The 20th Anniversary of The Sabra & Shatila Massacres
What we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o'clock on the morning of
September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have
been easier to re-tell in in the cold prose of a medical examination.
There had been medical examinations before in Lebanon, but rarely on this
scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army. In
the panic and hatred of battle, tens of thousands had been killed in this
country. But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down unarmed.
This was a mass killing, an incident - how easily we used the word
"incident" in Lebanon - that was also an atrocity. It went beyond even
what the Israelis would have in other circumstances called a terrorist
activity. It was a war crime.
Jenkins and Tveit were so overwhelmed by what we found in Chatila that at
first we were unable to register our own shock. Bill Foley of AP had come
with us. All he could say as he walked round was "Jesus Christ" over and
over again. We might have accepted evidence of a few murders; even dozens
of bodies, killed in the heat of combat. Bur there were women lying in
houses with their skirts torn torn up to their waists and their legs wide
apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back
after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies - blackened
babies babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier
and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition - tossed
into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army
equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.
Where were the murderers? Or to use the Israelis' vocabulary, where were
the "terrorists"? When we drove down to Chatila, we had seen the Israelis
on the top of the apartments in the Avenue Camille Chamoun but they made
no attempt to stop us. In fact, we had first been driven to the Bourj
al-Barajneh camp because someone told us that there was a massacre there.
All we saw was a Lebanese soldier chasing a car theif down a street. It
was only when we were driving back past the entrance to Chatila that
Jenkins decided to stop the car. "I don't like this", he said. "Where is
everyone? What the f**k is that smell?"
Just inside the the southern entrance to the camp, there used to be a
number of single-story, concrete walled houses. I had conducted many
interviews in these hovels in the late 1970's. When we walked across the
muddy entrance to Chatila, we found that these buildings had been
dynamited to the ground. There were cartridge cases across the main road.
I saw several Israeli flare canisters, still attached to their tiny
parachutes. Clouds of flies moved across the rubble, raiding parties with
a nose for victory.
Down a laneway to our right, no more than 50 yards from the entrance,
there lay a pile of corpses. There were more than a dozen of them, young
men whose arms and legs had been wrapped around each other in the agony of
death. All had been shot point-blank range through the cheek, the bullet
tearing away a line of flesh up to the ear and entering the brain. Some
had vivid crimson or black scars down the left side of their throats. One
had been castrated, his trousers torn open and a settlement of flies
throbbing over his torn intestines.
The eyes of these young men were all open. The youngest was only 12 or 13
years old. They were dressed in jeans and coloured shirts, the material
absurdly tight over their flesh now that their bodies had begun to bloat
in the heat. They had not been robbed. On one blackened wrist a Swiss
watch recorded the correct time, the second hand still ticking round
uselessly, expending the last energies of its dead owner.
On the other side of the main road, up a track through the debris, we
found the bodies of five women and several children. The women were
middle-aged and their corpses lay draped over a pile of rubble. One lay on
her back, her dress torn open and the head of a little girl emerging from
behind her. The girl had short dark curly hair, her eyes were staring at
us and there was a frown on her face. She was dead.
Another child lay on the roadway like a discarded doll, her white dress
stained with mud and dust. She could have been no more than three years
old. The back of her head had been blown away by a bullet fired into her
brain. One of the women also held a tiny baby to her body. The bullet that
had passed into her breast had killed the baby too. Someone had slit open
the woman's stomach, cutting sideways and then upwards, perhaps trying to
kill ker unborn child. Her eyes were wide open, her dark face frozen in
"...As we stood there, we heard a shout in Arabic from across the ruins.
"They are coming back," a man was screaming, So we ran in fear towards the
road. I think, in retrospect, that it was probably anger that stopped us
from leaving, for we now waited near the entrance to the camp to glimpse
the faces of the men who were responsible for all of this. They must have
been sent in here with Israeli permission. They must have been armed by
the Israelis. Their handiwork had clearly been watched - closely observed
- by the Israelis who were still watching us through their field-glasses.
When does a killing become an outrage? When does an atrocity become a
massacre? Or, put another way, how many killings make a massacre? Thirty?
A hundred? Three hundred? When is a massacre not a massacre? When the
figures are too low? Or when the massacre is carried out by Israels
friends rather than Israel's enemies?
That, I suspected, was what this argument was about. If Syrian troops had
crossed into Israel, surrounded a Kibbutz and allowed their Palestnian
allies to slaughter the Jewish inhabitants, no Western news agency would
waste its time afterwards arguing about whether or not it should be called
But in Beirut, the victims were Palestinians. The guilty were certainly
Christian militiamen - from which particular unit we were still unsure -
but the Israelis were also guilty. If the Israelis had not taken part in
the killings, they had certainly sent militia into the camp. They had
trained them, given them uniforms, handed them US army rations and Israeli
medical equipment. Then they had watched the murderers in the camps, they
had given them military assistance - the Israeli airforce had dropped all
those flares to help the men who were murdering the inhabitants of Sabra
and Chatila - and they had established military liason with the murderers
in the camps.