By Nour Samaha – Shatila Camp, Lebanon
(Three women who lived through the 1982 massacre at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon remember harrowing killings.)
The fighters began at sunset, meticulously working their way through the alleys and homes, bodies riddled with bullets and slashed with machetes left crumpled in their wake.
Between September 16-18, 1982, in the middle of Lebanon’s civil war and a few months after Israel’s invasion of the country, hundreds of members of the Phalange party – a Lebanese Christian militia – in collaboration with the Israeli army, slaughtered about 2,000 Palestinian refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp located in Beirut.
The massacre came on the heels of the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Phalangists. The Phalangists wrongly blamed the Palestinians for the assassination, and executed the massacre as a reprisal attack with the Israeli army, who had invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause.
Three survivors recounted their stories to Al Jazeera, 30 years after the massacre.
Siham Balqis, a resident of Shatila, was 26 years old when it happened. “We heard gunshots on Thursday night, but didn’t think anything of it, because it was the war and this was not an unusual sound for us,” she told Al Jazeera. Living at the Shatila end of the two camps, she said men began in Sabra and worked their way northwards. “They didn’t reach us until Saturday morning.”
At 7am, she was confronted by three Phalangists and an Israeli soldier who ordered them to leave their house.
“One of the Lebanese launched forward to attack me, but the Israeli pulled him off me, as if to show he was the better of the two,” she remembered.
In the commotion that ensued, a Lebanese neighbour of hers spoke to the fighters, saying she heard they were slaughtering people. The fighters dismissed these claims, so she asked them to help the Palestinians who were holed up in Gaza Hospital, located at the Sabra end of the camp.
After asking for directions, the fighters marched those they had rounded up, about 200 people, to the hospital.
Once there, they ordered the doctors and nurses out of the building, the majority of whom were foreign or Lebanese.
“I remember there was one Palestinian boy from the Salem family, in his early 20s, who donned a doctor’s coat to try and escape,” Balqis said. “The Lebanese caught him, realised he was Palestinian, and pumped his body full of bullets.”
Crawl and Die
At one point, the fighters separated the group, putting the women to one side and the remaining men on the other.
“They would pick on the men at random and make them crawl on the floor. If they thought they crawled well, they assumed it was due to some sort of military training, so they took them behind a sand bank and killed them.”
The Lebanese fighters took those they had not killed and forced them to march over the dead bodies scattered on the streets toward the large sports stadium on the outskirts of the camp.
“We were made to walk over the dead bodies, and among cluster bombs,” Balqis said. “At one point I passed a tank, where the body of a baby only a few days old was stuck to the wheel.”
At the stadium, the command changed from Lebanese to Israeli.
“It was here the Israelis took my brother Salah, who was 30-years-old, for interrogation,” she said.
Inside the stadium the men were interrogated, tortured, and killed. Few were able to leave alive. The Israelis threatened them, saying, “If you don’t cooperate with us, we will hand you over to the Phalangists.”
Wadha Sabeq, 33-years-old at the time, was living in Bir Hassan, a predominantly Lebanese neighbourhood just outside the camps.
“On Friday morning, our neighbors told us we needed to get our IDs stamped next to the Kuwaiti embassy,” outside the Sabra entrance, she told Al Jazeera. “So we went.”
She brought her eight children, ranging from three years to 19-years-old.
As they walked past Shatila, they were stopped by the Phalangists. “They took us with others and separated the men from the women.” The fighters took away 15 men from her family, including her 19-year-old son Mohammad, her 15-year-old son Ali, and her 30-year-old brother.
“They lined the men up against the wall, and told the women to go to the sports stadium. They ordered us to walk in a single file, and to look neither left nor right.” Phalangist fighters walked next to them to ensure they followed the instructions.
This was the last time she saw her family.
Once at the stadium, they waited. “We still didn’t know what was going on, we still thought they wanted to check our IDs,” she said.
After spending the whole day at the stadium, the Israelis sent them home.
Covered in Blood
The following morning Sabeq headed back to the stadium to ask about the men.
“A woman came down to the stadium screaming, telling us to go up to the camp to identify the slaughtered,” she said.
They ran up to the camp, and as she saw the bodies scattered on the ground, Sabeq fainted. “You couldn’t look at the faces of the bodies, they were covered in blood and disfigured,” she said. “You could only identify people by the clothes they were wearing.
“I couldn’t find my sons, none of my family,” Sabeq said. “We went to the Red Crescent, to the hospitals, every day, to ask about them. No one had answers.”
“We never found their bodies,” she said, tears running down her cheeks.
Jameel Khalifa was 16-years-old and newly engaged when the massacre took place.
“On Saturday morning, we saw them [fighters] climbing down the sand bank and heading for the houses,” she told Al Jazeera. “We saw the tanks coming in, on them were Israeli soldiers and Lebanese fighters, some in civilian clothes, some with masks on.”
As the fighters began pounding on the front door, most of her family escaped through the back into their neighbors’ shelter. On hearing the soldiers’ orders that they would not shoot if they surrendered, an elderly woman in the shelter ripped up her white scarf, handing each of them a strip to wave to stop them from being shot at.
“My dad was holding me, telling me not to leave the shelter, but I told him we should,” she said.
The women left the shelter first.
As her mother came out the shelter, a Lebanese fighter shoved his Kalashnikov in her stomach. “I’m going to kill you, you, b****!”
An Israeli soldier observing nearby told him in Hebrew to leave her alone.
“My father was coming out [of] the shelter behind my mother. As he stepped out, he was killed with a bullet to the head by an Israeli soldier,” Khalifa said.
No One Believed Us
Like everyone else, the group was forced to move by the fighters. On the way, Khalifa and a few other children managed to escape down a little alley toward one of the mosques located further inside the camp.
“We came across a group of elderly folk sitting outside the mosque, and told them the Israelis had come and were killing people. They didn’t believe us, called us liars, and told us to leave them alone,” she said.
Khalifa eventually found herself at the Gaza Hospital, where she was able to reunite with her family. Watching as people around them were executed, the group plotted to escape and managed to sneak out through one of the many tiny alleys that make up the camp.
“We were really scared to leave because we’d seen others try and get killed by snipers,” Khalifa remembered.
They managed to get out of the camp and found refuge in a school in the Lebanese neighbourhood of Corniche el Mazraa. They only returned to the camp once they received news the massacre was over.
“We went back to see dead bodies explode as they were being removed because the Phalangists and Israelis placed mines underneath them,” she said.
“I remember the smell. It was so strong, and it stayed for a week, even though they sprayed the camp to get rid of it.”
-Nour Samaha is journalist covering the Middle East for the last 10 years, with an expert focus on Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (This article was first published by Al-Jazeera and is republished in the Palestine Chronicle with permission from the author).