28 years after the Massacre
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp
This wall, adjacent to Abu Yassir’s shelter is used
by Shatila refugee camp tykes for playing
ball and other games, unaware that some of their
relatives and families' friends were among
the hundreds butchered against 11 such "walls of
death" 28 years ago, on September 16-18, 1982.
Photo courtesy of the author
The untreated psychic wounds are still open. Accountability, justice and
basic civil rights for the survivors are still denied.
Scores of horror testimonies have been shared over the past nearly three
decades by survivors of the September 1982 Sabra- Shatila massacre.
More come to light only through circumstantial evidence because would be
affiants perished during the slaughter. Other eyewitness are just beginning
to emerge from deep trauma or self imposed silence.
Some testimonies will be shared this month by massacre survivors at Shatila
camp. They will sit with the every growing numbers of international visitors
who annually come to commemorate one of the most horrific crimes of
the 20th century.
There are no average massacre testimonies.
Zeina, a handsome bronzed-faced middle-aged woman, an acquaintance
of Munir Mohammad’s family, asked a foreigner the other day: “How can it
be 28 years? I think it was just last fall that my husband Hussam and our
two daughters, Maya, 8 years old, and Sirham, 9 years old, left our two room
home to search for food because the Israeli army had sealed Shatila camp
nearly two days before and few inside Shatila Camp had any. I still pray and
wait for them to return.”
In Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and outside Abu Yassir's shelter, the
bullet marks still cover the lower half of the 11 “walls of death” where some
of the dried blood is mixed and feathered in with the thin mortar. An elderly
gentleman named Abu Samer still has some souvenirs of the event: three
American automatic pistols fitted with silencers, a couple of knives and axes
that were strapped to some of the killers belts as they quickly and silently
shot, carved and chopped whoever they came upon starting at around 6 pm
on Thursday September 16, 1982. Plus a couple of whisky bottles. These
weapons were gifted 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 Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, nonchalantly
confessed, “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 Shatila by more than two dozen Israeli Mossad agents, and led in this
blitz by none other than Dani Chamoun, son of the former President.
No plaque or sign notes what happened here.
The world learned of the slaughter at Sabra-Shatila on the morning of Sunday
September 19, 1982. Photos, many now available on the Internet, taken by
witnesses such as Ralph Shoneman, Mya Shone, Ryuichi Hirokawa, Ali Hasan
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 memory. The Israeli Kahan Commission, five
months later in its February 7, 1983 Report, substantially whitewashed Israeli
responsibility referring more than once to the massacre as “a war.”
Zeina ushered me down a narrow alley from her house arriving at the
3 by 8 meter wall outside her sister’s home, spraying here and there with an
aerosol can as we walked. She apologized for the spray but insisted that
she and her neighbors could even now smell the slaughter that happened
there three decades earlier.
For readers unfamiliar with the location of Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp
in Beirut, this particular “wall of death” is located across from the PRCS
Akka Hospital, such as it is, 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 and who still vividly recall the details of the massacre. Some
provide personal history of some of the butchered, seemingly urging the
dead to return by making them seem so alive, often describing a personality
trait and the name of their family village in Palestine.
“A sweet boy who adored his older brothers Mutid and Bilal.”
Zeina recalls that Munir Mohammad was 12 years old on September 16,
1982, a pupil at the Shatila camp school, named Jalil (Galilee). Virtually all of
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 actually exist, being
among the 531 villages the Zionists colonizers obliterated during and after
the 1947-48 Nakba (Catastrophe).
