The following personal account appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (November/December 2015). I’m reposting here with the permisison of its author, Ellen Siegel.
To add my own personal note, the Sabra-Shatila massacre—which occurred when I was in my final year as an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria—was the formative event that led me to study Palestinian politics at graduate school and write my PhD thesis on the PLO in Lebanon.
Sabra and Shatila 33 Years Later—A Personal Account
By Ellen Siegel
This past September marked the 33rd anniversary of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.
On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and surrounded its capital, Beirut. One aim was to end the control of Beirut by the PLO. The city was under siege, blockaded, and repeatedly bombed, resulting in extensive casualties. On Aug. 21, the U.S. negotiated an agreement which would end Israel’s assault and allow for the safe evacuation of the PLO fighters. Western nations guaranteed that the refugees and civilian residents of the Palestinian camps would be protected by a multinational force (MNF) once the PLO left.
By Sept. 1, the PLO fighters had been evacuated from Beirut under the supervision of the MNF. Remember that this evacuation was conditional on the MNF providing security for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. On Sept. 11, however, the MNF departed Lebanon. On Sept. 14 Lebanon’s newly elected president was assassinated. Within days, Israeli forces surrounded the Sabra and Shatila camps, preventing anyone from leaving.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), under the leadership of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, gave permission for the Phalangists (a Lebanese Christian political party and militia, and avowed enemy of the Palestinians) to enter the camps in order “to rid the camps of any fighters left behind and to prevent chaos.” From Sept. 16 to 18 hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent civilians living in the camps, including many women and children, were brutally slaughtered by this militia under the watchful eye, and with the aid, of the IDF.
During this time, I was working as a nurse at the Gaza Hospital inside Sabra camp and bore witness to much of what happened. I subsequently testified before the Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Massacre.
Every September I return to the camps to commemorate the massacre—and each year the situation for the Palestinians deteriorates. The 12 UNRWA camps in Lebanon with 455,000 registered Palestinian refugees are extremely overcrowded, and now house refugees from Syria as well. Most living spaces consist of two very small rooms: a bedroom, where the entire family sleeps, and a living room of sorts with a chair or two, maybe a sofa; in addition, there will be a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchen. There is no ventilation, and hardly any electricity. Most families use battery-powered lighting provided by American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Drinking tap water is prohibited, as it is full of bacteria and very salty—it actually corrodes pipes. Narrow alleyways—some with sewage running through—wind through the camps. When it rains these small paths become muddy.
Electrical wires hang from dwellings. When I first went to Lebanon I noticed those wires. Over the years, I see that they have been strung lower and lower, so that now the top of your head can actually brush up against them. Walk through any camp on any day: you can see young men connecting and re-connecting wires. From time to time, someone is electrocuted.
Foul odors emanate from those crowded conditions. Illness is rampant. In Nahr el-Bard, in the north, there is an impetigo epidemic (a highly contagious skin infection that mainly affects children) due to poor sanitary conditions; some camps have clinics which specialize in treating lice. Nahr el-Bard is in the process of slowly being rebuilt after being leveled in 2007. The construction produces dust and debris which blow into homes and affect those living there. Medications for all illnesses are in short supply.
This year, I noticed a few families living in very small spaces made entirely of tin. In Nahr el-Bard some refugees are still living in containers once meant to serve as temporary shelters.
To add to an already difficult situation, this year a sandstorm hit the Middle East. The air was thick when I arrived; people could hardly see what was in front of them. Most wore masks. In the north, hundreds of people were admitted to the hospital with respiratory complications. A number of them died.
September was hotter than usual. Due to an ongoing trash strike, garbage was piled high in the streets. Almost everyone in my delegation had some sort of intestinal problem.
We visited many camps and broke bread with those living in them. One of the high points for me, always, is the visits with the survivors. I have known many of them for years. I am aware of their aging (as well as my own). I watch as they hold the frames containing faded pictures of those they lost so long ago. The survivors have grown old, their faces lined with wrinkles. Yet they remember their loved ones as they looked way back then—promising young boys, handsome husbands—all looking forward to a future which ended horribly and tragically in September of 1982. A small group of us visited the sparsely furnished home of one of the survivors, who now lives in what was once the hospital and is now a run-down shelter where hundreds of displaced live. She shared with us her story of what happened to her during the massacre.
The re-telling of those days during the massacre is important to me. It allows me to remember the events with her and with the translator (also a survivor). It verifies the moments, the past; it is a way of sharing. It is a means for me, as a non-Palestinian, to deal with what happened. It re-affirms my commitment not to forget the event and to keep that part of Palestinian history alive. At the end of our visit I asked to see pictures of her grandchildren—she remarried after her husband was killed. This small request made her smile. Sharing talk of her grandchildren was a lovely way to end the visit.
