Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Day in the North

Yesterday I visited the outskirts of Nahr el Bared camp in northern Lebanon, the newest front of the US-led "war on terror". The camp-- the second largest in Lebanon, home to 40,000 Palestinian refugees-- is located just north of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean coast on one side, surrounded by luscious greenery and a highway on the other.

Just outside Nahr el Bared camp

The Lebanese Army has besieged and shelled the camp with the help of American weapons, express delivered over the past few days, in an attempt to eliminate 300-500 Fatah al Islam fighters who attacked and killed 27 soldiers earlier last week. Fatah al Islam is a fanatical Salafi group of Lebanese, Saudi, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Syrian fighters who set up shop there late last year, allegedly with the help of certain individuals in the pro-western Lebanese government. Claims of outright government complicity, which first surfaced in an article by Seymour Hersh in a January issue of the New Yorker have been substantiated through interviews with the Fatah al Intifada leadership and other sources. Locals in Tripoli claim the apartments used as a sniper nest by the militants belong to Future MP Ahmed Fatfat's son. Talk about a negligent landlord who doesn't notice his upscale rental is being used as a weapons cache by a gaggle of devout foreign men.

On the tenth day of the siege, the casualty numbers for civilians killed by army shells and Fatah al Islam gunfire, as well as sniper fire by a yet unknown third party, have not been confirmed as the fighting rages on. The army claims only one civilian was killed; the camp authorities and civilian population cannot clear the rubble or damage incurred to more than two hundred housing units, schools and mosques. Ambulances, aid workers, reporters and inhabitants are denied entrance or re-entrance. Estimated casualties range up to one hundred. Nahr al Bared inhabitants have drawn up a list of seventeen confirmed deaths and dozens more wounded.

Names and ages of the confirmed dead on a wall in Badawe camp

A protest was scheduled for 12.30 in the afternoon, about a kilometer from the northern entrance to the camp. This as close as the Red Cross, Red Crescent and media can get to the camp. An estimated 10,000-15,000 residents remain in the camp.

About two dozen people-- inhabitants of Nahr el Bared, some journalists and activists-- gathered, carrying banners: "More access for ambulances", "Against the restriction on coverage of camp siege. The right to know the humanitarian crisis" and "Condemn the assault on the army. Refuse to jeopardize the safety of the camp and its inhabitants."

Twice as many soldiers formed a line across from the demonstrators, occasionally ordering people to move back as sporadic gunfire erupted in the distance. The atmosphere was notably tense, the soldiers aggravated by the presence of cameras. A reporter from NBN was hauled in and detained by the army. They suspected he was filming them. Other reporters have been detained by the army since the fighting broke out last week.

After an hour, word came from Badawe camp that a group of displaced women and children, refugees from Nahr el Bared were going to walk to join the protest. We set off to meet them by car, to help them get through the army checkpoints. But as they were set to march from Badawe, the camp leadership prevented them from leaving.

En route to Badawe, an equal number of women and foreigners were assigned to each car, to prevent Palestinian passengers from being harassed by the army. As we stopped at an army checkpoint, the soldier peered in and asked us where we were from. "Beirut," the driver responded. "Killon, al chabab? (All the guys?)" he asked. He responded, yes, and we drove on, the displaced breathing a sigh of relief.

We drove around the periphery of the camp on the highway. Army tanks were stationed along the outer wall, which was lined with sandbags and mounds of dirt; we could see two or three scorched multi-story buildings and a damaged mosque.

Nahr el Bared; army tank and dirt mounds outside the camp walls

Refugees from Nahr el Bared surveying the destruction of the camp from the highway

We stopped at a building overlooking Nahr el Bared and climbed to the roof where a camera crew had set up shop before continuing on to Badawe.

Badawe Camp is ordinarily home to 16,000 Palestinian refugees, but has taken in an estimated 15,000 inhabitants of Nahr el Bared who fled the fighting between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army. Families have trickled in every day. Ahmed, a fifty year old man, had left Nahr el Bared just that morning. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes dirty. "They are going to destroy the camp tonight. For nothing. Fatah al Islam-- they will fight to the death." I asked him who funds Fatah al Islam and got the same response I received from a mukhabarat agent (army intelligence) in Gemmayze on Saturday night. Saad al Hariri. "We knew it all along. But why do they have do this now?" Ahmed puzzled, shaking his head.

