Remembering Janet Lee Stevens, martyr for the Palestinian refugees
This letter was written by Franklin Lamb*
to Janet Lee Stevens on the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre from Martyrs' Square in Beirut
It's a very beautiful fall day here in Beirut today. Twenty-five years ago this week since the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. Bright blue sky and a fall breeze. It actually rained last night. Enough to clean out some of the humidity and dust. Fortunately not enough to make the usual rain-created swamp of sewage and filth on Rue Sabra, or to flood the grassless burial ground of the mass grave (the camp residents named it Martyrs' Square, one of several so-named memorials now in Lebanon), where you once told me that on Sunday 19 September 1982, you watched, sickened, as families and Red Crescent workers created a subterranean mountain of the butchered and bullet-riddled victims from those 48 hours of slaughter.
Some of the bodies had limbs and heads chopped off, some boys castrated, with Christian crosses carved into some of the bodies.
As you later wrote to me in your perfect cursive, "I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles."
Today Martyrs' Square is not much of a memorial to the upwards of 1,700 mainly women and children who were murdered between 15-18 September. You would not be pleased. A couple of faded posters and a misspelled banner that reads "1982: Saba Massacer" hang near the centre of the 20 by 40 yard area which for years following the mass burial was a garbage dump. Today, roaming around the grassless plot of ground is a large old yellow dog that ignores a couple of chickens and six pullets scratching and pecking around.
Since you went away, the main facts of the massacre remain the same as your research uncovered in the months that followed. At that time your findings were the most detailed and accurate as to what occurred and who was responsible.
The old seven-storey Kuwaiti embassy building, from where Sharon, Eytan, Yaron, Elie Hobeika, Fradi Frem and others maintained radio contact and monitored the 48 hours of carnage with a clear view into the camps, was torn down years ago. A new one has been built, and they are still constructing a mosque on its grounds.
I am sorry to report that today in Lebanon the families of the victims of the massacre daily sink deeper into the abyss. Nowhere on earth do the Palestinians live in such filth and squalor. "Worse than Gaza," a journalist recently in Palestine exclaims. A 2005 law that was to open up access to some of the 77 professions the Palestinians have been barred from in Lebanon has had no effect. Their social, economic, political, and legal status continues to worsen.
"It's a hopeless situation here now," according to Jamile Ibrahim Shehade, the head of one of 12 social centres in the camp. "There are 15,000 people living in one square kilometre." Jamile runs a centre that provides basic facilities, such as a dental clinic and a nursery for children. It receives assistance from Norwegian People's Aid and the Lebanese NGO, PARD. "This whole area was nothing before the camps were here, and there has been very little done in terms of building infrastructure," Shehade explained.
Continued misery in the camps has taken a heavy psychological toll on the residents of Sabra and Shatila, aid workers here say. Tempers run high as a result of frustration from the daily grind in the decrepit housing complex. In all 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon, tensions and tempers rise with increasing family, neighbourhood, and sectarian conflicts. Salafist and other militant groups are forming in and around Lebanon's Palestinian camps, but not so much here in the Hizbullah-controlled areas where security is better.
In Sabra and Shatila, schools will run double shifts when they open at the end of this month, and electricity and water are still a big problem. According to a 1999 survey by the local NGO Najdeh (Help), 29 per cent of 550 women surveyed in seven of the 12 official refugee camps scattered across Lebanon have admitted being the victims of physical violence. Cocaine and hashish are becoming a concern to the community.
There is some new information about the Sabra and Shatila massacre that has come to light over the years. Few Israelis, but many of the Christian Lebanese Forces following the national amnesty, have wanted to make their peace and confessed to their role. I have spoken with a few of them.
Remember that fellow you once screamed at and called a butcher outside of Phalange HQ in East Beirut, Joseph Haddad? At the time, he denied everything, as he looked you straight in the eye and made the sign of the cross. Well, he did finally confess 22 years later, around the time of his youngest daughter's confirmation in his local parish. Your suspicions were indeed correct. His unit, the second to enter the camp, had been supplied with cocaine, hashish and alcohol to increase their courage. He and others gave their stories to Der Spiegel and various documentary filmmakers.
Many of the killers now freely admit that they conducted a three-day orgy of rape and slaughter that left hundreds, as many as 3,500, some claim, possibly more, innocent civilians dead in what is considered the bloodiest single incident of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a crime for which Israel will be condemned for eternity.
