September 2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the massacres that Lebanese Phalangist militia units-- working with full, round-the-clock operational support of the Israeli military-- committed against unarmed Palestinians in the two refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, in West Beirut. The killing started on Thursday, September 16 and continued for around 42 hours. At the end, the number of Palestinian and impoverished Lebanese residents of the camps who had been killed mounted to at least 800-- and more likely, numbered in the thousands.
The Israeli military had surrounded the camps, and taken over the whole of West Beirut, on September 15. They did so in direct contravention of a ceasefire agreement that U.S. diplomats had negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) just five weeks earlier. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the PLO agreed that all its fighters and headquarters staff would leave Beirut by sea, which they had done by September 1.
The PLO's leaders had agreed to leave the war-battered city (and its refugee camps) because they had the full guarantee of the U.S. government for the safety of unarmed Palestinian civilians left behind-- and because the terms of the ceasefire mandated that the Israeli military would not move forward to occupy the areas the PLO had formerly held...
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Just World Books recently re-issued for a new generation of readers the magisterial book that veteran Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal published about the affair in 1983. Randal covered the massacres (and the whole story of diplomatic skulduggery that lay behind them) firsthand, from Beirut. He has contributed an all-new, 2012 Preface to his book, which is now titled The Tragedy of Lebanon: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and American Bunglers.
Chapter 1 of the book recounts the story of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in some detail. It gives the lie to the claims that Israeli leaders subsequently made that they "had no idea" the Phalangists would behave like that against unarmed Palestinian civilians. In his new Preface, Randal notes that the memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacres "remains a crucial cause of anguish and the subject of deep reproach and recrciminations that [many Moslems] lay at the door of Israel, the West, and especially the United States."
To mark the anniversary, Just World Books is also pleased that two eye-witnesses have entrusted us with republishing a sobering, remarkable account of the massacres that they first penned 15 years ago. These two individuals are:
When these short remembrances of the massacres were first published in 1997, Jane Power helped with the editing. We have performed a further light edit of the text-- including by inviting Mr. Ahmed to memorialize those members of his family who perished in the camps by including their full names in the narrative.
Ellen Siegel and Nabil Ahmed have both lived in the Washington DC area for many years. Ms. Siegel returns to Sabra and Shatila every year to participate in the memorial observances that are held there.
(This text is offered as a public service in September 2012 by Just World Books-- "Timely Books for Changing Times". It has been slightly revised from the 1997 original and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. You may reproduce either the full text or fairly edited excerpts from it, provided that: any such republication is performed in a not-for-profit environment; that full attribution is given to the authors; and that the current web-page is cited and/or linked to as the source of the document. For rights to any other form of publication please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.)
Ellen Siegel’s memories:
My grandparents were born in Vilna, capital of Lithuania—back then, it was part of the Russian Empire. One of my great-grandfathers was a rabbi; my grandfathers were tailors. Under Czarist Russia, Jews were attacked and whole Jewish neighborhoods massacred. In the early 1900’s, when one wave of these pogroms was sweeping Eastern Europe, my grandfathers fled their homes. They brought their families to this country by cargo ship, in the hold.
My grandparents only partially assimilated into the ways of the New World, never learning much English or venturing far beyond their self-made Jewish neighborhoods, first in Richmond, then in Baltimore, where they settled. Their children tried harder; one of my parents graduated high school. They worked hard; my father was a salesman, my mother a secretary. Discrimination against Jews prohibited them from achieving what they would have liked to professionally.
A year before I was born, the last phase of the Nazi attempt to find a "final solution to the Jewish problem" began. By the time of my birth, millions of European Jews had been exterminated; Anne Frank had been in hiding in her "secret annex" for two weeks.
It was against this backdrop that I, as a second generation American Jew, grew up. I lived in a somewhat culturally and ethnically mixed middle-class environment, attending both public and Hebrew schools.
