SABRA-SHATILA REVISITED

Robert Fisk recently revisited Sabra-Shatila, a place of memories and ghosts. In September 1982 he was one of the first journalists to enter the camp after Lebanon’s Christian militia, aided by the Israeli military, had massacred 1,700 civilians.

As I recount in A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War the massacres began on the night of September 16 when about two hundred militiamen selected by Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon entered the camps. They were a carefully organized coalition of the Christian Lebanese Forces and members of the South Lebanese Army, Israel’s proxy in their self-proclaimed ‘security zone’ in south Lebanon. The men were under the command of General Amos Yaron, Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

For thirty-eight hours, from the evening of September 16 to September 18, Israeli soldiers stood guard outside the camps to prevent anyone escaping. Planes dropped flares to aid the militiamen inside the camp.

The victims were unarmed Palestinian civilians, exterminated as though they were rats. Before they left the camps, the militiamen bulldozed the bodies into heaps, pushed them into shallow make-shift graves and covered them with dirt.

In an article Robert Fisk wrote for the Independent in August 2001 entitled Travels in a Land without Hope, he referred to Ariel Sharon’s repeated reference to the Palestinians as “murderers and terrorists.” He had heard Ariel Sharon use those words before.

“I called up an old friend with a talent for going through archives,” he wrote. “I gave her the date that was going through my head, 15 September 1982, the last hours for the 1,700 Palestinians who were about to be murdered in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut.” She was able to locate the September 1982 Associated Press release.

“Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, in a statement, tied the killing of Lebanese Forces leader Bashir Gemayal, and recently elected president, to the PLO, saying that “it symbolizes the terrorist murderousness of the PLO terrorist organization and its supporters.”

A few hours later, Sharon sent the militiamen into the camps.

“Reading that release again,” wrote Fisk, “I felt a chill come over me. There are Israelis today who feel as much rage toward the Palestinians as those Christian militiamen felt all those years ago. And these are the same words I am hearing today.  Why?”

Our apartment in Beirut was about two blocks from Sabra-Shatila. My husband’s secretary lived in an apartment near the camps. When she came to work the morning after the massacres I sat down and asked her what she knew.

“I heard the machine gun bursts which lasted almost two days,” she said, “but it was the screams, the voices of children crying, of women pleading, which haunted me the most. I’ll never forget the agony of their voices as they begged for their lives.”

It was not until late Saturday morning, when the camps fell silent that she dared crawl onto the balcony and peer through the railing.

“There was a foul, almost sickeningly sweet smell in the air,” she said. “And the flies—there were great hordes of them everywhere. That’s when I knew something awful had happened.”

She was deeply moved by a group of young boys who looked as if they had been playing one of those games where children huddle together over a ball, arms linked, shoulders touching; they had fallen together in a pile, their faces daubed with what looked like dark red finger paint. A small girl lay on her side in an alleyway a short distance from the boys. She thought at first it was someone’s doll. Her dress was blotched with blood and dirt. A crimson halo encircled her head.

Around mid-morning, she saw a group of journalists enter the camp. One of the men climbed onto a huge pile of dirt to get a better view. The mound looked about ten feet tall. He struggled to reach the top, holding out his arms to steady himself as he went.

“Have you ever seen someone try to walk across a trampoline without falling?” she asked. “That is how he looked, wobbling to and fro, unsteady on his feet.”

The man slipped and lost his balance. Trying to catch himself, he grabbed hold of a dark red rock—the color of much of Lebanon’s rich soil—protruding from the mound of dirt.

“It wasn’t a rock,” she said. “It was someone’s bloated stomach.”

Horrified, he let go, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.

That journalist was Robert Fisk.

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