U.S. Policy, Not Militia Gunfire, Drives Missionary Teacher Nancie Wingo Out of Lebanon

updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

In West Beirut gunmen were hiding their weapons, even as garbage collectors ventured out to begin cleaning up the city. Occupying Syrian troops had brought momentary quiet to the battered Lebanese capital. At 6:15 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the troops entered West Beirut, the white-washed ferryboat Empress steamed into Larnaca, Cyprus. The eight-hour, 125-mile Mediterranean voyage from Lebanon had been through a raging electrical storm, which seemed to reflect the mood of its passengers. Among the refugees were 17 Southern Baptist missionaries, including Nancie Wingo, 55, who in 1964 had gone to Lebanon as an English teacher in the Beirut Baptist school, located in the heart of the Muslim-controlled western half of the city. Beneath her jacket, she was wearing a cream-colored silk blouse perforated with shrapnel holes—a casualty of the crossfire whipping over her balcony where the blouse had hung to dry. Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, Wingo, sister of Assistant Managing Editor Hal Wingo, explained to Correspondent Mira Avrech why only an order from the U.S. government could have forced her to leave Lebanon....

Take one suitcase and come!" said the Lebanese army officer who stood at the door of my apartment. He had come to escort us across the "green line" from Muslim West Beirut to the relative safety of Christian East Beirut.

I had known for days that we would leave. We wanted to stay, but the State Department had declared that if we did not leave Lebanon we could be fined or imprisoned when entering the U.S. I had everything in suitcases and boxes ready to ship, but when the officer appeared at my door he said that I was allowed to bring only one bag. My greatest worry was that I wouldn't have a chance to say good-bye to the students and teachers, the people I had lived with and loved for so many years. The fighting in the streets had been so heavy that there had been no school for four days. I really just stood there and debated with myself, "Should I go now, when I'm not ready? This is too fast. I don't know if I want to go!" But then I also thought, "Who knows if I'll get another chance? And if, in spite of the danger, this man came to get me across to East Beirut, I can't tell him now that I don't want to go."

So Mrs. Jim Ragland, our school principal's wife, and I got into the army car and took off. It was scary. There had been a lot of sniping, and there was nobody else in the streets as the car moved quickly to avoid rifle fire from the rooftops. At the last checkpoint in West Beirut, we had to cross a four-block stretch of no-man's-land.

My first thought on entering East Beirut that day was that I hated the idea of leaving the country from that side. Sometimes when I love something and it's taken away from me, I don't want anything else. Nothing else is right. I wanted to be in West Beirut—or gone from Lebanon.

The fighting of the past few weeks had been different. Many times before we had been caught in fights because one militia was in conflict with another. The Hizballah, Amal, Druze, Shi'ites and Sunnis had all fought each other at one time or another. But this time, all the parties were fighting against Amal. My sixth floor apartment, just a block from the school, was situated between Druze and Amal militias shooting at each other. The gunmen were firing back and forth without even seeing where they were shooting. Sometimes they would put their machine guns over the side of the roof and just spray! In the last days before I left, they hit five different glass doors of my apartment. I had replaced these doors four times before from the fighting, and now, here they were, crumbled again.

The first two nights of the fighting I'd moved my sofa into the hall and stayed there because that meant there was an outside room all around. If any rocket-propelled grenades came in, they would explode in one of the outside rooms. I'd seen what happens when the shrapnel from those RPGs hits a room. You learn not to trust your walls. After a couple of days, when the fighting became heavier than ever before, I couldn't get back to my apartment so I stayed with Mrs. Ragland at the school compound. Leola and her husband, Jim, had left for the East Side two weeks before, but she had come back to pack their things. The American Embassy had insisted that Jim leave West Beirut because of the threat of kidnapping to American men.

With Jim's departure, I was left to run the school, which was difficult. I am an English teacher and not used to directing 940 students. They had seen the photos in the weekend papers of Dr. Ragland leaving and they were in shock. When they came to school on Monday I spoke to the older ones in chapel and told them that my father—who was a Baptist pastor in Texas for 50 years—always said that if a pastor leaves a church and the church falls apart, it means that he wasn't a very good pastor. So I told them that now it was up to them to show what a good director he had been, to demonstrate the respect he had always taught.

You have to understand how important education is to the people of Lebanon. Seventy percent of our students are Muslim and only 30 percent Christian. The Muslims are determined to come to our school, even though everyone must study the Bible and go to chapel. Every spring parents come and insist that we accept their children. Often a mother would come to enroll her child and be told there were no more places in the school. Sometimes, after arguing with the school secretary to no avail, the mother would return the next day with several gun-carrying militiamen. Then Jim Ragland would have to agree to give the child an entry exam and accept more children in the school than we knew was ideal.

This is not my first time to be evacuated. During the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, the Arabs wanted us out because they felt the Americans had been very pro-Israeli, and they began to break into American businesses and attack anything they saw that was American. That was the wildest and most dangerous period I can remember. We left West Beirut again during the Israeli invasion in 1982. We went to live in the mountain towns because of the air strikes over the city. Those were the only two times in all my years there that we didn't have graduation at the school, because the fighting broke out just before our June ceremonies.

Last week the sniping was so bad as I ran back from the Ragland's house to my apartment that I was terrified I'd be hit. Still, although I was scared, I knew in a few days a ceasefire would end the fighting, and I did not want to leave the city. When friends ask me why I stayed all these years I think about how wonderful Lebanon was when I first arrived. Lebanon really hasn't had much of a chance in recent years because of all the different groups competing for power within it. But what kind of person would I be if I said to the Lebanese, "Your life isn't secure anymore, so I'm going to get out of here!" The students were important to me when I first went to Lebanon, and they were no less important now because life was difficult. Wouldn't I be a hypocrite to stay for the good years and leave during the bad? The truth is we stayed in Beirut because we felt that we had become part of the community there, and that what we were doing was important. We were trying to contribute to what was still good in the country. We felt the only hope for Lebanon was its youth, and we were there to work with the youth.

The Lebanese people are amazing. In the November 1986 fighting, the Druze and Amal militia were shooting and killing each other and school was closed for three days. When it reopened, the children of those families who'd been on opposite sides hugged each other and said, "God willing, nothing happened to you, or to your family. I hope that everybody is all right." The interesting thing is that not one of our students has joined a militia. None of them wants to fight.

When I look back at my stay in Beirut, I will always be grateful to God for these years. It was a special gift. I resent those politicians in the U.S. who say that the Americans who stayed in West Beirut were irresponsible and stubborn. I don't understand why it is better to risk your life for a military or scientific cause than it is to risk your life to help people, people who are trying to maintain some goodness in a world that is caving in around them.

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