Zeina recalls that it was late on a Thursday afternoon, September 16, that
the Israeli shelling had grown intense. 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
aid workers had come to help the refugees, actually revealed their secret
sanctuaries. Other refugees, based on their experience in the crowded shelters
during the preceding 75 days of indiscriminate, “Peace for Galilee” Israeli
bombing of Shatila, suggested to the "aid workers" that the shelters needed
better ventilation and perhaps 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 meters on the raised terrain at the SE corner of Shatila camp
still known 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 are likely buried. Janet had theorized that there was a second
Sabra-Shatila Massacre that occurred on Sunday morning, September 19th,
which piggybacked the first and was conducted on the west side of Shatila
inside the second Israeli-Phalange HQ, known as the Cite Sportiff athletic
complex. As the Israeli soldiers took custody from the Phalange militia
of the surviving refugees, trucks entered Cite Sportiff loaded with hundreds
of camp residents on the back to be taken to “holding centers”. Family
members forced to wait outside heard volleys of gunfire and screams from
inside the complex. Hours later the same flat beds drove away to unknown
locations, tarps covering the unseen mounded cargo.
Camp resident, Mrs. Sana Mahmoud Sersawi, one of the 23 complainants
in the Belgium case filed against Ariel Sharon on June 16, 2001, (currently but
not fatally sidetracked) explained:
“The Israelis who were posted in front of the Kuwaiti embassy and at
the Rihab benzene 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 Cite Sportiff, 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.”
Journalist Robert Fisk and others who studied these events, concur that more
slaughter was done during the 24 hour period after 8 a.m. Saturday, the hour
the Israeli Kahan Commission, which declined to interview any Palestinians,
ruled that the Israelis had stopped all the killing.
Eyewitness testimony also established that the "aid workers" described by
Zeina passed the shelter descriptions and locations to Lebanese Forces
operatives Elie Hobeika and Fadi Frem, and their ally, Major Saad Haddad of
the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army. Thursday evening, Hobeika,
de facto commander since the assassination the week previously of Phalange
leader and President-elect Bachir Gemayel, led one of the death squads inside
the killing field of the Horst Tabet area near Abu Yassir's shelter.
It was in 8 of the 11 Israeli-located and marked shelters that the first of the
massacre victims were quickly and methodically slaughtered. There being
few perfect crimes, even in massacres, the killers failed to find 3 of the
shelters. One of the overlooked shelters was just 25 meters from Abu Yassir's
shelter. Apart from these three undiscovered hiding places there were
practically no Shatila shelter survivors.
American journalist David Lamb wrote about this first night of butchery and
the “walls of death”:
“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 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 about 8 p.m. on September 18 Munir Mohammad 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
for the woman and children while the men took their chances outside was a
common practice as the massacre unfolded. But a few men did enter to help
calm their young children.
“If any of you are injured, we’ll take you to the hospital.”
Munir later recalled events that night: “The killers arrived at the door of
the shelter and yelled for everyone to come out. Men who they found 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 on everyone, and all 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 the hospital.
Don’t worry. Get up and you’ll see.” A few did try to get up or moaned and
they were instantly shot in the head.
Munir remembered: “Even though it was light out due to the Israeli flares
over Shatila, the killers used bright flash lights 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 promised to take anyone still
alive to the hospital. Munir whispered to her: “Don’t get up mother, they’re
lying”. And Munir stayed motionless all night barely daring to breath,
pretending to be dead.
Munir could not block out the killers words. Years later he would repeat to
this interviewer as we passed the Shatila Burial ground known as Martyrs
“After they shot us, we were all down on the ground, and they were
going back and forth, and they were saying: ‘If any of you are still alive,
we’ll have mercy and pity and take them to the 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 there and then…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 I was afraid of dying myself. But what disturbed me so very
much was that they were laughing, getting drunk and enjoying
themselves all night long. They threw blankets on us and left us there
till morning. All night long [Thursday the 16th) I could hear the voices
of the girls crying and screaming, 'For god’s sake, leave us alone.'
I mean…I can’t remember how many girls they raped. The girl’ voice,
with their fear and pain, I can’t ever forget them.”
The same kind of dégagé is displayed by the half dozen confessed militia
murderers featured in German director Monika Borgmann's 2005 film
Massaker, one of whom opined: "With hanging or shooting you just die,
but this is double," explaining how he took an old Palestinian man and held
him back against a wall, slicing him open in the shape of a cross. "You die
twice since you also die from the fear," he said nonchalantly describing
white flesh and bone as if in a charcuterie waiting to be served.
