Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2010
Issue No. 1016
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sabra-Shatila: 28 years on

Nearly 30 years after the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, untreated psychic wounds are still open and accountability, justice and basic civil rights for the survivors are still being denied, writes Franklin Lamb*

Click to view caption
No one has been punished or even investigated for the Sabra-Shatila massacre

Scores of horrifying testimonies have been shared over the past nearly three decades by survivors of the September 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Some of them have come to light only through circumstantial evidence because would-be witnesses perished during the slaughter. Other eye-witnesses are only just beginning to emerge from deep trauma or self- imposed silence.

Some testimonies will be shared this month by survivors from the massacres at the Shatila Camp. They will sit with the ever-growing numbers of international visitors who annually come to commemorate one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century.

There are no ordinary testimonies. Zeina, a handsome, bronzed-faced middle-aged woman, asked one foreign visitor the other day, "how can it be 28 years? I think it was just last fall that my husband Hossam and our two daughters, Maya, eight, and Sirham, nine, left our two-room home to look for food because the Israeli army had sealed the Shatila Camp nearly two days before, and few people inside had anything to eat. I still pray and wait for them to return."

In the Shatila Camp itself, bullet marks still cover the lower half of the 11 "walls of death" where dried blood is mixed and feathered in with the walls' thin mortar. An elderly gentleman named Abu Samer still has souvenirs of the massacres: three American automatic pistols fitted with silencers and a couple of the knives and axes that were strapped to the killers' belts as they quickly and silently shot or carved up whomever they came upon, starting at around 6pm on Thursday 16 September 1982.

He also has a couple of whisky bottles. The weapons were given to Israel by the US Congress and subsequently issued, along with drugs and alcohol and other "policing equipment," to the killers in his "most moral army" by Ariel Sharon.

Earlier this year, one of the murderers from the Numour Al-Ahrar (Tigers of the Liberals) militia, the armed wing of Lebanon's right-wing National Liberal Party founded by former president Camille Chamoun, nonchalantly confessed that "we sometimes used these implements in order to advance silently through the alleys of Shatila, so as not to cause unnecessary panic during our work."

The Tigers militia, one of five Christian killer units, was assisted inside the Shatila Camp by more than two dozen Israeli Mossad agents, and led in this blitz by none other than Dani Chamoun, son of the former Lebanese president.

No sign proclaims what happened here. The world learned of the slaughter at Sabra-Shatila on the morning of Sunday 19 September 1982. Photographs, many of them now available on the Internet, taken by witnesses such as Ralph Shoneman, Mya Shone, Ryuichi Hirokawa, Ali Hassan Salman, Ramzi Hardar, Gunther Altenburg and Gaza and Akka Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) Hospital staff, preserve the gruesome images deeply etched in the survivors' memories.

Five months later in its 7 February 1983 report, the Israeli Kahan Commission substantially whitewashed Israel of responsibility, referring more than once to the massacres as a "war".

Zeina ushered me down a narrow alley leading from her house and arriving at the three-by-eight metre wall outside her sister's home, spraying here and there with an aerosol can as we walked. She apologised for the spray but insisted that she and her neighbours could even now smell the slaughter that had happened there three decades earlier.

For readers unfamiliar with the Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut, this particular "wall of death" is located across from the PRCS Akka Hospital, now struggling after years without adequate financial or NGO support. Locating the 11 "walls of death" requires help from the few older Palestinians who still live in this quarter. They are among those still living at the scene who still vividly recall the details of the massacres. Some provide personal histories of some of the butchered, seemingly urging the dead to return by making them seem so alive and often describing a personality trait and the name of a family village in Palestine.

Zeina recalls that Munir Mohamed, for example, "a sweet boy who adored his older brothers Mutid and Bilal", was 12 years old on 16 September 1982 and a pupil at the Shatila Camp school, named Jalil [Galilee]. Virtually all the 75 remaining UNRWA schools in Lebanon, like other Palestinian institutions, are named after villages, towns or cities in occupied Palestine. Often they are named after villages that no longer exist, being among the 531 villages the Zionist colonisers obliterated during and after the 1947-48 Nakba (catastrophe).

Zeina recalls that it was late on a Thursday afternoon, 16 September, that the Israeli shelling had grown most intense. This was designed to drive the Camp residents into the shelters, almost all of which Israeli intelligence, arriving the previous day in three white vehicles and posing as "concerned NGO staff", had identified and noted the coordinates on their maps.

Some residents, thinking that aid workers had come to help the refugees, actually revealed the secret sanctuaries. Other refugees, based on their experience in the crowded shelters during the preceding 75 days of the indiscriminate, "Peace for Galilee" Israeli bombing of Shatila, suggested to the "aid workers" that the shelters needed better ventilation, hoping that the visitors would help provide it.

According to Zeina, the Israeli agents quickly sketched the shelter locations, marked them with a red circle, and returned to their HQ, which was located less than 70 metres away on the raised terrain at the southeast corner of the Shatila Camp and is still known today as Turf Club Yards.

