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.


Unknown said...

Thanks, EDB. Keep your spirits up -- dave

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

EDB, I liked your end rebuttal especially. Well put.

Anonymous said...

Emily, you're awesome as usual....

Anonymous said...

If the Palies continue to allow (enourage?) the terrorists in their midst, then their blood is on their own heads.

You can't run around murdering your hosts.

Anonymous said...

prelude to the coming civil strife !?

Oberon Brown said...

The reason why Fatah el Islam was "tolerated" is because Lebanon is a democracy; and for the same reason, the government still allows people like the Syrian Nationalist Party or people with similar causes to exist, and express their opinions: that is of course, as long as it doesn't include attacking the national army.
Now about "the army executing orders that are against international conventions and law", I don't think that's true... Nobody except some leftist media mentionned the point. Are we military experts to start questionning the way the army is dealing with this problem? I personnaly would have favoured sniping units intervention, but then again, that's just my opinion...
That being said, I truly admire your concern for the Palestinian civilians, and your courage to go there: it certainly brings a lot of hope into the heart of those people who suffered even more than the Lebanese.

EDB said...

Oberon Brown--

The reason few media outlets have reported on the army's conduct (and I disagree with you-- Al Jazeera and New TV reported on the indiscriminate shelling, as did western media outlets like the Guardian), is because the media has comprehensively been denied access to the camp by the army. That's part of the problem. Most of what we know relies on eyewitness accounts, interviews with people from inside the camp, and a bird's eye view of smoke cloud's, fires raging, etc. during the first few days of fighting.
As mentioned in the blog, I saw photos of damage to housing, the dead and wounded lying in the street, and yes, it is clearly against international law to use heavy firepower in the midst of civilians, even if -- in the era of the Bush doctrine and the "war on terror"-- conflicts have been characterized by a rather expansive interpretation of "collateral damage". The UN made a statement to a similar effect. It is also against international law not to allow medics access to the camp.

But you should know all this. It's painfully self-evident.

CH said...

Thats the best piece I have read on the assault on Nahr al-Bared. Well done

Oberon Brown said...

Al Jazira and New TV are completely biased medias (even CNN is more reliable); the Guardian I wouldn't know cause I don't read it. It is shamelessly inappropriate to exagerate the ruthlessness of the Lebanese army (as it was suggested on Al Jazira) in defending themselves on their own soil against a terrorist group: if they were indeed butchers there would have been a lot more victims than that. The very fact that you were there and took photos, the fact that thousands of refugees were allowed to get out of the camp, the fact that there's still a cease-fire right now, all that proves that the Lebanese army is actually still moderate. What do you think Putin or Assad would have done in a situation like that??
But it's still war, it's not a humanitarian mission. Deaths are inevitable: that's just the way it is...

ahmad said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

And I love the picture of the little boy in woman's boots - the human spirit fights on!

Anonymous said...

"But it's still war, it's not a humanitarian mission. Deaths are inevitable: that's just the way it is... "

I bet that's what the Israelis were syaing last summer when they were bombing the crap out of us.

Anonymous said...

good coverage of events. and I agree with you that the mercenaries at nahr el bared probably respond to Damascus as much as they respond to opponents of Damascus. Verdun, Ashrafieh and Aley perhaps being just complementary events to get the knee jerk reaction from the masses.

HOWEVER, while I myself usually root for the underdog, I think you oversympathize with the palestinians in your writings.

for one thing: evacuation of civilians is probably a better option than bombing civilians in their homes (Syrian style) or starving the population in a siege (Haraket AMAL style). So please avoid becoming another Aljazeera spokesperson. There are no good options for the Lebanese army.

More importantly, your style of writing is one of no-taboo. So please allow me some politically incorrect comments:
1. in such a small camp, where the #$%#$@ did 40,000 evacuated refugees come from? whose fault is it that poverty is so rampant and all the infrastructure is strained in the camps? the UNRWA? or the palestinian not-so-innocent strategy of having some of the highest birth rates in the world in order to continuously play themselves as victims of injustice?
2. the palestinians are not paying the price "again" like you put it. They were real aggressors on lebanese sovereignty and on ordinary lebanese citizens in the past. check your sources. ask people whose relatives were butchered in damour, or had to suffer from Arafat's militia in the south (FatahLand) or whose shops were vandalized in the downtown everytime there was a funeral of some palestinian FIDA'I in the south (prior to 1975).
3. In the battle for Tall Zaatar camp, Yasser Arafat refused the evacuation of the palestinian civilian population: he wanted martyrs. Fateh el Islam should use Arafat's book: using civilians as human shields for dummies.

