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.
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.
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.
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.
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.