In November 1947, I remember sitting with other children in my synagogue. Through a loudspeaker, we listened to the broadcast of the UN General Assembly proceedings on a resolution to partition Palestine and thereby establish a Jewish State. After each "yes" vote we clapped and cheered. Six months later, in May1948, friends and neighbors marched joyously through our streets, most waving small Israeli flags and singing "Hatikvah." The word means "the hope"; the song is the Israeli national anthem. We had survived, the State of Israel was proclaimed independent. The voice that had come so close to being extinguished was once again heard.
I became aware of both the existence and the suffering of the Palestinian people in the late 60’s. By this time, I had graduated from a Jewish school of nursing and was practicing what I had been trained to do—alleviate suffering, commit myself to those in my care, and perform my profession faithfully. The aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war brought stories of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in tents under an Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Information was difficult to come by; the issue was too controversial—even for anti-Vietnam War activists. Nothing, ever again, was going to threaten the existence of the Jewish people.
The desire to find out more about this issue took me to Beirut in 1972. I wanted to see and hear firsthand who the Palestinians were and what were their grievances. It was there that I met my first Palestinian: I was 30 years old. I learned the history of a people that I never knew had existed as a people. I visited their homes in squalid refugee camps, met with their leaders, read books and poems which eloquently expressed their despair and anguish. I listened to stories of a journey that took them from their orange groves and olive orchards in Haifa and Yaffa to overcrowded, tin-roofed dwellings with open sewers threading the narrow streets. I knew that Jews had been a people without a land; I learned that Palestine had been a land with a people.
From Lebanon, I traveled to Israel. I visited Jerusalem, kibbutzim, holocaust memorials, and the occupied territories. I brought with me preconceived images of synagogues on every corner, of a pioneering society steeped in socialist idealism, and of a land where the "children of the dream" could grow up in peace. I learned what it meant to live in a Jewish nation. No longer were Jews at the mercy of others: they controlled their own destiny. Jews lived together freely, without fear of anti-Semitism.
But I was disturbed by the militarism. Repression and denial of rights of the very people who had been born on the country’s soil were evident. I wondered, at whose expense had we made "the desert bloom"? At the same time, I found, some Israelis did refuse to cross the "green line" (the border between Israel and the occupied territories) and desired to live in peace with their Arab neighbors.
I left Israel knowing I would devote myself to doing what I could as a Jew, as an American, and as a nurse to bring about a peaceful resolution of this conflict—to try and right a wrong.
For many years I did solidarity work. In 1980 I returned to Beirut for a short period to work with Palestinian women who had established embroidery workshops in order to support themselves and lead as much of a productive life as possible.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 horrified me. American weapons were being used to maim and kill helpless Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and refugees. Israeli soldiers were preventing food, water, and much-needed medical supplies from entering West Beirut. The hurt and suffering of those in pain was unattended to; no dignity was even given to the dead.
I arrived in Beirut on September 2, 1982. The ashes were still smoldering. The invasion was over, the PLO fighters and administration had been evacuated, the Israeli forces had pulled back from the city.
I was assigned to a hospital, called "Gaza," in Sabra camp. The Sabra and Shatila camps of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) lie side by side in West Beirut. They are two of the 12 camps established in Lebanon since 1948 by UNRWA to shelter Palestinians exiled from their homes because of the creation of Israel. Before the 1982 invasion about 90,000 people lived there, a fourth of them poor Lebanese. The houses were mainly one-story concrete dwellings with corrugated iron roofs. Camp buildings and homes were tightly packed together, separated by numerous narrow alleyways.
The camp inhabitants lived and worked together. A welfare and educational system, municipal councils, and trade unions existed. Committees organized vocational training in such areas as embroidery and carpentry and operated kindergartens. By the time I arrived in Beirut, the camps’ population had shrunk to about 10,000.
The Israeli army had left behind the effects of the U.S. implements of war. Shrapnel, ammunition, rocket casings, and other such armaments, many of them "made in USA," were everywhere. Because of them, the hospitals were filled with victims of chemical burns, with dehydrated babies, with recovering amputees. Supplies were limited, conditions poor. For example, because the electrical supply was irregular, we sometimes had to hold flashlights to finish an operation.
