A Caymanian girl tells the story of her vacation with her family in Lebanon and how they escaped the war.
It was a beautiful amber sunrise as I stood on the balcony of my grandmother’s house in the mountains overlooking Beirut to the left, the Bay of Jounieh to the right and the Mediterranean Sea spreading out to the horizon.
I had just arrived the night before with my family to visit all my relatives, friends and my father’s homeland for one month.
No one could have imagined what was in store for us and Lebanon as we sat there on that first morning having breakfast under the grape vines in her garden.
We spent three and a half glorious weeks in Lebanon.
It was a perfect Mediterranean summer; blue skies and fresh fruits.
Everyone was happy about our return and we spent many nights dining on Lebanese cuisine, dancing, laughing and telling stories until the early hours of the morning.
During the day we set off on little road trips exploring the beautiful sights and history of Lebanon. We went to the Bekaa valley, a large fertile land where wheat and an abundance of other crops are grown. They call it the breadbasket of the Middle East. There we visited Baalbeck, the largest Roman ruins outside of Italy, and Ksara a world renowned winery and vineyard.
We went to the old Phoenician port of Byblos, which has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years. It was breathtaking, beauty creeping out from all corners of this ancient land filled with the remains of thousands of years of civilizations.
They all left their mark in Lebanon and in us: the traditions, the spices, the music, the churches and mosques, the ruins and roads, the architecture, art and language. It is impossible to go and not become lost in all its splendours: the grand cedars and snow tipped mountains that touch the heavens and race down to the sea, the orchards and red roof toped villages, and the people most of all.
Waking up in war
It was a night like any other night and we went to bed thinking we would find the sunrise of a flourishing Lebanon greeting us in the morning.
It’s amazing how you can go to sleep in peace and wake up in war.
I woke up that day on Thursday, July 13th and went into the living room to find my family glued to the TV. Israel had just sent IAF jets to bomb Lebanon’s international airport near Beirut. We were scheduled to leave that Sunday back to Cayman but at that moment we had no idea what the future had in store for us.
All my family and neighbours were there and it felt like the whole village was at our house. Cell phones going off, political debates, anger, fear and yet an amazing calm as if it was normal and everything was going to be fine.
After all they are children of war and in their words, ‘This is Lebanon’.
Indeed it was Lebanon, a country just rebuilding itself after a civil war and now thrown into another conflict. For the first few days we didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen. I woke up every day and ran to the living room to see the news and every day it got worse.
All weekend we tried calling the Embassy in Beirut but we were unsuccessful. On Sunday we decided to go in person.
It was dangerous and scary as Israel was bombing Hezbollah headquarters there in the capital. As my father and I drove down to the Embassy the rest of my family went to the stores to buy supplies that we would need if worse came to worse.
It was like hurricane season all over again.
Get in line
When we reached the Embassy we found hundreds of people lined up outside, shouting and trying to push their way through to hand in their registration forms.
We filled one out for the family and they told us to stay at home where we were safe and wait for them to call us.
The sick, the old and families with babies and young children were priority. Since there were over 18,000 British citizens in Lebanon, we were hoping we would make that category as my seven-year-old brother and five-year-old sister were with us.
Days went by and no phone call.
We watched on the news as we saw thousands leaving by boat, helicopter and through the Syrian border, which was extremely dangerous as Israel was bombing the main roads to Syria.
I tried to call everyone I knew that could help us overseas, my family in Cayman and one very dear friend of mine in England who wrote me emails telling me all the plans of the British Embassy and reassured me every day, sometimes every hour that they would get us out.
We went several times to the Embassy and every time they sent us home to wait. Every night we slept we heard Israeli jets flying over our heads, even during the day but we didn’t feel like we were in any immediate danger as we lived in a Christian area in the mountains away from any of the bombings that were happening.
Facing the bombs
That first Sunday after coming back from the Embassy I went to play in the pine forest near our home with my brother and sister.
There was nothing else to do and no where else to go as everyone was staying in the village and not leaving the mountains unless it was absolutely necessary. Just then, we heard bombs falling and gunfire in the Bay of Jounieh right below us.
Everyone in the village started shouting and screaming to get inside. I ran with my brother and sister back to the house. When we reached home I looked out the window but I couldn’t see anything, the fog in the mountains was so thick that day that you could only see about 20 feet in front of you.
A few days later my Mom and I decided to go the British Embassy in Beirut with my cousin who drove us. As we were leaving the Embassy we heard a huge bang that sounded just like what I heard that day in the pine forest except it was 20 times louder and much closer. It must have been a few streets away.
