeli rockets launched at the Beirut-Damascus highway. She's been back to Soufar once for a wedding, but aside from that is waiting for contact from the US embassy to move. I think she's in a much better situation than most of the Americans in Lebanon right now, as I think the Druze-controlled area of Charoun is a safer place to be than Beirut, and one of our family members is in the Lebanese military (and worked double-shifts yesterday escorting British nationals to evacuation points).

She was just interviewed today, I don't know if that clip is on CNN yet. They took a portion of her previous interview and put it in one of the clips (sorry, can't tell which one right now since I'm on a Linux box at the moment and CNN is all Windows Media). I'm fairly certain she'll be in the "Evacuating Beirut" clip and possibly some others.
posted by onalark at 11:08 AM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: U.S. Department of State Status of Evacuation From Lebanon
· 350 U.S. citizens helped out of harm's way by air and sea
· Estimated 240 U.S. citizens will leave by air
· Ship with 1,400 person capacity to evacuate from Lebanon
· Ship with 800 person capacity to evacuate from Lebanon
· Southern Lebanon Evacuation: Operation to bus U.S. citizens up from Southern Lebanon to port for ship embarkation to begin

If you are in contact with any Americans in Lebanon, make sure they are registered with the US embassy in Beirut. Currently the advice from the embassy to Americans in the country is to wait until contacted by phone or warden message to move from their current location.
posted by onalark at 12:55 PM on July 18, 2006

No interview footage in "Evacutating Beirut", or "Americans Await Evacuation", but "1st Americans Evacuate" has a phone interview with Sara Ahmadia -- that her?
posted by dhartung at 2:21 PM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: That's her dhartung, though for the sake of completely outing myself it's Sarah Ahmadia.
posted by onalark at 3:31 PM on July 18, 2006

Best answer: I just got off the phone with the Department of State. If you know anyone in Lebanon right now who is seeking evacuation, ESPECIALLY if they should have priority status, the US will be evacuating citizens starting within 24 hours from a location near Beirut. (I am keeping details vague for security of the evacuation operations). Here is how I got her (and the 12 year-old American citizen with her) a guaranteed spot.

Call Department of State - 1-888-407-4747. Press 0 for emergency services. Wait on the line, do not press 1 to here the 'update'. When you get connected, ask to speak with the Lebanese Task Force about an American citizen in Lebanon. Good luck to anybody else who has family trying to evacuate.
posted by onalark at 3:35 PM on July 18, 2006

Best wishes for both of them. She seems remarkably poised considering the circumstances.
posted by dhartung at 8:50 PM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: And the boat left without her. They had three buses to many Americans to go on the cruise ship so she gets to ride a helicopter tomorrow :(
posted by onalark at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2006

Response by poster: She made it to Cyprus, apparently there's a line for the helicopters at the US embassy that is operating on a first-come first-served now. Insanity!
posted by onalark at 10:36 AM on July 20, 2006

I imagine she'll write some sort of e-mail update to friends/family about how evacuation went- any change you could repost that here?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:55 AM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

At least she's safe now, and I hope everyone she knows remains safe as well.
posted by dhartung at 12:18 PM on July 20, 2006

Response by poster: She's not the emailing sort, though I suspect there's going to be an 'exit' interview when she gets back to Hawaii with the local tv stations. I'll try to post links.
posted by onalark at 2:42 PM on July 20, 2006

I'm glad to hear she got out ok (and glad she has Hawaii to go home to!).
posted by Songdog at 6:51 PM on July 20, 2006

onalark just sent word to me: his sister flies into Philadelphia tonight. He's flying to meet her, like, right now (which is why he asked me to update the thread).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:49 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Good news.
posted by gaspode at 5:57 PM on July 23, 2006

Thanks for the update onalark, and I'm glad to hear your sister is back safe and well.
posted by gaspode at 8:29 AM on July 25, 2006

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