Skip to main content
Subscribe to E-news

Eyewitness to War

USC College’s Carol Wise on her experiences during the outbreak of war in Lebanon.

Eyewitness to War

When USC College’s resident expert on Latin America, Carol Wise, was heading to Beirut this summer on a Fulbright award, she had a lot on her mind.

There are numerous parallels between developing countries like Lebanon and those in Latin America, so the associate professor of international relations was eager to share knowledge that could contribute to development debates in Lebanon. In addition, this was a chance for Wise to see a part of the world that she’d never visited. As would any IR scholar, she was looking forward to a chance for meaningful cultural exchange.

She never planned on witnessing the beginning of a war, up close and personal. She couldn’t have dreamed that she’d leave Lebanon on a U.S. Marines chopper bound for Cyprus as part of a forced evacuation.

On August 3, only a day off a plane from London to LAX, Wise sat down with USC College staff writer Wayne Lewis and talked about her experience.

First of all, welcome back, and we’re happy to have you home and safe.

Thank you.

You were in Beirut as part of a Fulbright program?

It’s called the Senior Fulbright Specialist, and it’s a six-week program where faculty with an expertise in other parts of the world go to a region that’s new to them. The Middle East was a region that’s completely new to me, because I teach Latin American studies here at USC. It’s a real exchange in terms of regional expertise.

I had a graduate course of eight master’s students at Lebanese American University. In Lebanon, many people are identified by what they call their “confessional group” — their religious affiliation. This class was split right down the middle between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. So it was an incredibly rich exchange for me, given that the history of the country is very sectarian and that I was coming in with very little knowledge of the country or the region.

You were teaching a graduate-level course on Latin America?

I taught a master’s level course, and the course was called “Lessons from Latin American Development.” The reason for the course was that Lebanon, as you probably know from all the news now, had really just been a year into a complex democratization process — which turned out not to be as stable as we thought, right? At first glance, the country did appear to be on a stable trajectory. Growth was up. Tourism was booming, that kind of thing.

So the idea was to begin talking about on-the-ground, micro-level development. That’s always the last frontier in many of these developing countries, and so “Lessons from Latin American Development” was literally a micro-oriented course looking at income-distribution, inequality, small firms and the sources of growth, especially employment growth.

And what was the first sign of trouble for you?

It all came on so fast.

It was a Tuesday evening, and I had just had a beer with a colleague from the university. On the TV in the café we had seen the news, but it was in Arabic, and I have no Arabic. So he informed me that Hezbollah had captured two soldiers on the other side of the Lebanon-Israeli border. That was July 11. I said, “That’s terrible, but hopefully it’ll be resolved.”

You get up the next morning and the airport’s been bombed. The south of Lebanon, particularly south Beirut, which is a Hezbollah stronghold, has been bombed. You can hear the bombs.

What was your experience like in Beirut during that time between first hearing about the newscast and then the helicopter evacuation?

I had never been through one of these kinds of conflicts before. I’d been in countries in Latin America where there are guerilla insurgencies and there are curfews and blackouts. But this was an escalation to a full-blown war in a matter of 24 hours.

At first there was resistance and denial. I thought, “They’ll get this resolved.” I was having an incredibly rich exchange with the university, the faculty, the students. It’s an amazing country, the culture, the people. So I wasn’t ready to go.

I went, in really a very quick amount of time, from resistance, to agitation and the realization that something big was coming down. But I didn’t realize the consequences. I was thinking the whole world would step in and this could be solved. Ha!

By the weekend, I was being forcibly evacuated by the U.S. embassy. I was told, “Get one bag ready and be ready to leave. We need a two-hour window.”
The embassy was directly responsible for me because I was a Fulbright Specialist, and they began the evacuation with us. I was very privileged to get out on one of those helicopters, because then everybody else got stuck waiting for those boats to come, the delay and everything else.

It was very secretive when these flights were leaving and where they were leaving from, because they could be a target, mainly by Hezbollah, not by the Israelis. Hezbollah is believed to be the group that is responsible for that really tragic killing of some 241 soldiers in the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983. The embassy did not want to take any chances.

You said that Dean Starr was in touch with you.

