Blog | 19 December 2019

In February 2020, one of our supporters, Janine Canham, will be running 7 marathons across 7 continents in 7 days in the World Marathon Challenge to raise money for RUN. Janine’s deep commitment to supporting refugees stems from her own experience fleeing war-torn Beirut when she was only 12 years old. Here, we share an account written by Janine’s mother, Rita, about the journey she undertook with her three young children in tow.

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Janine's mother, Rita, who escape war-torn Lebanon with her three children in 1976
Janine’s mother, Rita, who escape war-torn Lebanon with her three children in 1976

The civil war in Lebanon began in 1973. By 1975, we had been forced to flee our home in Beirut and were living in the mountains. Our three children, Janine, Amanda, and William, aged eleven, nine, and eight respectively, were then attending Brummana High, the local Quaker school, which was my husband Joe’s alma mater, since it was too dangerous to remain in Beirut. Joe had left for London on a business trip a month earlier during a ceasefire. In the time he had been away, fierce fighting had erupted and we found ourselves trapped in Lebanon.

Janine (right), together with her siblings William and Amanda

During the school Christmas concert, the magnitude of the situation struck me. I was standing at the back of the hall listening to children singing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” How long was it since we had slept a deep and dreamless sleep? I could not remember. In the background, I could hear machine guns, explosives, and screaming sirens. I looked around the room and everything seemed so ‘normal’. It was the normality that shocked me. It was then I realized we had to leave this war-torn country. I was beginning to accept the violence and savagery around me as a normal way of life. Fear gripped me as I imagined what the future held in store for my children. Joe could not get back into the country and we could not get out. I had to act fast. Two of our friends, Bruce Howell (a teacher) and Ian Sellers (the school bursar), had told me of their plans to reach the airport by a circuitous route through the mountains, spending the night with friends of lan’s in the village of Damour, 20 kilometres south of the airport. I met up with them after the concert and they very generously agreed to take us with them.

I contacted Joe and he was eventually able to book a flight to London for us. The hardest part had been to tell Joe’s parents and his sister Salwa. We did not know then that it would be sixteen years before we returned, or that we would never again see my father-in-law, Najib, who sadly died of a heart attack three years after our departure. Saying goodbye to our loved ones and not knowing if we would ever see them again was gut-wrenching. My in-laws put on a brave face but I knew their hearts were breaking. We clung to each other uttering fervent protestations of “I love you, take care, God go with you.” They knew we had a dangerous journey ahead of us and it would be a few days before they would know if we had made it safely.

Janine's grandparents, Najib and Angèle, and aunt Salwa
Janine’s grandparents, Najib and Angèle, and aunt Salwa

We drove up to the village of Chemlam, then on to the forest of Aabay with its wild gorges and acres of pine trees, through which we caught glimpses of streams glittering in the sunlight. By late afternoon, we reached the Chouf Mountains, one of the most beautiful regions in Lebanon. As we drove through the spectacular countryside we were constantly aware that our car might at any time be held up by one of the many factions that roamed the mountains and if the names on our identity cards were not ‘the right ones’, we would have been hauled out and shot. We were tense and nervous. Fear lay in the pit of my stomach like an iron fist.

The sun was beginning to set as we reached the coastal road that led to the ancient Phoenician city of Sidon, famous for its Crusader Castle built in 1227 on a reef 100 metres from the shore. The Crusaders had fought ‘on God’s side’, yet did not deem it evil to kill innocent men, women, and children in the name of religion. The tide had turned, but still ran red with the blood of the innocent. We left the road and wound our way to the village of Damour. It was growing dark when we turned into a tree-lined drive surrounded by orange groves. There to greet us were Ian’s friends Samir and Amira along with their two teenage daughters. The house was a typical Lebanese home, the best room kept for visitors, into which we were ushered and offered the traditional strong Arabic coffee. They had prepared a meal, with which we drank the wonderful Kasara wine produced by the Jesuit Fathers in the Bekaa Valley. Joining us for dinner was Father Elias the local priest. He had liaised with the Lebanese army to pick us up the following morning at six o’clock and take us to the airport. The effect of the wine, excellent food and good company gave me a feeling of well­-being and contentment. As we said our goodnights adding our gratitude to our gracious hosts, Samir took me aside and whispered that if I heard gunfire in the night, I was to take the children down to the cellar.

The children were soon asleep and I sat by the window fully dressed, prepared for anything that might happen. The night was warm and still as I listened, straining to catch and interpret sounds magnified by the cavernous cloak of darkness. All was unnaturally quiet, our time in Lebanon slowly ticking away, along with a way of life that would change forever. I felt an overwhelming sadness to be leaving this country and its people that I loved.

The night slipped away and the rose streaked clouds of dawn rode the heavens once more. There was a soft tap on the door. It was time to get up. The children dressed quickly and we made our way downstairs. Ian and Bruce were already seated at the kitchen table as Amira and her daughters brought in plates of fresh figs glistening with the morning dew, sweet honey melon, and home-made bread and cheeses. It was to be our last meal in this country for many years to come, simple and simply delicious. At six o’clock on the dot, Father Elias arrived. As we walked into the garden, a flock of migratory buzzards passed over, flying towards the open sea. There was a strange, almost surreal feeling as we watched them soar above us. Everyone fell silent. It was as if time stood still, no one wanting to say those final words.

On the journey to the army headquarters, Father Elias kept up a continuous flow of conversation, trying to keep our spirits up. When we arrived, a group of heavily armed soldiers and two army Land Rovers were waiting for us. Ian and Bruce were to travel in the first vehicle and we were to follow. As we climbed into the vehicle, the soldiers ordered the children to lie down, then laid our suitcases across the seats, providing them with protection if the need arose. Their memory of this journey is seeing the black lace-up boots of the soldiers.

We were indebted to Father Elias He had worked tirelessly arranging our transportation to the airport. He had risked his life to help us. Now as we said goodbye, we left that courageous old man standing in the middle of the road, waving until he disappeared into the morning sunlight.

Two of the soldiers rode with us, and four outriders accompanied us as we drove along the eerily empty coast road. On our left, the sea glittered in the sunlight, calm and unperturbed as if waiting for the early morning swimmers to make an appearance. To the right stood rows of banana trees, hugging their clusters of green fruit. We passed orange groves, trees laden with ripe, unpicked golden oranges.

The route to Damour is 20 kilometres. Those were the longest 20 kilometres of my life. Fear sat in my gut, twisting up like a corkscrew into my chest, leaving me gasping for air. I tried hard not to transmit that fear to the children. They were engrossed in secret whispers and seemed unaware of the hazardous journey we had embarked on. Years later, they told me that they had been very much aware of the dangers, that they had not been afraid of dying, only of how. They had prayed to Jesus that if they were to die, let it be quick, either by a bullet or a bomb but “please don’t let them torture us.” They made a promise if they did die, they would find each other again in heaven.

I started to panic when suddenly the driver made a right turn, and in less than a minute we were driving down the runway where an aircraft stood, waiting for us to board.

On 9th January 1976, three months after our flight to freedom, Damour was destroyed by the Syrians and Arafat’s PLO. All the inhabitants either fled or were brutally killed. I never found out what happened to Samir and his family or to Father Elias.