At the Ghassan Kanafani cultural foundation, a young man showed us a map of Nahr el Bared, the areas he believed to have been shelled and five places where Fatah al Islam are holed up in along the periphery.

"Fatah al Islam are shooting from homes right next to my house, but my house was not hit by the shells. But other areas were all over the camp," he told a group of activists and volunteers. "This area by the beach, we call it Jounieh [a Christian port town to the north of Beirut]. It's very nice," he grinned. He detailed the same story I have heard from numerous parties but have not been able to confirm, since the first busloads of people fled the camp during a ceasefire last Tuesday. Apparently one of the busses leaving the camp was stopped by unknown militiamen. They ambushed the bus, shot the driver and a pregnant woman, stole her valuables and tortured and mutilated other passengers, including children. One of the survivors is allegedly recovering in a Badawe clinic. "We have their names, the names of those were attacked and killed," he avowed.

At a school in the center of Badawe, volunteers and displaced inhabitants of Nahr el Bared had planned an evening of activities in protest of the destruction and siege of their camp. The principle of the school refused to let them host the event in the school's yard. "They are selling us out," a young man protested. "They have orders not to let us protest even inside the camps." After an hour of deliberation, it was decided the event would take place without the permission of the school principle. Loudspeakers were set up as hundreds of children roamed around, playing, helping to put up banners, shouting and clapping.

"I am from Nahr el Bared," a seven-year old boy told me. "But now I live in Badawe". "But you are going back to Nahr el Bared," I replied. "Inshallah," he said cocking his head defiantly.

A young boy selected women's boots from the relief donations

A little girl and her friends came over to tell us that "their" camp is much nicer than this one, as if apologizing for a messy house to unexpected visitors. "My camp is beautiful. Not like this," she said, waving her hand dismissively at her surroundings.

Then it was time for poetry readings, speeches and finally a slide show of four hundred pictures taken from inside the camp. Much of the evening seemed geared towards the media and outside world. "Are you a journalist? Are you a journalist?" screeching children tugged at our clothes. But the media was curiously absent, and the slogans-- many of them in English-- might never be seen beyond the gates of the camp.

Two or three young men dominated the evening's events, shouting through a microphone. S. said, in disbelief, "they are yelling at them not to accept food and aid and sit around helplessly."A little girl read a statement she had written from a piece of paper, to loud cheers from the crowd; a boy recited Koranic verses which were received with whoops of Allahu Akbar.

Fairuz's "Al Quds fil al Baal (Jerusalem on my mind)" played; a slideshow of destruction and dismembered bloody bodies was screened from a projector. I sat next to Noor, a ten year old girl from Nahr el Bared.

She began to sob at the sight of a little boy with bloodied legs followed by a photo of amputated arms; a pair of sandals abandoned in the middle of the street. She dried her tears and asked me about Germany. Candles were handed out and snatched up by all the kids.

The event was over and we drove back to Beirut, mindful of slowing down at army checkpoints and the less evident random paroles. Five people have lost their lives, having failed or refused to stop for the army during the past few days. Oh, but one of the men, a cabdriver shot at a checkpoint near Beirut airport was a criminal, a forger of papers, and Syrian to top it off.

To the readers who complained that I failed to express sympathy for the soldiers and did not condemn the brutal attack against them last Sunday by Fatah al Islam, I have this to say:

I sympathize with the families of the young men and when I first head of the events I was horrified. But their killing does not justify the collective punishment of the camp's inhabitants, who are not to blame for Fatah al Islam's presence in their midst. On the contrary. While much of this country is misdirecting their anger and desire for vengeance against Palestinian civilians and failing to blame the parties who funded and/or tolerated Fatah al Islam, while that same army is blocking the media, paramedics and inhabitants from returning to the camp, and is executing orders that are against international conventions and law, I am more inclined to condemn the political leadership (and of course the kooky fanatics) for those soldiers' deaths.

