Update on SAT-7 Lebanon staff
May 9, 2008
Note: This is a personal account written by SAT-7’s Programming Director Rita El Mounayer. It is intended to help the reader better understand the complicated nature of the current crisis in Lebanon. Please continue to pray for Lebanon and the SAT-7 staff who live and work there.A Dramatic Exit with Help from God and a Local “Angel”
I woke up in the morning (on May 8) after a long restless night but with the hope that the previous day’s events had concluded. I really believed that my journey back to my home in Cyprus would take place soon.
When the road to the airport was blocked the day before, and clashes filled the streets of Beirut, I thought to myself, “a few hours will pass and the situation will be better.” We lived similar situations and internal conflicts in Lebanon 15 years ago and most were settled within a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, the morning atmosphere was heavy and the smell of smoke, hatred and war was in the air. By mid morning, the airport road was not the only problem anymore, but all the roads leading to outside Lebanon were closed.
I insisted on leaving the country. I hate to be trapped… I needed to be home. I needed to feel safe. I needed to run away from all memories associated with the wars I survived many times…
I made calls, talked to VIP’s , called many taxi agencies, some wanted an obscene amount of money to drive me to Damascus, and some did not want to risk their lives even if I paid them hundreds of dollars. In the end, I found a driver to take me via Shtoura (Bekaa valley) to Damascus. Good news!
I said good bye to all my colleagues and friends at SAT-7, trying to take into consideration everyone’s advice: “Do not carry lots of money.” “Do not wear jewelry.” “Take food for the trip.” “If people ask you which political party are you with, do not reply.” And when I hugged some and kissed others, we had tears in our eyes. These tears for me were a mixture of, “I wish I could stay with you and experience what you are experiencing…but I am really scared and I would like to leave.” And maybe for them, “We are happy you can leave and be safe…we wish we can do the same too…”
I left, driving towards Damascus. Some parts of the roads were empty, so empty that I started to question if I had made the right decision. After driving for an hour and a half, the Lebanese army with tanks everywhere sent us back stating that, “the road to Damascus was dangerous and blocked,” and that they would not let us pass. We argued and tried to bargain but in vain…
I returned to the office with mixed feelings of joy and sadness. SAT-7 staff was waiting for me…and when arriving, it was like I just arrived from a long trip abroad; we hugged, kissed again and celebrated our safety.
The afternoon was spent in front of the TV sets in the SAT-7 office, not to monitor SAT-7 programs, but to hear the latest news. Four to five people were gathered in almost every office, arguing, analyzing and evaluating…again not our programs but the Lebanese situation.
Suddenly, SAT-7’s Lebanon Director Naji Daoud called me to show me that the Middle East Airlines (MEA) website was stating that three airplanes would leave Beirut that night from the airport. One was going to Doha, one to Jeddah and one to Cyprus.
The only challenge is to get to the airport…
I really wanted to take this challenge, or let me call it this risk. Do not ask why, I do not know!
Naji called the SAT-7 taxi driver, Adel and asked him if he was willing to take me to the airport and drop me where the road was blocked, 3-4 km away from the departure terminal, explaining to him that I was ready to walk and climb all piles of stones/sands and burnt tires. He agreed reluctantly. He was concerned to leave me alone in such a miserable and dangerous situation.
So there I was again, saying goodbye to everyone, this time with different advice like: “Do not wear high heals.” “Why should you take your suitcase?” “Are you crazy?” “Wait until tomorrow.” But I had already decided to leave.
The road to the airport was scary…we took the downtown road and again were stopped by the Lebanese army. I insisted that I wanted to go to the airport, that I wanted to leave Lebanon that day, “now!” When they saw me that stubborn, they guided us to an alternative road that will lead to the airport, but stated twice that it would be VERY dangerous. We decided to continue.
While driving with Adel, I asked him if he is scared, he said “no.” I was so happy to have someone ready to risk his life and be with me. Crazy, hey?
Arriving finally at the airport road, we were surprised to see mounds of dirt and garbage blocking it. We stopped. There was no way to proceed by car. I said to Adel: “I guess I will walk from here…”
He was so concerned for me to walk into the Shiite area by myself, but released me saying: “May God be with you.” I opened the car door to see dozens of local kids (15-20 years old) with their motor-scooters rushing towards us urging us to leave immediately.
I insisted that I would walk to the airport. “I am not leaving!”
One of them cried out: “It is dangerous!”
I replied: “I am taking the risk, I do not care. I am leaving the country today!”
Adel added: “She is from Baalbeck, so you can not touch her. In fact you need to help her!” The guy said, “From Baalbek? Really? But it is really not safe. Well, I can take you on my scooter… just pay me 10,000LB (6 USD).”
I replied: “Deal”
I put my suitcase in front of him, on the scooter, climbed behind him and away we went. I did not have time to reason through what I did, I did not think. We drove between the piles of garbage and dirt blocking the road. We drove between the smoking tires. He assured me that I would be safe.
We were then stopped at a checkpoint. My scooter driver said that I was his cousin and that he was taking me to the airport. They let us pass. We were stopped again at another checkpoint 500 meters further down the road. This time, my helpful friend said that an important leader at the first check point gave us the permission to go on. So they also let us pass.
Soon I arrived at the airport! My scooter driver was like an angel and insisted on carrying my bag and making sure I made it safely to the airport security point at the check-in desk.
I did not know how to thank him. And when I thought to give him 20 Euros as a gift for taking me there safely (he never asked for additional money)…He leaned and kissed my cheek saying, “Thank you, be safe. I’ll always be ready to help you ma’am.” He then drove away.
I stood there at the airport…shaking…I could not believe what happened. I could not believe the risk I took and God’s protection over me. But what mattered is that I was really at the airport…and soon I would be leaving for home!
Maybe politically, that young man could have been my enemy…but he helped me…he made me feel safe. He took care of me for just 15 minutes, but it was the experience of a lifetime, one I will always remember and cherish.
Thank you all for your prayers. My heart is bleeding for all the people I left behind, our production team and my family.