Sunday, June 03, 2007
A Day in the North Pt. II
Yesterday morning, I woke up and switched on the TV. The usual black and white smoke clouds above the skyline of Nahr el Bared camp. The army claimed it had advanced so-and-so many meters into the camp; miraculously only Fatah al Islam "intruders" were killed. The news update ended; a clip set to a bombastic marching tune praising the heroic Lebanese army. I turned off the TV and went to wake M. up. He was in his usual position-- face down, sprawled diagonally across the bed. "We want to go to the north. We don't know what's going on from watching TV. Will you take us?" "No. Take a bus," he mumbled, and went back to sleep.
M. is from the north; he knows Nahr el Bared camp and the surrounding area. Last summer he worked as a fixer driving journalists around Dahiye and the south in his rusty wreck of a Honda. It has seen twenty or more accidents and can barely make 60 km per hour. Half of the car's body is black, the other half grey with some splashes of white. The car horn -- a primary means of asserting yourself in traffic -- only works sporadically; this has taught him patience, he contends. M. knows how to talk to every type of authority. He has a knack for dialects and caters his word choice to each individual situation.
I consulted with my roommate Y. who was all dressed up and ready to go. I shrugged. "You ask him. He might listen to you." We returned to the room, and tugged on M.'s leg, like two pesky children begging for a goodnight story. "Please, will you go with us? We can't go without you. You know the roads. Please?" He yawned, rolled over, and obliged us. "OK, we'll leave in ten minutes. Go load the batteries for the camera and get us breakfast."
An hour and a half later, we turned off the highway north of Tripoli and headed towards the sea, along the same road I had taken only a few days ago, past the former army checkpoint 5 to 6 kilometers south of the Nahr el Bared refugee camp. Two very loud explosions from the mountains to the east caught us by surprise. We ducked; M. hit the brakes. A BMW skidded and raced past us. We honked, signaled for him to stop and pulled up next to him. "Is it safe to take this road? Are there snipers? We are trying to find the place where the journalists and medics are stationed." The young man behind the steering wheel was in a hurry. "You can go about 4 kilometers. The road beyond that is in the line of fire. You take a right up at the corner..." He broke off in mid-sentence and signaled for us to follow him instead.
We trailed him, along the coastal dirt road, lined with dilapidated houses and car mechanic shops. A few dozen men were tinkering away at their cars; women and children stood on their balconies or peered from the windows as explosions and gunfire erupted, seemingly from various locations. "It sounds like they are firing those new American 240 mm shells," M. said. "It's definitely bigger than a 155mm. Be really vigilant and on the look out," he instructed us. "On the look out for what? Snipers?" I inquired. "Just be alert," he replied keeping his eye on the road ahead.
The BMW we had been following now pulled over to the side of the road. "I have to turn off to the right here. The journalists should be at the next intersection, just up ahead. Be careful," he advised. We drove on slowly, but there was nobody at that intersection, nor at the next. "Have we driven too far," I wondered. "Is it even possible for us to get too close without the army turning us away?" My roommate in the back seat agreed that we should turn around, except then, just ahead I recognized the checkpoint at which last week's demonstration had taken place.
To my surprise it was unfortified and only manned by one soldier in the company of a tall, lanky man, sporting olive green fatigues, a hefty but well-trimmed beard, sunglasses and what resembled a straw safari hat. We crept towards them and rolled down the window. "Excuse me, where are all the journalists and medics?" M. asked the soldier. "Everybody's gone. They left," he replied with remarkable disinterest. "Where did they go?" "They went somewhere else. That way..." he replied waving his hand. "Is it safe to drive up that road?" "No," the bearded-man in the olive green fatigues interjected. "But go if you like..."
We reversed and drove back down the same road. "Can we drive really fast?" I asked, reclining in the seat. M. assured me that we would, as soon as we got further away from the checkpoint. "That man... the man with the beard-- he's not in the army," M., whose father is an administrator in the Lebanese Army, noted. "Who the hell was he?" I asked. "He was probably a militia man. Must have been. And his uniform was ironed. This wasn't some makeshift outfit. He wears that every day. That's his job," M. surmised, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. "He looked like an Islamist version of a platoon leader," I remarked. "Perhaps we just saw one of the 'third party' fighters." "I believe it now," M. concluded. "That was probably the militia they've been talking about. It's true what they've been saying."
