BEIRUT, JAN. 21 -- Crowds of young Palestinian men, some of them jubilant but many others wary, emerged from two long-blockaded refugee camps in southern Beirut today to see the outside world for the first time since Shiite Amal militiamen imposed a siege nearly three years ago.
Ahmed Aishi, 22, said he could hardly sleep last night after hearing that the siege had been lifted and the roads were open again. "I woke up with one idea in mind, to go out of the camp. I had shaved my beard the day before. All the young men poured out of the camp this morning toward the main roads. When I came back, I was dancing with joy."
To many others in the Burj al Barajinah and Shatila camps, where an estimated 20,000 Palestinians still live despite widespread devastation from years of artillery shelling, the future remained unclear and joy was restrained. Syrian troops have taken over the positions abandoned by the Shiite militia, and seizures and harassment of refugees were reported at Syrian checkpoints.
The searches, identity checks and detentions by Syrians brought complaints in the camps that the siege had changed "in name only." The word around Shatila was that Syrian intelligence officers or Shiite Amal collaborators were lurking outside with lists of wanted supporters of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.
Nevertheless, the lifting of the siege brought opportunities for reunions with relatives and friends from Beirut and elsewhere, shopping trips and joys as simple as a glimpse at an undamaged building for the first time since May 1985, when Amal positioned troops to prevent Arafat from reestablishing a power base in the Lebanese camps.
Amal leader Nabih Berri announced over the weekend that the siege was to be lifted as "a gift to our brothers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," where at least 38 Palestinians have been killed in the past six weeks in protests against Israeli military occupation. That revolt has revived dormant dreams of Arab heroism here and shamed Amal into ending its strangling blockade of the refugee camps.
Today, shops at Burj al Barajinah were fully stocked again with vegetables, rice and detergents. At the camp's western entrance, merchants rolled out wheelbarrows piled with fresh fish and vendors pushed through the crowds peddling fried and syrupy Arab desserts reserved for festive occasions.
Hassan Abu Taka, 44, a worker at Haifa Hospital in Burj al Barajinah, said he ventured out for the first time in two years to visit his brother, Mohammed, who works as a janitor in Beirut. "My brother was stunned to see me. He knelt down and kissed the ground," he said.
Dr. Chris Giannou, a Canadian physician who had not left Shatila since 1985, was making plans for a long break. "This is the end of the camp war," he predicted in the clinic of the Palestinian Red Crescent. But he still foresaw "little problems. The siege is lifted," he said, "but this does not mean that political rivalries have ended. But a major battle, and shelling, are not possible now."
Hisham Ayyoubi, 30, a former teacher, said, "I can hope for one thing: that there will be a political settlement. What we have now is just a security settlement."
An elderly carpenter said, "We Palestinians, we don't hate, we are willing to forget about our wounds." But some painful lessons will be remembered, he said, such as what it was like when the camp's women ventured out to shop. "For each kilogram of rice, they paid with a kilogram of blood."
Bulldozers worked today, leveling some of the reddish-brown earthworks around the camps that had concealed their festering ugliness and anguish from the rest of Beirut.
The presence of Syrian soldiers newly deployed around the refugee shantytowns suggested, however, that the ordeal of the Palestinians in Lebanon was not over.
As we slipped past a Syrian checkpoint at the entrance to Burj al Barajinah, where hundreds of young men paced up and down nervously, their hands in their pockets, a young boy told us discreetly that the Syrians had just taken away Imad Sinoun, 19, a Palestinian who was trying to leave.
"It would have been more honorable to still be under siege. May the hour in which these roads were opened be damned," grumbled Abu Ahmed.
Two women, Feyrouz Hanadi and Fadia Doukhi, the latter carrying an 8-month-old daughter, were taken away by Syrian soldiers without explanation. By nightfall they had not been returned. A man the Syrians tried to seize dashed back into the ravaged camp, taking refuge in its maze of jagged walls, slimy footpaths and rubble.
At Shatila, where an estimated 90 percent of the structures had been destroyed, residents were still grim. Refugees clambered atop mounds of rubble to stare at a checkpoint where Syrian soldiers inspected identification cards and searched for such forbidden items as ammunition.
While the fighting and shelling that had killed an estimated 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, and the confinement that had driven many to hopelessness and even suicide, are gone, many of the refugees are still hesitant to leave.
"I want to stay with my people here. I want to go on suffering and feeling with them," said a guerrilla, Hussein Mohammed Lubani, 18.
"I am happy here, why leave?" said Walid Ahmed Hassan. Asked if he did not have dreams of a normal life elsewhere, he replied: "I would take Jerusalem first. We Palestinians are born to die for Palestine."
Ahmed Chaker, a barber who said he had wet his clients' hair with tears over stories they told him during the siege, vowed that he nonetheless would not leave Burj al Barajinah. "We are a people who want to live together at a time when our greatest ailment is dismemberment," he said.