Czechs leave Lebanon in convoys, fashion designer Blanka Matragi decides to stay

Photo: CTK

After witnessing Israel's wave of attacks against the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, a group of eleven Czechs were happy to return to safety on Sunday. Dozens of Czechs are now being evacuated from Beirut by the Czech government; first by bus to Syria and then by plane back to the Czech Republic. Czech Airlines has grounded all return flights from Prague to Beirut until July 23.

Photo: CTK
As countries around the world are urging their citizens in Lebanon to leave, we spoke to Richard Krpac, the spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, to find out how the evacuation procedures are going and how many Czechs are still believed to be in Lebanon:

"According to the Czech embassy in Beirut, there are approximately 150 people of Czech origin or with Czech passports living on Lebanese territory. To this number, we should add a couple dozen students and tourists. So there are just under 200 Czechs."

Eleven returned to the Czech Republic on Sunday morning. I understand there was another convoy that was to leave on Monday morning...

Photo: CTK
"Yes, that's right. At 7:45 am another convoy left. Part of the convoy that was organised together with the British embassy were two Czech buses with some 80 Czech and Slovak citizens. According to our information they have successfully crossed the border into Syria and now they are on the way to Latakia, which is the airport from which we hope to transfer them to the Czech Republic."

Are any more convoys being organised?

"Not at the moment. The situation in Lebanon is worsening and we issued the warning that this may have been the last convoy that we were able to organise."

Photo: CTK
Have many Czechs contacted the embassy to say that they are fine?

"The embassy has been in touch with every single citizen of the Czech Republic in the past few days through SMS or by telephone and we are leaving the option to stay or to leave up to the Czechs. There must be at least several dozen more Czechs who have decided to stay and that is their free will."

Blanka Matragi, photo: CTK
One Czech who has no intention of leaving is the successful fashion designer Blanka Matragi. She is married to a Lebanese and has been living in Beirut for over twenty years now. Despite the bad telephone connections, we managed to get Mrs Matragi on the phone earlier on Monday to describe the situation in the capital:

"We are moving from our office to our residence because it is safer, but no one really knows where it is safer. We have a shelter under our residence, so maybe we will stay underground."

Can you tell me why you have decided not to take part in the evacuations?

"All of our community and our friends are staying. Even other Czech people are staying, they sympathize with the families. There are many complications in leaving the family and separating. Also I have a duty here, I employ people and I will not leave them. They don't know what will happen. I am giving them food, I am giving them money. I have been used to this for 25 years; I have been here for 25 years. We know what to expect."

How close were the shootings or bombings to the civilian areas?

Photo: CTK
"It is everywhere. We are surprised they are shooting the ports, the roads, and the petrol stations. Everyone is shocked because of this attack. It is not fair to the Lebanese. Of course they never agreed with Hezbollah, but now they are also against Israel because they should not attack the civilian parts of Beirut or Lebanon in the north. People do not feel safe anywhere."

And at the moment, what is everyday life like now? If I can ask that...

"Everyday life is normal. The supermarkets are open. But just before you called, we heard a big explosion in the banking and commercial area downtown. We were surprised. Why would they start to bomb this area? Everyone is asking why? Why? Why? And you can see that people are scared."