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Out of Beirut

Reston family, vacationing in Lebanon when war broke out, recalls its battle to return home.

They were recently shown on national television and quoted in newspapers, but it’s not something they’d like to remember.

Paul and Raba Letteri, with their two sons, Joseph, 7, and Aaron, 2, spent a week struggling for their lives, begging for someone to listen to their pleas, all the while praying they’d be rescued from war-torn Lebanon.

“It was hell,” said Raba Letteri. “Horrible, horrible,” she kept repeating from her home in south Reston last week, still shaken by the experience. “We went through hell, but thank God we are safe.”

During what had started out as a pleasant and quiet three-week trip to visit Raba Letteri’s family in Beirut, the Letteri’s vacation transformed suddenly by the cacophony of war, underscored by thundering bombs, piercing gunfire and a frantic, protracted evacuation.

The couple strained to explain the escalating bombardment to their two young children, first saying it was fireworks, but later forced to reveal that they were stuck in the middle of a war zone.

RABA, ORIGINALLY from Lebanon, hadn’t visited her family since she first came to the U.S. 11 years ago.

Paul Letteri, 34, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. but moved to the area after college, first met Raba in 1997 when she was an account administrator at Riggs Bank.

The two fell in love and a year later they got married. Paul Letteri is a structural engineer, and Raba Letteri works as a child-care provider.

Six years ago they moved to Reston. Soon after, the family started saving money for a vacation to see Raba Letteri’s family in Lebanon.

The family left for Beirut on June 28.

JULY 12, LEBANON. Wire services begin reporting that Israel launched air and artillery strikes against Lebanon after the Hezbollah militia kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others during a raid. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls the raid an “act of war.” Five southern Lebanon bridges were bombed. Beirut is not yet a target.

“The first 11 days [of the vacation] was like paradise,” said Raba Letteri, as she pointed to pictures of the family walking the grounds of an ancient Roman temple in Baalbek, which were taken during the first week of the vacation.

“The [Lebanon] coast is like a postcard,” said Paul Letteri, recalling a day-trip to Pigeon Rock, a popular destination off Beirut’s shoreline.

“BUT WHEN WE got news they captured the two Israeli soldiers, I knew in my head something bad was going to happen,” said Paul Letteri.

More than a week until they were scheduled to leave, the couple could think about only one thing: getting out. “But we weren’t getting any response from the [U.S.] Embassy,” said Paul Letteri.

JULY 13, LEBANON. Israel, for the first time in six years, sends forces into southern Lebanon, including tanks, troops and aircraft. Israel warns Lebanese civilians into underground bomb shelters. Beirut’s International Airport is bombed. Thousands begin fleeing Lebanon. The Hezbollah is reported to have fired 150 rockets into northern Israel, including two that reached the port city of Haifa.

“When they bombed the airport [in Beirut], we were so close we could see it,” said Paul Letteri. “[The bombs] would shake the Earth.”

Raba Letteri’s mother and many of her cousins lived near the airport. It wasn’t long before Raba Letteri’s family members begin evacuating to the mountains outside of the city. “The roads were packed with cars getting out of Beirut,” said Paul Letteri.

PAUL AND RABA took their children to one of the capital city’s Druze neighborhoods, thinking it would be safer. They continued their attempts to reach the embassy.

JULY 14, LEBANON. Reports say the two-day death toll is just below 60 people. President Bush asks Israel not to disrupt Beirut’s pro-Western government. In the capital, where many people have fled, the airport is bombed again. A barrel of oil hits record cost of $76.70. U.S. Embassy tries to help the evacuation of some 25,000 Americans in Lebanon.

During a visit to the embassy, Raba Letteri wasn’t able to contain her emotions. “We had to go to the Embassy several times, begging them for help,” said Raba Letteri. Anticipating many more visits, the family checked into a nearby hotel.

“The hotels were empty because people had run away,” said Paul Letteri “From the hotel we could see bombs going off and the smoke.”

Israeli fighter jets shrieked through the skies above throughout the day and night, said Paul Letteri. “They would fly across and take pictures and then come back and bomb the place,” said Paul Letteri.

GROUND-SHAKING detonations and intermittent gunfire made sleeping impossible, said Raba Letteri.

“We tried to keep our sanity and hoped we’d eventually get out,” said Paul Letteri.

