Pushed beyond despair, Fatima Khadar, downcast and dejected like many Palestinian refugees fleeing their shantytowns once more, said she wished to be thrown into the sea.
The refugees sat on bare floors under makeshift tents and in dark, damp underground garages as Palestinian guerrillas and Lebanese Shiite Moslem militiamen battled for control of three shattered camps on Beirut's southern fringes.
The deserted township of Sabra had once again become a ghostlike battleground and a wasteland of smelly garbage, spent bullets and abandoned vegetable stalls. The reasons for the fighting this time are unclear, but many observers say they suspect Syria provoked it to set the stage for a new power move in Lebanon.
Abu Aly, a Shiite Amal commander, supervised young fighters cleaning their Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket launchers behind sandbags blocking the main street linking the Sabra and Shatila camps. He said he hoped the war would go on.
"We would rather go on fighting than be surprised every now and then by a grenade-hurling Palestinian," he said, shouting orders to his men to duck when they moved. Separating them from Palestinian fighters holed up in Sabra's dusty alleys and cinder-block houses were a few yards and a line of black wool blankets strung up across the street to mark off hostile territory.
Two weeks of intermittent fighting involving rockets, machine guns and occasional firing from Syrian-supplied Soviet T54 tanks have contributed to a mood of hopelessness.
Amal fighters fired a few mortar rounds over their sandbag position, paused to chat about the World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Spain and then cheered when a sniper arrived with a gun slung over his shoulder. He disappeared into a gutted two-story house.
Combat around the Burj al Barajinah camp, where Palestinian fighters were concentrated, flared Monday afternoon as Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon met with Amal leader Nabih Berri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and their aides. Berri warned that "Amal will not settle for temporary solutions," and Jumblatt, back from Damascus, accused Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat of funneling money and guerrillas into "Beirut, and the camps in particular."
The Shiite Amal movement, despite a clear lack of zeal among its fighters, is determined to prevent Palestinian guerrillas from spilling out of the besieged camps lying on Beirut's southern limits. Although the fighting is still contained, there are fears that it could spark festering intra-Moslem discord.
A three-hour battle Sunday night between a Sunni Moslem militia, led by an anti-Shiite activist, Chaker Berjawi, in the streets of west Beirut Sunday night, raised fears of a possible expansion of the camp war to the rest of the city.
A gasoline shortage has virtually paralyzed traffic in Beirut. It was brought on by the central bank's refusal to disburse funds to the Finance Ministry before mid-June, an attempt to check government spending. The plight of refugees at shelters outside the camps has been yet another blow to sagging morale.
The intensity of the fighting has not reached that of a bloody, five-week Palestinian-Shiite war a year ago, when the Shiites accused the Palestinians of trying to build a military stronghold, but there has been no indication of a truce.
Observers here commented that the renewed conflict may be part of a Syrian tactic to destabilize Lebanon and allow a resurgence of Palestinian power that Syria will have to step in and control. The rationale for Syria, the observers said, would be to draw attention away from western accusations of terrorist involvement and to redefine its role as a main power broker in Lebanon and the Middle East.
"We have become an easy trade. Everyone is buying us and selling us," complained Fatima Khadar, a Palestinian refugee squatting on a straw mat under the shade of a blanket strapped to a tree in the playground of a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
The headmaster said 500 Palestinian families had sought refuge in the 17 rooms of his school. Hundreds of other women, children and elderly men flooded into the Imam Aly Mosque north of the Sabra camp and a small garage nearby.
Rady Saleh, 50, said she managed to grab only four of her 10 children before running out of the camp under shelling Saturday. "I ran for my life and picked up the little ones around me. I am terrified for the others," she sobbed, tears trickling down her cheeks.
Many others had been separated from relatives. Saado Abu Hatab, 65, said he left behind a sick relative just out of hospital. "We fled in the dark. There were shells landing around us and I couldn't carry my relative. One of his daughters stayed behind with him," he said.
Rough blankets, mattresses, one or two gas cookers and rags were the refugees' only belongings. Tiny candles flickered in the pitch-dark rooms.
"I would prefer death over living like this, it would be more honorable," Khadar said. "We have no men, no homes, our sons are missing. Why don't they exile us from Lebanon? I wish they would throw us into the sea."
Zakiyyah Taffal sat on the floor with her daughter, Hiyam, 11, who is paralyzed and retarded. Taffal has had to flee with Hiyam at least four times -- the first, in 1976, when the girl was 2 months old, during the fall of the Palestinian camp at Tal Zaatar at the hands of Lebanese Christian militias.
Khaled Barghout, 22, who has an injured leg, said he hobbled out of the camp on crutches. Mohammed Hussein, 18, a former fighter whose leg was amputated after an injury last year, said he was worried about his comrades inside the camps.
Haunted by recollections of atrocities they witnessed in last year's camp war, women sitting on the pavement by the Imam Aly Mosque said they feared the same thing could happen again.
"Fighters around the camps told us no Palestinian will be able to live here anymore, but I have more claims to this land than they do. I came from Palestine when I was 9 and now my hair is gray," said Aida Dib, indignantly shaking a scarf off her head.
Amal leader Berri said 5,000 Shiite Lebanese families had been displaced from Burj al Barajinah and other sites now inhabited by Palestinians, and he noted that now both sides live in "deprivation" in "the city's belt of misery."
Clutching my arm as I stumbled over bedding in the dark garage under the mosque, where one gas lamp provided a small glow, Fouzieh Ahmed pleaded: "Can't you do something for us? It is so dark in here."