On September 14, the newly elected president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel of the Phalange Party, was assassinated. The next day Israeli war planes flew over West Beirut. Machine-gun fire increased as the day went on. On September 16, Israeli planes again flew over the camps; light artillery fire continued, but it was now accompanied by heavy artillery. Thousands of refugees sought security in and around the hospital. They were panic-stricken; they screamed, "Israel! Phalange!" and made a slashing motion across their throats. That evening, I watched from the tenth floor of the hospital as flares were shot into the air, lighting up neighborhoods of the camp. Sounds of machine-gun fire followed each illumination.
On the morning of the 17th, those who had sought refuge at the hospital disappeared and all the patients who could walk fled. By afternoon, all of the Palestinian and other Arab staff members were gone; their administrator had told them that the hospital was no longer safe for then.
The high explosives were coming so close that we had to move the remaining patients to the lower floors. Smoke poured in the windows, windows cracked, doors slammed, equipment reverberated. Everything was shaking. By evening, we heard only the sounds of machine-gun fire. Tending to the very ill was more difficult than usual; to some, the bombardment made the difference between life and death.
That evening a few severely wounded people managed to be brought to the hospital. Among them was a child of 12 who was suffering from shock, a bullet injury in his leg, and an open wound on his hand where a finger had once been; his name was Munir. Treatment of his leg began immediately to prevent amputation. Later that evening, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was allowed to evacuate a small number of wounded children to a hospital outside of the camp area; Munir was chosen.
Early the next morning, all the health care workers were told that the "Lebanese Army” was downstairs and that we must assemble at the hospital entrance. The armed militia we found below were in fact not the Lebanese Army but Phalangists. (These were the military wing of the Phalange Party, a nationalist Christian party founded in the 1930’s on the model of European fascist groups.) They allowed us to leave one medical student and one nurse behind in the Intensive Care Unit. They marched the rest of us down the main street of Sabra and Shatila, past dead bodies and hundreds of camp residents guarded by armed militiamen. One woman tried to pass her baby to one of the physicians, but the militiamen stopped her. Sporadic machine-gun fire could still be heard as we marched. Bulldozers, at least one marked with a Hebrew letter, were busy; homes that had stood at the edge of the camp were now rubble. As we walked along, our captors called us names—"dirty people," "un-Christian" (because we were treating "terrorists who kill Christians"), "Communists," "Socialists."
The militiamen lined us up against a bullet-riddled wall just outside the camp. Rifles ready and aimed towards us, they paused, then filed back into the camp.
Other militiamen came and took us to a courtyard on the road to what had been a United Nations building. The courtyard was littered with Israeli products and newspapers. There they questioned us about why we had come and who had sent us. Afterwards, they marched us over to a building occupied by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). From its roof, Israeli soldiers with binoculars were looking down on both Sabra and Shatila. Here the Lebanese turned us over to the Israelis.
Israeli soldiers drove us into West Beirut and dropped us off near the American Embassy. I went in and reported to an embassy official that "something wrong was going on in those camps." He said the man in charge was out: "Come back later."
That afternoon, many of the health care workers began searching for our patients. We found that the ICRC had eventually been able to evacuate all of them to other medical facilities around Beirut.
The next day I returned to the American Embassy and gave an accounting of what I had seen.
I left Beirut for 10 days. When I came back I again lived and worked at Gaza hospital. Some of the patients who had been transferred to other hospitals in Beirut had been brought back. Among them was Munir. He was recovering from his physical wounds; psychologically there was evidence of a severe trauma. His older brother Nabil spent a great deal of time with him.
Nabil and I became friends—we used to stand in the hallway outside Munir’s room and chat. He asked if I could help him and his brother come to the United States. I visited his house in Shatila, had tea, met his sister. I invited someone from the American Embassy to tour the hospital, to meet these brothers. The official said he would help obtain visas for them.