Finally EDB, in all your blog you seem to be more heavy handed in your criticism of the government than of the opposition. I have a deep dislike of Geagea and Joumblatt but at least I can speak my mind openly and I often compare the latter to the creature smigel from lord of the rings. On the other hand, I do refrain from cracking jokes in public at the black turbaned guy who claims an exclusive divine dealership. I challenge you to do otherwise.
The sad fact is that I had much rather live in today's political chaos than under Syrian occupation. I was a reporter once EDB in the 1990's (not as good as you are) and I had to stop writing after receiving a threat and seeing a friend bloodied from a beating he got from the syrian moukhabarat.

Anonymous said...


You seem to have come to flawed conclusions as to the plight of the Palestinians in the refugee camp.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it is not their fault that they are refugees. In fact, it is the fault of Western colonialists, the Zionists, who usurped their land and ethnically cleansed them from it. It is equally the fault of Western governments, in particular France and Britain, and most of all America, that have enabled and abetted the illegal conquest of Palestinian lands by a minority of American and European Jewish settlers.

Second, the inhabitants of the camp are poor, destitute, and typically under educated. It is a fact that less educated people tend to have more children, for a variety of factors. I doubt the Palestinians both in the camp and in the disapora are intentionally breeding out of control as a political statement, and the logic that you used to arrive at that conclusion must have been impressively convoluted. They are people. People have sex. People have babies. It is part of being human. If you don't understand this then please have a long (and overdue) talk with your mother and father.

Lastly, addressing the past history you recited, the vast majority (if not all) of the people in the camp have no responsibility for their current situation. They did not ask to be put there to make a political statement or to be a thorn in the side of their host country. They are effectively imprisoned inside those camps against their will. That they are still holed up in camps and are barred from becoming productive members of Lebanese society is a failure of not only the Lebanese government but the Lebanese people. I'm not going to speculate as to why they are still crammed into a shanty town after 40 years...I'm sure there's plenty of scholarship (both good and band) as to why that is. But you should really be asking yourself that question.

Overall, as a fellow victim of Zionist aggression, one would expect you to have at least a modicum of compassion for their plight. And I hope you remember that they are human beings. They are people with hopes and dreams and aspirations and a desire to go home.

Remember that.

Anonymous said...

well put abraham !

Anonymous said...

you make it sound so simple! I did have a talk with my mother and I suggest you do the same on your side...

back to the serious stuff: all this talk about palestinian human rights really pales when one reviews the history of trouble that the PLO caused in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

I do remember and understand that the palestinian people "are human beings. They are people with hopes and dreams and aspirations and a desire to go home."

but as a Lebanese why do I have to sacrifice my hopes and dreams and aspirations? I and a big majority of my countrymen are fed up with foreign intervention in our country: east or west, brother or foe. I have nothing personal against the palestinians per say: just that they fall in that category of foreign influence and all their organizations have a bloody past and contributed to the destruction of my country. We do forgive but why should we forget?

And oh by the way at the zionists do score at the very bottom of my list.

Anonymous said...

hi. i am a german in love with lebanon; when i tried to find some information about the current situation in lebanon i was puzzled how few bloggers are writing about it... thanks for your posts! do you have a clue why the others seem to be not interested?


Marta said...

Thanks, EDB. Spanish reporters did get into Nahar al-Bared a few days ago... and mentioned that most of the Fatah al-Islam guys came from Morocco! They even interviewed one of them who had deserted (I wonder how he was still alive...).

And anonymous, I still don't get it: why are do the Palestinians represent a threat to your dreams and aspirations? Saying something like that about a refugee or an immigrant is called Xenophobia.

Anonymous said...

Xenophobia? oh please. come down from your ivory tower. Why don't you admit that the palestinians played a major role in the destruction of Lebanon. The fact that lebanese warlords were part of it too DOES NOT REDUCE THEIR CRIME. Two wrongs don't make a right.

The palestinians in their present state: ie FULLY ARMED, are a threat to my dreams and ambitions for a stable Lebanon in which I can live in peace. Is it Xenophobia to want to live in peace? or should we all be martyrs to the @#@%$#@ Palestinian cause?

The Palestinian cause is a just one, but so is the Kurdish one and so are hundreds of other causes in the world. I want to live in peace, is that too much to ask for?

Why don't you take in a whole palestinian family and provide them with food and shelter in your home? perhaps you are Xenophobic too....

and oh by the way
Gaza strip Birth rate: 43.14 births/1,000 population (2000 est.)
Egypt Birth rate: 25.38 births/1,000 population (2000 est.)
India Birth rate: 24.79 births/1,000 population (2000 est.)
Sri Lanka Birth rate: 16.78 births/1,000 population (2000 est.)

