The only noise came from the chickens pecking through the dirt and the barely audible drone of a faraway, high-flying aircraft. Neither sound was reassuring.

The chickens once would have been only a minor woodwind passage in the cacophony of bustling, shouting crowds that inhabited Chatila and its sister cinder-block shantytown, Sabra.

Chatila and Sabra are the closest thing to a capital that the landless Palestinians have. In 1948, when the Palestinians arrived, rich Lebanese were only too happy to rent what then were sandy wastelands far outside Beirut.

Two weeks of relentless bombardment have imposed a ghostly silence on these camps.

The aircraft was Israeli and on a reconnaissance mission. But other Israeli warplanes earlier had mercilessly bombed these camps, and Israeli artillery and gunboats had shelled a nearby hospital and a mental hospital, although both institutions were clearly marked with large red crosses.

Most of the residents have fled, although some return for a few hours a day from havens farther north in the fancier parts of beleaguered West Beirut.

The fighters remain. They are mostly young men, even boys, some still innocent of a razor. There are others like Mohammed Ali Hussein, at 76 a grizzled old man but still of erect military bearing, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over his shoulder.

But in among the ruined, twisted store fronts, the shattered glass, the punctured walls, the collapsed roofs and the general rubble there also remain civilians.

They are not here because they see themselves as heroes or heroines, but because they are poor people with nowhere else to go.

They are no longer in any real way representative of the 4 million Palestinians spread out in diaspora across the Arab world and many Western countries.

Most Palestinians have prospered, studied hard and worked harder, often leaving these camps, dusty in summer, muddy in winter, to become computer specialists, engineers and bankers.

But without the camps, without their sustained effort to keep alive the still-cherished if increasingly dim memory of the orange grove in Jaffa, probably long since paved over, Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization would be as nothing.

"A person cannot leave her home," explained Amni Abdel Rahman. "They cannot kill us all."

Najla Moukdad, wearing a dirty kerchief and holding the hand of her three-year-old son, Hassan, rails against the Israelis.

Why stay here when Lebanese and Palestinian charities are caring for tens of thousands of other Palestinians who fled from these camps?

"Those people who left for Hamra, for Manara," she says of two of Beirut's once most elegant neighborhoods, "they lost some children in the shelling or because of car bombs. It is all the same everywhere. There is no safety anywhere."

Up a winding alley, Samieh Mathan shows visitors a shell hole in the corrugated roof of his house.

Why did he stay? "No money," he answered.

These are bitter times, angry times, times of impotence and suppressed rage and aggression.

Little Hassan escaped from his mother long enough to aim a kick at a passing cat. He missed.