At the end of October I left Beirut for the last time. A Commission of Inquiry into the Massacres had been established in Israel; witnesses were invited to testify. I knew that in reality survivors could not go; I went to speak for them.
From Israel I returned to the United States. With me, I carried the names of two Palestinians who asked for a chance to free themselves from the violence which had followed them all of their lives. When I arrived early in November, I went to an Arab American organization that was preparing to bring wounded Palestinian and Lebanese children to this country for treatment and rehabilitation. To them I gave the names: Nabil and Munir Ahmed.
Nabil Ahmed’s memories:
My grandparents were born in Suhmatah, a village near Acre in northern Palestine. My grandfathers were farmers; they sold the oil they pressed from their olive orchards. My father was born in 1938, and my mother in 1943. They lived there peacefully until May of 1948.
After the U.N. partition vote, violence erupted in Palestine. Palestinian Arabs objected to the creation of a Jewish state in what they considered their country. Jewish militants—some belonging to the semi-official Jewish defense force (Haganah), some to the dissident underground groups (the Stern Gang and Irgun)—responded to this opposition by terrifying the Arab population in order to encourage a mass exodus. These Jewish forces dynamited homes, destroyed villages, and in April of 1948 massacred several hundred unarmed civilians in a small, peaceful village on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Deir Yassin. Word spread quickly; panic ensued.
In May part of Suhmatah was bombed. My father and mother’s families, along with other villagers, fled to the mountains. They found refuge in a cave, thinking that they would soon be able to return to their homes. My paternal grandmother tried to return to her house to get some blankets and clean clothes, but was turned back by sporadic shooting: Israeli soldiers had surrounded the village.
Fearing another massacre, my grandparents and their families escaped to the north, dodging intermittent Israeli bombings. One of my father’s brothers was wounded and had to be carried to the Lebanese border. The families made their way on foot to the Baalbek area in northeast Lebanon. Goro castle, once used by the French military governor, became home to them and to thousands of others who soon became known as "Palestinian refugees." Its huge rooms were divided up, each accommodating many families.
When he was 17, my father found work as a mason in Tal Zaatar, located in the eastern outskirts of Beirut. In the mid-1950s, UNRWA rented this land and established it as a camp for refugees from the northern coast of Palestine. The region around the camp was an industrial center which attracted Lebanese and Palestinian workers to the area; the camp kept expanding. My father and grandfather built a house there, and in 1960 my parents were married and settled down in the family house. In 1961 their first child, Walid, was born. About this time all of my grandparents moved from Goro to Rashidieh, an area in South Lebanon which was being transformed into a camp. UNRWA was building houses there for refugees.
I was born in 1963 in Tal Zaatar; two daughters were born to my parents in 1965 and 1967. Another son was born in 1969, Munir in 1970, and a last son in 1971. Factional fighting in and around Beirut began in 1973 but had little effect on my daily life. My father worked as a carpenter while I attended an UNRWA school. Another daughter was born in 1974. In early 1976 my father finished building a room on the top of our small house to accommodate the increasing family size. By that time about 30,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were living in overcrowded, tin-roofed rooms in the central part of the camp.
Animosity grew between many of the Christians of East Beirut and the poor Palestinians and Lebanese Moslems in Tal Zaatar. A series of atrocities against Palestinians gathered momentum. In April 1975, a bus carrying 30 Palestinians back from a “mahrajan” (demonstration) in Tal Zaatar to their homes in the Sabra camp was riddled with hundreds of bullets fired by militiamen of the Lebanese Phalange. For the next year, the Phalangists tried, and failed, to overrun Tal Zaatar. Bombings were frequent, casualties high; my older brother Walid was killed in October 1975. Finally, in June 1976, Tal Zaatar came under siege by Christian militiamen and their Syrian allies, who continually fired shells and rockets into the camp. The following month, our father was killed.
