ND evacuees return from Lebanon
Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, August 23, 2006
When Israel bombed Lebanon on July 12, Ramzi Bualuan’s week of hell began.
His wife and children were near Beirut when the conflict broke thousands of miles from where he was, in South Bend.
“Unbelievable,” the computer science and engineering professor said last Wednesday, shaking his head slightly. “Oh, my God. Awful.”
Bualuan, paralyzed by helplessness, watched the crisis unfold on his TV screen.
But junior Joe Janke was in the thick of the chaos, cool and unconcerned.
“I didn’t think it was serious at all,” Janke said Sunday. He had spent three and a half weeks studying Arabic at the Lebanese American University when the bombings began.
“I don’t know that it was ever so dangerous to be at the university.”
Still, Janke knew when it was time to leave. And Bualuan knew that he had to get his family out.
So Janke and the Bualuans – wife Ghada, four-year-old Roy and two-year-old Marc, all visiting Ghada’s mother in Aley – all joined the flood of foreigners trying to leave Lebanon.
For Janke, the decision was easy – get back to Cairo, where he had spent spring semester through Notre Dame’s program in Egypt. If he had waited for the Marines to come and evacuate Americans to Cyprus, he would have been forced to leave his belongings in Cairo and cancel his flight home.
So he found a way to get to Syria, where friends of an acquaintance would pick him up. But when those plans fell through at the last minute, Janke chose to go it alone.
“I was just kind of stuck,” he said, “It was 8:30 at night, and I’m like, ‘I’m either going to get evacuated, or I’m going to go.’ And I just left.”
His 52-hour journey started with a series of cabs – Beirut to the Lebanon-Syria border to the Syria-Jordan border to Amman, Jordan – followed by a bus to southern Jordan, a ferry to Egypt and another bus to Cairo.
All the way bargaining – even bribing – in Arabic.
“I was actually pretty proud of that,” Janke said of the deal he struck with a man to get him through the Lebanon-Syria border. “That was pretty useful. … At the Syrian border, there’s like six different places you have to go.”
Taxis, he said, were easy to find – for those willing to pay.
“I mean, it depends on how well you speak Arabic, if you try to speak Arabic, if they think they can rip you off,” he said, “It’s completely variable.”
Bualuan’s family also made their way out of the country by taxi after several days had passed and the situation had yet to improve.
“The first few days, we weren’t sure,” Bualuan said. ” … It was one of those, ‘OK, maybe it will only take two, three days kind of thing, we’re not sure how long this will last, so let’s wait it out.’ But soon we found out it looked like it was going to take longer.”
Once France and Italy started to evacuate their citizens, Bualuan decided they had to act.
“Of course, there was no way for me to get there,” he said. “Everything was closed.”
He threw himself into investigating the various options for his wife. He called the US State Department multiple times, but only got “generic” information that he had already found online.
The sea option, led by US Marines, would have taken his wife and children on a nine-hour trip from Beirut to Cyprus. But Ghada Bualuan was told she needed to have three days worth of food and water before boarding, Ramzi Bualuan said, and there was no guarantee of what would happen once the family got to Cyprus.
Instead, he began to arrange for a series of taxis to carry his family to Amman, Jordan, where they could take a plane to Abu Dhabi, where Ghada Bualuan’s brother lives.
“By car is actually less safe, but at least you have control over every minute of your trip,” Ramzi Bualuan said. “Nine hours on the boat, nothing you can do. By car, you can decide, ‘I don’t want to continue, I want to go back.'”
The family made it to the Lebanon-Syria border and took another taxi to Damascus, then to Amman.
“Lebanon is seven hours ahead. So the day they left, I mean, I spent a whole night at my laptop, my main phone, my cell phone next to me,” Bualuan said. “If you look at my phone bill, July 22 is maybe easily 40 phone calls, one after another. Unbelievable.”
He met the family in Abu Dhabi, where they stayed for several days to unwind.
While the younger son was seemingly unaffected by the experience, Bualuan said his four-year-old knew something wasn’t right.
“At first my wife tried to tell him, ‘Those are fireworks,'” he said. “But he told her right way, ‘They don’t sound like fireworks.'”
Since being home, his son has begun to draw “machines” instead of houses and trees, Bualuan said.
“Then he’d draw something next to it and say, ‘This is the noise the machine is making,'” Bualuan said. “The planes he saw flying … It’s crazy, crazy.”
Janke also made it out of Lebanon smoothly, despite dealing with a mess of exits and entries at the different borders. Once in Cairo – which he reached by ferry – Janke got a hotel for two nights, worked with Anthony Travel to move up his flights and flew to Frankfurt, Germany.
Then it was back to Humbird, Wisconsin via flights to Newark and Minneapolis.
Communication with his parents – who Janke described as “calm people” – consisted of sporadic e-mails sent from various Internet cafes, he said.
Most people would likely have been overwhelmed by the experience, but a nonchalant Janke said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don’t think it was a bad decision at all,” he said. “I never felt that my safety was ever compromised in an Arab-speaking country. I would do it again. I didn’t have a bad experience during the entire trip.”
Bualuan, who is originally from Lebanon, said he will go back to visit his parents once the country is stable.
“It all depends,” he said. “If the United Nations can put in a strong enough force to stabilize the region, if other parties involved can follow what the resolution asked them to do, but you know, both sides have been violating all those resolutions for so many years…
“But I’m still hopeful, I’m still hopeful.”