Annually, we have lunch with a group of survivors. It allows us to share a delicious home-cooked Arabic meal prepared by BAS in a relaxed atmosphere. These people are our heroes; we want them to feel honored and special. As we’ve come to know them over the years, we share not only their sorrow and resignation, but their steps toward healing. One woman, who in years past was very tearful and sad, and seemed in poor health, looked wonderful this visit. She has lately been receiving excellent health care, and she was smiling and upbeat. One gentleman used to carry a book about his murdered son and always seemed anxious. This year he did not bring the book to the lunch. Instead, he seemed in good spirits and joyfully sat with some of the delegation.
We traveled south to Rashidiyeh camp, on the edge of the Mediterranean, for a special visit. The residents say they like living there because it is “close to Palestine.” We were entertained with a lovely concert by the Assamoud band, debke dance, and poetry readings. For some reason, I always have tears in my eyes when I watch the young generation carrying on their tradition. No matter what the Israelis do, they cannot kill a culture!
The Closing Ceremony
The commemoration program closes with a ceremony that includes survivors, those living in camps, including youth groups, guests and dignitaries at a cultural center close to the cemetery. After several speeches, the participants march from the center to the mass grave. Wreaths are laid, survivors place pictures of those lost close to the wreaths, prayers are said. It is a time to greet friends who come every year, to grieve alongside those who remain.
When I reflect on my visit, I am reminded that there are now four generations of Palestinians in these camps. It is a painful thought. I have had conversations with many of the elderly who came in 1948. At first, these refugees truly believed they would be returning within days to their homes, their groves and orchards in Palestine. They left with just the clothes on their backs. Most had lived quite comfortably, tending crops, working their farmland, raising animals, producing goods. Now they are impoverished. Never did they imagine that 67 years later they would be living in such harsh conditions. The lack of basic essentials that most of us take for granted has become a way of life for them.
The generations that were born there are not aware of how comfortable and profitable their ancestors’ lives were; they know nothing better than their daily reality. Through no fault of their own, these Palestinians have lived out their lives in deplorable refugee camps. I always wonder why Israel has never taken any responsibility for this tragedy.
I have been asked, “Why is this massacre different from other atrocities the Palestinians have suffered? Why is so much attention paid to this one?” I am not sure I can answer. All I know is that the barbarity of what happened is unprecedented and that Israel played a direct role. The U.S. did not “provide safety and security” once the PLO left, despite the promise by President Ronald Reagan’s envoy Philip Habib. The Lebanese who participated were and never will be charged. All parties went free. Israel, America and Lebanon all played a role. Justice has not been done.
A great deal of attention is paid to Gaza. Most organizations are focused on the situation there, and that is understandable. But the conditions in the camps in Lebanon are ignored altogether. Why is this? One organization says that “its goal is to change U.S. policy.” Fine, but what about the decades of day-to-day suffering in the camps in Lebanon? Peace is not at hand; military occupation and violence are not compatible with peace. The conflict will not be resolved soon. Let us help those in need. No doubt, a fifth-generation Palestinian child will be born before long in Sabra and Shatila. Let us make life more tolerable for families and give youths the tools to further educate themselves, to improve their skills—let us allow them to hope for a better future.
The situation of the refugees in Lebanon was created decades ago for political objectives—yet today the refugees remain. They are not abstract political concepts, but individual human beings, generation upon generation, forced to live in conditions that are barely livable. This is the immediate question you can ask yourself, in whatever way works for you, without waiting for others to “solve” the “problem” of the refugees. What can you do?
You can join me for the 34th Commemoration next September. In the interim, you can support the work of ANERA. I am on its Medical Committee and have visited its programs in Lebanon. It does excellent work. ANERA describes its mission as to “advance the well-being of people in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. Through partnerships and close consultations with local groups and communities, ANERA responds to economic, health and educational needs with sustainable solutions and delivers humanitarian aid during emergencies.” I encourage you to visit its website, <www.anera.org>, and consider becoming a donor.
BAS, which organizes our annual commemoration, has many projects in Lebanon—all professionally run and with ongoing training for those who provide services. Some of its programs include sponsorship for children and the elderly, social services for families and children, vocational training, literacy classes, computer training, embroidery production, mental health counseling, dental clinics, reproductive health clinics, and cultural and social activities. The kindergartens in the camps are fantastic—a lovely respite from camp life, giving children some sense of normalcy. One way of supporting BAS is to sponsor a child, a family or an elderly person through its website, www.socialcare.org. For specific sponsorship opportunities visit www.socialcare.org/portal/family-happiness-project/7.
Ellen Siegel, an American Jewish nurse, is a peace activist who has focused her activism on bringing awareness of the situation of the Palestinian refugees in the camps in Lebanon to others. She volunteered her medical services in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. She was working at Gaza Hospital in Sabra Camp during the massacre.