After a two-month siege, the militiamen overran the camp. Over two thousand Palestinian and Lebanese refugees had been slaughtered. My youngest sister was born eight days before the siege ended; I was 13.
My mother, my seven surviving brothers and sisters, and I had to leave the camp. Phalange militiamen put us all in pick-up trucks and took us to their headquarters. There, they separated all men aged 14 and older from us—the women and children. They took the women and children almost to the "Green Line" between East and West Beirut and dropped them off, telling us to keep walking without looking back. When we crossed the border, Palestinians and sympathetic Lebanese provided trucks to take us back to the center of West Beirut. Then our relatives came and found us and took us to Rashidieh camp. The men were never heard from again.
For the next two years, our family lived in Rashidieh with one of my mother’s brothers. Israel was waging an escalating war on the Palestinian camps; shellings and bombings destroyed more and more of the buildings in Rashidieh, and it became an increasingly dangerous place to live.
In 1978 we moved to Shatila camp in West Beirut. For four months we stayed there, in a rented room with no kitchen; in the end we returned to Rashidieh to continue with school. In 1979, the daily shelling from Israel forced us to move to Sidon, a city between Beirut and Rashidieh. For three months our home was a garage, shared with five other families. But the Israelis were bombing Sidon. We moved to Ein el-Hilweh, another camp close to Sidon. There we lived in one room with another family for three months. We also lived for short periods in Burj el- Barajneh , a camp outside Beirut, and in Damour, a town near Beirut. Each time we returned to Rashidieh, our house had been shelled and we had to begin again the process of rebuilding.
Finally, in 1980, our family bought a house in Shatila camp; there was less bombing in that area. UNRWA’s education ends with the tenth grade, but I went on to a private school.
That is where I earned my high school diploma. At the same time, to help support my family, I worked in construction. My mother sewed, and she baked the wide, flat loaves of Palestinian bread and sold it to restaurants. One of my sisters practiced the art of Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery.
During most of the Israeli assault on Beirut in 1982, our family stayed in Shatila camp. When the Israeli army came very close to the camp, we would flee to other parts of the city, but after a short time—by the end of August—we returned along with 10,000 others like us, even though many houses had been destroyed.
We found that the bombing had damaged our house among the rest. Still, it provided shelter, one of two in the whole neighborhood that still had enough walls and doors so the families could live indoors. Conditions were primitive—no running water, no electricity—but there was no other place to go.
Rumors spread that the Israeli army was making frequent visits to the camp entrance. I watched as soldiers blew up sandbags and landmines that had been placed at the entrance by Palestinians trying to defend themselves during the invasion. They were clearing a path.
The Palestinians in the camps were very afraid. They were women, children, and students, and since the PLO evacuation at the end of August, no one was left to protect them.
Early on September 15, the day after Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, I heard Israeli warplanes flying at a low level. Israeli tanks entered West Beirut and surrounded the camps, stopping people from going out. I managed to get away to a friend’s house, where I spent the night, but the next day I returned.
By early afternoon on September 16 the camp was being bombed; people said the Phalangists were just outside the entrance. My family, some neighbors and I stayed in a shelter until the bombing stopped early in the evening. Soon after we came out, a woman came running to us screaming, "Go away! The Phalange have gotten into the camps—they’re killing anyone they see!"
That evening my oldest sister and her husband, a cousin, and I escaped to Sabra camp. Dodging snipers’ bullets, we made our way to a hospital for the mentally handicapped where my aunt worked. I went to the roof of the hospital and saw Israeli planes in the sky illuminating the camps with flares. I could see the tops of houses, although I could not see inside the houses or see what was happening in the streets. I heard shots, but no screams. The next night, Friday, I watched the light from the planes, but I also heard a new sound. Bulldozers were at work.
On Saturday morning I met up with a relative, who asked, "Did you see your brother? They brought one of your brothers to Gaza Hospital—he was injured.” Then I began to search for my wounded brother.
