REFLECTIONS ON LEBANON’S CIVIL WAR, IN MEMORY OF ROBERT FISK

I shared the first eight years of Lebanon’s civil war with Robert Fisk. As the keeper of the hearth I was the heartbeat of my family when war broke out in April 1975. I was the mother who comforted her children after a bomb blast shattered their bedroom wall, the wife who consoled her husband after he spent his mornings treating wounded civilians and sending mangled bodies to the morgue, the housewife who dealt with water shortages and daily power outages and supervised her children’s homework by candlelight at the kitchen table while I prepared the evening meal while Robert Fisk was in the street, reporting on what was happening outside my little world. He kept track of the daily death toll along the infamous Green Line that separated East from West Beirut. I relied on him to tell me if I should send my children to school after a night of bombing, or if I should prepare to evacuate my apartment before the next round of fighting or whether I could take a day off and spend it with my children at the beach.  

He would not have known anything about my apron, a long fuchsia one that hung on a hook behind my kitchen door, or that after a particularly long night of fighting, I found a hole right through its middle or that on the floor, nearly mangled and hardly looking like a bullet at all, I discovered a three-9nch machine gun slug but he would have known who had spent the night shelling our neighborhood and who was responsible for firing that bullet through my kitchen window. And while I now live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where aprons hang safely on hooks and bullets rarely shatter kitchen doors and those battles were a long time ago, I will never forget how important Robert Fisk was to my family’s survival for he chronicled a war that not only shattered a country, he monitored the centers of power, called out our inept leaders for failing to dissuade the various political factions from turning into vicious militiamen who whether through personal greed, political inflexibility or sheer ineptitude failed to save a nation they were trusted to preserve.

On one particular occasion, Robert Fisk and I shared a breakfast meeting at the Hotel Commodore in West Beirut. As soon as he sat, and without so much as addressing the rest of us, he turned to the PLO representative and excoriated him for Arafat’s insistence that the road to Palestine lead through Beirut. While Fisk was right to have called out such a selfish act, it was also Fisk who reported on June 24, 1982, three weeks after the Israeli invasion and the carpet bombing of Beirut, that Arafat was finally willing to compromise. He asked only for an honorable exodus from Beirut. Former Prime Minister Saeb Salim tried to broker the deal but Arial Sharon, Israel’s Defense Minister and architect of the Israeli invasion, refused, insisting on a humiliating defeat for Arafat. In Washington, Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State under President Reagan, subverted the plan before it even reached the White House, prolonging the siege of Beirut by forty-nine days.

The Israeli bombing of Beirut ended on August 21, 1982, exactly three minutes after Alexander Haig resigned as Secretary of State. As Fisk reported: “Haig had given tacit approval for the Israeli invasion in conversations with Ariel Sharon. Throughout the summer the Saudis had sent a series of urgent messages to Washington imploring President Reagan to put pressure on the Israelis. Reagan never received those messages; Haig blocked them at the State Department.” According to Fisk, “King Fahd of Saudi Arabia warned that his country would withdraw all its investments from the United States at once and impose oil sanctions against the West within hours if the Israeli army was not brought under control. Reagan was at last made aware of the gravity of the crisis and Haig forced to resign.” Arrangements were then made for Arafat and his PLO to leave Beirut, his soldiers dispersed to Syria, Jordan, South Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Only unarmed women, children and the elderly would stay behind in the Sabra-Shatila camps.

On September 18, 1982, between fifteen hundred and two thousand men, women and children were found massacred in the Sabra-Shatilla camps. The massacres began on the night of September 16 when about two hundred militiamen sent by Ariel Sharon entered the camps.

Robert Fisk revisited the Sabra-Shatilla massacre in a 2003 article for The Independent. After spending several weeks in Israel, he became fascinated by Ariel Sharon’s repeated reference to the Palestinians as ‘murderers, terrorists.’ He had heard Sharon use these words before. “I called up an old friend with a talent for going through archives. I gave her the date that was going through my head, September 15, 1982, the last hours for up to two thousand Palestinians who were about to be murdered in the Sabra and Shatilla 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 the Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel 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 Phalangist Christian militiamen into the camps. Fisk goes on to say, “Reading this release again, I felt a chill come over me. There are Israelis today who feel as much rage towards the Palestinians as the Phalangist all those years ago. And these are the same words I am hearing today, from the same man about the same people. Why?”

Could it be because we still have no leader wise or courageous enough to sit the warring factions down and demand some sensible humane solutions? Without Robert Fisk’s voice, without his willingness to monitor the centers of power and hold them accountable, I fear we will see no solution anytime soon.

Robert Fisk, your voice, your honest reporting, your willingness to go against mainstream media, to report the truth across the war-ravaged Middle East, will be sorely missed.

A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War, as well as my other books, can be found on Amazon.