CYPRUS

Floridians fleeing Lebanon find a haven in Cyprus

More than 30,000 people have been evacuated to Cyprus while fleeing the violence in Lebanon.

BY URIEL HEILMAN
Special to the Miami Herald

Miami resident Sam Farhat was on vacation in southern Lebanon two weeks ago when a surprise cross-border attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli military patrol abruptly turned his summer holiday into a nightmarish war zone.

Fighter jets began dropping bombs on neighbors' houses, and Farhat suddenly was confronted by life-and-death decisions about where to seek shelter and what to do with his family.

Farhat's ailing mother, who lives in southern Lebanon, was too ill to leave her home near Sidon.

''It was very unsafe, and very uncomfortable,'' Farhat said. ''A lot of my family couldn't get out.'' Eventually, Farhat and his sisters decided to flee the south for the relative safety of Beirut.

Driving on back roads to avoid highways with bombed-out bridges, the trip took almost three hours, five times as long as usual.

''We're the lucky ones,'' Farhat said earlier this week after having been evacuated to Cyprus.

Farhat is one of thousands of dual-citizen Lebanese fleeing the country by way of Cyprus, some 130 miles away.

In a complex operation involving the transfer of thousands of people every day, foreign armies and embassies have been using this small island nation as a way-station to get their nationals home, first ferrying them out of war-torn Beirut by ship, then putting them on commercial and military aircraft in Cyprus bound for home.

Standing in the punishing heat outside the Larnaca airport awaiting a flight home, Farhat was both exhausted and enraged.

He said he was not in favor of Israel's response to Hezbollah's raid into northern Israel, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.

''They killed too many innocent people, a lot of people who had nothing to do with Hezbollah,'' he said.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the United States.

For many fleeing the fighting, they are not so much going home as leaving home.

Micheline Touma, a native of Beirut whose two children are U.S. citizens, was able to leave Lebanon on a U.S. government-chartered commercial ship, the Rahmah, which arrived at the Cypriot port of Limassol on Tuesday afternoon after a six-hour journey.

But Touma, who lives in Jacksonville, had to leave her husband, who owns a gas station in Beirut and has two elderly parents there, behind.

''I don't know when I'm going to see him again,'' she said.

``He told me to go and he would follow when he can.''

Touma, who plans to stay with her brother in Florida, blamed Hezbollah for the fighting.

''It was Hezbollah's mistake, and they deserve to pay for it,'' she said. ``I wish the Israelis could destroy them all.''