A Lebanese civilian bicyclist rides through the Palestinian refuge camp at Sabra. Photo: Associated Press.
Forty years ago, during the week of September 12, we were working in a Palestine Red Crescent Society facility, Gaza Hospital, in Sabra Shatila camp in West Beirut. As health care workers, we were trying to heal the wounds and repair the mutilated and destroyed bodies of those injured by Israel’s Invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. We had been working there following the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), mediated by US Middle East envoy Philip Habib. Crucial to the evacuation agreement was the protection of the civilians left behind after the evacuation of the PLO, and Israel’s undertaking not to invade and occupy Beirut. With the guarantee of protection by the multinational peace keeping force, thousands of displaced civilian war victims returned to Sabra Shatila to rebuild their homes and lives.
Unknown to these people who returned hoping to pick up and mend their shattered lives, the multinational peace keeping force left West Beirut on 11 September 1982. On the evening of September 14, 1982, we became aware that the President-elect of Lebanon had been assassinated. Around the break of dawn on the following day, we heard planes flying low into Beirut. Within hours, sounds of heavy artillery and machine guns could be heard close by. It continued all day and soon the periphery of the camp was hit relentlessly. We went to an upper floor of the hospital where we watched as flares went off, lighting areas of the camps, followed by gunfire. As hours passed, we hectically received and tended to the thousands of camp residents who fled to us or were brought into the hospital seeking emergency medical care, safety, and security. The hospital ran out of food, water, medication – and blood for the wounded.
On Saturday, September 18, along with the other international health care volunteers, we were ordered by the Phalangists (Lebanese Christian militia working under Israeli control) to assemble at the front of the hospital. We were marched, at machine-gun point, down Sabra Street, the main street of the camp – passing dead bodies, passing hundreds of women and children from the camps being lined up and held at gun point by soldiers. We heard the chatter of ongoing communication from the militias’ walkie-talkies. Eventually we were turned over to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) forward command post where Israeli soldiers were looking down on the camps with binoculars. We were driven out of the area by IDF vehicles.
From there, Ellen went to the American Embassy to report what she had seen and heard over the previous few days. Swee walked to the Commodore Hotel to inform the many journalists stationed there of what happened in the camp. In the days following we learnt that thousands of unarmed defenceless people were butchered while we were struggling to save those survivors brought to our hospital for treatment.
Within weeks, Gaza Hospital re-opened and we returned to practice our profession faithfully on those who survived, those who remained. We heard that an Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Massacre was being established in Jerusalem. We asked to go to Jerusalem to bear witness, to testify, to speak for those who could not.
We asked for justice at the Israeli Commission of Inquiry. But we knew that a greater universal justice beyond the Commission of Inquiry must be restored to the Palestinians. The Commission was only investigating the conduct of the Israeli Army in the camp massacre. But even that justice has been denied. Forty years have passed, and many generations later, the painful memories remain. Investigations, interests, questions continue. Israel claimed recently that the archives concerning the communications between the Christian militia blamed for the massacre, the Lebanese authorities, and Israel have been lost! There is still much to learn, and more information needs to come to light. Israel must be held directly responsible for this atrocity. The role and guilt of the US has not yet been fully examined. The failures to allow the voices of the surviving victims of the massacre to be heard and preventing fair investigations to be held continue to obstruct the pursuit of justice.
To the survivors, we want you to know that we will never forget you, the massacre, your loved ones, your martyrs. We keep the memories of your land, your olive trees and orange groves, the keys that you still have to your homes in Palestine in our hearts.
We love you.
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