Elyssar couldn’t see the boat yet because her view was blocked by the people in front, but the one thing she was very much aware of lay behind her: Beirut.
The Charles Helou Boulevard which ran along the coastline, and a little further up downtown Beirut with its recently rebuilt old souks. Then the small hills that led to the many neighbourhoods that she grew up in, with their mix of charming turn of the century mansions and dreary 1960s building blocks. Overlooking it all stood Mount Lebanon where she knew her family was now gathered, probably all of them chatting around their kettle of afternoon coffee.
She wanted to take a final look but her ears buzzed and her heart raced so fast, it felt like she didn’t have the strength to move. Her whole body was stiff, as if frozen, and all she found herself able to do was keep her head down and stare at her own feet.
Everyone else probably had the same thoughts. All were quiet, except for one woman who was only half attempting to hush her sobs. Elyssar couldn’t see her but figured she was somewhere behind her.
The queue started to move a few seconds later and she followed it automatically. She still had her head down when they skipped from the asphalt ground onto a sand beach. She could also hear the sound of the waves and what seemed like people going into the water.
“Can I help you Ma’am?”
An American marine had appeared next to her.
“Can I help you Ma’am?” he repeated as she continued to stare at him blankly. “We need you to cross to the transport ship right there.”
He pointed at a small boat anchored at a short distance, several meters away from the shore. People walked towards it in the water, carrying their luggage above their heads to keep it dry.
Elyssar snapped out of her trance.
“I can’t see the umm… the...” Her English failed her. “The wood structure that you walk on to get to a boat.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t one Ma’am,” he replied. “You need to walk through the water to the boat. Don’t worry it’s not deep and I can help with your luggage if you wish.”
She gratefully handed him the suitcase, took her Sketchers off and folded up her jeans. Then, holding purse and shoes high up, she stepped into the sea. The marine followed her close by. Very soon, she was chest deep in the water and her wet clothes slowed her down. Holding her suitcase above his head with one arm, the marine put his hand on her shoulder to help her move forwards. As they got very close to the boat, a small wave, stronger than the others almost knocked her over. The marine quickly grabbed her arm to stop her from falling and getting completely submerged.
“Thank you!” she said laughing through the hair stuck on her face and still struggling to regain her balance as she held her arms up with all her strength to keep her belongings dry.
She could have sworn she saw a glimpse of a smile on the marine’s stern features, but he recomposed his expression in no time. With his crew cut, his bulging triceps and his very blue eyes, he was the quintessential US soldier.
“Rouba would love this,” she thought.
He took her purse and shoes from her when they reached the transport ship to help her climb the ladder at the side of the boat. This is when, through her sadness, she grasped the strangely exciting aspect of her situation: she’d just boarded a US military carrier!
The marine came up after her, managing to carry all her luggage in one hand while holding onto the ladder with the other one.
“You must have evacuated thousands of people by now,” she said, trying to show her gratitude by making courteous conversation.
“Who would have guessed there are so many American citizens in Lebanon?” she continued.
Okay, so he wasn’t the talkative type. He seemed solely focused on his task and not keen at all on having this conversation. His instructions were to get as many people boarded as he could, not make small talk with them.
Around twenty-five people sat on the deck awaiting the departure. Strangely the mood was quite light, people chatted about the upcoming trip and how they would get to their eventual destination in the States. Still they kept their voices down, obviously impressed by the number of uniforms surrounding them.
Yet once the boat moved, the mood became grim again. Everyone stared at the Lebanese coast as they moved away from it.
The sad part, Elyssar thought, was that this moment was picture perfect. The waters of the Mediterranean sparkled in the last sunrays of the day, forming a shimmering base to the green silhouette of Mount Lebanon – which at this distance seemed to rise straight out of the sea. Elyssar had never seen her country from this angle before. It was beautiful.
The lady sitting next to her broke down in tears. It must have been the same woman whom she’d heard crying earlier. Elyssar handed her some tissues.
“May God never forgive them,” the woman sobbed as she wiped her eyes. “All these politicians. I hope they all go to hell for what they make us go through. Because of them, we have to leave our homes, separate from our families…”
She continued to weep as Elyssar looked at the gloomy faces around her. Several people, including grown men, had tears running down their cheeks. How many people throughout history had lived through this same experience? She wondered. How many sat on a boat and looked at their country fade away in the distance? So many never made it back. Did they even suspect as they left that this would be the last time they set eyes on their homeland? Did she cheat herself by thinking she would be back? What if…?
“Are you okay?”
She looked up and saw the man to her left peering at her with concern.
“You’re shivering,” he said. “Are you cold? Do you need a jacket?”
He was right. Her body was trembling.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she smiled. “I think I just need to stand up.”
Trying to keep her balance on the moving ship, she stood up and took a few steps to the railing. There, the sound of the boat cutting through the water stifled the woman’s weeping, and Lebanon disappeared with the last rays of sunshine.