Costa Rican lawyer Allan Makhlouf traveled from San José to Beirut, Lebanon, July 12, arriving at RaficHaririInternationalAirport just a few hours before Israeli bombs started to descend on the small Middle Eastern country that shares borders with Syria and Israel.
The attack destroyed the airport runways. From then on, Makhlouf said his trip to visit his father, a Lebanese restaurant owner who resides in Jounieh, north of Beirut, became an odyssey to return safely to Costa Rica.
The Canadian-born Makhlouf, 26, recently told The Tico Times about his twoweek frontline peek at the conflict and the chaotic process of his evacuation, an unexpected journey that led him through Cyprus, Turkey and Canada.
He said although he was in mostly Catholic areas that were not targeted by Israeli bombers during his stay, he could certainly tell the country was under attack.
“The streets were empty. Normally at that time of year the beaches are saturated, but everything was barren…people were inside their homes,” he said during a march for peace July 30 in La Sabana Park in west San José (TT, Aug. 4).
Shortly after the conflict erupted, Makhlouf and his family in Lebanon traveled further north for safety to a farm his father owns in the mountain town of Beka Kafra, where his family is from. They spent approximately five days there before returning to Jounieh.
Though he never felt threatened enough to seek refuge in a bomb shelter, Makhlouf did not leave the Jounieh house much except to check on the family restaurants, which his father temporarily closed down. Most of the time, he said he remained glued to the television, watching the news – which he described as much more graphic on that side of the world.
“The images (they display) are very sad, very crude. There, they don’t mind lifting up a corpse and showing it to the cameras,” he said, adding that he believes Western media have shown more discrete images, such as buildings collapsed under the bombs. His father remained confident Makhlouf would be able to return to Costa Rica.
However, when he realized there was no end in sight to the Israeli attack, he grew concerned and decided to register for evacuation.
“This is a country that has grown used to war. My father views it like it’s nothing…He told me ‘this is nothing, you’ll see, if this doesn’t stop I will take you to Syria (to fly out from there).’ I didn’t think it would be so easy. What if on our way there, they started bombing?”Makhlouf said.
Because he also has Canadian citizenship, he had contacted the Canadian Embassy in Beirut soon after his arrival. At the time, the embassy was arranging evacuations for all Canadian citizens, so he registered and received notification July 22 that he could leave the country by boat the next day.
After waiting for approximately four hours under the beating sun with hundreds of Canadian citizens, Makhlouf said he boarded a small Turkish ship at a port in Beirut at midday July 23.
Though he was forced to leave some clothes and personal items at his father’s, he said some fellow evacuees were leaving their homes and belongings behind and had packed what they could into the single piece of luggage allowed per person, a maximum weight of 20 kilos.
Among the travelers, he recalled one woman and her daughter, who had nothing except the clothes on their backs because bombs had destroyed their home.
During the 14-hour trip to Turkey, broken only by a midway stopover on the island of Cyprus, many of the 300 passengers that filled the boat got seasick.
“Many people got sick, threw up, fainted. I’d say 85% of the people were sick, and when I say sick I mean seven hours of nonstop vomiting,” he said, adding that he did not get sick and tried to help the less fortunate passengers.
Once in Turkey, passengers were transferred to shelter set up in a gym, where they had the option of resting or immediately boarding an Air Canada charter flight to Montreal, he said, adding that he chose the faster option.
Makhlouf completed the journey alone, leaving his father and other family members in Lebanon because they do not want to leave their properties unattended.Makhlouf said if matters in Lebanon get worse, his father and his family might move to Beka Kafra.
After spending a few days with friends in Toronto, Canada, Makhlouf arrived in San José July 26. That day he was greeted by his worried mother, a Tica of Lebanese background, with showers of kisses and hugs.
Makhlouf, who also experienced the Lebanese civil war that raged in the 1980s when he lived there with his older sister and father in 1985, said he does not think there will be an immediate solution to the present spurt of violence.
He said the call for an immediate ceasefire is a delicate subject, because in nearly a month of fighting, Israel has not achieved its goal of disarming the Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah.“If they cease firing now, having destroyed the country and killed a ton of civilians, the question emerges: what did they do this for?” he said.