It is a place of Palestinian fury – and almost as much Palestinian blood. The bandage-swaddled children whimpering in pain, frowning at the strange, unfatherly doctors, the middle-aged woman staring at us with one eye, a set of tubes running into her gashed-open stomach, a series of bleak-faced, angry, young men, their bodies and legs torn apart.
There was eight-year Youssef al-Radi who was cut open by shrapnel in the arm and back yesterday morning and brought to the Palestinian Safad hospital at Badawi, another refugee camp in Tripoli, his feet bleeding, a tiny figure on a huge stretcher. He hasn’t been told that his mother died beside him. Nor that his father is still in the Nahr el-Bared camp.
And let us not forget six-year-old Aiman Hussein, who was hit by up to a hundred pieces of metal from a Lebanese army shell – in the neck and the spine, the tibia, the foot, the back, you name it. The doctors had to rush him to Tripoli because they could not operate. Visit the Safad hospital if you dare. Or climb gingerly out of your car on the Lebanese army’s front line at Nahr el-Bared and walk past the sweating, tired soldiers who have been told they are defending Lebanon’s sovereignty by doing battle with the gunmen of Fatah al-Islam – who are still hiding in the smashed, smoking ruins on the edge of the Palestinian camp.
Some of the buildings look like Irish lace and a mosque’s green minaret has a shell hole just below the platform where the muezzin’s call would be heard five times a day, as if a giant had punched at it in anger. There is even a field of ripped-up tents, which must have been what this camp looked like when the grandfathers of those wounded children arrived here from Palestine in 1948.
The Lebanese armoured personnel carriers were dug into the rich earth, and the soldiers were sheltering behind a collection of smashed houses, petrol stations and lock-up garages. We found two colonels in one garage, who politely offered us coffee, and a lieutenant who had lived in Montreal and who called a mutual friend of ours – a Lebanese army colonel in the south of Lebanon – who roared with laughter down his mobile phone: “Robert, what are you doing in Nahr el-Bared?” As if he didn’t know.
I looked across the camp. Was it worth all this pain, the grotty, empty streets, the broken apartment block with dirty grey smoke still drifting from its windows? The Lebanese soldiers claim they try never to hurt civilians (I can think of another army which says that!), but did so many Palestinians have to be killed or wounded for the crimes of a few, some – we do not know how many – not even from “Palestine” but from Syria or Yemen or Saudi Arabia? Just behind me was the checkpoint where the gunmen of Chaker el-Absi (born Jericho 1955, later a MiG pilot in Libya, according to his brother in Jordan) butchered four soldiers at the weekend, slitting their throats and leaving their severed heads on the road.
Most of the troops around me were from the north of Lebanon – so were the murdered soldiers. Had there been feelings of revenge rather than military discipline when they first opened fire? There were certainly growls of retaliation in the Safad hospital – named, with terrible coincidence, after the very town in pre-Israel Palestine from which many of Nahr el-Bared’s refugee families originally came – and Fatah, the old Arafat PLO Fatah, now had armed men on the streets to protect the medical personnel and the new, wounded refugees from the next burst of fury.
All day, the ambulances ran a ferry service of wounded from the camp, sirens shrieking through the wards, spilling out the wounded and the sick and the ancient men and women who could bear no more. They were given small sacks of bread – like animals newly arrived at market, I couldn’t help thinking – and led away.
They had heard all the political statements. Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French President, had been on the phone to the Lebanese Prime Minister, insisting that he should not give in to “intimidation” – perhaps he thought the Palestinians were the same kind of “scum” that he called the rioting Arabs of the Paris suburbs last year – and President Bush gave his support to the Lebanese government and army.
And Walid Jumblatt said of the Syrian President that “the Lebanese Army ought to crush Fatah al-Islam once and for all to prevent Assad from turning Lebanon into a second Iraq”. That’s all the talk now, that another sovereign Arab nation might become a new Iraq. The Algerians were saying the same two days ago, that Islamist suicide bombers were trying to turn Algeria into “a new Iraq”.
