Sabra and Shatila: Thirty Years On
By: Hassan Kheite
Published Friday, September 14, 2012
On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in which hundreds of defenseless Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by Lebanese right-wing militias under the cover of the Israeli military, Al-Akhbar publishes an account of the events by a Palestinian survivor who was a young boy when he witnessed the killings.
Sabra was bustling with life, even after three full months of death and destruction brought about by the Israeli siege of Beirut. So was the Shatila camp.
People had returned to their homes with a false sense of security. Everyone, including my 13-year-old self, was deceived into thinking the war was over.
Then came the news of the killing of “elected” president Bashir Gemayel that shook us out of this delusion. A neighbor went out on his balcony and shot a hail of bullets into the sky to celebrate.
My feelings were a mixture of outrage and panic. I was repulsed by those who did not respect the sanctity of death and was simultaneously worried that the assassination would usher in a new season of deaths.
The next day, Israeli warplanes clouded the Beirut skies again, flying lower than I had ever seen them before.
They flew low enough for me to easily see the Star of David on their hulls.
My father – who has since passed away – came home in the middle of the day. I think my uncle had arrived earlier. They discussed rumors about the Israeli army beginning to enter Beirut. In Sabra, where we lived, there was still no sign of armies or battles.
My uncle said that a friend told him that he passed by Israeli armored vehicles near the Sports City on his way from the nearby Fakhani area.
But the smiles on the grownups’ faces suggested that we were not in danger. We felt safe even after the family decided to move to the old people’s home where my father worked as a nurse and pharmacist.
I do not remember any battles occurring nearby during the first day in the shelter. All I can remember is the explosion of gas cylinders in Sabra’s main square and the sound of sniper fire coming from the vicinity of Shatila camp.
The sniper was kept busy with people pushing mannequins into his line of fire as we enjoyed the free show.
My room had a southern view facing Shatila. I could not make out what was happening, but I could clearly hear the sounds of heavy military vehicles and see the lights from the flares.
I would spend my time watching the shadows made by the window’s grill on the opposing wall each time a new one was fired.
One night, my father’s colleague arrived from “the camp,” which is how residents referred to Shatila. We never heard Sabra being called a “camp” until after the slaughter.
For its inhabitants, Sabra was just the name of a street that starts at al-Dana petrol station in Tariq al-Jdideh, passing through Sabra square, and terminating at the entrance of Shatila camp.
So, my father’s colleague arrived and some people began to make fun of him. Someone asked him in a loud voice to tell them how exactly he managed to cross over all the dead bodies in Shatila.
He turned around and left behind him the grinning faces. The grownups were smiling again, therefore, we were safe.
But the rumors kept multiplying and the news on the radio confirmed the gravity of the situation to all who refused to believe.
We decided to escape to the center of Beirut, especially after our neighbor arrived with her children. She told us how they were being led by gunmen to the Sports City stadium. But a landmine exploded and they were able to flee amidst the confusion.
Then came the stories of blood and corpses and kidnapping. Some people spoke about passing through Sabra over rivers of blood. They were not exaggerating.
We were used to moving to my aunt’s every time it got dangerous in our area. We piled into our neighbor’s truck and headed towards the city. My older brother, Oussama, remained in the old people’s home with my father.
We passed by the municipal stadium and reached the Cola bridge. The street was eerily empty. I think my mother panicked and asked my neighbor to stop.
We climbed out of the truck and walked through deserted streets. Our distress grew as time passed and we did not see a single human being outdoors. Usually, these are the most crowded streets in Beirut. But that day, nobody dared to leave their homes.
We went back through Fakhani and the Arab University. Among the ruins of the campus, I saw them for the first time.
Ghosts, I thought. They were moving like spirits among the rubble. It was as if they relished in the destruction. Standing tall and proud, the buildings seems to have provoked them to bring more ruin to the city.
My mother’s voice came as an alarm among the crowded images. Do not stare at the soldiers, she warned, and told us to walk faster.
We were back at the old people’s home. The slaughter was over. But the battles in Beirut were still raging. The radio reported that there was still some pockets of resistance in the city. After a while, the station went silent, an announcement of their defeat.
The last thing we heard the announcer say was an appeal to those who were resisting to the end. And then three words, “they are here.”
We then thought the name “occupied Beirut” would become something normal, like occupied Jerusalem or occupied Haifa. But the resistance would not leave the occupiers alone.
The closest operation to where we were happened one night on Corniche al-Mazraa. The sounds of bullets and shells brought back some of our dignity that we had felt was robbed of us a few hours earlier.
One day, I was far from the old people’s home at my uncle’s house. I do not recall why I decided to go to Sabra square, but I met a woman who had just arrived from Tariq al-Jdideh.
She seemed as if it was her first time in Sabra. Anyway, she did not live there. She was eager to know if the news about the massacres were true.
I had heard the BBC describe it as an apocalypse, but I told her it was not true. All these people died from sniper fire, I explained.
I do not know what she thought of me afterwards. Maybe she thought I was lying. But I do not care, her question irritated me.
For someone to come and tell you that you have been slaughtered was not easy, especially if you are trying to convince yourself that it could not happen. It is not pleasant for one’s street to carry the stigma of such horror.
We were slaughtered, but our dignity and pride forbade us from becoming subjects of pity. Maybe that is why I used to be relieved by reports saying that the victims were no more than a few dozen and hated officials who reported that the death toll reached three thousand. Maybe I was ashamed. I apologize to that woman.
It seemed the occupation was becoming normalized. One of the soldiers once asked my uncle’s wife in colloquial Arabic if she had any water.
I wished I had some poison to put in it, although I know I could never do something like that. The wish ushered in many fantasies of revenge. At night, I would plan brave commando operations and dream of destroying the Israeli army.
But the occupation did not remain for too long. Resistance operations inflicted serious damage. Israel withdrew, leaving behind the stench of death.
They withdrew but the terror would come back from time to time. Rumors forced hundreds of people to flee their homes into Beirut.
The crowds joining the great escape betrayed a strange feeling that “they” were coming, sometimes from the east, sometimes from the west.
Some said that the Lebanese army was spreading the rumors so as to be able to enter the area and announce itself as the savior. When this happened people threw rice at the soldiers in celebration.
The Italian troops were the main reason we felt safe. They were in charge of guarding the camp and myths were created about their dedication.
Some said they clashed with the Lebanese army to prevent them from entering the camp. Others said they had told the Lebanese soldiers, “here begins Palestine” and that they were not allowed into the camps.
On the third anniversary of the massacres, the blood of had not yet dried when the terror came back with all its ugliness.
It was the beginning of the devastating War of the Camps waged by Syria’s proxy militias in Lebanon. A new war was added to the “events” that the Lebanese like to call their national calamity. But that’s another story.
Hasan Khiti left Lebanon for Germany after the War of the Camps. He currently lives in Munster where he works as a chemicals expert. He wrote this text in 2001.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.