Today, this sandy area still contains three death pits, which, according to the late American journalist Janet Stevens, is where some of the hundreds of still-missing bodies of the more than 3,000 slaughtered people are likely buried. Janet had theorised that there had been a second round of Sabra-Shatila massacres on Sunday morning, 19 September, piggy-backing the first and conducted on the west side of the Shatila Camp inside the second Israeli- Phalange HQ, known as the Cité Sportif athletic complex.

On that morning, as Israeli soldiers took custody from the Phalange militia of the surviving refugees, trucks entered the Cité Sportif loaded with hundreds of camp residents who were to be taken to "holding centres". Family members forced to wait outside heard volleys of gunfire and screams from inside the complex. Hours later, the same trucks drove away to unknown locations, tarpaulins covering the unseen, mounded cargo.

Camp resident, Sana Mahmoud Sersawi, one of the 23 plaintiffs in the Belgian case filed against Ariel Sharon on 16 June 2001 for his part in the massacres, explained that "the Israelis who were posted in front of the Kuwaiti embassy and at the Rihab petrol station at the entrance to Shatila demanded through loudspeakers that we come to them. That's how we found ourselves in their hands. They took us to the Cité Sportif, and the men were marched behind us. But they took the men's shirts off and started blindfolding them. The Israelis interrogated the young people and the Phalange delivered about 200 more people to the Israelis. And that's how neither my husband nor my sister's husband ever came back."

British journalist Robert Fisk and others who have studied these events concur that more slaughter was done during the 24-hour period after 8am on Saturday, the hour that the Israeli Kahan Commission, which declined to interview any Palestinians, ruled that the Israelis had stopped the killing.

Eyewitness testimony has also established that the "aid workers" described by Zeina passed the shelter locations on to Lebanese Forces operatives Elie Hobeika and Fadi Frem and their ally Major Saad Haddad of the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army. On the Thursday evening, Hobeika, de facto commander since the assassination the week before of Phalange leader and Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel, led one of the death squads into the killing field of the Horst Tabet area near the Abu Yassir shelter.

In eight of the 11 Israeli-located and marked shelters the first victims of the massacres were quickly and methodically slaughtered. Since there are few perfect crimes, and few perfect massacres, the killers failed to find three of the shelters. One of those overlooked was just 25 metres from Abu Yassir. Apart from those hiding in these three undiscovered hiding places, there were practically no survivors from the Shatila shelters.

American journalist David Lamb wrote about this first night of butchery and the "walls of death" by noting that "entire families were slain. Groups consisting of 10-20 people were lined up against walls and sprayed with bullets. Mothers died while clutching their babies. All the men appeared to be shot in the back. Five youths of fighting age were tied to a pickup truck and dragged through the streets before being shot."

At around 8pm on 18 September Munir Mohamed entered the crowded Abu Yassir shelter with his mother Aida and his sisters and brothers Iman, Fadya, Mufid and Mu'in. Keeping the relatively few camp shelters free for the woman and children while the men took their chances outside was common practice as the massacres unfolded. But a few men did enter to help calm their young children.

Munir later recalled the events that night. "The killers arrived at the door of the shelter and yelled for everyone to come out. Men they found there were lined up against the wall outside. They were immediately machine-gunned." As Munir watched, the killers left to kill other groups and then suddenly returned and opened fire, and everyone fell to the ground.

Munir lay quietly, not knowing if his mother and sisters were dead. Then he heard the killers yelling, "if any of you are injured, we'll take you to hospital. Don't worry. Get up and you'll see." A few survivors did try to get up or moaned, and they were instantly shot in the head.

Munir remembers that "even though it was light outside due to the Israeli flares over Shatila, the killers used flashlights to search the darkened corners. The killers were looking in the shadows." Suddenly, Munir's mother's body seemed to shift in the mound of corpses next to him. Munir thought she might be going to get up since the killers had promised to take anyone still alive to hospital. Munir whispered to her, "don't get up mother. They're lying." He stayed motionless all night, barely daring to breath and pretending to be dead.

Munir could not block out the killers' words. Years later, he repeated to this writer, as we passed the Shatila burial ground known as Martyrs' Square, that "after they had shot us, we were all lying down on the ground, and they were going back and forth, saying, 'if any of you are still alive, we'll have mercy and take you to hospital. Come on, you can tell us.' If anyone moaned, or believed them and said they needed an ambulance, they would be 'rescued' with shots and finished off then and there."

"What really disturbed me wasn't just the death all around me. I didn't know whether my mother and sisters and brother had died. I knew most of the people around me had died, and it's true that I was afraid of dying myself. But what disturbed me most was the fact that the killers were laughing, getting drunk and enjoying themselves all night long. They threw blankets over us and left us there till morning. All night long [Thursday the 16th] I heard the voices of girls crying and screaming, 'for God's sake, leave us alone.' I can't remember how many girls they raped. The girls' voices, with their fear and pain, I can't ever forget that."

