The Sabra-Shatilla massacres occurred thirty-four years ago today. We still lived in Beirut at the time. Our apartment on Badaro Street was a mere mile and a half from the Palestinian camps. September 18, 1982 was an extremely hot day and by late afternoon a whiff of decomposing corpses filled the air. Unbeknownst to us, it was the third day of a mass killing.
As I recounted in A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War, the massacres had begun on the night of September 16, when about two hundred militiamen, sent by Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, entered the camps. They were a carefully organized coalition of Christian Lebanese Forces and members of the South Lebanese Army, Israel’s proxy in their self-proclaimed ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon. The men from the Lebanese Forces were chosen from the Damouri Brigade, one of the most extreme elements of the Christian militia, from Damour, a village in the south ravaged by Palestinian guerrillas in January, 1976, eight months after Lebanon’s civil war began. These young men had seen their family members slaughtered and defiled, their homes destroyed. Ariel Sharon chose these men well. He knew they would take revenge in the vilest way possible.
For thirty-eight hours, from the evening of September 16 to September 18, Israeli troops stood guard outside the camps to prevent anyone escaping, while they sent up flares to light the night sky to aid the militiamen inside the camps. By the time the men left the camps they had slaughtered approximately two thousand innocent Palestinian civilians. The exact numbers are vague because no one knows precisely how many were killed. The militiamen bulldozed the bodies into heaps and then pushed them into make-shift graves, covering them with dirt.
It was many years later that I finally visited Shatilla. I was met by Zeinab, a Palestinian woman and educator, who worked with the children inside the camp.
She stopped at a shaded open space off to the right of the camp’s entrance and waved her arm for me to follow her. Sidestepping vendors, motorcycles strewn helter-skelter across the pavement and small children huddled on the ground playing what looked like jacks and marbles, I came to a halt at the edge of a vacant lot, vacant except for the piles of rotten garbage and a small corrugated metal shack. This, Zeinab explained, was the site of the mass grave where victims of the 1982 massacre were buried.
“We have no markers, no memorials here, only the memory of unspeakable evil,” she said, “where some two thousand Palestinians were massacred by far-right Lebanese militias in September 1982 while Israeli troops watched and covered them from positions outside the camp.“
“Were you here during the massacre?” I asked.
“Yes, I was a child but I remember vividly the day the militias entered the camp. A man, I don’t remember his name, came through the camp shouting for everyone to leave because the Israelis were at the gate with their tanks. My father wasn’t at home so my mother gathered all six of us children up and rushed us out of the camp by a side entrance. Many of our neighbors ignored the warning and were slaughtered.
“In the immediate aftermath of the massacres the world reeled in horror at what had been done to the Palestinians in this camp,” Zeinab explained, “but then they forgot us. We cannot forget but our lives must go on. And, sadly, if anyone remembers what happened here on those infamous days in September 1982, it is the dead they remember, not us, the living.”
“Are your parents still alive?” I asked.
“No, we eventually found my father…in the camp near the entrance. His throat had been slit. My mother died some ten years ago. They’re both buried here in the camp.”
I still cannot adequately find the words to describe this place of horror. Even the few tall trees that shaded the graves seem to bow their branches in sadness and shame at their inability to do little more than protect the deceased from the baking sun in this neglected, wretched camp where the living and the dead co-exist, where squalor and poverty are intertwined with abandonment and severe restrictions of movement imposed by the Lebanese government, where the people know only displacement and slaughter at the hands of an enemy that has confiscated their land and forcibly exiled them. And what of the children, I wondered, do they not dream the dreams of children even if the adult world has done its best to extinguish them? Do their parents pray that the refugee camp will not be a sentence of life without parole for them for the sole crime, like them, of being born Palestinian?
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