The killers also explained how they began a frantic rush to dispose of as
many bodies as possible before the media entered Shatila. One testified how
the Israeli army gave them large plastic trash bags to dispose of bodies.
Another confessed that they forced people into army trucks to ferry them to
Cite Sportiff where they were killed. And that they used chemicals to
destroy many of the corpses. Several mentioned that Israeli army officers
conferred with the militia's leaders in Beirut on the eve of the massacres.
The venomous hatred persists to this day.
To this day, the Hurras al-Arz (Guardians of the Cedars) boasts of its role in
the carnage. Less than two weeks before the massacre the party issued a
call for the confiscation of all Palestinian property in Lebanon, the outlawing
of home ownership and the destruction of all refugee camps.
The party statement of September 1, 1982 declared: “Action must be taken to
reduce the numbers of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, until the day comes
when no single Palestinian remains on our soil.”
In 1982 certain political parties referred to Palestinians as “a bacillus which
must be exterminated” and graffiti on walls read: ”The duty of every
Lebanese is to kill a Palestinian”–the same hatred commonly expressed today
in occupied Palestine among colonists, extremist Rabbis and politicians.
The ‘Guardians’ call for outlawing Palestinian refugee property ownership
was indeed achieved in 2001 by a law drafted by current Minister of Labor,
who pledged on September 1, 2010 that “Parliament will never allow
Palestinian refugees the right to own property.”
The mentality that allowed the Massacre at Sabra-Shatila 1982 is largely
unchanged in 2010, as Lebanon still resists the call of the international
community to grant the survivors of the Sabra-Shatila massacre basic civil
rights. Some who have studied the Arabic websites and observed gatherings
of the political parties represented at the 1982 massacre, claim the hate
language is actually worse today and is being used to stir up Parliamentary
opposition Palestinian civil rights.
During the month following the 1982 Massacre, British Dr. Paul Morris
treated Munir at Gaza Hospital approximately one kilometer north of Abu
Yassir's shelter, and kept the youngster under observation. Dr. Morris
reported to researcher Bayan Nuwayhed al Hout (Sabra and Shatila: September
1982, Pluto Press, London, 2004) that Munir “Will smile once in a while,
but he doesn’t react spontaneously like others of this age, except just
occasionally." Then 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 by al Hout if one day when he grew up and would
be able to carry a weapon would he consider revenge. The pre-teen replied,
replied: “No, No. I’d never think of 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 Abu Yassir’s
shelter, but he left and later appeared at Akka Hoppital 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
According to camp residents, Munir’s older brother, Nabil, then 19 years
old, being 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 camp residents reported 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
Now in America, both Munir and Nabil are leading relatively ‘normal lives’
considering the horror and lost family they experienced while escaping death
at Sabra-Shatila. Munir and Nabil have become a credit to 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, 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 Massaker. "They are all living ordinary lives.
One of them is a taxi driver," Borgmann explains.
As is well known, the massacres at Sabra-Shatila were undeniable war crimes,
crimes against humanity, and genocide. Each killing was a violation of
international laws enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention, International
Customary Law and jus cogens. Similar massive 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 Taylor and Sudan’s Bachir.
No one has been punished or even investigated for the Sabra-Shatila
massacre. On March 28, 1991 Lebanon’s Parliament retroactively exempted
the killers from criminal responsibility. However, 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 massacre as well as virtually all human rights organizations
including but not limited to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
the Humanitarian Law Project, strenuously oppose blanket amnesty for
the killers. They argue that the 1991 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 Sabra-
Shatila that the International Criminal Court 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 Massacre
basic civil rights.
Franklin Lamb is Director, Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace,
Beirut-Washington DC, Board Member of The Sabra Shatila Foundation, and
a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, Lebanon. He is the
author of The Price We Pay: A Quarter-Century of Israel’s Use of American
Weapons Against Civilians in Lebanon and is doing research in Lebanon for
his next book. He can be reached at [email protected]