There is something obscene about watching the siege of Nahr el-Bared. The old Palestinian camp – home to 30,000 lost souls who will never go “home” – basks in the Mediterranean sunlight beyond a cluster of orange orchards. Soldiers of the Lebanese army, having retaken their positions on the main road north, idle their time aboard their old personnel carriers. And we – we representatives of the world’s press – sit equally idly atop a half-built apartment block, basking in the little garden or sipping cups of scalding tea beside the satellite dishes where the titans of television stride by in their blue space suits and helmets.
And then comes the crackle-crackle of rifle fire and a shoal of bullets drifts out of the camp. A Lebanese army tank fires a shell in return and we feel the faint shock wave from the camp. How many are dead? We don’t know. How many are wounded? The Red Cross cannot yet enter to find out. We are back at another of those tragic Lebanese stage shows: the siege of Palestinians.
Only this time, of course, we have Sunni Muslim fighters in the camp, in many cases shooting at Sunni Muslim soldiers who are standing in a Sunni Muslim village. It was a Lebanese colleague who seemed to put his finger on it all. “Syria is showing that Lebanon doesn’t have to be Christians versus Muslims or Shia versus Sunnis,” he said. “It can be Sunnis versus Sunnis. And the Lebanese army can’t storm into Nahr el-Bared. That would be a step far greater than this government can take.”
And there is the rub. To get at the Sunni Fatah al-Islam, the army has to enter the camp. So the group remains, as potent as it was on Sunday when it staged its mini-revolution in Tripoli and ended up with its dead fighters burning in blazing apartment blocks and 23 dead soldiers and policemen on the streets.
And yes, it is difficult not to feel Syria’s hands these days. Fouad Siniora’s government, surrounded in its little “green zone” in central Beirut, is being drained of power. The army is more and more running Lebanon, ever more tested because it, too, of course, contains Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shia and Maronites and Druze. What fractures, what greater strains can be put on this little country as Siniora still pleads for a UN tribunal to try those who murdered ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005?
We read through the list of army dead. Most of the names appear to be Sunni. And we glance up to the fleecy clouds and across the mountain range to where the Syrian border lies scarcely 10 miles away. Not difficult to reach Nahr el-Barad from the frontier. Not difficult to resupply. The geography makes a kind of political sense up here. And just up the road is the Syrian frontier post.
The soldiers are polite, courteous with journalists. This must be one of the few countries in the world where soldiers treat journalists as old friends, where they blithely allow them to broadcast from in front of their positions, borrowing their newspapers, sharing cigarettes, chatting, believing that we have our job to do. But more and more we are wondering if we are not cataloguing the sad disintegration of this country. The Lebanese army is on the streets of Beirut to defend Siniora, on the streets of Sidon to prevent sectarian disturbances, on the roads of southern Lebanon watching the Israeli frontier and now, up here in the far north, besieging the poor and the beaten Palestinians of Nahr el-Bared and the dangerous little groupuscule which may – or may not – be taking its orders from Damascus.
The journey back to Beirut is now littered with checkpoints and even the capital has become dangerous once more. In Ashrafieh in the early hours, a bomb explosion – we could hear it all over the city – killed a Christian woman. No suspects, of course. There never are. Posters still demand the truth of Hariri’s murder. Other posters demand the truth of an earlier prime ministerial murder, that of Rashid Karami. Several, just the down the road from our little roof proudly carry the portrait of Saddam Hussein. “Martyr of ‘Al-Adha’,” they proclaim, marking the date of his execution. So even Iraq’s collapse now touches us all here in our Sunni village where the Sunni dictator of Iraq is honoured rather than loathed.
A flurry of rockets rumbled over the camp before dusk. The soldiers scarcely bothered to look. And across the orange orchards and the deserted tenement streets of Nahr el-Bared, the sea froths and sparkles as if we were all on holiday, as this nation trembles beneath our feet.