We turned left at the end of the coastal dirt road to return to the highway. Three or four military jeeps passed us. None of the soldiers took note of us. Back on the highway, a procession of ten to twelve tanks, fortified with sandbags, each carrying 5-6 soldiers, their rifles cocked in every direction passed us en route to Nahr el Bared. "This looks like something out of World War II. These aren't the same boys who lackadaisically man the tanks in Beirut. They are here to fight..." I noted, as we slowed down to a crawl for the road block ahead.
M. routinely removed his sunglasses, earring and turned off the stereo. The soldier peered at us through the window. His eyes yellow and bloodshot, he mouthed "hawiyyeh," and signaled for an ID card with both his hands. M. handed him the document. "Tfaddal. Allah ma'ak," the soldier whispered hoarsely.
We turned off the highway and up the winding road to Badawe camp. Outside a shop, two armed Palestinian guards directed us to the back entrance of the camp. We parked outside a UNRWA school and entered the yard. Men, women and children sat around on plastic chairs seeking shade on the steps leading up to the school. A hand-written sign in the yard read, "Massacre is in Nahr El Bared. PRESS: Go there."
We crossed the school yard and entered the adjacent Ghassan Kanafani cultural center I had visited last week. In one of the offices, two members of Save the Children foundation were at work, labeling the positions of Fatah al Islam, schools and mosques on a Google Earth map of the camp.
A Swedish woman, a "child safety consultant," according to her business card, briefed us on the latest developments. "We are receiving pictures of the dead-- children, the disabled and elderly. Most of the people who remained are very old; others stayed because they fear not being allowed to return to their homes and being re-located to temporary encampments." "How are you receiving the photos?" I asked. "People are sending them in over their phones. I just received one of a sixty-year old woman, her head blown off. Just now they say a large building near the marketplace, in the densest area of the camp, collapsed from continuous shelling. The situation is bad. Bad. Very bad," she said, and returned to her computer. "Oh and the Lebanese press are denying there are still as many people in the camp," she continued. "There are at least 5,000 who remain inside. They keep reporting that only the Fatah al Islam remain. It's simply not true."
I asked her about the bus of refugees fleeing Nahr el Bared that was allegedly ambushed by militia men during the first ceasefire. That day, I had received text messages from people up north, reporting that civilians had been shot and tortured as they tried to flee; shot and tortured by a "third party militia". When I visited Badawe last week, I heard the same story from a young man and an elderly lady. The Swedish child safety consultant sized me up. "The thirteen year old boy on the bus, he was tortured with electricity. He survived. His grandfather has taken him out of the camp, because he doesn't want him to have to answer any more questions. An Amnesty International delegation is here looking for him." I replied that I had also heard of two survivors who were being treated in the Norwegian hospital at the camp's entrance. "Yes, that's what they say. I don't think they want to talk about it now," she replied cooly.
We left her office and wandered out into the yard. A group of teenage boys surrounded us. "Are you journalists? Who do you work for?" "Not really," M. replied. "We are just here visiting for the day." "Hey, do you want to drink some laban donated by Hariri?", Ali, who claimed to be seventeen, inquired puffing on a cigarette. "I don't like Hariri," I declined. "Neither do we. But it's good laban. Come!" he beckoned. We walked with him and his friends back to the UNRWA school yard and out into an adjacent parking lot. "If you don't want laban. We can drink whiskey," he suggested. "I will invite you for a night at Casino du Liban. They serve big platters of fruit with the drinks there," Ali mused. "It's very expensive. And full of khalijis," I replied. "No, it only costs 75,000LL ($50)," Ali insisted.
An elderly disabled man came over and handed us a petition, hand-written on the back of a sheet of baking foil. "We ask that the army and Fatah al Islam agree to take the fighting outside our camp." "It's like Jenin," another man interjected. Ahmed, who I spoke to last Tuesday hours he had fled the camp, was eager to re-tell his story to M. and Y. The frenzied pitch with which he spoke reminded me of stories of torture victims from the 1980s in South America. Many survivors were maddened by the prospect that nobody would believe them; their torturers had been careful to leave no exterior wounds, instead inflicting internal bruising and psychological injuries. "There is not one dead civilian. Not one. Many many many. Not one," Ahmed repeated.
While we were chatting with the kids in the street, a gunman from "Saiqa" asked us to disperse. "I'm really sorry, but we need to keep things calm," he said. "Things are very tense." We apologized as he horded the kids back into the parking lot. He offered us juice. "I was born during the summer of 1982. In a bomb shelter. Our situation now is quite similar," he remarked.
Posted by EDB at 10:18 PM