That brother was Munir, and he had been wounded nearly two days before. Thursday evening, after I left the shelter, Munir had remained there with our mother, three sisters and two brothers, our uncle’s family, and his neighbors. The bombing soon ceased. Shortly afterwards, Phalange militiamen discovered the shelter and ordered everyone outside.
When they had rounded up everybody they could find, the Phalangists put all the males age 14 and over against a wall and shot them. "Twenty-five men, in front of the wall outside of my house," Munir recalls. "My uncle and cousin, people I was with a few minutes before, were killed." The militiamen led the women and children, about a hundred in all, to a large garage.
Our 13-year-old brother escaped from the garage. The Phalangists shot him in the back, but he managed to get to another Palestinian hospital, Akka, where he was treated. After that, Phalangists entered the hospital and asked, "Who is Palestinian here?" When he responded, they took him away. Two days later his body was found beside the hospital; he had been killed with a hatchet.
Once inside the garage, the Phalange began harassing their captives. One asked my 15-year-old sister whether her earrings were gold or zinc. She replied, "Zinc." The militiamen cursed her, beat her, and then shot her in the head in front of everyone. Munir stayed close to our mother.
The Phalangists shot many more in the garage, but not all died instantly. The militiamen announced that Red Cross workers were coming to take the injured for treatment and asked those still alive to raise their hands. These people were shot again.
Although Munir had been shot in the leg, he did not raise his hand. He hoped he would be mistaken for dead; everyone around him was dead. The militia took the jewelry from the dead women.
Throughout the night Munir remained, motionless among the dead, close to our mother’s body. At one point, militiamen walked around with flashlights shooting anyone who stirred. Munir was hit again, in his arm. The militiamen returned again in the morning and shot Munir a third time. He was protecting his head with his hand; the bullet severed a finger.
The Phalangists brought sheets and covered the bodies, Munir heard them say, "Let’s go and bring the bulldozers and destroy the houses on top of the bodies."
After they left, Munir escaped and made his way to a neighbor’s house. It was open: it had been searched. He found some clothes, a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Blood covered his body, and it took him more than an hour to change clothes.
Munir first went back to the original shelter, passing bodies on the street. One of them was our uncle, Abu Zuheir. Finding the shelter still empty and silent, he went on to a neighbor’s house. There two militiamen found him. One made a move to stab him, but the other intervened. "Are you Lebanese or Palestinian?" he asked.
Munir said he was Lebanese. When he saw them hesitate, he begged, "Please, you killed my brothers, you killed my sisters, you killed my family, my uncle, his family, please don’t do this."
"If you were Palestinian, we would have knifed you," was the response. The militiamen ordered Munir to stay in a corner. When he was sure they were gone, he went to a nearby house. No one answered him. Another house. Nobody answered. He made his way to another side of the camp and found some Palestinians who took him by car to Gaza Hospital. It was late Friday afternoon.
On Saturday, I learned that Munir had been transferred to a hospital in West Beirut, outside the camps. .
The Israeli army had cordoned off the area around the hospital. I approached the soldiers and I was crying. I asked them whether I should speak in English or in Arabic. "Arabic," they said, but they didn’t seem to understand me. I explained over and over: I’d heard that there had been a massacre and my family had been injured, maybe killed. My brother had been taken to the hospital, and I wanted to go to him.
Finally the soldiers told me to walk through their lines. I passed some tanks, then another soldier signaled me to go back where I had come from. I obeyed. But when I got back to the first group of soldiers, they asked me why I’d come back. The two groups of soldiers conferred in Hebrew, then told me to pass. I really believed I would be shot and was going to die in that place.
The hospital was far away—I had to get past a dangerous area in order to get to taxis or to find small sheltered alleys to walk through. Instead, I decided to go to a friend’s house away from the camps, in a building that had been settled by refugees from Tal Zaatar camp. But in that neighborhood a rumor was spreading that the Israelis were coming that way to take away all young people. My friend and I escaped.
