How many times can people flee their country for safety?
24 Feb 2011, as I watch the news in my Montreal home, and I see civilians from Libya crossing on foot, carrying whatever possible of their belongings in their hands, I am reminded of yet another crossing.
Feb 1984, Lebanon. Beirut is divided into two parts: East and West. The Museum Crossing is the only crossing open between the two sectors. People cross on foot during the day. Sometimes they are caught in gunfire between the rival militias. The crossing itself is controlled by the army, which opens it to civilians for only a few hours. People cross from West Beirut to East to flee the country either by sea, through the Jounieh port in the East, or by air, traveling through the mountains, crossing the border to Syria to fly from Damascus airport. I took that road only a few months after my wedding and crossed to the East with my husband. Here’s how it felt like (taken from The Lost I):
“They reached the Museum Crossing in no time. At exactly a quarter to seven, the Lebanese government army opened the crossing and they started to walk towards the army checkpoint. There were a few others like them. When it was their turn, she looked at the soldier. He was so young and so thin that his uniform seemed an ill-fit. His face was pale and sordid. Could he ask them to go back? And what if he did? Oh God! Please, no! She was afraid. They were not the enemy. They were at the mercy of this soldier. If he didn’t let them cross, they would have to go back again.”
Twenty two years later, before immigrating to Canada, I flew to Lebanon with my teenage children as a last stop to bid farewell to my family. A few days into our stay hell broke loose between Israel and Lebanon and the airport closed. On July 12, on my son’s birthday the bombing started. It was the first time my kids were being exposed to such terror. Within 24 hours the airport and the main roads to the city Beirut were bombed. Luckily I was staying with my parents east of the Bekaa valley close to the Syrian border. There were rumors of that border being bombed too. My husband who had stayed in Dubai to take care of unfinished business, managed to email us e-tickets to Dubai through Damascus airport.
On July 15 2006, 4:00 am in the morning we said goodbye to my mother, brother, his then pregnant wife and two beautiful little girls, and along with my father got in the car that would take us to Damascus, Syria. Half an hour later we were at the Syrian border. Sitting in the car with my teenage daughter and son, I looked around. There was not a single soul passing, not a single car, it was dead quiet everywhere. I had waited in the same spot more than two decades ago, when I was fleeing the country to join my husband.
Later at the airport, as I kissed my father goodbye I could not help but wonder if this was the last time I would see him. Would he make it safely back home? What will happen to the ones I left behind? How many times can people flee their own country to safety? Oh God oh please I mumbled as I boarded the plane.
And who was it who said “No one ruins another person’s life that we are ultimately responsible for our destinies.” Perhaps in a different part of the world but not the Middle East.