What, I kept asking myself yesterday, have we unleashed now? Well, you can ask Suheila Mustafa who stood yesterday at the bedside of her 45-year-old sister, Samia, so terribly wounded by army shellfire in the face that she could neither talk nor focus upon us with her bloated left eye. “We had just woken up when we heard the first barrage of gunfire,” she said. “My sister was beside me and fell down with her head bleeding. She haemorraged from 5.50 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon. At last my brother brought us all out in his car. But let me tell you this. The Palestinian people have heard Walid Jumblatt and we say ‘thank you’ to him and let us have more shelling.
“And I would like to thank Prime Minister Siniora, and say thanks – really thanks – very much to George Bush and to Condoleezza Rice. I really want to thank them for these shells and these wounds we are suffering. And if Rice really wants to send more materiel to the Lebanese Army, she had better hurry up. There is a woman still in the camp who is very pregnant and the child in her womb will be born and will grow into a man – and then we’ll see!”
Of course, one wants to remind Suheila – perhaps not her dreadfully wounded sister – that the Palestinians are guests in Lebanon, that by allowing Fatah al-Islam to nest on the edge of their north Lebanon camp, they were inviting their own doom. But victimhood – and let us not doubt the integrity or the dignity of that victimhood – has become almost a pit for the Palestinians, into which they have fallen. The catastrophe of their eviction and flight from Palestine in 1948, their near-destruction in the Lebanese civil war, their cruel suffering at the hands of Israeli invaders – the massacre of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 where 1,700 were slaughtered – and now this, have sealed these people into a permanent prison of suffering.
I found an old lady in Safad hospital, whimpering and sobbing. She was 75, she said, and her daughter had just brought out her own two-month-old child and this was the fifth time she had been “displaced”. She used that word, “displaced”. She had lost her home in Palestine in 1948 and four more times in Lebanon her home had been destroyed. And on what date did she leave Palestine, I asked? “I can read and write,” she said. “But I no longer have the memory of being so exact.”
No wonder that in all the Palestinian camps of Lebanon yesterday, they were protesting the “massacre” at Nahr el-Bared with gunfire and burning tyres.
And so we continued through the wards. There was Ghassan Ahmed el-Saadi, who had arrived at the camp’s medical centre to distribute bread with his friends Abdul Latif al-Abdullah and Raad Ali Shams. “A shell came down and my friends both fell dead at my feet,” said Mr Saadi, who is a mass of tubes and wounds and a bloody foot.
There was Ahmed Sharshara, just eight years old, with a huge plaster over his chest. A hunk of shell had entered his back and broken into his spine and partly emerged from his chest. The X-ray showed a piece of metal like a leaf in his stomach. His lungs were still being drained.
And there was Nibal Bushra who went to his balcony on Sunday morning to find out why the camp was being shelled when a single bullet hit his brother. Then a sniper’s bullet hit him. For two days he lay bleeding in the camp before being brought out.
“I wish they would take us to a European country because we are not safe here, and the Arab nations are beasts, monsters to us,” he said. “I won’t even talk to Arab journalists. They are not prepared to tell the truth.” And what has become of his desire to return to the old Safad of Palestine, I asked. “We will never go home,” he said. “But I trust the Europeans because they seem good and kind people.”
And then – a little annex to this story – there was a small room where I found Ahmed Maisour Sayed, 24, part-paralysed and unable to speak, who was not a victim of the Lebanese army. He was brought here on 3 May after being shot by two gunmen from Fatah al-Islam because he was a PLO supporter. “His family and one of their families had quarreled about ideology,” his father told me. “So they shot him and killed two other men. They are a terrorist organisation and we don’t know what they want. There’s only about 700 of them. But now my son can never work, We need help from an international organisation.” I dared not tell him that I come from the land of Lord Balfour.
But I did notice, back at Nahr el-Bared, a heap of empty Lebanese army machinegun cartridges, and I picked one up as a souvenir. And when I got home to Beirut, I put it with a much older cartridge case which I picked up back in the late Eighties when the same army was besieging the Palestinians in Sidon. Of course, the two cases were identical in calibre. The tragedy goes on. And its identical nature has made it normal, routine, typical, easy to accept. And woe betide if we believe that.