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Camp slowly crumbles around them

`Explosions are close' and supplies are running out, says a Palestinian refugee holed up with relatives in Lebanon.

June 05, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The choice was stark: Protect his aging father amid the fighting or lead his wife and children to safety.

Eventually, filial duty trumped marital bonds.

Abdel Rahman Khalil watched as his wife and five children walked away from the Nahr el Bared refugee camp with thousands of other Palestinian refugees, carrying white bits of cloth to mark them as noncombatants amid the shooting between Lebanese soldiers and Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Inside a modest house, Khalil now hides with his uncle and frail father as the army and militants fight outside. Sometimes the gunfire and shelling sound close to the shelter. Sometimes they fade away. Meanwhile, the three men eat canned tuna and read by candlelight from his uncle's vast library of schoolbooks.

The siege of Nahr el Bared in northern Lebanon has entered its third week.

Military officials say that at least 41 soldiers have been killed in battle at the camp -- the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. Early Monday, two more soldiers were killed during fighting in Ein el Hilwa, another refugee camp in the south.

An additional 175 troops have been injured and at least 37 suspected militants have been slain. The number of civilian casualties at the hard-to-reach Nahr el Bared camp has been difficult to gauge. In a statement Monday, the Red Cross said that at least 154 civilians at the camp had been wounded.

As in the early days of the standoff, soldiers Monday shelled the camp and fired automatic weapons. Snipers answered with gunfire and grenades. Khalil and several thousand other Palestinians remained trapped inside.

"We are paying a bill for something we didn't buy," Khalil said.

The 45-year-old medical technician spoke rapidly of deteriorating conditions as the battery on his cellphone slowly died.

Explosions and gunfire had awakened him just before daybreak May 20, when the fighting began. He tried to reassure his children: three daughters and two sons from 4 to 13. But he too was frightened -- caught between gunmen roaming the streets and soldiers shelling the camp from a nearby hill. The family home he had built with borrowed money, in a new part of the camp, was on the front lines. So the family packed a few belongings and fled to his uncle's house in another part of the densely populated camp.

"I don't know what happened to my house," Khalil said. "I'm not going to risk my life to see if it's still there."

At his uncle's house they waited, listening to the crackle of the guns and feeling the impact of the shelling bringing down buildings. Rubble began filling the streets.

After a few days, there was silence.

A temporary cease-fire had been forged, allowing civilians to flee the battered camp. Khalil wanted to go with his family to the nearby Bedawi camp, where they could stay with relatives, but he told them goodbye and watched his wife, Mona, and the children leave on foot.

"I didn't want them to live through this tragedy; that's why I decided to send them away," Khalil said. "I wish I could convince my father and uncle to leave. [But] they are very old men; they didn't want to leave."

During this brief respite, Red Cross workers arrived with truckloads of water, bread and canned food, Khalil said, recounting how he helped distribute the supplies among the remaining residents. Of the camp's 40,000 inhabitants, about 7,000 stayed behind, according to Red Cross officials.

Older residents, including Khalil's 69-year-old father, Mohammed, and his uncle Ahmed, 70, remembered fleeing their homes in 1948, thinking they would soon return. Now, six decades later, they didn't want to experience displacement again.

"They didn't want to relive the memories of Palestine," Khalil said.

The silence lasted barely a day.

Shelling and gunfire drove the three men indoors again.

Now, the men run their generator for only an hour every night, telling stories and reading by candlelight.

Ahmed and Mohammed browse through the old schoolbooks. Khalil, a medical technician, brushes up on his skills with "The Doctor in Your House," and "Food, Not Medicine," about healthy living.

"From books to sleep, from sleep to books," Khalil said. He leafs through cookbooks -- diverting his mind, if not his belly, from the now-familiar menu of canned tuna.

During the day, the men never stray far, or for long.

"I'm young; I can run," Khalil said. "But what about my father and my uncle, what will they do?"

Other civilians are holed up in the men's neighborhood. Palestinian officials say remaining camp security guards are keeping militants at bay, preventing them from using houses there as sniping posts. But Khalil can't confirm that.

Supplies are running out. The shelling prevents substantial delivery of aid.

The sounds seem ever louder to the three men.

"I fear the fighting will arrive in our neighborhood," Khalil said. "I have a feeling that the fighting is close, that the explosions are close."

roug@latimes.com

Special correspondent Raed Rafei contributed to this report.

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