Support the army from those who put them at risk by funding Fatah al Islam; prevent efforts to split the army along sectarian grounds; protect the army from orders to fight a dirty war against civilians and their homes, against waging a losing battle against a group that should have been denied access to this country, the camps, funds and weapons in the first place.

These civilians are helpless; the army is not, certainly not with the gung-ho support they enjoy on Facebook and from some of my readers.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Palestinian civilians fleeing Nahr el Bared refugee camp

Pop Quiz

Who Said It?

1. We will hunt down and kill the terrorists/ We will not surrender to the terrorists

A. George W. Bush
B. John Kerry
C. Ariel Sharon
D. Elias Murr
E. All of the Above!

2. Support our troops/ the army

A. The Yanks
B. The Phoenicians
C. The Israelis
D. All of the above!

3. They hate us for our Freedom/our Tribunal

A. George "He Tried to Kill my Daddy" Bush
B. Walid "They Killed my Daddy and I didn't mind until 25 years later" Jumblatt
C. Saad "They killed my Daddy. I am Saad Hariri and I am for Chapter Seven" Hariri
C. Nayla "They killed my Husband and I kept silent while on mukhabarat payroll" Mouawad
E. All of the above!

Send your answers to Winners will be announced at a mass grave in Nahr el Bared. The winner receives an "I love Life & the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces)" bumper sticker for the back of their armored hummer.

And here's the Bonus Question:

Which parties previously funded -- directly or indirectly-- terrorists that they later tried to hunt down and kill?

A. Reagan & the Bush dynasty
B. March 14th
C. The House of Saud
D. All of the Above!

The winner of the bonus question gets a free midnight shopping spree at any of the malls mentioned on the UN's list of possible targets.

Bewareth the Mall & Rallying behind the Troops

Monday night at R. and L.'s house in Mar Elias.
I invited R. and L. over to my house, but they declined. "We're staying away from Jesusland for a while." Nearly every car bomb during the past two years has occurred in the "Christian areas" where I live. I took a servis from Achrafiye at around 9 or 10 pm. The streets in Saifi and Gemmayze were almost empty, save a street cleaner or two. "Nobody is out tonight," the car driver noted, expressing his displeasure with the fare we had agreed upon during this lull in business.

At R. and L.'s house, we sat in the living room and discussed the situation. "What are we going to do?" I asked. "You mean where are we going to hang out," L. replied. "We are not going out." "I am not going out ever again," R. said. "It's house party season from now on."

"I've been preparing myself. If a war starts, I will not start smoking again," L. said reclining on the couch as R. and I puffed away. Fifteen minutes later, L. left the room to fill a pitcher with arak in the kitchen. R. and I were deep in conversation, when we heard a thud in the distance. We continued speaking for a few seconds. "Did you hear that?" L. rushed in from the other room. "Did you hear something?" The landline phone rang. R.'s mother, who is also known as "Information Central", walked in puffing on a cigarette in her robe, and answered the phone. She spoke for a few seconds and then hung up. "It's in Verdun"-- an upscale shopping district-- she said and left the room again.

We turned on the TV. Nothing on the news yet. I sent a text message to a friend in Dubai, to my roommate who was at home in Achrafiye, to another friend in Zahle. The lines were already overloaded. I had to re-send each message five or six times. "It will take a few minutes before its on the news," R. said, flipping through the channels. The phone rang again. "It's in Verdun. Near Scoozi restaurant." New TV interrupted its broadcast and confirmed that an explosion had occurred in Verdun, that security guards were pushing people away from the scene of what might have been a targeted assassination. "Who could it be?" We listed the politicians who live close or nearby. Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, Ghazi Aridi. "Please let it not be Saad Hariri. I won't be able to stomach the campaign-- father and son, reunited in heaven."

"Now they have consecutively targeted both the upper crust Christian and Muslim areas in Beirut. I bet over in Achrafiye they're relieved its not in their neighborhood again," I remarked. "I passed by there twice today," L. muttered as we watched a chaotic scene unfold on TV. Dozens of people and policemen gathered around torched cars; flames spit from a commercial high rise building. The camera scanned across the fearful face of a woman of southeast Asian origin, perhaps a tourist, and zoomed in on the smoking facade of Joe Raad's salon-- the hairdresser to the stars. "Where is Nancy Ajram going to get her hair done?" L. remarked. "Perhaps a rival beautician is behind this one."

