In the book of travel horror stories, at least this one had a happy ending.
Belgian Noelle Lhoist arrived in Los Angeles on June 22 with her three children, her French companion and the happy expectation of a six-week vacation in Southern California. Instead, she never left Los Angeles International Airport. She was held for 15 hours, handcuffed, strip searched, fingerprinted and sent back to Brussels.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 179 words Type of Material: Correction
War crimes allegation -- An article in the California section Saturday about the misadventures of a Belgian tourist incorrectly stated that the Bush administration recently settled a dispute with Belgium over that country's attempts to try Gen. Tommy Franks for war crimes at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Recent tension between the U.S. and Belgium had nothing to do with the International Court of Justice -- which resolves disputes involving nations, not individuals -- but with a 1993 Belgian law allowing that country's courts to try allegations of war crimes no matter where they occur.
A Belgian attorney, representing 17 Iraqi and two Jordanian citizens, filed a complaint against Franks under the law earlier this year, and similar actions have been filed against Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But under pressure from the United States, Belgium's prime minister has announced that the law is being amended to make it harder for foreigners to initiate such proceedings, by requiring that the defendant or the victims have Belgian residency or citizenship.
Her crime: violating a new rule for travelers to the U.S.
The rule went into effect May 15 for Belgians and begins Oct. 1 for 26 other countries that participate in a program waiving visa requirements. Under the regulation, foreign visitors must have newer, machine-readable passports, which are encoded with digital information and cannot be easily counterfeited.
The rule kicked in early for Belgians because of concerns by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that their passports could be faked.
All that was news to Lhoist, whose passport was issued in 2000 and was not machine-readable. Officials at Swiss International Air Lines, formerly known as Swissair, had accepted her travel documents in Zurich without hesitation for the flight to Los Angeles, she said.
But officials at LAX refused them and she spent five hours in a holding room before even being able to tell her horrified children what had happened.
"I'm not used to crying, but my tears were just coming and coming," she said. "I wasn't allowed to stand, use the phone or speak. I couldn't write anything because they wouldn't give me a pen."
On Friday -- her 49th birthday -- Lhoist arrived again at LAX, where she was reunited with her children -- Jerome, 18; Virginie, 17; and Yolaine, 13 -- and companion Alain Terrones, who spent an anxious 12 days at their first destination in Irvine without her.
"This is the best birthday present, to just see my kids and Alain," said Lhoist, who had to obtain a nonimmigrant visa from the U.S. consulate in Brussels, spend $700 for a new ticket and pay a $118 rebooking fee. "Now I would like to forget and be happy together."
This is a tale of innocent foreign travel colliding with the war on terrorism.
Ashcroft's directive was issued Feb. 28, after U.S. officials became concerned about how passports were issued in Belgium, said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington. Officials thought there weren't enough internal controls over lost and stolen passports in the small European country.
The requirement for machine-readable passports was included in homeland security laws passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.
Lhoist wasn't the only Belgian snagged by the new rule. Swiss airline officials at LAX said other visitors have been denied entry to the U.S. since May 15 but couldn't say how many. The problem will only get worse once the rule takes effect Oct. 1 for the rest of the affected countries, including Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Passengers have the ultimate responsibility for assuring their travel documents are proper, said Sandro Crivelli, Swiss's LAX station manager. "As an airline, we can't baby-sit everybody," he said.
The airline is, however, fined $3,300 for every traveler flown into the country without proper documents.
Lhoist said she would have willingly obtained a machine-readable passport if she'd known she needed one. The e-mail confirmation the family received for their flights contained no mention of the May 15 passport requirement; neither did a travel brochure or flight booklet.
She asked Swiss airline officials to include such a notice in the future. She said she didn't even know to ask, since it was only her second visit to the U.S. -- the family vacationed last summer in Florida. Terrones, a former retirement home manager, said he was unaware of the change.
"It is not possible for all the people to know the rules," Lhoist said.
The family was aided by Leroy R. Woodson Jr. with Advantage Ground Transportation, who drove Terrones and the Lhoist children to Irvine on June 22. Woodson, a fluent French speaker who lived in Paris for five years, sympathized with their plight and spent the next 12 days on the phone speaking with airline employees and an immigration attorney seeking to get Lhoist back to Los Angeles.
He said he was suspicious that Belgium had been singled out for the new directive. The Bush administration recently settled a dispute with that country over attempts to try Gen. Tommy Franks for war crimes at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
"This was such an unfortunate situation," Woodson said Friday, waiting with Terrones and the children to see if Lhoist would be allowed into the U.S. "My interest in this matter is purely humanitarian, plus I'm outraged."
The family heads Sunday to San Diego and will spend the rest of their trip, which they shorted by two weeks, there.
Despite the shaky start, the experience hasn't soured her on the U.S., Lhoist said.
"I love the U.S.A. and I wanted the children to experience it before they finish their studies," she said. "I love Americans and the way they think and their way of doing things. This trip has just been a bad experience."