Anonymous said...

are you volunteering to take the 400000 refugees to spain! wow you are the most wonderful human being ever!

The sad fact of the matter is that we are an impoversihed, unstable third world country which has never been able to cope with so many refugees. The even sadder fact is the palestinians had a big hand in the civil war, and although the lebanse are trying to pretend to forgive each other and get along with each other, nobody is ever going to forget the crap the foreign palestinians put us through because as well as the actual combat activity of their esteemed fighters, you can ask any family in the South and you will be told about the rapes and murder and theft. Haven't you ever wondered why the people of the South recieved the israeli army with rice and rose petals when they first came in in 1982?
So if you are volunteering spain, I'm sure the lebanese (and most of the palestinians who live in abject poverty in these camps) will be happy to help you load up the u-hauls.

By the way, can someone explain to me how we're suopposed to provide 400,000 refugees with jobs when there aren't enough jobs to go around for even the lebanese themselves? Every Lebanse family has an emiggrant who has to leave the country to find work. You are not by any chance suggesting we set them to menial work? GHAST!!!!! Aren't you then going to one day write a post about the awful Lebanese who abuse the palestinians by allowing them to do servile occupations only.

The sad truth is we are poor, we have ALOT of problems, and next to the palestinians themseleves, nobody has suffered for "the cause" as much as Lebanese. We are fed up and it's somebody else's turn to stand up and "take it on the chin", Perhaps if not spain, EDB can take them to germany, maybe that would be penance for massacaring the jews and giving them an excuse to steal the palestinians lands in the first place.
If I were you EDB I'd go back home to germany and start lobbying to bring over the 400,000 palestinian refugees so that the germans can provide them with a better life than we ever could. Your country is richer and more stable and is a much better candidate for generosity. Don't worry, you can tell them to leave their truckloads of weapons here.

Anonymous said...

As harsh as it may seems at first glance, and as a supporter of the palestinian "cause" and plight, I can't yet prevent myself to feel the truth of the exasperation and frustration transpiring from Anonymous words. I do understand the feeling, lebanese are sick and tired of all this mess. And the claim to send all the palestinians to Germany, to let them pay for their sins, really sounds so true.

The point is: let us, we Lebanese, dont ever forget that the primary cause of all this mess is this one: zionism. With the help of european countries: Britain, France, Germany, USA. They are the ones which should deal with the 400,000 Palestinians refugees. That is definitely true. What a f.... injustice, what a f... durable mess for ALL the people of the whole M.E. region. But do not cheat on yourself: Palestinians are nothing but the victims in this whole devilish mess.

Anonymous said...

EDB, can you please help anonymous and anonymous et all above?
just tell them that you are merely another western reporter trying to please your audience with a juicy story about that "obscure and highly dangerous" middle east. oooaaaa.

gals, guys, do you really think EDB gives a shit about you? or about the palestinians, or the lebanese or anyone?

Anonymous said...

nice to see you achille. Great post emma.

Shorty said...

Thanks, Emily....When I wanted to know more about what was going on in Lebanon and didnt know where to look for coverage with honesty and an opinion I knew I could count on you...Keep it up.

Marta said...

To Anoymous 6:22 and Anonymous 7:37

Ivory tower... I guess you know where I live... you've to Spain, haven't you? Where, Marbella? Ibiza? I heard there's tons of LOADED lebanese there...

Anyway, my poverty, or yours, I don't care, wouldn't make me want to get away with all those poor unemployed(and noisy, and dirty, you know, to keep on with the topics of racism) people that live around me, wether they come from Morocco, from Ecuador or Senegal.

Since I'm not rich and I don't live in Beverly Hills, I guess I have the right to speak up. Where do YOU live? Are you poor enough to write here? Do you have enough immigrants in your neighbourhood?

I'm not the best person in the world, I just wonder why was I lucky enough not to be born in a refugee camp, having no place to return to.

Oh, but don't take it too seriously: this comment I just made doesn't mean that you're bad people in any way!

Anonymous said...

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

That isn't a tank.
It's an APC with a 20mm autocannon.
But offcourse that doesn't have the same ring to it.

The army showed it can be coldharded/Creveldian.
It's not nice for the Palestinians.
But war isn't nice.

Ps:Love the picture of the little boy with the boots made my day.

Anonymous said...

Unrelated topic; Migrant workers in Lebanon. What's the best way to find help for a 'guest' worker in Lebanon? Or is contacting the authorities (police, labour minsistry) a big fat waste of time. I'm a trendy left white liberal trying to see if the great indifferent monolith of 'Lebanon' can be budged to find some hope for a friend working 90 hours a week while being constantly intimidated.