Your friend, Umm Ahmed, still lives in the same house where she lost her husband, four sons and a daughter when Joseph, a thick-set militiaman carrying an assault rifle, bundled everyone into one room of their hovel and opened fire. She still explains as if it were yesterday, how the condoned slaughter unfolded, recalling each of her four sons by name: Nizar, Shadi, Farid and Nidal. I asked Joseph if he wanted to sit with Umm Ahmed and seek forgiveness and possible redemption, since he has now become a lay cleric in his parish. He declined, but sent his condolences with flowers.
Do you remember, Janet, how we used to walk down Rue Sabra from Gaza Hospital to Akka Hospital during the 75-day Israeli siege in 1982, as you used to say "to see my people"? Gaza Hospital is gone now, occupied and stripped by the Syrian- backed Amal militia during the camp wars of 1985- 87. Its remaining rooms are now packed with refugees. One old lady who ended up there recited how it's her fourth home since being forced from Palestine in 1948. She survived the Phalangist attack and destruction of the Tel Al-Zaatar camp in 1976, fled from the Fatah Al-Islam salafists in Nahr Al-Bared Camp in May of this year, and wore out her welcome at the teeming and overwhelmed Bedawi camp near Tripoli last month.
Most of your friends who worked with the Palestine Red Crescent Society are gone from Lebanon. Our cherished friend, Hadla Ayubi, has semi- retired to Amman. Umm Walid, director of the Akkar Hospital, finally did return to Palestine following Oslo, still with the Red Crescent. And its president, Fathi Arafat, your good friend, passed away in December of 2004 in Cairo less than a month after his brother Abu Ammar died in Paris. They both loved you for all you had done for their people.
That trash dump near the Sabra Mosque is now sometimes a mountain. Yesterday, I did a double- take as I walked by because I saw three young girls -- as sweet and pretty as ever I have seen -- maybe seven to nine years old, in rags picking through the nasty garbage. Their arms were covered with white chemical paste. Apparently whoever sent these angels to scavenge had sought to protect them from disease. As I climbed through the filth to give them my last 6,000 LL (US$4), they managed a smile and giggled when I slipped on a thin plastic bag of juicy cactus fruit skins and plunged to my knees.
In some areas of the camps there are mainly Syrians selling cheap "tax free" goods. There are still some Arafat loyalists, mainly among the older generation. Palpable stress among just about everyone it seems. One young Palestinian explained to me his worry that with the upcoming parliamentary election to choose a new Palestinian president scheduled for 25 September, there may be fighting and his October SAT exams may be cancelled and he won't be able to continue his studies.
When you and I last spoke, Janet, it was on 16 April of that year, and I was en route to Athens airport to catch a flight to Beirut to be with you. You told me you were working on evidence to convict Sharon and others of war crimes.
Twenty years later, lawyers representing two dozen victims and other relatives have attempted to have Ariel Sharon tried for the massacre under Belgian legislation, which grants its courts "universal jurisdiction" for war crimes. There had been great expectations about the case among the Palestinians and their friends, since, as you remember, Sharon had already been found to bear "personal responsibility" in the massacres by an Israeli commission of inquiry which concluded that he should never again hold public office.
But such hopes were dashed when the Belgian court, under US and Israeli pressure, decided the case was inadmissible. I regret to report that all those who perpetrated the massacres at Sabra and Shatila have escaped justice. None of the hundreds of Phalange and Haddad militia who carried out the slaughter were ever punished. In fact, they got a blanket amnesty from the Lebanese government.
As for the main organisers and facilitators, their massacres at Sabra and Shatila turned out to be excellent career moves for virtually all of them.
Ariel Sharon, found by the Israeli Kahan Commission "to bear personal responsibility" for allowing the Sabra and Shatila massacre to take place, resigned as Israeli minister of defence but retained his cabinet position in Begin's government and over the next 16 years held four more ministerial posts, including that of foreign minister, before becoming Israeli prime minister in February 2001. Following the Jenin rampage, US president George W Bush anointed him "a man of peace".
Rafel Eytan, Israeli chief of staff, who shared Sharon's decision to send in the Phalange killers and helped direct the operations, was elected to the Israeli Knesset as leader of the small ultra-rightwing party Tzomet. In 1984, he was named agriculture minister, and deputy prime minister in 1996. He currently serves as head of Tzomet and is jockeying for another cabinet position in the next government.
Major-General Yehoshua Saguy, the Israeli army chief of intelligence found by the Kahan Commission to have made "extremely serious omissions" in his handling of the Sabra and Shatila affair, later became a right-wing member of the Knesset and is now mayor of the ultra-rightist community of Bat- Yam, a town near Tel Aviv.
Major-General Amir Drori, chief of Israel's northern command, who was found not to have done enough to stop the massacre in a "breach of duty", was recently named head of the Israeli Antiquities Commission.