Frightened, we turned to my cousin and asked him if it was a bomb. He said, ‘No, don’t worry it’s not a bomb, it’s not a bomb!’
In those few minutes, we drove so fast out of the city, going down one way streets, ignoring all the rules to get out of there.
In war there are no rules just chaos, and it was chaos. Once we had begun to go up the mountains and felt safe enough, my cousin stopped the car near an ice cream shop and turned on the music. As he brought us our cones piled high with fruity flavours he told us that it was a bomb we had heard.
Israel had hit a truck driving on the road. He didn’t need to tell us, we already knew. What else could it have been?
Before a few days ago I had never heard anything like that in my life and it was a sound that I was becoming familiar with.
While we were parked there on the street eating ice cream we heard another huge bang. It sounded like a gunshot and this time it was right there, near us. A passing car? Was it shooting at us?
I jumped when I heard the sound and I think I screamed but I can’t remember the sound of my voice, just the sound of whatever it was that was scaring me so much right then.
My heart sank and I looked at my cousin who was standing next to me and at my mother who was waiting in the car. I looked at the street, at the people around me who looked just as scared as I was.
I looked at the sky and it wasn’t a jet or a bomb and it wasn’t a gun shot. A tire burst on the car driving by.
I couldn’t eat my ice cream.
For the first time in the few days that we were living this experience I began to panic and get nervous.
I wanted to go down to the port and wait in line at 4am.
I wanted to be the first person there and make them get us on the boat.
I was so angry, shaken and scared.
I asked my cousin to take us home.
I sat in the back of the car trying to hold back tears, stop my hands from shaking and calm my heartbeat that was running faster than us.
Getting the word
It was Thursday the 20th of July, a week since the conflict had started.
I had almost lost hope that we were going to get out before it was too late.
While we were eating lunch with my family my uncle in Cayman called us and told us that the Caymanian Government had gotten registration numbers for us and that we had to go to the port the following morning.
It was a first-come-first-served basis. We could only bring one small carry-on each and the port would open at 9.30am.
The feeling I had! I was so happy and so relieved. The next morning I woke up early and said goodbye to my grandmother and family.
It was hard leaving them and our beautiful country and not knowing what was going to happen, when and if I would ever see them again.
I went to the port at 6am to save us a spot in line before the crowds gathered.
With every hour that passed, more and more people showed up. My family arrived at 9am and we passed through the check point.
There were Embassy officials checking our passports and the size of our carry-on. There were so many people who had to repack and leave things behind at the port.
We were all taken to a big warehouse where the British Army escorted up through all the procedures, security check and passport check.
The Red Cross was there giving us water and every 20 minutes someone would announce what was happening and how much longer we would have to wait. I was impressed with how organized and caring they were.
We were all led in groups of about 50 people to buses that carried the British flag.
These buses took us to the port where we waited to board the Royal Navy battle ship. They gave us food and water and assigned 20 people to a cabin.
It was crowded and small and everyone sat and slept on the floor except for young children and mothers who took the benches. It was a six-hour trip to Cyprus.
Once we arrived we got on another bus that took us to a place where we passed through immigration and collected our backpacks.
They offered us food and aid there as well. They let us make calls for free to the airlines or back home to tell people we were safe and then they took us to the Army base where they planned to fly us back to the UK.
At this point in our journey it became very difficult. It was around 1 am and we had been travelling all day. We waited again and travelled through to so many check points that I lost track of where we were going.
All I know is that once we reached Cyprus, we must have taken about three buses and been through seven passport checks and X-ray machines.
We had to carry my brother and sister the rest of the way as they had fallen fast asleep. We waited at the air force base where we tried to catch a few hours sleep among the 500 other people that were finding rest on the floor and benches.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity of waiting and bus rides and papers after papers, they escorted us to a huge jumbo jet that flew us all the way to London Stanstead.
It took about four hours.
It really was a successful operation carried out by the British Embassy.
By the time we passed through passport control and took the bus to London Heathrow it was about 10am.
We were dirty, exhausted, and as we walked into the hotel at Heathrow Marriot all I could think about was a bath and a bed. We were out and on our way home.
I was eight years old when I first went to Lebanon and met my family there.
I was overwhelmed by their love and affection, so many kisses and so many smiles.
I always loved to watch my aunts, cooking away in the kitchen with all their spices and secrets that they never gave away.
I remember the men cooking the meat outside on the fire, smoking narguili and telling stories.
I’ll never forget my grandmother and all her wise words and superstitions.
And what I miss the most, is their laughter, their hugs, their hands that always moved with such expression as they spoke, and their eyes that have seen years of war and death and still manage to be filled with so much faith, love and hope.
Hope for Peace.