TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- The militants began trickling into the camp about 10 months ago, distinguished by their beards, combat uniforms, and the assault rifles they carried openly. They rarely smiled and spoke only to rebuke camp residents for smoking or other perceived "sins" against Islam.
Residents of the Nahr el-Bared camp and surrounding areas described the men of the Fatah Islam militant group at the heart of the fighting as deeply religious and reclusive, rarely associating with those who lived there.
Some roamed about with Kalashnikov rifles, wearing traditional Arab robes and beards without mustaches, a trademark of Muslim fundamentalists.
They seldom spoke, except to show their dismay when camp residents pasted posters of their dead sons on the walls or when they smoked -- acts that were rebuked as being haram, or against religion.
"They used to look down at the ground when women talked to them," said Ibrahim Issa Dawoud, a 42-year-old taxi driver.
Dawoud, who left the camp with his wife and six children during a temporary truce yesterday, said the militants came in small groups and eventually included Palestinians as well as fighters from Lebanon, Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
He said they came in through Lebanese Army positions at the camp's entrance.
"How did they come in? Did they parachute into the camp? They came from certain countries and they were allowed into the camp," he said.
Dawoud said that in the beginning there were 100 to 200 militants but that he now believes there may be more than 1,000 in the camp.
Omar el-Eter, a Lebanese teacher and the imam of a mosque who frequently visited the Nahr el-Bared camp to see friends, said the men did not have jobs.
"They only went to the mosque and carried guns. But they also had money to spend," he said. "They only used dollars."
Eter lives about a mile from the camp. He, like many others in the area, often shopped there because of the less expensive merchandise and the savvy businessmen who traded in food, cloth, and other goods.
But that stopped a few months ago. In March the government accused Fatah Islam of being behind the Feb. 13 bus bombings near Beirut that killed three people and wounded 20.
Immediately after the bombing, the Lebanese Army set up checkpoints at the camp's entrances and restricted the movement of residents. The new security measures discouraged Lebanese shoppers and visitors from frequenting the camp.
Mohammed el-Eter, Omar's uncle, said the arrival of Fatah Islam militants at the camp brought a shift in power.
"When they arrived in the camp, a coup of sorts occurred," he said. "They took over from Fatah Uprising [another Palestinian group], disarmed them, and took over their positions."
"They started making life difficult for the camp residents by erecting checkpoints and searching people," he said.