Lives Lived and Lost in Time: Remembering Shatilla

By William A. Cook

[Note: This is the second in a series as I wait for the Boat Brigade to leave from Tripoli, an event that may or may not happen as politics and legalities intertwine. This is not intended to be news reportage, but rather a reaction to the broader issues revolving around the boat flotillas attempting to breech the siege of Gaza.]

“It was the flies that told us. There were millions of them, their hum almost as eloquent as the smell. Big as bluebottles, they covered us, unaware at first of the difference between the living and the dead.” — (Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, 359)

This quote opens Robert Fisk’s account of his encounter with the massacre at the Shatilla refugee camp in 1982, a massacre controlled by the invading Israeli army here in Beirut. This blatant act of horrific barbarity occurred roughly 30 years ago, half the time the state of Israel has been in existence, transforming the mid-east into a seething cauldron of internecine conflicts , smoldering hatred, and absolute vengeance.

As I walked the alleyways of Shatilla yesterday, I could not help but reflect on the consequences of the mentality that justified it or the consequences caused by those devastated by it. As I wait here 30 years later to board a boat to defy the Israeli’s continuing occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people in Gaza, I cannot avoid the reality on the ground that Israel has created. As I wait, a march gathers around Lebanon from all the refugee camps, a march that will culminate at the Parliament buildings today at 4PM, some 5000 expected, organized by the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign to bring through legislation civil rights to the Palestinians living in Shatilla and the other refugee camps, rights denied for over 62 years.

As I wait, days pass filled with uncertainty about the legislation that could give hope to parents for some economic relief from absolute poverty, hope to children for a future of promise, hope to Lebanese who would no longer have to live in the presence of justice denied. As I wait, days pass, not years, for the boat to leave Tripoli to go to Gaza, and I wait impatiently annoyed that matters have not been organized and problems resolved before more time passes.

Time. What is it after all? Didn’t the “eloquent hum” of the flies Fisk heard ring the death knell of innocents slaughtered by Israeli “trained militaries’?

“We were breathing death, inhaling the very putrescence of the bloated corpses around us. Jenkins immediately realized that the Israeli defence minister would have to bear some responsibility for this horror. ‘Sharon!’ he shouted. ‘That fucker Sharon! This is Deir Yassin all over again.” (360)

Time. How do we account for it? Why these mothers carved and slashed, babies cut from wombs? Why these yet unborn children? Why these girls raped so violently? Lives lived in time, unexplainable and unremembered. And those who lived throughout Shabra, how do they live now? What is time to those who have nothing, time only to sit through because there is no work; time as remorse to weep for those lost; time as agony and torment for children that will live without hope, without fulfillment, without a future. I saw them caught in the confines of dark alleys, sloshing through stagnant puddles, surrounded by stench, the new stench of decaying garbage not the “eloquent smell” of death Fisk describes. Thousands upon thousands of refugees imprisoned in one square kilometer of space, an area surrounded by embassies, highways, high rises, warehouses, car dumps, abandoned buildings, decrepit skeletons of past splendor, the visible metaphor of human indifference and disdain.

“They must have been armed by the Israelis. Their handiwork had already been watched—clearly observed—by the Israelis, by those same Israelis who were still watching us through their field-glasses.” (364)

Has time stood still for the residents of Shatilla? How could it not. Lacking means to move, lacking legitimacy elsewhere, lacking a homeland because foreigners have stolen it, lacking a nation—indeed, lacking a community of nations that shows a heartfelt concern for their own, the refugee is crucified to the streets and alleys of Shatilla, stuffed into the cement bunkers that grow only in filth and decay as time passes, living daily the horrifying memory of this heinous slaughter, passing the grounds that had been piled with decaying bodies.

“When does a killing become an outrage? When does an atrocity become 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 Israel’s friends rather than Israel’s enemies.”

When will the time come when justice is addressed for this outrage against humanity? When will the world declare an end to Israel’s evil? How many times must we witness the wanton slaughter of the helpless justified by “right of self-defense” when the people killed have no defense and no rights because the United States stands alone as it justifies the evil before the world defying International law and all agreements that have united the nations of the world under the banners of justice from the foundational documents of the United States—the International Declaration of Human Rights. How ironic, how pathetic.

Perhaps today the lives lived and lost in time—the ghosts of Shabra and Shatilla—will image for us what must not be if our future is to exist and we are not to live as the residents of Shatilla must live, frozen by the mindset of those who commit such slaughter, lacking conscience, lost to indifference, the very image of the human without a soul.

“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 current time, the second hand still ticking round uselessly, expending the last energies of its dead owner.” (361)

Thus does time measure the mentality of men, a conscienceless recording of its darkest hours.

– William A. Cook is Professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His most recent book, The Plight of the Palestinians: a Long History of Destruction is now available at Macmillan publishing or through Amazon and other book sellers. He contributed this article to Contact him at: or visit:

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