The dean’s office began e-mailing me during this period when I was in denial. By Friday they were e-mailing saying, “We’ve contracted a special company in London that has an expertise in evacuation, and they’ll be contacting you.” So the College began making moves to evacuate me. Then the embassy actually took over. I was in daily e-mail contact with the dean’s office. And I said, “I’m finally safe and I’ll be out of here.”

You were evacuated to Cyprus?

Yes. It was a U.S. Marines evacuation and each helicopter held about 21 or 22 passengers, traveling two at a time together. These are the helicopters, like in movies, with the machine guns and the soldiers in full garb, because there was an outside chance that somebody’s stray rocket or somebody’s stray missile would hit one of these helicopters.

We went to a small Royal Air Force base. The British still held a small territory in the middle of Cyprus that dated back to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in ‘74. We got off there, and we were taken to a hotel in one of the main towns in Cyprus. Then began the whole process of the humanitarian exodus of people and the question of what to do with all of these people.

It took me from July 17 until July 30 to get a confirmed ticket out of Cyprus. I had gone to the airport before that trying to get a seat, and the lines literally went from this building to the freeway, of people trying to get out. And I thought, “There’s no point in just standing in line all day.”

So I waited. I worked through the travel agent here on campus. I was so privileged to have the ticket and have the means to get out.

Many of these people were evacuees and Lebanese, and they were just carrying their belongings, and it was not clear where they were going. They couldn’t stay in Cyprus, right? There’s nothing for them there. Many of them have family members in other countries because of so much strife in Lebanon in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. But it really wasn’t clear where they were going or what means they had to go — it was really pretty bad.

I understand that the students you were working with were all fine, and you actually completed the course online. Can you talk about that?

We completed the course online, believe it or not. They all headed for the hills, because the mountains were safe. It was the coast, obviously, and particularly the south of Beirut, that was so dangerous.
So I had written to the Fulbright sponsor, which is the Institute for International Education in Washington, D.C., and said, “Look, I’m going to have to leave. You know that. But for many of these students, this was the last course they needed to obtain their master’s degree, and given who knows when the university’s going to open again, I would like to complete this online.”

So what I’ve done is put all of my lectures online for them, Q & A back-and-forth in a blog format. One of the students created the blog for the course. I just sent them the final exam, and now those are coming back. But I’m also trying to recruit one of the students to come and apply for our Ph.D. program here at USC.

Do you think that, as an IR professor, you experienced the entire ordeal in Lebanon differently compared to other evacuees?  Do you think you saw it through a different lens?

The difference of being a Fulbright Specialist meant that I was in a privileged position to be one of the first groups out, because after that the helicopters were no longer offering transport. It became a mass maritime evacuation of 14,000 people on rented cruise ships. Being an IR professor got me out early.

Other than that, from your most uneducated person on the street to your most sophisticated analyst, be they diplomat or IR professor, I think, everyone was in a state of shock over how quickly it escalated.

Also when you’re there, in the midst of the bombings and the deaths, the carnage and destruction, there was a general sense of shock over the passivity of the international community. Nobody really wanted to get in there and stop it. I guess it’s easier for me to criticize it from a distance, but no one really wanted to take the responsibility to get in there and say, “All right. Let’s get this prisoner swap going. Let’s get something moving here. Let’s really put an end to this.”

Anything I missed in asking questions that you’d like to get on the record?

I just want to say that I accepted this invitation to go to Lebanon — they reached out to me, they invited me, they wanted somebody who worked on development and on Latin America, because the Lebanese American University felt that a Latin American reform scenario is most akin to what they face now. In all of these countries, small firms are the source of growth and employment, but they contribute so little to gross domestic product, right? Then the big firms control everything but employ very little, and the challenge is obviously how to bridge this development gap.

So I have to say that up until this horrible explosion of war, the debates there, the thinking about development, what the country had been through in terms of reconstructing itself after a 15-year civil war — it’s almost like a laboratory for political economy. In its own way, Lebanon was clearly moving forward. Seeing this country thrown back into turmoil was really so upsetting.

You know, someone said to me on the helicopter when we were being evacuated, “Well, I guess you’ll never return here again.” And I said, “I will return here. I will definitely be back again.”