Stranded in Lebanon, longing for Palestine

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Outside the UN's military police cafe, the Mediterranean surf crashes white and pale green on the beach and the smell of the sea drifts through the open windows. It must be the most beautiful prison on earth... But for Khamis Khodr - 57 but looking 10 years older - it is a place of utter despair, a jail without jailers, a sentence without end but in sight of paradise. "I feel like I'm in a box," he says. "I'm a person brought out of the forest into the open but I don't know what to do. I'd like to learn how to live again."

Khodr is tired of telling his story to the friendly Irish, Fijian and Polish UN soldiers among whom he is forced to live, to the Red Cross, and to the journalists whose reports - to his infinite annoyance - never bring him help. Back in the Sixties, as a young fighter in Yasser Arafat's PLO, he crossed the Jordan river with a rifle to attack Israelis in the newly occupied Palestinian West Bank, was arrested and imprisoned for 23 years. When the Israelis last year released him along with another Palestinian, Mohamed al-Golani, they dumped both men not in Arafat's territory but across the border in Lebanon. The Lebanese authorities told them to go back to "Palestine"; the Israelis told them to stay away.

Al-Golani was allowed to travel to Jordan earlier this year. But Khamis Khodr remains in the no-man's-land of the United Nations headquarters on the Lebanese-Israeli border, chain-smoking and slightly hunch-backed, too big a "security risk", according to the Israelis, to be allowed "home". After 16 months of captivity in the UN base, he can be excused his cynicism. "I sit on my own most of the day," he says. "Sometimes I sit under my tree, sometimes I swim. I clean the rubbish that washes up on the UN beach, anything to take my mind off things." From the grubby frangipani tree under which he sits, Khodr can see the sea and - on the hill to the south - the border of the land he still calls Palestine.

He has three books in the converted MP's cell in which he sleeps: the poetry of Khalil Gibran - the Blake-like Lebanese mystic poet - the short stories of the Lebanese author Tewfiq Awad and a history of the 1982 Palestinian Sabra and Chatila massacre. "I just read them over and over again," Khodr says. "I've had two telephone calls from Mohamed (al Golani) in Amman. He says he tried to help me but that the Jordanian security services told him to forget about me. At first, I would have been happy to go to Jericho because I've got relatives there. But now I'll go to any Arab country." When he asked for help from the PLO, which sends pounds 164 a month for Khodr's upkeep, he was told the Israelis had overruled Mr Arafat's request to let him live in Gaza. "The Israelis want peace without giving anything in return," he says without emotion.

Back in April, when Jacques Chirac visited France's small military contingent at Naqqoura, Khodr tried to tell the president of his plight. Reporters saw the small grey-haired man being pushed away from Mr Chirac's helicopter by French security men. Two weeks later, as Israel bombarded southern Lebanon and as Hizbollah Katyusha rockets - aimed at Israel - fell inside the UN compound, Khodr refused to take refuge in the bomb shelter.

"They offered me a place and gave me a helmet and flak jacket. I wouldn't wear them. I just sat out here in the open and smoked my cigarettes. I'm used to war now and history is passing me by. Under my tree, I think about life, the war, about so many things. Some Fijian soldiers sit under my tree now so I'll have to find somewhere else. I just want to be alone."