From his cinder block home in the Shatila refugee camp, Youssef Hamza remembers peering through a bathroom vent when he heard a woman running down the alley, screaming his name. Her arm was gushing blood but Hamza remained silent. Moments later, the militiamen came trampling after her, and he knew he had to act fast. He motioned quietly to his family, who were crouching in the dark, to get ready to make a run for it.
“I told them, ‘don’t speak, don’t cough,'” the 65-year-old Palestinian refugee recalls, scratching a thin white beard. “Either we are going to be killed here or die trying to escape.” He told those who protested, “We will rely on God.”
Sneaking through the camp’s network of dark alleyways, the family fled to the adjoining Beirut neighbourhood of Barbir. But there, under a highway overpass, they were met by a 50-calibre barrel of an Israeli gunner. Hamza says the soldier ordered them back, brushing off their plea that a massacre was taking place.
But Israeli commanders knew otherwise. They were actually in close coordination with the militiamen known as Phalangists, and had allowed them into Hamza’s neighbourhood earlier that evening.
Israeli tanks had rolled into Beirut and sealed off the camps the previous day on September 15, 1982, hours after the Jewish state’s key ally in Lebanon, President Bachir Gemayel, was assassinated in a blast that killed him and 26 others. The Israelis entrusted the Phalangists – right-wing Christian fighters associated with the slain president’ s party – with “searching and mopping up the camps”, according to Israeli military orders.
Knowing the Phalangists sought revenge for Gemayel’s death, an Israeli government inquiry held the country’s defence minister, Ariel Sharon, “personally responsible” for the atrocities the militiamen carried out when they entered Shatila on the evening of September 16.
That night, while Hamza kept his family frantically on the move in the dark streets, others seeking shelter underground were less safe.
Hamed Chamas was hiding in a basement with his brother and father when the Phalangists marched them out.
With big poufy disco hair, Chamas was 17 when he was struck in the back with a rifle butt, after he refused to line up outside with the others. He was shoved into place against a concrete wall, and the militiamen opened fire.
Thirty-years later, Chamas unfurls a tattered sepia print that captured the aftermath: A heap of bodies with their arms and legs outstretched – one of the most iconic images of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. He points to the limbs of his father and 22-year-old brother among the dead. Chamas himself was shot twice; one bullet grazed his head and another entered his leg. He was shielded from additional rounds when the bodies of others collapsed on top of him.
“I hid under the dead bodies for two days,” he says.
Chamas, now 57, recounts his story by the light of a cell phone because there is no electricity in his home, located down a labyrinth of dark muddy alleyways in Hay el Arsal. It is one of many poor, densely packed Beirut neighbourhoods that have gradually grown seamlessly into the Shatila camp, since it was established in 1948 to house Palestinian refugees.
Today some 20,000 residents, mainly Lebanese and Palestinians, are crammed into the one square kilometer Shatila camp. Thousands more Lebanese live in surrounding slums such as Sabra, which was affected by the massacre but often mistakenly considered to be part of the official camp.
Chamas keeps a copy of his Lebanese passport handy amid the photographs and yellowed papers he pulls out when discussing the massacre with journalists. Many reporters misidentify him as Palestinian in their news articles, he complains, adding that Lebanese account for a large number of the dead and are often overlooked.
“After 30 years, my mind cannot handle it.”
– Oum Hussein, son and husband killed
The Lebanese Al Meqdad family alone lost at least 30 family members, death records show.
Oum Hussein, a stout 74 -year-old with a round stoic face, says she held up her Lebanese ID when the Phalangists raided her shelter. She was staying with her husband and young son. Although veiled, Oum Hussein pleaded with the militiamen that she had been raised Christian, but converted for marriage.
“They cursed me over and over. Words that cannot be repeated,” she says.
Oum Hussein explained she and the other women were loaded in a truck and hauled away to a nearby sports stadium occupied by the Israelis.
They were released a few days later, and she came running back to the shelter. When she arrived, she found all 16 male occupants slaughtered – including her husband and son.
