By Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A19
Shayna Silverstein and her friends jumped into expensive taxis and sped from Beirut to Damascus, preferring to dodge bombs and bribe border officials rather than wait for the U.S. government to evacuate them.
Ann Ainslay Chibbo said she desperately phoned friends back home, urging them to contact the State Department to get her name onto an evacuation list. She said she couldn't get through by phone to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
The U.S. government evacuated hundreds of Americans from Lebanon yesterday by ships, helicopters and planes, the start of what officials said would become a massive effort to remove thousands of U.S. citizens to safety and, then, back home. The first 150 evacuees are scheduled to arrive at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport this morning.
But the evacuations come amid growing criticism that the United States has lagged behind other nations in evacuating its citizens, as many Americans were left to flee the violence by their own means.
"'What's my government doing for me?' I thought," said Silverstein, 27, a graduate student who returned to her home in Spokane, Wash., on Tuesday. "It's unacceptable that the United States is five days behind European nations in evacuating its nationals."
At the State Department, U.S. officials defended the speed of the evacuation, saying they had to balance swiftness with prudence. "We are always going to err on the side of caution," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. "It is a volatile situation."
Army Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Harty at the news conference added, "We are not going to sacrifice either safety or security to achieve speed in getting American citizens evacuated."
He insisted that the U.S. evacuation effort isn't lagging behind those of other countries, such as Canada, and that U.S. officials are working with a sense of urgency. But, he said, "this is a war zone," in which careful coordination and planning are needed. "We are not going to rush to failure."
About 1,000 U.S. citizens were moved out of Lebanon to Cyprus yesterday aboard the Orient Queen, a chartered ship, Harty said, with a few hundred more people with special needs moved by helicopter.
In addition, Barbero said, a Navy ship, the USS Nashville, is in the area and can move out about 1,000 people a day. A large ferry called the Ramah will join the effort tomorrow, and a high-speed Italian ferry, the Vittoria, will begin operating Saturday, he said. Three other Navy ships -- two destroyers and a command vessel -- can aid the rescue mission, he said.
By the end of this week, more than 6,000 Americans are likely to be evacuated, Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, the commander overseeing the evacuation, told reporters in Cyprus.
About 700 to 800 evacuees on five flights are scheduled to land at BWI over the next three days, said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Maryland officials said yesterday that they will provide several forms of assistance, including computers and phones for contacting loved ones, cash assistance and licensed social workers.
"These folks have had a very quick disruption to their lives," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said during an afternoon news conference on the lawn of the governor's mansion. "They're coming here with next to nothing, they need help, and we're going to provide it for them."
There are still "several hundred" U.S. citizens in southern Lebanon, where most of the combat is taking place, Harty said. Groups have been assembled there and will be moved northward by bus when it is safe.
Mandy Terc, 28, couldn't wait. Last week, the Chicago native kept checking the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut for information about evacuations. But there were no updates, she said. So, she decided Saturday to join Silverstein and six other Americans fleeing Lebanon.
The trip from Beirut to Damascus normally cost $10. They each paid $200 and piled into a gray Mercedes taxi that sped to the border.
"We had to put our faith in our taxi driver," Terc said. "We were very nervous."
They passed an area that had been bombed only an hour earlier. "You could smell it in the air," Silverstein said. They took back roads, avoiding any possible military targets, until finally reaching the Syrian border, where hundreds of other people were trying to flee Lebanon.
"Our driver knew the people to bribe," Terc said. "We got in pretty quickly."
The first thing she did when she returned to Chicago, she said, was to eat a deep-dish pizza.
"Then I passed out and slept for 10 hours," she said.
Yesterday, she reflected on her escape.
"Now that I am here and safe, I'm disappointed that there wasn't more information from the U.S. Embassy," Terc said. "You would expect that the United States, being the world's superpower and a close ally of Israel, would be able to get its people out."
Ainslay Chibbo, an Indiana native married to a Lebanese working in Dubai, said she had to call friends in the United States and have them contact the State Department directly to get onto the Orient Queen's passenger list because she could not get through to the U.S. Embassy.
"If you weren't on the list, you didn't go," she said, describing efforts at an embassy-designated gathering point to board a bus to the port. "There were a lot of people who were not allowed on the bus."
Yesterday, she left with her husband and two sons, 10 and 18.
Roya Akhavan-Lovell of Haymarket in Prince William County said her mother and sister, who were visiting Beirut, contacted the embassy there about evacuating. But an embassy official told them they didn't have a plan, she said.
"Plan B was to drive to Syria," said Akhavan-Lovell, who was in constant contact with her relatives by phone and e-mail. Just before they left Beirut, her mother sent her an e-mail that said she would no longer be able to reach them on their phones.
"We were freaking out," Akhavan-Lowell recalled. "We were on pins and needles waiting to hear from them."
More than three hours later, she learned they had safely reached Damascus.
Last night, her mother and sister were to arrive in the United States on a commercial flight. Akhavan-Lowell's family planned to meet them at the airport with balloons and signs.
At the news conference, Harty acknowledged that some U.S. citizens had left Lebanon for Syria and then flown home from there.
"We do not encourage people to go over land on their own at this point," she said. "I am happy to see people who have done that have arrived safely home."
Correspondent Edward Cody in Beirut and staff writers Ray Rivera and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.