Brigadier-General Amos Yaron, the Israeli divisional commander whose troops sealed the camps to prevent victims from escaping and helped direct the operation along with Sharon and Eitan, was found to have "committed a breach of duty" by the commission. He was immediately promoted to major- general and made head of army manpower, served as director-general of the Israeli Defence Ministry and as military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He is currently working for various Israeli lobby groups as a scholar in "think thanks".
Elie Hobeika, chief of the Lebanese Forces' intelligence, who along with Sharon master-minded the actual massacre, fell out with the Phalange in the 1980s under suspicions that he had been involved in killing their leader, Bachir Gemayal.
He defected to the Syrians, acquired three ministerial posts in post-civil war Lebanon governments, including minister for the displaced (many thought he knew a lot about this subject), of electricity and water, and, in 1996, of social affairs.
On 24 January 2002, 20 years after his involvement at Sabra and Shatila, Hobeika was blown up in a car bomb in East Beirut. Two of his associates who were also rumoured to be planning to "come clean" regarding Sharon's role, were assassinated in separate incidents. A few days before Hobeika's death, he stated that he might reveal more about the massacre and those responsible, and according to the Beirut Daily Star staff who interviewed him, Hobeika said that his lawyers had copies of files implicating Sharon in much more than had become public.
These are now in the possession of his son who, following Sharon's death, may release the files.
They still remember you in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp. A few weeks ago, one old man told me: "Janet Stevens? No, I didn't know her." He paused and then said, "Oh! You mean Miss Janet! She spoke Arabic... I think she was American. Of course I remember her! We called her 'the little drummer girl'. She had so much energy. She cared about the Palestinians. That was so long ago. She stopped coming to visit us. I don't know why. How is she?"
And so, dearest Janet, I will be waiting for you at Sabra and Shatila, at Martyrs' Square, on Saturday, 15 September 2007.
You will find me patting and mumbling to that old yellow dog. He and I have become friends, and we will pay our respects to the dead, while I reflect on these past 25 years and we watch for and wait for you. You will find us behind the straggly rose bushes on the right as you enter.
Come to us, Janet. We need you. The camp residents need you, one of their brightest lights, on this 25th anniversary of one of their darkest hours. You were always their mediator and advocate. Until today, you are their majorette for justice and for their return to their sacred Palestine.
* The writer is director of the Sabra Shatila Foundation and is working with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in Lebanon on drafting legislation which, if adopted, would grant the right to work and to own a home to Lebanon's Palestinian refugees. Part of the project is online, where a petition can be signed at: www.petitiononline.com.
About Janet Lee Stevens
JANET Lee Stevens was born in 1951 and died on 17 April 1983 at the age of 32 at the instant of the explosion which destroyed the American Embassy in Beirut.
Twenty minutes before the blast, Janet had arrived at the embassy to meet with USAID official Bill McIntyre because she wanted to advocate for more aid to the Shia of South Lebanon and for the Palestinians at Shatila and the Burj Al-Burajneh camps, stemming from Israel's 1982 invasion and the 15-18 September massacre.
As they sat at a table in the cafeteria, where she had planned to ask why the US government had never even lodged a protest following the Israeli invasion or the massacre, a van stolen from the embassy the previous June arrived and parked just in front, almost directly in front of the cafeteria.
It contained 2,000 pounds of explosives. It was detonated by remote control and tons of concrete pancaked on top of Janet and Bill, killing a further 63 people and wounding 120.
Janet worked with Amnesty International until the time of her death. She had moved to Lebanon two years before her death from Tunisia, and her passion was to become a successful investigative journalist. She worked in Lebanon at Monday Morning magazine, and left the magazine following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
She also worked during this period as a freelance reporter and as an assistant to the Japanese journalist Arata, a reporter for the Asahi magazine in Beirut. During this same period she wrote reports for the news agency Al-Quds, as well as for European and American journals.
Janet was hired by Al-Kifah Al-Arabi magazine to write in-depth reports a few days before she died. The magazine describes her as very faithful to the Arab cause and especially the Palestinian struggle, as is clearly evidenced in her reports published in the German and American media. Janet became the inspiration for John Le Carre's lead character in the book and later movie, The Little Drummer Girl.
The remains of Janet's body were found two days following the embassy explosion, unidentified in the basement morgue of the American University of Beirut Hospital by the author. She was pregnant with our son, Clyde Chester Lamb III. Had he lived he would be 24 years old. Hopefully taking after his mother, he would, no doubt, be a prince of a young man.