“After 30 years,” she says weeping. “My mind cannot handle it.”
The Shatila killing spree went on for 48 hours and left piles of dead bodies rotting in the September sun. Photographs taken just after the attack show mutilated adult corpses with newborn babies tossed among them. Many were buried in a mass grave at the edge of Shatila camp, now marked by a single tombstone on an unkempt, red-dirt lot.
Survivors say women were routinely raped and some victims were buried alive or shot in front of their families. Truckloads of others were hauled away, never to be heard from again.
The Israeli government-sponsored Kahan Commission estimated the death toll at about 800, but other researchers, including Israeli author Amnon Kapeliouk, say the number was closer to 3,500.
History of violence
But the Sabra and Shatila massacre is just one chapter in the rich history of violence and destitution that characterises life in and around the camp. The dead rest among an estimated 150,000 killed during Lebanon’s bloody 15 year civil war.
“Why doesn’t anyone ask about the massacres at Tel el Zaatar or the War of the Camps,” asks 90-year-old Abu Mohammed, in reference to other mass killings that claimed the lives of thousands, both in Shatila and other Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
One of Shatila’s oldest residents, Abu Mohammed fled Palestine in 1948. The Phalangists did not reach his door in the 1982 massacre, but six members of his family including his son were killed a few years later by Lebanese Shia militiamen, who shelled the camp incessantly in the late 1980s.
Hamza, who helped his family escape the Phalangists, also lost his son in the War of the Camps.
Thanks to Lebanon’s 1991 amnesty law, issued at the civil war’s end, the major militias that once marauded Beirut’s streets have now become political parties and their commanding officers, leading politicians.
Among Lebanon’s ruling parties is the Kataeb, which Shatila survivors see as the principal source of Phalangists who participated in the massacre.
Kataeb party Member of Parliament Nadim Gemayel, son of the assassinated president, says the Sabra and Shatila killings have received more media attention than other Lebanese massacres where Christians have been killed, in some cases by Palestinian fighters.
“What about Damour, Kahale, Ehden, Ashrafieh,” he says, shooting off a list of Lebanese villages where mass killings took place as part of the tit-for-ta violence of the civil war. “There are a lot of Christian towns that have been omitted from history.”
Gemayel, 30, was only an infant in 1982. He says no reconciliation efforts have taken place, but adds he is open to the idea. “A lot of crimes happened on both sides … I think admitting that it happened from both sides can help.”
But he cautioned against taking the initiative alone. “It should not be a one way act.”
Lebanese law prohibits Palestinian refugees from employment in most professions, restricting them to menial jobs.
Gemayel says he is proposing to build a wall to honour the names of Lebanese martyrs of all faiths. But this would not include Palestinians.
A memorial is not likely to improve the lives of the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in a dozen camps such as Shatila across Lebanon. The tight alleyways block sunlight, open sewers fill puddles in the street, and piles of garbage are everywhere, creating a suffocating stench. Little is available in terms of health care.
Palestinians are forced to endure these conditions because they are barred from owning property and earning decent wages in Lebanon. Though they have resided in the country for more than 60 years, Lebanese law prohibits Palestinian refugees from employment in most professions, restricting them to menial jobs. Lebanese officials frequently cite the danger of upsetting Lebanon’s delicate Sunni-Shia-Christian power-sharing system as a reason behind the government’s hardline policy.
For some camp residents, the only real option is to escape from Lebanon.
“I can never imagine staying in this country,” says Hiba, a second-year college student studying journalism.
The 19-year-old is one of the few camp residents to have earned a scholarship at a prestigious Lebanese university, but her degree would be worthless in the local market. “If I stay here I’ll never be able to work in my field.”
Hiba’s only hope is her mother’s bid to gain asylum in Germany after having been smuggled into Europe with a counterfeit passport that cost the family a small fortune.
“We have no rights at all,” she explains. “How can I build a future for myself or my children when we can’t even own property.”
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