Australians lost in a warzone
July 15, 2006
UP to 25,000 Australians are stranded in Lebanon as Israeli jets strafe the streets in a nation virtually cut off from the outside world.
With the Australian Embassy in Beirut shut, they are being forced to fend for themselves.
The battle between Israel and terror group Hezbollah has turned a traditional annual pilgrimage for thousands of Australian-Lebanese into a living nightmare.
Among those trapped were 70 teenagers from the Armenian Sydney Dance Company and their 10 chaperones.
The troupe was only stopping in Lebanon for two days after returning from a dance competition in Armenia.
As bombs rained down on the Lebanese capital, the dancers - average age 17 - have been told to stay in their rooms at the White Tower Hotel.
Half a world away, frantic parents are desperately trying to reach their children to ascertain their well-being.
Dance company president Reg Kolokossin's two sons, Peter, 16, and Garbis, 18, are among those trapped in their besieged Beirut hotel.
"Some parents here are comforted by the fact their children are telling them they are okay, but we are worried about the long term affects and how long they are going to be stuck there," Mr Kolokossin, whose three nieces are also stranded, said.
"None of us here have been getting any sleep. We are overcome with worry.
"We are hearing the American President talking about bringing in ships and helicopters to get their citizens out.
"We want to hear what our Government is going to do and how quickly they're going to do it to bring our children home."
Australian Muslim Doctors Against Violence president Dr Jamal Rifi fears for the safety of his sister Rajja Rifi, her husband Azam Allouche and their three sons Hilal, 12, Adam, 15 and Ahmed, 17.
"My sister hasn't been back to Lebanon since she moved here 20 years ago - she has spent the past six years planning this trip," Dr Rifi told The Saturday Daily Telegraph.
He spent several hours yesterday trying to contact his sister via telephone.
"We just can't get through. The other night we tried for four hours but the lines are constantly congested," he said.
Dr Rifi said his sister and her family were seeking refuge in northern Lebanon while plans were being arranged to get them out via Syria or Jordan.
"The problem with that is that the Australian Embassy is closed and they cannot get visas," he said.
He said, with major highways in the country closed, any plans to escape via the road network would be fraught with danger.
In Sydney, Arabic-speaking Australians with relatives stranded in Lebanon are inundating Arabic commercial radio station 2ME with their fears for loved ones.
Station general manager John Martin told The Saturday Daily Telegraph the network's 16 phone lines had been in "meltdown" since the crisis in Lebanon escalated.
He said listeners were desperate to know why the decision was made to close the Australian Embassy - effectively stranding thousands of Australians enjoying the northern summer.
He said callers had put aside religious differences to express their fears for their motherland and relatives caught up in the bloody violence.
"We have 16 phone lines and every one of them has been in complete meltdown all day," Mr Martin said.
"People are validly worried for their relatives."
For announcer Anis Ghanem, that fear is close to home, with his wife Jacqueline stranded in eastern Beirut.
"She went over late last month to visit her sick mother and was due back in two weeks," a worried Mr Ghanem said.
"I have been trying to get through to her for the past two days but because others are also trying to check on relatives, the lines are congested."
Georgies lap dog
Israel didn't cause latest unrest: PM
The latest events in the Middle East are happening because of a Hizbollah incursions, not because of Israeli violations, Prime Minister John Howard says.
Mr Howard said he was appalled at the loss of life on both sides of the latest conflict but such incidents were fated to continue unless there were some basic understandings.
Israel has blockaded Lebanese ports and struck Beirut airport and two military airbases, expanding reprisals that have killed 53 civilians in Lebanon since Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers a day earlier.
Mr Howard took issue at whether the response to recent incidents was to condemn Israeli actions or not.
"This latest incident started because of the Hizbollah incursion into Israel against all of the resolutions of the United Nations, against all of the understandings now of international law," Mr Howard told ABC radio.
"Do I think it's appalling? Yes. I am other than totally appalled at the loss of life on both sides? It is terrible.
"Like every other world leader, I would like it to stop.
"But you will never have any kind of lasting settlement in this part of the world until two things are accepted - there is an absolute acceptance of Israel's right to exist in peace and be free of terrorist attacks, and there's an absolute commitment to the emergence of a Palestinian state."