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Student barely escapes Lebanon

The USF student, in her native country for an internship, runs to Syria with her family right before the roads close.

Published August 19, 2006

TAMPA - It was lunchtime in downtown Beirut when University of South Florida student Andrea Zard heard the pop-pop-pop of gunshots fired into the air by Hezbollah supporters.

The militant Shiite group had just captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several others - a move that set off nearly five weeks of violence and destruction. Hundreds died. Thousands of Israelis and Lebanese were injured and displaced before a tense cease-fire took effect Monday.

In the midst of the fighting was Zard, a 20-year-old from Clearwater.

She went to her native Lebanon on a monthlong internship for USF's global ambassadors program, hoping to get experience toward her degree in international studies.

What she got was a sobering lesson in Mideast conflict.

"I never thought it would get this far," Zard said this week, in her first interview since escaping Lebanon and returning to the United States.

"It's total devastation. I have no idea about the future there."

* * *

Zard and her older brother grew up with her parents and grandparents in Jaleldib, a Christian neighborhood about 10 minutes north of Beirut.

She attended Catholic school there before moving to Clearwater three years ago for college.

One of Zard's earliest memories is from when she was 3, when she slept in a makeshift bomb shelter in her grandmother's basement as the 15-year Lebanese civil war drew to a close.

In the years after, Zard and her family experienced mostly peace. They watched as Beirut underwent a multibillion-dollar reconstruction and once again became a tourist destination.

Every few years, tensions between Israeli and Lebanese forces flared, but Zard said the violence never seemed to last for long. Much of the fighting was isolated to Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, a few hours' drive from her home.

So Zard figured that the missiles that flew after the kidnapping last month would be just as short lived and distant.

"I thought, a couple of rockets and it'll be over, just like always," she said.

But the conflict quickly devolved into intense warfare unlike any she had experienced.

In 34 days, Hezbollah forces fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing civilians and soldiers. Israeli forces fired hundreds of rockets, too, and cut Lebanon off from the world by patrolling its shores and destroying roads and bridges.

Zard never returned to her internship in downtown Beirut. She and her family stayed inside the family home, afraid to venture outside their neighborhood.

Israeli missiles hit Dahyeh, a suburb of Beirut. Her family's house shook.

"You never knew where the rockets were going to hit," Zard said. "We were scared they would hit us."

Days passed and Zard grew restless inside the house. She wondered about the fate of friends in southern Lebanon.

She learned later that a childhood friend lost two family members who were bombed while trying to escape the south.

As the fighting grew worse, Zard's father, an electrical engineer in Lebanon, insisted that they leave the country before Israeli forces destroyed all of the roads leading out.

Zard, her parents and her brother piled into the family car and raced 2½ hours to the Syrian border, following a Russian convoy. Then they took a taxi through Syria into Turkey, a four-hour drive.

Not long after, Israeli missiles destroyed the last of the roads leading out of Lebanon into Syria.

The Zards had gotten out just in time.

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:20:07]

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