From behind the dubious security of the barred door to her ground-floor apartment, she was yelling hysterically. At first, I did not know whether she wanted to help us or kill us.
We were creeping slowly through the fashionable west Beirut neighborhood at midday today. Around us were the crackle of gunfire and intermittent splintering sounds of artillery shelling--and the screams of this pleasant-looking matronly woman.
What she was calling for to someone inside the apartment was rose water and orange blossoms, the Lebanese smelling salts.
To us she was shouting not to go farther.
"Where are you going?" she screamed. "You are walking toward where the shells are landing. They're landing right in front of you."
Terry Anderson, The Associated Press bureau chief here, and Nora Boustany, The Washington Post's special correspondent and a veteran of Lebanese wars, and I took a harrowing stroll around a few familiar blocks.
We had escaped the confines of the journalists' haven here, the 150-bed Commodore Hotel, after a morning of shelling nearby, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting to inspect the damage on streets we know well.
A civil war had been fought here in 1975 and 1976 and had left scars. There was the devastation of the Israeli bombing raids last summer and now the armored assault against militiamen by the Lebanese government's own Army, seeking to prove itself an effective fighting force.
We rounded the corner past the Picadilly Theater down to a plaza of boutiques, a movie house and a sidewalk cafe.
Glass was splattered all over. The West German Lufthansa airline office was in wreckage.
There we found a phalanx of proud Lebanese Army soldiers, their tanks parked across the street in front of the offices of An Nahar, the leading Lebanese newspaper, and near the prime minister's office and the Central Bank.
"It is all controlled by the Army," said one of the soldiers. "There is nothing else."
Gunfire crackled beyond but we kept walking. There were few cars along the normally clogged commercial district. The handful of people around, like us, were on foot. A few were carrying plastic bags of bread. Men and women in head scarves and small children hurried along streets, seemingly looking for shelter.
We walked down past the Italian Embassy. The flag was still whipping in a gentle breeze on a clear, hot sunny day. The building was still standing, but somewhat shakily. There had been more fighting and it had been hit. A tree was lying on the ground and one of the support columns was askew.
It was quiet in front of the French Embassy further down, where four French soldiers were killed yesterday in heavy fighting. The elegant Italian shop in front, however, showed scars from yesterday. The windows were all blown out.
We walked down toward the hospital of the American University of Beirut. Someone told us to go about a half block beyond. Shells had fallen there, they said, but we decided to go to the hospital first.
It was eerily quiet inside. Attendants moved around purposefully in blood-smeared uniforms. There were several civilians milling about, their clothes also bloody.
A young man, his leg and ankle bandaged, said he had been wounded last night in heavy shelling. He had no idea where the shrapnel that hit him had come from. He was an employe of a luxury hotel, the Summerland, and all he knew was that as he was working around the terrace last night the shell had fallen. His injury was only minor and he wanted to go home. The problem was that no taxi was willing to risk coming to the hospital.
A middle-aged man attempted to calm a crying infant who had been wounded in today's shelling. The baby's head was swathed in gauze and bandages.
Meanwhile hospital workers paged administrators looking for someone with authority to tell us how many of those brought to them today had been killed and wounded in the fighting.
Suddenly there were crashing sounds close by. A hospital employe rushed in to report breathlessly that the accounting supervisor had been hit. Shells had fallen only 30 yards from the hospital--on the street we had intended to inspect.
In the frenzy of new blood-stained stretchers being rushed into the hospital, we decided that it was prudent to leave.
Anderson, a former marine, insisted that we proceed cautiously. We walked deliberately up the streets to the hotel, stopping at intersections and checking both sides for the snipers, whose bullets we could hear.
Boustany countered that we should move quickly. We were arguing when there was another crash just outside the hospital. Boustany said we must leave.
We went, hugging dooorways, crouching when the shells fell. Another shell crashed and shrapnel bounced around us. A piece stuck in Boustany's foot, but it was just a scratch and she brushed it off.
We waited for a lull. We stopped at the corners as Anderson insisted, then ran again as Boustany decreed. After a very long walk we could see the Commodore--and hear sniper fire nearby.
I wanted a stiff drink, wanted to wash my face. I went upstairs to my room, only to get a telephone call from an adviser to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel who gave me some information about the day's events and then began complaining about a story I had written two weeks ago. Shells began to crash near us. I asked him if I could call back.
I went down to the lobby just as there was a crashing sound in front. I remembered later only that the glass in front of the hotel popped out, that everybody at the bar hit the ground. At this point no one knows which of the battling forces shelled the hotel. My memory, perhaps faulty in this circumstance, is that no one lost his drink and we all crawled down to the basement shelter. We crouched there for several hours as the shelling continued, damaging several rooms, some heavily.