We couldn’t find any kind of transportation to the hospital, which was three miles away, so we walked, taking small streets and avoiding militiamen. As we tried to enter the hospital area someone warned us to leave quickly: every young man, especially Palestinian, was being picked up. There were checkpoints manned by Israeli and South Lebanese Army at the entranceways around the hospital. We tried to return to my friend’s house the way we had come, but we couldn’t get back because checkpoints had been set up on the way. At last we found a cab and offered the driver as much money as he wanted to take us to the hospital without having to pass through checkpoints.
When we arrived, Munir was not there.
Rumors were spreading that teams of Israeli intelligence agents and Phalangists were driving around arresting young men. My friend and I decided to go to the Red Cross. There we found several hundred people who had escaped from Sabra and Shatila. The Israelis tried to enter the shelter, but the Red Cross staff kept them out. The shelter quickly became overcrowded, and everyone was moved to schools in the area. For two days, Sunday and Monday, the Red Cross provided shelter for all of us.
I again tried to enter the camp and again failed; the Israelis still surrounded it. Then the Israelis withdrew, and the Lebanese Army replaced them. But the Phalange had placed explosives under bodies so that anyone who moved them would be blown up. The Lebanese Army would not let anyone in until they had removed those explosives.
When I finally entered the camp, I saw bodies everywhere. When I went to my neighborhood, I found the bodies of the friends I was with just before I left the camp a few days before—25 young men. When I came to the garage where my family had been held, the building was being bulldozed on top of them.
Before I entered the camp, I had believed my family was alive and hoped to meet them there. After I entered the camp and saw all the dead, I still hoped to at least find their bodies.
The Red Cross had designated an area where people could come to identify some of the bodies. It was filled with corpses—more than 200 of them. There were bones, the bodies changed color, they got dark, black —you couldn’t identify them. Some relatives were able to recognize loved ones by their shoes or their clothes.
For two days I searched without success for my family and relatives. Then the bodies that had not been identified were buried in a mass grave because of the sickening smell. The weather was very hot.
I never learned just where my family’s bodies were. I searched, found parts, pulled a head, a hand, out of the tangle of corpses. I found hair –someone’s hair came out when I tried to pull a body from the heap. After all, there were more than 100 people, and the garage had been bulldozed on top of them. I remember: the number of bodies, the way they were killed … the children. After they’ve been four or five days under the rubble you cannot identify anybody, the bodies dissolve. But even though I could not identify my family, I knew they were somewhere in that place. I found lots of parts of bodies, but not what I was searching for.
My youngest sister Iman was 6 years old, Fadia was 8, Aida was 15. My brother Mufid was 13, Mouin was 11. And my mother, Zehra. My uncle Abu Zuheir and his family were 11 people—the youngest was a few months old, and the oldest was my age. All 11 of them were killed there. And our neighbors also.
Between September 16 and 18, 1982, more than 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese men, women, and children living in the Sabra and Shatila camps were massacred. However, the Lebanese government claimed that only 800 were killed.
Days later, I did find Munir. In October 1983, a year after the massacre, Mounir and I left Lebanon; for many years now, we have both lived in the United States.
At the 15th anniversary of the massacres, Ellen said, “As a Jew, I believe as I always have that my people have a right to be free of the persecution that plagued them for so long and a right to live in peace.”
At the same time Nabil said, "From camp to camp, nothing changed—the same tragedy repeats itself; in Rashidieh, in Tal Zaatar, in Damour, in Sidon, in Burj el-Barajneh, in Ein el-Hilweh, in Shatila. We accepted it, because for us Palestinians, with each new day we expect that something else will come, more than what we have already been through."
Ellen and Nabil both agreed that the Palestinians also have the right to security and peace. They too, must have a homeland.
(This text is offered as a public service in September 2012 by Just World Books-- "Timely Books for Changing Times". It has been slightly revised from the 1997 original and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. You can see our list of other timely titles, here.)