Hundreds of weary Americans who had been in Lebanon arrived in Atlanta on Saturday wearing crumpled clothes and clutching carry-on bags containing bittersweet mementos of their vacations, business trips and, in some cases, homes.
The passengers were among the last expected waves of U.S. citizens who have been evacuated from Lebanon since fighting broke out between Israel and the Hezbollah militia. Two aircraft carried more than 350 evacuees from Turkey to Atlanta on Saturday, and four more aircraft are expected to arrive in Atlanta today.
Some had spent days struggling to reach Beirut from far-flung parts of Lebanon, and all had spent days queuing in the hot sun to board freighters and aircrafts.
"We had to wait and wait and wait and wait," said Salim Zaytoun, 49, of Washington, D.C., who had traveled to Beirut with his wife and two sons for a two-month vacation to visit family.
After witnessing the bombardment of Beirut's beaches and airport, his family joined the hundreds queued to board the U.S. transport dock ship Trenton last Sunday. The ship set sail for Larnaca, Cyprus, but changed direction midway, finally arriving in the Turkish port city of Mersin on Tuesday. From there, evacuees were taken by bus to Incirlik Air Base, where they were processed for the trip to the U.S.
"The attitudes of the Marines were wonderful," Zaytoun said. "But the process of getting us here was not as good as it could have been."
The Zaytouns waited for days for a flight to transport them from Turkey to the U.S. While they waited, their son Ryan, 9, played basketball and watched movies like "Ice Age." His mother, Ghada, said she could not wait to "relax, go to a spa."
Nearly 15,000 Americans have been evacuated from Lebanon since July 16. The last ship left Beirut on Friday morning.
It is the largest international evacuation of Americans since the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and the Arab countries of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. More U.S. citizens have been evacuated from Lebanon this month than from Iran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and from China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The operation -- which transported people to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta airports, as well as McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey -- is expected to cost taxpayers between $60 million and $65 million.
After passing through customs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, most of the evacuees continued to other U.S. destinations. But some went to a repatriation room set up by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where evacuees were given hot meals, snacks, blankets, comfort kits and stuffed toys. Some received medical and mental healthcare.
Wafaa Hamadeh, a homemaker from Folsom, said she could not wait to catch a connecting flight to Sacramento. The first thing she would do when she got home, she said, was take a shower.
Hamadeh, her husband and their three children were visiting her parents in the mountains -- as she does almost every other year -- and had to take an old back road from her parents' home to Beirut. All the new bridges had been bombed.
As she left the port of Beirut, she watched bombs fall on the city and thought anxiously of her parents.
"It was hard to say goodbye," she said. "It's always hard, but never like this."
Some of the evacuees had intended to hold out in Lebanon but said the bombardment became unbearable.
Angela Monroe, 42, an American mother of six who has lived in Beirut for 13 years, had resolved not to leave Lebanon. That changed when, from her 10th-floor apartment, she watched Beirut's airport being bombed. Her children's school was destroyed, along with her favorite bakery and grocery store.
"We still didn't want to go, but wherever we went there was shelling," she said.
"We realized we had to go."
Monroe and her children plan to travel to her parents' home in Burton, Mich. Her husband, also a U.S. citizen, stayed in Lebanon to attempt to transport his ailing father to safety.
The State Department believes that most American citizens who wish to depart Lebanon with U.S. government assistance have been evacuated. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut is in contact with a group of American citizens who have not been able to find safe passage out of southern Lebanon.
Many of the evacuees who arrived in Atlanta said they were determined to return to Lebanon.
"I have to go back," said Hamadeh.
"Lebanon is a beautiful country. It's not Lebanon's fault that the big countries are playing games."