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U.S. family gets to leave Beirut soon, but in sadness

British, Canadian evacuations 'orderly'; Americans' 'chaotic'

By Kate King
CNN

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Lebanon
California

(CNN) -- An American couple and their children ran into bureaucratic snafus trying to get out of Beirut on Wednesday, but hope to be on board a cruise ship to Cyprus on Thursday.

Tony and Monika Esseily and their three children were winding up a vacation in Lebanon when Israeli airstrikes began. A week later, they're still looking for a way to get back to California.

The Esseilys are among tens of thousands of Westerners stranded in Lebanon waiting for help to arrive.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it will help evacuate 7,000 Americans from war-torn Lebanon within the next two days. (Full story)

About 800 Americans and Britons left Beirut on Wednesday aboard the Orient Queen, a Greek cruise ship that the U.S. State Department chartered.

Some 450 of the estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon have arrived on the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus since fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants started July 12. (Watch how things got ugly on crowded 'refugee ferry' -- 2:34 )

The Esseily family registered July 13 with the American Embassy to get on the list to evacuate but heard nothing, Monika Esseily said Tuesday. (Full story)

But on Wednesday, the family decided they could wait no longer. Although they hadn't been called, they packed up their belongings and headed for the port of Beirut to see if they could get on a ship.

"On our way down to where the Americans were gathering to take people out on the boat, we came across .... the British evacuation, which was nice and orderly, we came across the Canadian evacuation, which was nice and orderly," she told CNN with a laugh.

When they found the area where Americans were gathering, she said, they found "total chaos."

"Everyone was trying to register," Esseily continued. "I said, 'I'm registered,' they said, 'You have to re-register.'"

The problem, she said, was that the Embassy had called one list of Americans to report for evacuation on Wednesday. But the manifest for the Orient Queen was based on a different list of names that had been sent from Washington.

"I did hear one of the head security guards ... saying to this lady, 'Ma'am, we know we called you, but please, the boat filled up faster than we thought, it's full, you have to wait for tomorrow, and still not a guarantee,'" Esseily recalled.

The Esseilys stood in line in the heat for an hour and re-registered.

"I'm not 100 per cent sure we'll get on the boat tomorrow, but we have to be there at 8 a.m. and hopefully we can get on. If not, then the next boat," Esseily said.

Tuesday night 'was hell'

The family returned to the apartment where they are staying, in a relatively safe area in the mountains overlooking Beirut. Until Tuesday night, Esseily said, bombs were hitting about 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, and that was bad enough -- "very loud, very scary."

"Last night was really, really hard, it was hell," Esseily said Wednesday. "The bombs shattering down ... it was very close to us last night, 3 kilometers only."

She said she thinks the port where they'll go to board the ship is safe.

"I really do believe that obviously the Israelis know not to hit near the port, this is where the foreigners have to leave from," she said. "So I think it's very safe."

Esseily said she's worried about what will happen to Lebanon after the Westerners are evacuated. "The Lebanese people are afraid once the Americans leave [the Israelis are] going to flatten Beirut. So in a way they don't really want us to leave because they know that it's not going to be a full-out attack until the foreigners leave."

But she's feeling better about the family's situation than she was on Tuesday.

"If we go tomorrow, or if we go the next day, we know for sure we're going and we know that they have our names," she said. "And they know that we want to go out. And that's all we really wanted, more or less, to do.

"You know it's hard to get all these people out quickly, we just needed some kind of security that we will be going out."

'I'm very saddened'

Tony Esseily is Lebanese-American, and Monika Esseily is American. They made the trip this summer so their 9-month-old son, T.J., could be baptized in Lebanon.

Monika Esseily first saw Lebanon in 1990, three months after the country's 15-year civil war ended, as a new bride going to meet her husband's family.

"It was devastation. I cried driving out of the airport," she remembered. The family lived in Lebanon from 1993 to 2001 and watched the country recover from years of war. The scene now, Esseily said, is a "flashback to 1990."

"I'm very saddened, and I'm very, very scared for not just the Lebanese people, [but] for the foreigners who still have not got out," she said.

Esseily said she can't wait to get the family home to Dana Point, California, but she still has mixed feelings about leaving Lebanon.

"I will have a heartache leaving," she said, "because I will leave all of these wonderful Lebanese people behind in sorrow and heartache."

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