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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Angry Words From Those Left Waiting

Thousands of U.S. citizens have been evacuated. Those still trying to be are fuming over the process and the attitude of embassy staff.

July 21, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Sherrie Saadi, her face reddened by frustration and a day in the sultry Lebanese heat, didn't know where she would go for the night Thursday after American Embassy personnel turned her away and said she would have to return in the morning.

Along with her two daughters, the San Antonio nurse had been told only minutes before that the evacuation ship was full. All she had to show for more than nine hours of waiting was a sheet of greem paper that purportedly guaranteed her and her daughters a place at the head of the line when she returned. She couldn't imagine another day like the one she'd just been through.

"There were people who were fainting and passing out all over the place," she said bitterly. "We're the biggest country in the world and we can't do anything right."

Saadi, who was visiting her husband's family in the southern port city of Sidon when the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants broke out, was not alone in her frustration. Hundreds of people were turned back Thursday as the United States and other countries tried to get a grip on the huge task of evacuating thousands of people from Lebanon in the face of ongoing Israeli airstrikes.

As part of that effort, about 40 U.S. Marines went ashore on landing craft Thursday morning to help with the evacuation of Americans. Early Thursday, a cruise ship, the Orient Queen, arrived in Cyprus from Beirut with 1,066 American evacuees aboard. About one-third of them had been bused to Beirut from southern Lebanon in a convoy, the State Department said. Later Thursday, the U.S. warship Nashville sailed from Beirut after taking on about 1,000 passengers.

But for those left behind, it was a day in which they stood in line with crying children, confusing instructions, short-tempered rescue coordinators and what little food they had brought themselves.

By day's end, when told they had to leave and come back in the morning, those who didn't make the cut complained that they had been packed together in the heat and treated poorly. They also said the U.S. Embassy had been virtually impossible to reach by phone for days.

Compounding the frustration was the knowledge that they didn't have much choice, because the only other way out of Lebanon was through Syria, along a road the Israelis had bombed. And Syria, which supports Hezbollah in its attacks on Israel, wasn't an attractive option.

"Look at her," said vacationing American restaurateur Jerry Jrab, pointing to his wife's blond hair. "I'm not going to take her to Syria. And she just wouldn't go anyway."

He and his wife, Angela, were angry over what they viewed as sloppy work by the embassy. They also were given a voucher and told to return at 7 a.m. with their two children.

"There's going to be 10,000 people here tomorrow," Jrab said, standing a few feet from the barbed wire barrier that marked the beginning of the line. "Right now we're the first of 10,000. She doesn't want to leave. She wants to stay here all night."

Sue Mansour of Clearwater, Fla., who waited in line all day with her three sons, had been vacationing with relatives in the mountains south of Beirut before deciding to join the evacuation.

"We were told this is the safest and that we would be helped by the Americans, but that's not what happened," she said. "We were treated like animals."

She said her 9-year-old son, Randy, passed out during the afternoon and had to be treated by first aid workers. Embassy officials were rude, she said, and simply left the area when they ran out of the vouchers.

"He turned his back and he left us," she said of one official. "People who came last went first. Something has to be done."

By shortly after 5 p.m., most of the stranded Americans had found a way to leave for the night. Sherrie Saadi was eager to get to a hotel so she could treat her 4-year-old daughter's asthma. Saadi had joined forces with another evacuee, Susan Kraydiech, who speaks Arabic.

"This is just humiliating," Kraydiech said. She also said she would be in line again at 5 a.m.

As for Jerry and Angela Jrab, their children had been taken to a relative's home after the day of waiting. The parents sat on a curb next to the barbed wire as the crowd thinned to almost nothing. Jrab said the uncertainty of it all was one of the worst things about the waiting.

"We need to know what we're going to do," he said. "If the Americans aren't going to help, we'll find our own way out. But we need to know."

Times staff writer Johanna Neuman in Washington contributed to this report.

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