The legacy of the Sabra and Shatila massacre lives on through its survivors

I often find myself wondering, “Why must Palestininas struggle wherever we are? Are we cursed?” Forcing us to flee our homes and leave everything behind in 1948 (the year of the Nakba, when Israel was created at our expense) was not enough. Our punishment continued. There are so many examples that could be cited. But in this piece I focus on the one I personally find the most shocking–even for me, a Gazan Palestinian who has lived through three wars. This week is the 38th anniversary of the massacre in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. For those who survived it, It’s a nightmare that still haunts. I share the memories of a few of those survivors below.

Nohad today

Nohad Srour al-Marei grew up in the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut. She was 16 years old when she was abruptly awakened in the early morning hours of September 16, 1982. 

“A strong knocking on the door woke us. I was so very frightened and clenched my dad,” she recalls, her voice shaking even so many decades later. A couple of her family members rushed to the roof to see who was there and saw a group of armed men, shouting loudly and angrily for Nohad’s family to open the door. When they did, the men rushed in.

What followed was chaos and terror. The armed men, who they later learned were members of the Christian Phalange militia, a right-wing faction allied with Israel. The Israeli army had ordered the militia to clear Shatila and the neighboring town of Sabra of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, they did not discriminate. 

Nohad and her family were herded in and out of their home repeatedly, as if to confuse and disorient them. Then they were lined up against the wall. Nohad sensed what would come next: a rain of shots. “We all fell to the ground, trying to pretend we were already dead. I was holding my little sister, Shadia (a year and two months old). She was shot in her head and couldn't bear the pain. She tried to crawl to our mother, moaning ‘Mama, Mama!’” Then Nohad heard another shot and never heard her sister’s voice again. 

“I shouldn’t have let her leave my hands,” Nohad says, the regret and pain breaking her voice. Her three brothers and another sister were killed as well, and a bullet pierced Nohad’s elbow. 

Nohad recalls hearing the men say to each other, in their native Lebanese accent, “Reshon, reshon!” (shoot them, shoot them!). “I expected the Israelis to attack us, but not our Lebanese brothers.”

There was more to come. Nohad’s father and sister Souad, 17, were injured so badly they could not move, so Nohad and her mother left to find help. 

Unfortunately, several Phalangists later returned to look for money and valuables. Seeing the door slightly open to their home, they were angry to discover Nohad and her mom gone. They had thought the two were dead. One of them said, “Harabo, harabo!” (they escaped!”). Hearing Souad groan, they laughed and said they’d teach her a lesson; they’d rape her in front of her father, who had been shot in the chest. They did, and she thinks the shock killed her father. Saying, “May God be with you,” he died. 

Souad regained consciousness hours later–still lying in the house, bleeding and surrounded by the dead bodies of her family and neighbors. Help did not arrive for two days, since ambulances were not allowed in. 

She survived, but as a paraplegic. Souad now lives in Belgium and joined other survivors to file a lawsuit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the International Court of Justice. The case is still active.

On their way to Beirut’s Gaza Hospital outside the camp, Nohad said she was surprised to see bluish-black blood oozing from people's bodies as they lay on the ground. She learned later the color meant the blood was old: The massacre had started the night before, but her family was unaware until the morning. 

Mahmoud al-Afifi is another eyewitness of the massacre. He was 12 years old at the time and lucky enough to escape the camp with his family. However, on Sunday, September 18, he returned to his home and was greeted by the stench of death. Corpses were strewn everywhere on the streets. Crews from the Red Cross covered the bodies with lime, because the smell was so strong. “The image of a pregnant woman whose belly was slit and her fetus slaughtered before she was killed herself will never leave my mind.” Mahmoud tells me.

Zeinab today

Zeinab al-Hajj lives along the border of Shatila. Although she was only 5 years old when the massacre took place, she still has memories. In the early morning of September 15, she was outside with her mom when they saw a group of “strangers” wearing a khaki uniform. Her mom started to talk to them, thinking they were defending the camp against attacks. She told them that all other members of the Palestinian militias had left the camp and asked them to leave as well, so there would be no more trouble. One of them asked her where she lived and Zeinab’s mother pointed to their house. He replied, “Don’t worry, ma’am. We are here to protect you. Just make sure to stay at home. Don’t leave.” They marked a number on their door and left. It wasn’t long before Zeinab and her mother learned that the “strangers” were Phalangists. 

Later that day, at around 5:30 p.m., an old man covered with blood ran down their street, shouting, “There’s a massacre, people! Run away, run away now!” Zeinab said not everyone believed him. Some stayed, while others fled, including Zeinab and her mother. The terror of the moment made them forget her infant brother sleeping in his blanket. On their way back to get the boy, others advised them not to return, since as Israeli and Lebanese militias were shooting at anything moving. However, one of their fellow residents offered to help and risked his life to fetch Zeinab’s brother. He managed to bring him to her, but was injured. “It literally felt like the day of judgement. Everyone was escaping to save himself. We heard people screaming, crying and shouting on our way out. Those scary voices still echo in my head.” Zeinab recalled. 

The site of the mass grave and memorial today (photo by Pam Bailey)

The Phalangists killed with machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, hatchets and knives. Some people were burned alive in their houses. Even Lebenese families who lived at the border of the camp were slaughtered. According to Zeinab, her Lebanese neighbors who sought refuge in her house were killed. 

“We asked them to escape with us, but they refused. They said the Israelis were coming to kill only Palestininas,” she said. The militias didn’t know the exact borders of the camp, so they killed anyone in or close to the camp, thinking they were Palestinians. Hundreds of people (mostly women and children) were ordered to stand in front of a wall in some open land next to the camp, then shot all at once. More than 3,000 people were buried in what became a mass grave.

Today, the land is the site of a memorial. “We will never forget how our Arab ‘brothers’ betrayed us, while the Israelis blockaded the whole camp with their tanks and threw flare bombs to help the Phalangists see clearly while killing us,” Zeinab says.

Every year, international visitors commemorate the massacre–although 2020 was an exception due to COVID-19 pandemic. Still, residents gathered anyway this year, remembering the massacre as well as protesting another Arab betrayal–the normalization of relations with Israel by both Bahrain and the UAE.

Still, we Palestinians will not give up. No matter how many people fail us, no matter how many of us die or are imprisoned, we will always believe in Palestine. 



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Mentor: Pam Bailey

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