I just got back from the Beddawi Refugee camp near Tripoli where most of the displaced from Nahr el Bared have found shelter. It is a tiny piece of land, no more than 1 km2, which, until May 22, used to be home to 18,000 people. Now they are 30,000. You can feel it in the streets: impossible to move by car without hitting someone.
I learned a couple of things.
I spoke with a number of youth and not so youth who have arrived from Nahr el Bared yesterday. I also had a long chat with a US photographer who has been spending endless hours waiting to get into the Nahr el Bared camp. I also had a conversation with a comrade from the PFLP, a mother of 6 who had just made it with her kids from Nahr el Bared.
Fateh al Islam is a new group in the camp. They are not more than 120 people, of whom 20 or so are Palestinians from Lebanon, and only 2 from the Nahr el Bared Camp. All the others are non Palestinians, but no one knew what their nationality was: they only knew that they had strange accents. Their base was in the area close to the Lebanese army, and apparently they attacked the army without prior notice. The PFLP comrade told me she saw them say a prayer of one ruq’a with their weapons in front of them, and then they called for the Jihad and then they went on to attack the army check point and kill all the soldiers. I was told that the army camp in a place called Muhammara was attacked and 4 soldiers were take prisoner. The militiamen tried to take them into the camp as hostages but they refused to move, so they killed them and beheaded at least one of them. In another incident, an armored vehicle of the army came close to the camp and fired heavy machine gun. Its engine stalled and it could not retreat. It was attacked by the militiamen and its personnel were killed; some beheaded.
The army went completely mad at the killing of the soldiers and started shelling the camp indiscriminately with very heavy artillery fire, from both the southern and the northern ends of the camp. The photographer told me that he believed that many of the casualties of the army were due to friendly fire, because the two entrances to the camp are so close to each other. The rows of houses closest to the army positions were totally destroyed, and so was a large part of the camp. After the initial mayhem, which went on for several hours, the street were littered with bodies, and there were dozens of injured. The heavy shelling subsided, but the army responded with canon fire to any bullet from the camp. People remained locked inside their houses, and the dead remained in the streets. The residents woke up in the morning to the sound of feral dogs fighting over pieces of dead bodies. There is a video of these scenes, taken with a camera phone.
The response of the residents of the camp was variable. Most stayed put and tried to leave at the first opportunity. I also heard reports of armed Lebanese civilians coming to “help” the army, harassing the refugees leaving the camp. At least one person said he was shot at by armed civilians, without being able to identify which party they belong to. About a third of the camp population is still inside.
This morning, there were 2,757 refugee families from Nahr el Bared in Beddawi. 537 are sheltered in the schools, while 2175 are sharing houses with friends or relatives. Many houses have 4 or 5 guest families. Houses in the camp are very small, typically 60-80 square meters with 2 bedrooms at most.
The UNRWA clinic is extremely busy, and there must have been over 200 people waiting to be examined by 2 doctors. I sat with the doctor for 15 minutes, during which he examined 4 patients, all of them suffering from upper respiratory tract infections. He told me the majority of the cases he has examined from Nahr el Bared were respiratory problems.
Relief is trickling into the camp, and most of it is missing the neediest. Both Fateh and Hamas are distributing aid. The bulk of the aid is going to a couple of large schools, but nothing is reaching the small schools or the overcrowded houses. Supporting the people in the houses is particularly important because the families hosting them are already poor, and can barely provide for their own needs. The end result will be even more impoverishment in Baddawi.
Among the first Lebanese groups to offer food relief to the large schools was the Future Movement of Hariri. I heard conflicting reports about the effectiveness of the action. All those interviewed agreed on 2 things: one is that Hariri aid is highly politicized, and that only Fateh (PLO) families and groups were benefiting from it. The people I spoke to say this is meant to strengthen Fateh’s influence. One old man, frustrated for having been left out of the distribution, told me: “This is not Fateh Arafat anymore; this is Fateh al Hariri now. What a loss ya Abou Ammar!”
The other thing I learned about Hariri aid falls into the tragi-comic category. I was passing by one of the big schools when a car stopped and started unloading bags upon bags of knefeh and boxes of Arabic sweets (halawet el jeben) from the Hallab shop in Tripoli, and taking them to the refugees. I asked about it and was told that this is part of the aid offered by the Hariri movement. Apparently, half of it is thrown, because too much is given to 1 or 2 locations, and this stuff just doesn’t keep. A school teacher swore to me that yesterday they brought them croissants, but that the kids refused to eat them because they had never seen it before. They asked for manousheh.
There is need for anything one can think of, starting with powdered milk and ending with crutches for the wounded. But people are helping themselves and helping each other. A young woman came to the office where I was staying and asked about milk for 24 children. I asked her if they were hers and her relatives. She said she did not know them, that she was a schoolteacher from Beddawi, and that the kids' parents were refugees in her school from Nahr el Bared. She and her colleagues collected money to feed them yesterday. They had not yet eaten today, but she was looking. When she was given the milk, she broke down in tears.