"This can't be Al Qaeda. Why wouldn't they target Starbucks or Dunes mall instead of a side street?" I posited. "Al Qaeda don't do damage control. They aim for maximum casualties. Usually they ignite a bomb and then wait until the paramedics have arrived, then set another one off. If they did that in Beirut, with all the by-standers rushing to film the explosion on their cellphones, we'd really be screwed."

Twenty minutes later we were channel surfing again, in search of entertainment. "How short our attention is dedicated to such events. After twenty minutes we have already come to terms with it. It seems like old news."

The numbness has set in again. I woke up in the morning and looked at my reflection in the mirror. That slight tan, the detached gaze, the dusty early summer sunlight pouring in through the window-- it was all too reminiscent of last summer.

Somehow it's a relief to be absorbed entirely by outside events; you abandon all other concerns and complaints, when you see 15,000 desperate Palestinian refugees fleeing on foot and by car. But that knot in my stomach has returned-- that sensation of dread and helplessness. And anger.

I promised myself not to spend twenty-four hours a day glued to the TV. If something happens, I will know before it's broadcast on TV or over the Internet. In Lebanon, you either hear an explosion first hand, or someone calls you; at the very latest, a cab driver or shop keeper informs you. The Lebanese are professionals at rapidly dispensing information; everybody knows that you have to be the first to call, because the system will be overloaded within minutes, as an entire nation simultaneously messages and calls their friends and relatives.

The pressing need to know will eventually subside if this continues. Perhaps we will all go about our business during the day and ensure to be safely home before nightfall for the rest of the summer. Maybe we will experience a lull as the wheelings and dealings pick up behind the scenes.

It seems ironic that in a place with as many intricate and entrenched variables for conflict, a phantom group would appear on the scene as the greatest threat to stability. And at the end of the day, I suspect the moment will pass and Fatah al Islam will be overshadowed by other developments; their affiliation with Lebanese Salafists with whom highranking government officials enjoy close ties, will ensure that the threat is played down. A policy of "tolerating" them will ensue in exchange for God knows what. Or the Lebanese Army will announce "a victory"-- at what expense?-- and we will never see the evidence.

In the meantime, I will listen to sirens whiz by and try to predict where the next attack will occur. I will recall the nauseating patriotic display in the US after September 11th, and with a heavy heart accept that it is perhaps all too human to rally behind the troops and state apparatus, to so desire a simplistic narrative involving good and bad guys-- "our boys" versus "the terrorists" and their alleged Syrian sponsors, and to reap satisfaction in the futile display of indiscriminate and overwhelming force against "them", whoever they may be. Perhaps 40,000 helpless Palestinian civilians deserve a break.... You're either with us or you're with the terrorists, an idiot once said.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dubious Militants & the Violated Sanctity of the Bathroom

It's summertime and Lebanon is making headline news again. "Lebanon hit by worst violence since civil war" the first headline on the Google News aggregator screeches (as if the last summer never happened.)

Well it was about time. The events in Gaza were getting way too depressing. The rhetoric of "severe and harsh" responses, the "promise" of a painful escalation emanating from that profane hole in Olmert's face were just a tad too familiar. So it's time for something new and slightly more esoteric:

Fatah al Islam-- a kooky Salafist group, which nobody had heard about until recently-- has set up shop in the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp and is battling it out with the Lebanese army. The group apparently also own prime real estate in an upscale neighborhood of nearby Tripoli -- worth a million dollars and upwards-- which they used as snipers' nests during the house to house gun battles yesterday.

The fighting erupted early Sunday morning when soldiers raided an apartment inhabited by militants to arrest the suspected perpetrators of a bank robbery. Fatah al Islam subsequently stormed the army posts outside the camp, lining up and executing eleven soldiers. At least 47 dead in yesterday's clashes, without an updated casualty count from the besieged Nahr el Bared camp where 40,000 Palestinian refugees live. Fighting continued today.