JULY 15, LEBANON. At least 65 Lebanese and 12 Israelis are reported dead during the fighting. In addition to taking out the country’s strategic infrastructure, Israeli planes bomb Beirut’s southern suburbs for hours. Hezbollah rockets kill eight people in the Israel city of Haifa.

In the midst of the surrounding chaos, the couple’s two-year-old son, Aaron, got sick. “He was throwing up in the hotel,” said Raba Letteri. The family’s first concern now was getting Aaron to see a doctor — not easy since many people had fled the city.

After a difficult trip to a hospital — much of the city had been damaged by three-days of bombing — a doctor diagnosed Aaron with a stomach virus and prescribed antibiotics and fluids with electrolytes.

Since the couple had planned to stay with Raba Letteri’s relatives during their trip, and not in a hotel, their cash budget was rapidly depleting. “And it’s not like ATM machines are readily available,” said Paul Letteri. With their cash almost gone, the Letteri’s began relying on their credit card for expenses.

WITH THE CITY’S bridges taken out, the family had no options for escape other than a U.S.-aided evacuation.

“While we were there, they bombed 70 bridges,” said Raba Letteri. “So we knew it was unsafe to travel,” said Paul Letteri, finishing his wife’s sentence.

The family had another unsuccessful visit to the embassy, which was constantly mobbed with people. “[Raba] cried and begged, saying, ‘Our son’s sick, help us,’” said Paul Letteri. But the family was told to wait for a call.

At this point, Paul Letteri began to worry privately about getting out at all. “Days felt like weeks,” he said. “Joseph kept saying, ‘I want to go home.’”

JULY 16, LEBANON. In the early morning, Hezbollah hits the Israel city of Haifa with 10 rockets, killing nearly 40 people. Israel warplanes retaliate, bombing southern Beirut. About 45 people are killed.

The family finally heard from the U.S. Embassy. Officials notified the Letteri’s to arrive at the embassy at noon for a scheduled evacuation. They were also instructed to leave their luggage behind with the exception of three outfits.

The family’s trip culminated with a six-hour wait in line at the embassy. “Hundreds of people were waiting at the embassy everyday,” said Paul Letteri.

During the wait, Aaron, who was still sick, threw up and soiled his shirt. Raba Letteri asked a diplomat for a shirt. She was told she could buy one. “They said it cost $35,” she said. But the family didn’t have that much cash. For $5, the embassy sold the Letteri’s a used extra-large polo shirt. The logo on the shirt read, “Bunker Bar — The Safest Place to Get Bombed in Beirut.”

Hours later the family, along with about 25 other passengers, suited up in bulky life vests and protective earplugs, boarded the military helicopter, and flew west across the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus.

Before the flight, Paul Letteri had to sign a promissory note, agreeing to payback the U.S. military for his family’s evacuation. Although he’s heard rumors that such measures are taken to protect the U.S. government, Paul Letteri’s still unsure whether a hefty bill from Uncle Sam could someday show up in his mail.

“After being rescued, they told us we were on our own,” said Raba Letteri.

The family spent two stressful nights in Cyprus before booking a flight for nearly $2,000 to France. In Paris, they caught their original connecting flight back to the U.S.

They arrived home on July 21.

“NOTHING’S BETTER than being home,” said Raba Letteri. “It’s such a relief.”

The family returned to 39 messages on their answering machine from concerned neighbors, teachers and friends. Neighbors filled the family’s refrigerator with food, hung a “Welcome Home” banner in the front of the house and provided other care packages.

“We were overwhelmed by the support of the neighbors,” said Raba Letteri, thankful and appreciative of their generosity.

But Raba Letteri’s happiness is bittersweet. She’s yet to hear from her older brother, Maher, an Ashburn resident who coordinated his vacation to Lebanon at the same time so the whole family could be together. When the war broke out, Maher fled to Syria and has yet to find a flight home.

Relatives’ homes have been destroyed by the war. “There are no buildings, just ashes,” said Raba Letteri, trying to describe what’s left of her mother’s house in the capital city.

Since arriving back in Reston, the family waits for news about relatives, including Raba Letteri’s mother.

“I hate war,” said Raba Letteri. “You don’t solve problems with war, you solve problems with communication. What’s so sad is so many innocent people are dying.”

Paul Letteri said it’s unlikely his youngest son, Aaron, will remember much. “He was oblivious to what was going on.” But Joseph has had to mature a lot the past few weeks, said Paul Letteri.

“I saw kids getting hurt and going to the hospital,” said Joseph, recalling his last days in Beirut.