The same kind of memories are on display in the interviews with a half dozen militiamen, all self- confessed murderers, featured in German director Monika Borgmann's 2005 film Massaker, one of whom opines that "with hanging or shooting you just die, but this was double." He explained how he took an old Palestinian man and held him against a wall, slicing him open in the shape of a cross. "You die twice since you also die from fear," the militiamen said nonchalantly, describing the man's flesh and bones, as if he were describing being in a charcuterie waiting to be served.

In the film, the killers also explained how they had begun a frantic rush to dispose of as many bodies as possible before the media entered Shatila. One testified how the Israeli army had given them large plastic bags in order to dispose of the bodies. Another confessed that they had forced people into army trucks to ferry them to the Cité Sportif where they were killed. Chemicals were used to destroy many of the corpses. Several militiamen said that Israeli army officers had conferred with the militia's leaders in Beirut on the eve of the massacres.

To this day, the Hurras Al-Arz (Guardians of the Cedars) boasts of its role in the carnage. Less than two weeks before the massacres the Party issued a call for the confiscation of all Palestinian property in Lebanon, the outlawing of home ownership and the destruction of all the refugee camps. Its statement of 1 September 1982 declared that "action must be taken to reduce the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon until the day comes when not a single Palestinian remains on our soil."

In 1982, some political parties referred to the Palestinians as "a bacillus that must be exterminated", and graffiti on walls read that "the duty of every Lebanese is to kill a Palestinian." This is the same hatred expressed today in Occupied Palestine by Israeli colonists, extremist Rabbis and politicians.

The Hurras Al-Arz 's call for banning Palestinian refugees from owning property in Lebanon was later achieved by a 2001 law drafted by the current Lebanese minister of labour, who pledged on 1 September 2010 that the Lebanese "parliament will never allow Palestinian refugees the right to own property."

The mentality that allowed the 1982 massacres at Sabra-Shatila to take place is largely unchanged in 2010, with Lebanon still resisting calls by the international community to grant the survivors basic civil rights. Some who have studied the various websites in Arabic and observed gatherings of the political parties represented at the 1982 massacres claim that the language of hate is actually worse today and that it is being used to stir up parliamentary opposition to Palestinian civil rights.

During the months following the 1982 massacres, Dr Paul Morris, a British doctor, treated Munir at Gaza Hospital, approximately one kilometre north of the Abu Yassir shelter, keeping the youngster under observation. Morris reported to researcher Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout that Munir "will smile once in a while, but he doesn't react spontaneously like others of his age, except occasionally." The doctor banged on the table and said, "the lad has to be saved. He has to leave the Camp, if only for a while, to recover himself."

When Munir was asked if when he grew up and was able to carry a weapon he would consider revenge, he replied, "no, I'd never think of taking revenge by killing children the way they killed us. What did the children do wrong?"

Munir's 15-year-old brother Mufid was among the first to enter the Abu Yassir shelter, and he later appeared at Akka Hospital with a gunshot wound. After being bandaged he left the hospital to seek safety and his family. No one has seen him since, and for a long time Munir could not even bear to mention him.

According to Camp residents, Munir's older brother, Nabil, then 19 years old and of fighting age, would have been shot on sight by the killers. Aware of this, Nabil's cousin and his cousin's wife fled with him as the Israeli shelling increased and residents began to report indiscriminate killing. The trio dodged sniper bullets to seek refuge in a nursing home where his aunt worked. Like Munir, Nabil soon learned that his mother and siblings were all dead.

Now in America, both Munir and Nabil are leading relatively normal lives, considering the horror they experienced while escaping death at Sabra- Shatila. Munir and Nabil are a credit to the Shatila Camp, to Palestine and to their adopted country. Residing in the Washington DC area, Munir is married and busy with his career. Nabil is devoting his life to advocacy for peace and justice in the Middle East by working with an NGO. Both brothers return to Shatila Camp regularly.

Also apparently living normal lives are the six Christian militia killers featured in Borgmann's film. "They are all living ordinary lives. One of them is a taxi driver," Borgmann explained.

As is well known, the massacres at Sabra-Shatila were undeniable war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The killings were a violation of international law, as enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention, international customary law and jus cogens. Similar crimes have seen charges brought against Rwandan officials, Chile's ex-president General Augusto Pinochet, Chad's former president Hissein Habre, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Liberia's former president Charles Taylor and the current President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir.

No one has been punished or even investigated for their part in the Sabra-Shatila massacres. On 28 March 1991 the Lebanese parliament retroactively exempted the killers from criminal responsibility, though this law has no standing in international law and the international community remains legally obligated to punish those responsible.

The victims and their families of the Sabra-Shatila massacres, as well as virtually all human rights organisations, including but not limited to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Humanitarian Law Project, strenuously oppose blanket amnesty for the killers. They argue that the 1991 law violates Lebanon's constitution, as well as international law and promotes impunity for heinous crimes.

It was precisely to achieve justice for the victims of crimes such as those that took place at Sabra- Shatila that the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established. The ICC must begin its work without further delay, and all people of goodwill must encourage Lebanon to grant the survivors of the Sabra-Shatila massacres their basic civil rights.

* The writer is director of Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace and a board member of the Sabra Shatila Foundation.

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