Fatima Makkieh surveyed her new surroundings -- a gray, empty and doorless room in the eastern wing of the gutted U.S. Embassy complex -- as she recalled today how she fled the Burj al Barajinah Palestinian refugee camp waving a white cloth with one arm and clutching the youngest of four children, a 3-year-old girl, with the other.
"For every bucket of water, there were two buckets of blood," said Makkieh, reflecting on the past month of fighting in the sprawling settlement. Women who ventured out to fetch water from open mains traveled in groups. Shiite fighters would snipe at them once they returned with canisters on their heads. "They always got one or two. It's a miracle I am still alive," Makkieh sighed and burst into tears.
Today the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuated 45 wounded from Burj al Barajinah, the largest of three refugee camps that have been under siege by Shiite Amal militiamen throughout the Moslem holy month of Ramadan.
Amal is determined to rid the area of armed guerrillas to prevent the reemergence of a Palestinian guerrilla force in southern Lebanon, the Shiite homeland, that could trigger new Israeli incursions into the area.
Forty other wounded Palestinians were removed today from the shantytown of Shatila, where about 300 Palestinian fighters have been holding out against the Shiites. The rescue mission was finally possible after Syria brokered a truce signed Tuesday calling on gunmen to withdraw from the periphery of the camps and allowing the Red Cross to enter.
According to official figures, about 650 persons have been killed and 2,500 wounded in the fighting. These figures appear to be conservative, however, as sources said at least 500 of the dead are Amal and international relief workers report 328 wounded from the Burj and Shatila camps alone. Earlier this month, the Red Cross supervised a mass burial of 83 bodies at the Shatila camp.
A journey into Shatila before the fighting stopped and interviews this week inside Burj al Barajineh provide a vivid picture of women and children huddling in shelters to avoid the fighting and young girls helping fatigue-worn fighters load ammunition amid deteriorating medical and sanitation conditions, destruction and desolation.
Makkieh has one small mattress and three tin pans in her new household. She said she left the Burj al Barajinah settlement because there was no food. Whoever had a goat or sheep, slaughtered it, and the fighters ate the meat raw; there was no time to cook for them.
"We subsisted on lentils and rice for 15 days, then we ran out of everything," she recalled. Ten days ago the United Nations Relief and Works Agency entered the settlement with 2,470 Austrian-donated food packages and water. Makkieh said the seriously injured were dying from internal bleeding and the scarcity of medical supplies.
UNRWA officials said there was only one general practitioner, taking care of patients at the crowded Haifa Hospital, which in some rooms had two to a bed. The International Committee of the Red Cross managed to get 93 casualties out since the fighting began on the first day of Ramadan on May 19 plus the 45 today. Of those, the majority were young men, under 20, who were trembling from exhaustion, undernourished and pale as they were carried out on stretchers to the nearby Beirut hospital. An 8-year-old girl was among them, as was an elderly woman.
Two men with leg injuries had swollen feet that looked gangrenous. A pro-Syrian Palestinian leader noted that conditions were much more tragic inside Shatila, where thousands were living among the ruins and where many of the wounded required immediate amputations. Only two doctors remain in Shatila, he said, to take care of 190 injured lying in a narrow strip.
The visit to Shatila led through a maze of misery and destruction to the relatively undamaged Farhat quarter, on the edge of the camp. Many houses on both sides of the dust-covered alleys were vacant and bare. Tank shells shook the ground. An Amal fighter who served as a guide, Mashhour Mohammed Sweidan, made his visitor run whenever an exposed area was approached, to avoid sniper fire.
At a neighborhood where Sweidan said Lebanese and Palestinians had always lived together, women sat crouched in the shadow of staircases preparing the evening meal. Outside, a few old people sat in solitude staring into space. A noisy battle was now going on in the background, but no one moved, as if intoxicated with despair.
In the hidden house of Sader Ghandour, a Lebanese from Baalbek, three Palestinian families huddled together in two rooms and a kitchen. Ghandour said he took them in because his wife was Palestinian. Hamed Diab, 28, said Amal fighters had taken away all his papers. "We are prisoners; we don't dare put our nose outside this door. I am running out of money, and I cannot even go to the bank."
He said he stayed trapped inside Shatila for several days during the fighting. "When my baby screamed, I covered his mouth so they wouldn't come and kill us; then we ran away one night and came here."
Abdellatif Daib, 40, father of seven, said he first thought the shooting on May 19 was to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan. "What can I do if I was born a Palestinian," he shrugged. "I am not a fighter. I have never touched a gun in my life."
