- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

1:19 p.m.

BALTIMORE — The first 150 American evacuees from war-torn Lebanon arrived in their home country this morning at BWI Airport, telling stories of frantic attempts to get out, of anger and of fear and guilt over those they had left behind.

“We lived through four nights of bombing, intense bombing. We lived through horror … Just get out alive — that was it,” said Tom Charara, 50, an aerospace engineer from Long Beach, Calif., who was in southern Beirut with his wife, Rola, and their two children to visit his wife’s parents.

“My dad is very sick. I think it was my last chance to say goodbye to him,” said Mrs. Charara, 38, choking back tears. “I didn’t see him before I left. I didn’t even get a chance to give him a hug.”

David Merhige, a musician from New York City who was visiting relatives for a wedding in Beirut, was one of the first evacuees off the first plane arriving at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International at 6:30 a.m. Most of the evacuees had not showered in days.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., Mr. Merhige walked toward a large gaggle of reporters. He held a copy of the Daily Star, a Lebanese English-language newspaper, above his head.

The headline said, “The Ruin of a Nation” above a picture of bombed-out ruins in Lebanon.

Holding up the paper, Mr. Merhige, 39, said Lebanon “was incredible, before it looked like this.” He called the Israeli bombings “crimes” and said he felt “horrible” about leaving behind relatives.

About 800 American evacuees are expected to arrive through Saturday on up to eight flights. The second flight is expected to land around midnight tonight.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday opened BWI as a repatriation center for Americans fleeing Lebanon, in response to a request from the federal government.

The flights are part of a mass U.S. evacuation from Lebanon, where Israel is attacking the terrorist organization Hezbollah. About 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon are seeking to evacuate.

Evacuees were guided through U.S. Customs to a help center, where state officials had computers and phones available for them to communicate with family or friends. After an hour, most of the 150 evacuees were headed for connecting flights or had left with family or friends.

The Chararas were in Beirut for 11 days before they found a way out, on a Norwegian cargo ship packed with 1,110 other passengers, mostly Dutch. Mrs. Charara, born and raised in Lebanon, spoke to her father as they rushed to leave.

“I told him, ‘I’m leaving.’ He said, ‘That’s a good choice.’ And then I got disconnected,” said Mrs. Charara, with a blue blanket draped over her shoulders and sipping coffee. “I felt guilty … Because I have an American passport, I have the right to live?”

Mr. and Mrs. Charara, their daughter, Shahrazad, 8, and their son, Ali, 7, were on the cargo ship for 16 hours with little food or water and few toilets.

“There was some water, and there was an American frigate that gave us some food in the middle of the Mediterranean,” Mr. Charara said.

The boat landed in Cyprus, and the Chararas were put on a plane chartered by the U.S. State Department. They flew five hours to Manchester, England, and after a three-hour layover, they took a seven-hour flight to America.

Ryan Usumi, 16, of Prince Frederick, Md., was vacationing in Lebanon with his father, who was in the Middle East for business. Ryan arrived in Lebanon on July 8.

He and his father were staying in a hotel near the airport in Lebanon on July 12 when they heard that Hezbollah had crossed the border with Israel and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

Then Ryan woke up on July 13 and heard that the Beirut airport had been bombed by Israeli jets.

“It was unreal. I didn’t think it was really happening,” Ryan said.

He and his father moved north, to a largely Christian area north of Beirut, and they evacuated by helicopter to Cyprus. Ryan’s father went on to Turkey for work, and Ryan, who will be in 11th grade at Huntingtown High School, came home.

Amani Khayat, 11, came with her mother and younger brother, but her father had to stay behind at the family’s home in Aramoun, a coastal town south of Beirut.

“I spoke to him to come with us, but he had to stay,” Amani said. “I feel sad and worried.”

Amani’s mother, Martha, said her husband “had to stay” to protect their house, which is in a neighborhood that has not been bombed.

“There is nobody in my neighborhood from Hezbollah, that’s why,” Mrs. Khayat said.”

The bombs, she said, “hit whole neighborhoods, and everybody is going to where I live, and they are occupying the houses, sitting inside the houses that are empty, because they have no home. They need to find a place to stay.”

Amani described the bombings.

“There was lots of explosions and lights and flames,” she said.

Stephen McInerney, 31, grew up in Southern Pines, S.C., but has studied in the Middle East for seven years. He lived in Lebanon for two years working on his master’s degree but was in Cairo for a year before returning to Beirut two days before the kidnappings.

He also described the bombs that fell in the area around the campus of the American University of Beirut.

“You’d be walking in the streets and shudder. There would be an enormous blast, and everyone would jump and usually look in the direction of the bomb,” he said. “Especially at the beginning, it would feel as if the bomb fell only a block away, but then you’d look and see the smoke rising about two miles to the south.”

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