'Only the reckless still drive here'

The standoff in Lebanon could well continue for a while, as Fatah al-Islam vows to fight to the death.

lebanon fighting 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
lebanon fighting 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Plumes of smoke spiral into the sky from the side of the highway that links Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, to the rest of the country. Where the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared once stood, just north of the city, only the burned-out shells of buildings remain. The driver steps hard on the accelerator as the sound of cannon fire explodes overhead. We pull up alongside a closed restaurant and jump out of the car, taking shelter with a family of Palestinian refugees standing with their backs against a dark brick wall. Behind us, the last remaining snipers from Fatah al-Islam take aim across the empty highway, while to the front, staring down from the hilltops, are Lebanese tanks responding with cannons. Usually at this time of day the four lane road is filled with traffic in both directions, but for more than a fortnight only the reckless or desperate have driven here. The army says there is only a handful of gunmen still left in the camp, but the standoff could well continue for a while, as Fatah al-Islam vows to fight to the death. An estimated 16 gunmen were killed over the weekend, while the army is reporting no new casualties in its ranks. A brief lull in fighting during Friday prayers allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to ferry out 85 camp residents, mostly women, children, the elderly and the infirm. Water, cans of tuna and ready-to-eat meals were sent in. An estimated 3,000 people are still inside, too scared to leave, or perhaps afraid that if they abandon their homes the Lebanese army will bulldoze the camp. It's dangerous and scary here. It's easy to get hit in the crossfire. Journalists are barred from entering Nahr al-Bared. Five kilometers down the road, more than 30,000 refugees have found temporary relief in another Palestinian refugee camp, Beddawi. Already overcrowded and without adequate access to clean running water and sanitation, things have deteriorated with the influx of newcomers. Mahmoud al-Makdah is one of many without relatives or friends in Beddawi with whom he can move in, and who has therefore been forced to take refuge in an UNRWA elementary school. He, his wife, eight children and mother-in-law share a classroom with two other families. A sheet separates the sleeping quarters of each. Mattresses line the floor, and aside from a few blankets and a dirty blackboard, the classroom is bare. "I came here with my family because it's too dangerous to stay in Nahr al-Bared," he tells me in clear, defiant English. "We don't fight. Our people are not enemy for army Lebanon. But how can we continue to live here in this school? There is not enough space, there are 60 people living in each classroom. Can you imagine how we sleep, how we breathe?" Some 5,000 people are living in the school. "[Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Saniora says after [the] war is finished, everyone will go back to his house. Saniora promised us he would rebuild our camp. But I don't know what will happen after the war. If we go or if we don't go, we don't know." The question of where to resettle these people is on the backburner. For now, nongovernmental organizations are working around the clock feeding and housing the thousands. Supplies have reached the camp from all over Beirut and the situation has stabilized. Meanwhile, a captured Fatah al-Islam gunmen confessed to Lebanese authorities that the group was planning to attack United Nations officials and foreign diplomatic services. The confession has again raised questions about who is sponsoring the group and what their goals are. Both Hamas and Fatah leaders in Beddawi camp said they had nothing to do with Fatah al-Islam. A Fatah representative went as far as to complain that the group stole the "Fatah" name to create problems between Palestinians and Lebanese. A political analyst who spoke to The Jerusalem Post said there was still a huge supply of weapons and ammunition inside Nahr al-Bared. The fighting could go on for weeks, he said. "It can still spill over into other camps. It depends whether or not the Lebanese army is able to contain the situation. There are a lot of terrorists inside the Palestinian camps. It is easy to enter Lebanon because we are a state without borders. I believe Fatah al-Islam is supported by al-Qaida with the backing of Syria. But I don't think this latest round of violence will lead to civil war because Hizbullah is not involved - it's not in their interest to become involved - and without Hizbullah, the violence is only affecting a minority of people."