The fight for control inside one Lebanese refugee camp

NAHR EL BARED, Lebanon

You know you're not in Beirut anymore when the billboards advertising French lingerie give way to posters promoting Saddam Hussein. On the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital of Lebanon's restless north, the former Iraqi president gazes thoughtfully toward the sea, with the Al Aqsa Mosque at his back and a miniature doppelgänger of himself in the foreground, brandishing an erect rocket launcher. A few yards away is a poster of another Sunni martyr: Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister killed by a massive truck bomb in February 2005. This is the road to Nahr El Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli, where the Lebanese army has been battling a band of surprisingly well-armed Islamic militants since Sunday.

But the fight is for more than just Nahr El Bared. Lebanon is locked in a power struggle right now, between factions aligned with the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran and Syria on the other. (The parliamentary majority, a coalition of Sunni, Christian, and Druze parties allied with Washington and Riyadh, is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik's son.) Given these competing loyalties, the Lebanese government is desperate to present the image of a unified Lebanon--in this case, one that is staunchly behind the army's assault on Fatah Al Islam, a Salafist splinter group based in the Palestinian camp. And so Hariri's Future Movement has sent bands of goons--armed, excited, and ready for trouble--to guard the perimeters of the camps and help the army.

The Lebanese army, already deployed in the south of the country and around Beirut, is badly overstretched. And the Lebanese government, already weak, is trying to straddle two incompatible positions: It has to reassert control; but, at the same time, it can't look like it's attacking innocent civilians--especially, for the Sunnis, attacking fellow Sunnis.

"I see the government and the army in a great dilemma," says Timur Goksel, a former senior U.N. adviser in Lebanon who now teaches at the American University of Beirut. "They can finish this situation very quick, but at a great cost--by killing civilians, which is not a viable option. The Lebanese government is caught badly between the need to exert its authority, but without starting a war with thousands of angry young men, all very well-armed, and willing to take on the Lebanese army."


The main Lebanese military checkpoint outside Nahr El Bared has a mean, border-town feel. Men hang around smoking and glowering at passersby with casual suspicion; an old man sells coffee out of a metal pitcher. Five trucks are lined up, waiting to bring food and supplies into the camp. On each truck, a banner proclaims that the supplies are a gift to our brothers in nahr el bared, in the memory of the martyr rafik hariri.

Several Arab reporters and I drive past the checkpoint and down the road that runs alongside the camp. It's lined with army tanks and soldiers. Several businesses show signs of heavy fighting, the front of their facades collapsed into the street. There's a ceasefire, but you can still hear the occasional rattle of gunfire. Smoke rises from behind fields covered with purple morning glories.

Of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, about 250,000 live in twelve camps scattered across the country. The camps are mainly ruled by militias, because the Lebanese army cannot enter under a 1969 agreement ceding control of the camps to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Inside the camps, where living conditions are miserable, regional players hustle for power. Some groups are loyal to Damascus; others to Palestinian parties like Hamas and Fatah; some even span the Sunni-Shia divide and lean toward Hezbollah (most Muslim Palestinians are Sunni, not Shia). What makes this mix of influences particularly volatile is the danger that trouble could spread to other camps as the fighting drags on.

Outside the entrance to Nahr El Bared, a crowd of about 50 men is gathered. A battered white sedan with two bullet holes in the front bumper pulls up. A giant man with a bristly grey crew cut unfolds himself from the car and lumbers toward us, clearing his path with a massive potbelly and dragging a Kalashnikov. He has a green strap tied around his head and a pair of handcuffs dangling from his belt. The pack of men part eagerly before him. His name is Mustafa Abu Saqr.

"We're helping the army," he says, with pride. "I am bringing the bodies and the injured soldiers out under constant gunfire. They even fired a mortar at me. You can see it, look at the building over there; all the people saw it hit the building. You can take a picture of it. Mine was the only car moving on the street."

Loyalty to the Palestinian cause has always been a reliable way to boost your Arab nationalist credentials; this is why Saddam Hussein donated money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. So attacking Palestinian civilians is generally not a good p.r. move in the Arab world.

But there's deep resentment of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and they're often an easy scapegoat for the country's problems. When we ask Abu Saqr if he knows about civilian casualties inside the camp, he answers by referring to the Palestinians as "Jews," and the camp as "Tel Aviv."

"Over there, in Tel Aviv?" he says, pointing toward the camp with contempt. "Don't bother asking! There are lots of dead bodies lying in the street like dogs. No one is moving them. None of the hospitals would accept them." (This is not true; half an hour later, we speak to a 17-year-old Palestinian boy, with shrapnel wounds in his chest, at a local hospital that has been treating casualties from the camp.)

Abu Saqr is part of an old Lebanese tradition: He's a qabaday, a kind of neighborhood strongman. There's no exact English translation, but the qabadays are a lot like the old precinct captains in Chicago's Democratic political machine--the ones who went around the neighborhood during elections to make sure everyone voted. Thuggish and occasionally violent, qabadays operate in the pay of a political boss--in Lebanon, a zaim, or patriarchal political leader--and use bands of armed followers to make sure the zaim's instructions get carried out.


If we have any doubts about which zaim has summoned these guys to the streets, they clear it up for us: It's Saad Hariri, in whose name food is being sent to the refugees. "We are all with Sheikh Saad!" cries one overexcited cadre, raising his fist in the air, as if it is a demonstration. A few of his comrades follow suit, earning themselves pained looks from their more au courant comrades.

Abu Saqr sighs. "No, don't say we're with Sheikh Saad," he says wearily, like he's had to explain this several times already. "Just say that we're helping the army. We're with the army. We're not with anyone else." Somebody seconds him: "We're with the Lebanese army! We are willing to sacrifice our lives for them."

I ask Abu Saqr if I could take his picture. "Take as many as you want," he says magnanimously, squaring his shoulders and letting his Kalashnikov hang. "Give him space, give him space," urge the smaller men, shoving others out of the way. "Your lens is very small," says Abu Saqr, pointing to my cell phone camera. "You won't be able to take my picture. I'm a big guy."

They line up, grinning, hands folded over bellies or hooked with studied nonchalance in their belts. A couple of the boys hold up bullets for the camera.

"What channel are you going to be on today, Abu Saqr?" asks a man in the crowd.

"I don't know," he says, carelessly. "I've been interviewed on 200 channels already. I'm going to be on all of them."

Followed by his men, he climbs into his car and drives back toward "Tel Aviv."

By Annia Ciezadlo