Nobody really knows who Fatah al Islam are or what they want. Their members reportedly hail from as far as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh. They stand accused of having ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq and of carrying out the Ain Alaq bus bombing, which the group denies ( very un-qaeda'esque not to claim responsibility.) According to a spokesman, they seek to "protect the Sunnis of Lebanon" and a sheikh associated with them recently complained that only the Shi'a are allowed to yield weapons. The militant equivalent of penis envy, perhaps. Either way, they need better PR.

Saniora's government claims Fatah al Islam, a breakaway group of the Palestinian Fatah al Intifada, work for Syrian intelligence. Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker in January proposed an alternative explanation:

"Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, 'The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.' Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. 'I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,' Crooke said."

Apparently, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa granted entry visas to 2,000 Al Qaeda-associated militants in December 2005 who never left Lebanon, but rather set up shop in that same camp. Read the rest of Hersh's piece to learn how Saad al Hariri intervened to release Salafist militants from prison. New TV just reported that a framed picture of al-Hariri was found in one of the homes of the militants in Tripoli. Oops!

This is all old news, of course, and the western media is doing us all a great disservice by blindly regurgitating the Saniora government's claims about Syrian sponsorship, and by ignoring these embarassing little details. Fatfat, the minister of Youth, Sports & Caffeinated Beverages, put in his two cents arguing that the violence was intended to derail the International Tribunal. Nayla Mouawad-- just now on CNN-- reiterated the same, and said something about no longer tolerating the "extra-territoriality" of the Palestinians. Lovely. The dumb bell CNN anchor who looked as confused as ever listening to the convoluted ramblings of Dame Nayla made it seem like Fatah al Islam represented the entire Palestinian nation in exile.

What seems clear is that whoever once sponsored or gave orders to Fatah al Islam has unleashed a beast they no longer control and a policy of trying to contain (or tolerate) the group is no longer working.

In the meantime, the army which is not allowed to enter Nahr el Bared, is shelling the camp "indiscriminately", according to a PFLP spokesman earlier today. The wounded are not receiving medical attention; fires are raging. "We want ambulances to be allowed into the refugee camp to transfer the civilian casualties. We also want fire brigades to enter the camp and put off the fire in many buildings." A cloud of black smoke envelopes the camp, and rescue workers who were trying to evacuate the wounded were fired upon.


Last night, I watched a cheesy thriller on TV as a respite from the bad news. My tolerance for cinematic suspense is low, a hereditary condition handed down by my mother who leaves the room at least 20 times in the course of an episode of "Columbo". After the movie, my friend M. went home and I went to the bathroom. With the ominous film soundtrack still ringing in my ear, I was just sitting down on the loo (excuse the details) when I decided that it was best to close the window behind me, so as not to have my back to it (they always attack from behind in movies.)

Suddenly I heard an extraordinary blast, which shook the whole bathroom. For a moment I thought the noise was in my head, that I has suffered some sort of brain tremor, that my vision was blurred and my ears were ringing from combusted brain cells. I heard something fall in the kitchen. I leaped up and ran into the living room to call my friend M. who had just left the house minutes earlier. By the time I dialed his number, he was pounding on the door.

"What was that?" "A massive explosion. There was glass breaking outside," he said, hurrying past me into the living room to turn on the TV.

There were no reports on TV, so we climbed up to the roof. Most of the neighbors were standing out on their balconies. Nobody spoke, except for the policemen who guard the minister's home across the street. They were frantically trying to re-assume their position in front of the house they are supposed to be guarding. Billows of black smoke and the smell of burning carbon filled the air.

I sent as many text messages as my shaking hand allowed-- to family and friends. Conflicting reports about the exact location of the bombing appeared on various news sites, until-- about forty-five minutes later-- it was established that a car bomb had exploded in a parking lot next to the ABC Achrafiye mall, just a few hundred meters away. The bomb tore a 3 m wide and 1/5 m deep radius into the ground. A wall collapsed on a 63-year old lady in her nearby apartment. 12 others were wounded by broken glass.

Lebanon is making headlines again; the Palestinians are bearing the brunt of it, and we are chain-smoking ourselves to death in the early summer sun.