Leaving Lebanon: College student speaks out about the fighting

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

LINTHICUM, Md. -- After a year spent studying Arabic in Cairo, Egypt, Stephen McInerney returned last week to the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, to pursue his master's in Middle Eastern studies.

Two days later, Israeli bombs began falling upon the city he had grown to love while living and studying there for two years.

"It was a very difficult environment to be in," McInerney said. "I was terrified for a lot of my friends."

McInerney, 31, arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Thursday morning with the first planeload of Americans returning to U.S. soil after evacuating Lebanon, where fighting between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli military has sent thousands fleeing the country. McInerney, a native of Southern Pines, N.C., endured a circuitous journey: an 11-hour ride to Cyprus on a Norwegian cargo ship. A five-hour flight to Manchester, England, with more than 140 Americans. At least three hours on the ground in England. Seven-plus hours more flying from there to Baltimore.

He emerged bleary-eyed and in need of a shower and some fresh clothes. He left most of his possessions behind."The last week consisted largely of following the news," McInerney said, "hearing where bombs were falling, which neighborhoods, which villages were being hit, and desperately trying to get through to friends who lived in those places on the telephone and see if they were still alive, see if they still had homes, see if they'd gotten out in time."

His own ordeal took a back seat as he related what he watched happen -- part of what he considers the "illegal" destruction of a place that had been slowly regaining its status as a prosperous, cosmopolitan nation since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

McInerney said he never feared for his personal safety -- after all, he was on the campus of the conspicuously named American University. Still, he wasn't enclosed in a cocoon.

A lighthouse a few hundred yards from the campus was bombed, and a huge container of propaganda fliers that didn't open properly crashed onto a campus soccer field. Meanwhile, a sustained bombing campaign was unfolding within walking distance -- about two miles to the south.

"There'd be an enormous blast that would shake everyone," he said. "Especially at the beginning, it would feel as though the bomb fell only a block away because they were such overpowering blasts."

McInerney spent most of his waking hours raw with worry. None of his friends has been killed, but some have lost homes. A couple he knew, parents of a 7-month-old, hid in a basement as bombs fell around them in their southern Lebanon village. They couldn't evacuate, he said, because they'd have to hike for several miles over rough, dangerous terrain to reach the nearest passable road.

He hopes hostilities will ease enough for him to return to Beirut and finish his thesis. But he says the vibrant, cultured city he loved is essentially gone.

"The night before they started bombing, one of the Israeli generals said they were going to turn the clock back in Lebanon 20 years," he said. "They're halfway there, if not further, in a week."

McInerney, a Stanford graduate, has been working and studying abroad for eight years. His thesis examines areas of the Middle East, like Gaza and Iraqi Kurdistan, where the institution that has authority over economic development is not a sovereign state.

He spoke passionately about the turmoil in the region and its toll on ordinary people. He was baffled by what he described as Israel's strategy: punishing the Lebanese to turn them against the militant Arab group Hezbollah.

President Bush, among others, has blamed Hezbollah for starting the current fighting. Israel's assault began after Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers. But much of the international community has also been critical of Israel -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for one, condemned the country's "excessive use of force" against Lebanon.

McInerney is unabashed about where his sympathies lie.

"To see so much of that undone in the past week is the most devastating, difficult thing that I've had to witness," he said. "I've been more sad and more angry in the past week than ever before in my life."

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