Asked whether Palestinians would ever trust the mainly Shiite Lebanese Army 6th Brigade to control their areas, Daib shook his head. "There is blood between our people," he said. "Many things will not be forgotten. Sixth Brigade soldiers fought alongside Amal."
He said he has lived in Shatila for 18 years, where he built his own house, brick by brick. Daib recalled that the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 were more tolerable than this past month. "It was all over in three days, and I could stay in my house. Now here I am, I cannot go back home, and I will find no other," he said. "All there is above our heads now is fear."
Burying his head in his hands, Daib muttered: "For a handful of fighters they destroy a whole camp full of people?"
Some Palestinian families living on the outskirts of Shatila opted to stay in their homes. They, too, are at the mercy of their neighbors and the whims of militiamen still in their midst. Sarah, who requested that her family name not be mentioned, told of how Amal fighters had helped sneak her wounded brother from the back of a shelter.
"My brother, who was wounded in his leg, and I went to stay with my uncle at the Daaboul Building, where there is a big basement," she recalled. "Shiite fighters came and ordered everyone out. The Lebanese families were the first to leave. My brother and I cowered in the back. Seeing we were afraid, two fighters went to the back and pierced a hole in the wall. Then they smuggled my brother out. I threw myself on the floor and kissed their feet thinking they would kill him, but they brought us home." Later, she said, other Amal fighters heard from someone in the area that there was a wounded Palestinian, and "they threatened us and took him away," she said.
A neighbor, a Lebanese Shiite by the name of Abu Majeed, lost his son, who was killed instantly by shrapnel in the second week of the fighting. Sensing that Palestinians were nervous, he came and invited two Palestinian men and women to come and stay at his house. Talking about his son, he flew into a rage and shot them, another resident said. Sarah said she saw Amal fighters shoot and kill a mentally retarded man playing with an empty gun clip. It was impossible to verify these accounts independently.
Abu Munir, a Palestinian father of 11, has spent most of the past 10 years looking for a place to stay. Formerly a resident of Tel Zaatar, which was overrun by Christian militiamen in 1976, he moved to the camp of Rashidiyeh in Tyre. In 1982, he fled with his family to Shatila, where they lived in a modest, tin-roof house. Last month he was on the road again.
After the first week of fighting, Abu Munir said he asked a Lebanese relative whether his family could spend the night at his house. "He refused to let us in," he said.
"One night I took my family and ran out of the camp under a hail of bullets," he added. "Reaching Verdun Street, we stopped a car. The driver reluctantly accepted, saying if an Amal checkpoint stopped us it wouldn't be his responsibility. 'Rely on God,' I told him."
Reaching the Saudi Embassy near the American University of Beirut, an old friend from Tyre, a Lebanese Sunni Moslem, recognized Abu Munir and invited him to stay at his house."He told us to go one by one up to his flat since neighbors above and below him were Amal, so we did. At four in the morning he woke me up and begged me to leave," Abu Munir said.
Eventually, Abu Munir, his wife and their 11 children ended up in the old U.S. Embassy building, where they now share a mattress and five blankets.
Attempts to enter Burj al Barajinah during the battle proved fruitless, but Makkieh described the tense atmosphere inside. She told how Amal fighters using loudspeakers would demoralize Palestinians by threatening to assault their women and by mimicking their accents: "Yalla al bandoora," ("tomatoes for sale," pronounced Palestinian-style) "Turn in your weapons; we are coming to get your women. We want to finish off Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's people."
To which she said Palestinian guerrillas responded: "We and Abu Ammar Arafat are one fist. We shall fight down to the last bullet, and we are staying. You will only enter this camp after it is flooded with our blood." There are about 1,000 guerrillas entrenched in Burj al Barajinah, which has a population of 25,000, among them several thousand Lebanese.
Makkieh spoke of a Lebanese woman, who whenever her children became a nuisance and anybody complained, reminded everyone: "I am a Shiite) "I can go tell my people where you are hiding." Her neighbors went out of their way to be nice.
A Palestinian spokesman, Abu Ahmed, described the underground cellars in Burj al Barajinah as badly ventilated and primitive with no water or sanitation. Makkieh undressed her 7-year-old daughter Nadia and displayed pus-filled sores on her legs and stomach. Abu Ahmed said the shelters were built for air raids and to store ammunition and food, not to live in.
"You should see what it looks like now," said Makkieh of Burj al Barajinah. "Garbage piles are higher than the rooftops; it is too dangerous to go out and sweep. A lot of the houses are destroyed; why, it doesn't even look like a camp anymore. Still," she added, tears streaming down her face, "I have five brothers who fought there. I don't know if they are alive.
"I wish I never left."