Relatives Anxiously Await Word on Evacuation Efforts

Friday, August 11, 2006 - 11:47am

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Tuesday, July 18, 2006.

By Erin Fuchs and Shoshana Walter

Claire Thomas, a junior at Mount Holyoke College who is spending the summer as an intern at a newspaper in Beirut, sent her mother an e-mail last week telling her not to ''freak out.''

Hezbollah forces had abducted two Israeli soldiers that day. Thomas' mother, Sandra Linville-Thomas, of Shawnee, Kan., sensed the situation would escalate.

''At that point I told Claire that she had to start thinking about getting out,'' said Linville-Thomas.

But by the time Thomas decided to change her plane ticket, it was too late. Israeli forces bombed the Beirut airport and two others on Thursday. The U.S. Embassy urged Americans to evacuate, ''but any way out was impossible,'' said Linville-Thomas.

Israel bombed Lebanon in response to the kidnappings, and the Hezbollah militia continued to attack Israel. At least 226 Lebanese and 24 Israelis have been killed, according to the Associated Press.

U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have called for an international coalition to quell fighting on both sides. But violence has continued this week, sending the lives of both Israelis and Lebanese, and foreigners living there, into a state of upheaval.

Violence in Lebanon has led to a call for all foreign visitors to evacuate.

With help from Mount Holyoke, Thomas moved into a dormitory at the American University in Beirut Thursday. There she receives news directly from the embassy, and has the security of being surrounded by other American students.

''Now she's packed and ready to go, waiting on a moment's notice to leave,'' said Linville-Thomas.

And they still don't know when - or how - Thomas will be able to evacuate.

No way out for some

While Linville-Thomas awaits her daughter's return to the U.S., Rana Knio, of Northampton, said for her family in Lebanon, leaving isn't an ion. She said that, as Lebanese citizens, her parents and brother can't leave the country.

''Everything is locked. There is no way out for them,'' she said. ''They feel really stuck.''

Knio calls her family every day, sometimes dialing for hours until she can get through.

She said they e-mail sometimes, but now more than ever they ''want to hear each other's voices.''

She reads about more bombing every day, she said, so she knows her family is safest inside their homes. But they refuse to cower inside, according to Knio.

''They're daring people,'' she said. ''They still do their daily things. It's hard to make them stop.''

She said her mother went to visit her sister the other day and sought shelter away from home when the bombs hit. Her father leaves the house regularly, as well.

''When the shelling stops and they feel they can move,'' Knio said, ''they go back to their homes.''

Meanwhile, Knio's husband, Suleiman Mourad, a professor of religion at Smith, said his parents in Lebanon face less immediate danger than his wife's family.

Mourad's family lives in Jazzin in southern Lebanon, a predominately Christian area that Mourad said even seemed relatively quiet and safe when he was there during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Mourad still worries about his family, though. There's no large hospital in Jazzin. If they needed to get to one, he said, it would be ''next to impossible'' or ''extremely dangerous'' for them to travel the roads.

Similar story in Israel

The story is similar in Israel, where many residents are seeking safety at home or in bomb shelters.

Karen Loeb, a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst, said she spoke with her sister in Israel Sunday morning.

She had been going to work in Haifa despite the news, but ''when she heard the bombs, they paralyzed her.'' She, her husband, and five children have stayed home for days now, 15 minutes away from violence in Haifa.

Northampton resident Oded Peri also spoke with his family on Sunday. He said they slept overnight in a shelter in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, and do not know how long they will stay there.

Many businesses have also closed down due to waning customers, according to the residents' families. Others have closed for safety reasons, urging employees to stay home.

''In times of terror, people are afraid to go out and tourists are not coming,'' said Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, of the Jewish Community of Amherst.

He noted that a kibbutz where 26 members of the congregation stayed on their tour of Israel in June has ceased operations.

''At the moment everything is in a state of suspension,'' said Haim Gunner, a member of the Amherst congregation and one of the original cofounders of the kibbutz, which is located near the Lebanese border.

The kibbutz is located in Galilee in northern Israel. When Gunner last spoke to his family Monday morning, none of his friends in Israel had moved or been injured.

''It was a thriving community,'' said Haim Gunner. About 500 people work at the kibbutz each day.

''When we were there we couldn't have imagined that not even a month later things could have changed so radically, so badly,'' said Bauer, who led the trip.

The fighting hit without warning in Lebanon, too.

Rana Knio said she couldn't have predicted the ensuing violence when she canceled a planned summer trip to Lebanon to see her parents because she and her husband decided to see his brother in Italy this summer, instead.

They had tentatively rescheduled the Lebanon trip for later in the year.

''We thought we could go later in winter, maybe for Christmas or New Year's,'' she said.

''But who knows now,'' she said, ''what's going to be happening.''

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