The events of September 16, 1982 are permanently etched in the heart of every Palestinian who was alive on that day. Even the young people, who were born after, know all about the massacre in Sabra and Shatila during the long and brutal Israeli occupation of Lebanon.
Each year we commemorate the day when the Israeli military assisted the invasion by an anti-Palestinian militia who slaughtered approximately 2,000 refugees of all ages. We hear the stories of the survivors, mourn the dead, and recommit ourselves to survival, freedom, and the return to our homeland.
Please take some time to read the words of Dr. Olfat Mahmoud, long-time MECA partner and the Director of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO), as she describes that day and reflects on its impact, meaning, and relevance to the current reality.
By Dr. Olfat Mahmoud
It was 10 am on Wednesday, September 16, 1982 and I was on duty at Accra Hospital, one of the Palestinian hospitals for Palestinian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon was ongoing and the camps were surrounded by Israeli troops. Throughout the night we had heard stories of terrible things happening in Sabra and Shatila camp just adjacent to us but did not believe them.
“Suddenly we were interrupted by the sound of intense gunfire at the hospital entrance. The foreign nurses urged us all to leave immediately as they were not in danger and could care for the patients. The Lebanese militia were attacking from the position the Israelis had just vacated. Several other nurses and I were on the ground floor. We ran to a window at the back of the hospital, with seconds to spare we clambered out and ran into the garden of a villa behind the hospital. The front gate of the villa was locked; the only way out was over the fence. Once over this, we ran for our lives towards the bridge and then scattered.
We heard that Lebanese militiamen had also killed nurses at Gaza Hospital located inside Sabra and Shatila camp. The foreign nurses and doctors there testified on the Saturday morning, as militiamen were marching them down the camp’s main street, they saw hundreds of mainly women and children under guard sitting by a large and recently dug pit. Soon after this, they heard repeated shooting for 10 minutes or more, accompanied by screams and cries.
For two days and nights after the massacre, I slept as if in a coma. I had nightmares filled with the people who’d been slaughtered, all the people I’d known and loved and who were no longer there. When I finally woke up, I found a black cloud of grief and despair had settled around me. Nothing could shift it. It was shot through with flashes of terror that at any moment soldiers would come crashing through the door to kill me and my family. I couldn’t bear to listen to the news, and I would cry easily. I just wanted to run away from everything, but my limbs felt too heavy to move. My body was like lead. And my throat was constricted constantly.” *
This is part of my memory of the massacre that took place in the Sabra and Shatila camp in Beirut, Lebanon 38 years ago. Over 2,000 women children and old men were massacred. I can never forget this and nor can all those who witnessed it and were survivors like me.
The tragedy of Sabra and Shatila was and still is a powerful reminder of the occupation of Palestinian land. It is a powerful reminder of the failure of international efforts to find a peaceful settlement to Israeli illegal occupation and to the Palestinian refugees’ endless cycle of displacement. This massacre is only one of the terrible massacres that have affected Palestinians but for me it was and is still an unforgettable traumatic event. Many survivors continue to live in Sabra and Shatila, struggling to make a living and haunted by their memories of the slaughter. To this day, justice has not been served for the war crimes that took place there despite efforts to take this massacre to the International War Crimes Tribunal. It serves as a powerful and tragic reminder of the vulnerability of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees.
On August 4, 2020, the Beirut port suffered from a terrifying and devastating blast that killed over 200 people, made homeless around 300,000 and caused extensive damage to the city. I have been through wars and the massacre but as I heard the shattering of glass, and the movement of the house, I was truly terrified and initially thought that the house was collapsing around me. Just few weeks after that, a new fire erupted in the port. All what happened and is still happening, brought back the painful memories of Sabra and Shatila massacre.
When Sabra and Shatila massacre happened and the killing and slaughter ended, its effects lived on. People were terrified and children would scream whenever they saw the army passing by. Now, after these recent tragic events in Beirut the consequences remain. The sound of breaking glass causes my heart and others to stop with fear. When the fire erupted in the port last week, we all started to open the windows and doors hoping to minimize damage from an expected blast. Many left their houses in terror. Even though we were still under the pressure of widespread cases of COVID-19 and the streets were crowded.
As years pass people in Lebanon, including us Palestinian refugees, continue to witness tragedies that bring back terrifying and tragic memories. I always ask myself, why are innocent people dying because of greed, negligence, corruption, brutality, and lack of humanity? In the face of this ongoing and overwhelming despair my solace comes through my humanitarian work to fight for justice and dignity for Palestinian refugees. I call on people everywhere to fight for justice in whatever way what they can. I have also found strength in prayer and my religious beliefs and so I pray daily for peace and justice for my people and for the other 80 million of refugees and displaced people in the world.
*This is an excerpt from Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud