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A ship to sail from danger

by Archives September 5, 2006

While Mid-east diplomats and U.S. Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice were flying in to war-torn Lebanon on diplomatic missions in late July, Concordia’s Human Relations student Rita Nohra had already been waiting eight hours in Beirut for a ship to take her out of danger.

When she left last June to spend a month in her native Lebanon she never imagined she would end up in the middle of an armed conflict.

“It all happened so fast and before we knew it Lebanon was under attack,” said the 21 year-old Nohra. “We only expected the bombardments to last a few days at the most.”

Her stay with her family in Saida, Lebanon was extended a week and a half because of the Israel aerial bombardments of the Beirut airport. Nohra and other Canadians were uncertain when they would get back to Canada.

But it became clear that the only viable option to move such large numbers of Canadians from Lebanon to a safe destination was by sea.

“When the embassy called and told us we had to get to Beirut to board a ship we thought it would take the usual 30-minute drive,” she said.

The drive from Saida, in the south of Lebanon, took three hours because of detours before they finally arrived in chaotic Beirut.

Nohra and several Montrealers had to make their own way to Beirut where they waited ten hours before boarding what was essentially a rent-a-boat with a small casino. The boat was equipped to handle 300 people, but it was not equipped to make the long voyage across the Mediterranean to Cyprus.

“There was a great deal of confusion in Beirut when we arrived,” she said. “No one knew where they had to go or where they had to be.”

Despite the firestorm of criticism of the government’s slow handling of the evacuations Nohra praises the Canadian government for its efforts.

“Many people were complaining that Canada didn’t do their best to evacuate us,” she said. “But this was how it was in Beirut because everything was so unorganized and so out of control.”

Foreign Affairs staff eventually offered safe passage to more than half of the 40,000 Canadian citizens in Lebanon. According to the Canadian Embassy in Beirut only 7,500 originally took up the offer, but when the major evacuations ended on July 29 the embassy estimated that 13,441 Canadians had fled Lebanon.

“As we were boarding the boat we could hear bombs going off nearby,” Nohra said. “That was the most traumatizing part of the evacuation. I was grateful for what Canada had done just to get me on the boat.”

After 16 hours at sea the boat finally reached Larnaca, Cyprus.

“When we reached Cyprus the evacuation ran smoother,’ said Nohra. “We were greeted by Canadian officials, given food and supplies and taken to shelter that had air conditioning.”

It took another eight hours of down time before Nohra’s group caught a Canadian sponsored plane bound for Portugal. From Portugal the flight took eights hours before it touched down in Montreal.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs office confirmed that as of July 29, 33 planes carrying 2,456 people had landed at Trudeau International Airport. Shortly after, the Government of Canada ceased scheduled operations to assist Canadians leaving Lebanon, but embassy officials remain in Lebanon in case a scaled down version of the evacuation is needed.

“I was just happy to be back in Montreal and to see my family,” Nohra said

She arrived back in Montreal on what was the tenth day of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and six weeks later still finds it difficult, even with the present cease-fire, as she remembers the images of her Lebanon under attack.

“Before I left for Lebanon I was thinking about its beautiful mountains and beaches, but today I’m only thinking of bombs falling from the sky.”

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