From the safety of her home in Billings, Courtney Madsen watched television news reports out of Lebanon on Tuesday, seeing images of Beirut that seemed as if they were in 3-D.

When she saw places she recognized, she envisioned the surrounding neighborhoods, just beyond the camera's lens. She imagined the unnerving thunderclap of bombs dropping and the thumping sound of shelling from the ships of the Israeli blockade.

"It's just much more real to me," said Madsen, a Billings graduate school student in the international relations program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Two weeks ago, when Israel began bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the Hezbollah militia's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Madsen was studying intermediate Arabic at American University of Beirut. After six days, she was removed by freighter to Cyprus.

On Sunday, she returned to Billings after taking a State Department-chartered flight from Cyprus to Philadelphia.

As the students left Beirut on the freighter, Madsen felt a twinge of survivor's guilt at leaving Lebanese friends behind in the war zone with no resolution in sight.

"It was so easy for me to get out," she said. "All these people who were so helpful and so kind, and they're still there."

When the Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, Madsen suspected Israel might occupy southern Lebanon, but she felt relatively safe on the university's campus. Of the 68 students enrolled in the Arabic language program at the university, about 40 were Americans.

"Wednesday evening, it didn't seem bad enough to warn the parents, and then, Thursday a.m. they bombed the airport," she said.

The bombing seemed to settle into a predictable pattern, with the heaviest pounding coming between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The foreign students felt safe enough to leave campus in packs of 10 to 12. A McDonald's restaurant was right across the street.

One night, just after they ordered dinner at an upscale restaurant, they heard two loud explosions. A couple of people bolted for the door. Taking their flight as a cue, the students rushed back to campus. The Lebanese, more resigned to bomb attacks and less fazed by them after more than 20 years of civil war, looked around in the street and went back to eating dinner.

Later that night, the students split a pizza from Domino's as "comfort food."

Although the university and the surrounding neighborhood were unlikely bombing targets, some close calls occurred. The Israelis dropped canisters in the area filled with messages implying that Lebanon was the victim of Hezbollah.

Although the canisters are triggered to explode in mid-air, one failed to detonate. It landed in the soccer field behind the men's dorm at the university, carving a crater about the size of a card table.

A couple of blocks away, an Israeli helicopter shot out the port's lighthouse, which stands beside an ocean-front promenade that is a popular spot for evening strolls.

Beirut is a cosmopolitan city, Madsen said. While some women wear head scarves and loose-fitting overcoats over their clothes, the more secularized Lebanese women look as if they stepped off the pages of Vogue magazine.

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"I have never seen a more beautiful people anywhere," Madsen said.

Before the conflict, she felt safe walking along the promenade and in other parts of the city. She never hesitated to reveal that she was an American student. Sometimes, when she went into a nearby restaurant with her Arabic homework, the waiters would come up and offer to help.

The Saturday before the bombing began, she went out to clubs and danced. Earlier in the day, a group of foreign students at the university had toured Roman ruins in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah-dominated area with posters of martyrs along the roadway and vendors selling $5 T-shirts emblazoned with an insignia from the Hezbollah flag.

During the trip, Madsen snapped a photo of the sky-blue dome of a mosque at Baalbeck. She has since heard that the mosque was bombed.

Madsen was drawn to Beirut to study Arabic in part because the credits would transfer easily to her graduate program at the University of Washington. She had been fascinated by what she knew of the country, and the political situation seemed relatively stable. American University of Beirut runs what is sometimes described as "the Rolls Royce" of language programs, attracting students from many of the Ivy League schools.

Another of Madsen's reasons for studying in Lebanon seems ironic in light of the current conflict.

"I wanted to see what it looks like to rebuild after a civil war," Madsen said.

Instead, she had a very different taste of life in Lebanon.

The experience has changed her, she said. "I really want to be active in this. I really want to make my voice heard."

Although she endured just a few days of bombing, she realizes that millions of people who have basically the same goals in life as her own live in war zones.

"It's important to realize how sheltered we are from that in the U.S. What a luxury that is," she said.

At times, she felt as if she were caught in the middle of U.S. foreign policy. In her view, the United States must push for an immediate cease-fire and offer much more financial support to the elected Lebanese government. The U.S. government should back off from providing so much funding to Israel's military, she said.

"From what I saw, it's the rogue nation," she said of Israel.

Events of the past two weeks have pushed her in a new direction.

"It breaks my parents' heart, but I'll go back the first chance I get," she said. "Beirut means something to me now."

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

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