By Iman Azzi in Beirut, Lebanon
Aljazeera Net English
Twenty-five years after surviving the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Jamila Khalife still mourns family members who were killed at the hands of Phalangist Lebanese forces.
Her life since then, she says, has been a daily reminder of the horrors she witnessed as a 16-year-old Palestinian refugee from Jaffa living in the camps at the height of the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War.
"This was my father," said Khalife, pointing to a black and white photo of a man lying face down in a narrow street. "They shot him in the head."
Three of her relatives were also killed.
"After it was over, on the way to find my mother at the nearby hospital, I saw a woman on the street, her intestines were spilling out. She died holding her baby," Khalife recounted as her own daughter, Ghram (Arabic for Love), sat on her lap.
In September 1982, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters, evacuated from their Beirut barracks and the Israeli army, surrounded the refugee camps.
On the afternoon of September 16, Israeli forces allowed members of the Lebanese Forces (LF) -an offshoot of the Phalange Party- into the camps allegedly to search for suspects in the slaying of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel.
Gemayel, who also headed the LF, had been killed by a car bomb outside his office a day earlier, angering many of his supporters and plunging war-torn Lebanon into further chaos. Palestinian forces quickly distanced themselves from Gemayel’s death but it did not save the camps from reprisals.
Khalife says she remembers seeing both Israelis and Phalange Party members inside the camps that day.
"The Israelis were wearing military uniforms. The Phalange wore jeans, normal clothes and military arm bands. They swore at us in Lebanese Arabic," she said.
Most aid organisations working in the camps in 1982 say around 2,000 civilians were killed over the course of three days.
Nabil Mohammad, a Palestinian refugee who lost all but one of his six siblings, said: "The Israeli military were bombing the camps and the worst case scenario was that the Israelis would come in and collect the young men so my uncle sent me away, thinking it would be safer."
Mohammad, his cousin and his cousin’s wife dodged snipers as they made their way to a retirement home where his aunt worked. When the fighting had subsided and they returned to their home, they discovered that five of his siblings and his mother had been executed.
His younger brother Munir survived by feigning his death a few feet away from his mother’s body.
Mohammad was only 19 when the killings took place but every year since then he tries to keep the memories of his loved ones alive by returning to the camps, now home to 45,000 Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians.
He remains bitter that fellow Arabs would commit what he called atrocities.
But a former LF fighter, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, insisted that the Israeli military, and not the Lebanese, should shoulder full responsibility for the killings.
He said: "After Bashir Gemayel was killed, Lebanon was at a boiling state. We were angry, we were lost. We knew that something was going to happen but didn’t know what.
He admitted that the LF was angered by the assassination of Gemayel but had no idea what was planned at Sabra and Shatila. The soldier, who began fighting with the LF when he was 13 in 1979, said his unit had been confined to barracks at the Beirut airport and not allowed to leave after Gemayel’s murder until they were deployed around Sabra and Shatila.
"It was not the LF [who were responsible for the killings]. It was the Israeli soldiers who went inside those camps," he said.
Where is Sabra and Shatila?
Elias, 20, said he had never heard of Sabra and Shatila.
"Where are Sabra and Shatila?" he asked turning to his friend. "Iraq? They never mentioned it in school."
George Hanna, 43, a resident of East Beirut, said: "It was between Christians and Palestinians during the war. I’ve never been there. What would I do there if I went?"
"I never gave Sabra and Shatila any thought."
Nevertheless, Palestinians in Lebanon are determined to keep the history of the camps alive, at least for their community.
Kassem Aina, a coordinator for the ‘Never forget Sabra and Shatila’ campaign, told Al Jazeera: "We tell the children not only about the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. We tell them about all massacres from Deir Yassin to Tel Zaatar to Sabra and Shatila. I feel sad we have so many massacres in our history."
‘Never forget Sabra and Shatila’ was founded by Stefano Chiarini, an Italian journalist and activist, who passed away last February.
To mark the 25th anniversary this year, delegations from Italy, France, Spain and other nations will join Palestinian and Lebanese memorials planned for the week.
The memorials mark the events at the camps but also push for bringing perpetrators to justice.
To this day, there has been no direct accountability for the killings.
Ariel Sharon was forced to resign as defence minister after he was found both ‘indirectly’ and ‘personally’ responsible by the 1982 Kahane Commission of inquiry which investigated Israeli culpability in Sabra and Shatila.
LF commander Elie Hobeika, who led the incursion into the camps, received amnesty like all militia leaders following the Lebanese civil war, and went on to become a member of Parliament.
He claimed he had evidence that would prove his innocence and directly implicate the Israelis, but was killed one month before he was to testify against Sharon in a case brought by camp survivors in Belgium in 2001.
This weekend, the streets of Sabra and Shatila remain densely packed with people struggling to live normally at the scene of one of Lebanon’s worst modern tragedies.
Legal resolution may arrive later but on this year’s anniversary the families of the victims are working to balance memories of their loved ones with the ability to move beyond the tragedy.
"You can forgive but you can never forget," said Aina.
(Aljazeera Net English – English.aljazeera.net – Sep 16, 2007)