“They shot my father in the head”: interview with survivor of Sabra and Shatila massacre

19 September 2012

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A Palestinian woman carries portraits of her relatives who were killed during the Sabra and Shatila massacre during a march to mark the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beirut.

(Sharif Karim / Reuters)

On Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was commemorated by people of different nationalities around the world. In Lebanon the commemoration was only observed by Palestinians living in refugee camps; Lebanese people were not concerned.

The massacre carried out by the Phalange, a Christian Maronite militia acting in full cooperation with Israel, was among the most atrocious episodes of recent history. But it is still absent from our collective Lebanese memory.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre is another taboo in Lebanon that needs to be addressed publicly and soberly; maybe admitting the wrongdoing could prevent us from further subjugating the Palestinian refugees who are residing here temporarily until they return to their occupied homeland.

The perpetrators of the massacre are still alive and could be found inside and outside Lebanon; so too are some of the witnesses who survived the massacre, and lost their loved ones. They are still awaiting justice.

On 16 September 1982, Jameela Khalifeh was a teenage girl. The three long days of slaughter still haunts her memories.

This week, Khalifeh welcomed us with a smile to her dim apartment on the busy Sabra strip. Outside, there was bustling life: people stopping and shopping at vegetable stalls and bootleg DVD stores.

“I was 16 and had just got engaged,” Kahlifeh said. “I was living at my parents’ home with three sisters and my brother.”

“We won’t forget”

Holding out a photo, she added: “This is my father Mohammad Khalifeh, this picture was taken after they shot him in the head and dumped his body on the side of the street.” On the back of the picture, there is a certificate issued by the Palestine Liberation Organization. It contains Mohammad’s name and the words “So we won’t forget.”

“On 16 September, during the invasion, Israeli soldiers descended onto the camp from the Sports City stadium located on a hilltop overlooking the camp. We knew that the Israelis were stationed in the stadium and they [the Israelis] knew that the fedayeen [PLO fighters] had evacuated the camp, therefore we assured each other they wouldn’t kill us unarmed families.

“Next to the Israeli soldiers there were the Phalange militants who spoke in a Lebanese dialect; each militant dressed in a cowboy hat and a white armband with a green cedar on it [the logo of the Phalangists’ political party]. I remember the Israelis were speaking broken Arabic to the Lebanese militants but mostly they spoke in Hebrew. My mother understood Hebrew from the time she used to live in Palestine before 1948.

“While we were fleeing, we got stopped by a Phalange militant who pointed his rifle to my mother’s belly, but the Israeli soldier told the Lebanese militant, ‘Don’t kill the Madam and the babies; we are here to kill men only.’ We came out to the streets; my father was with us in the shelter beneath the building, and the Israelis — with the Phalangists — started to call us through microphones urging us to come out from the shelters, announcing: ‘If you surrender you will be safe.’

“Overwhelming stench”

“We came out from the shelter to the street; I remember the stench was overwhelming, and I was waving a white piece of cloth. My father finally decided to come out with us from the shelter. I made sure to stay by his side; I was truly attached to my father, holding his hand tight.

“The moment we emerged we were taken by Israeli soldiers and Lebanese militants. At this point my father became nervous. He looked at me and whispered, ‘I’m going home.’ The moment we joined families from the camp led by the militants, my father panicked, let go of my hand and ran home. When he got home he found militants inside the building, searching it, so he immediately ran back to us.

“While he was running towards us: they shot him in the head. My mother saw him getting shot, I didn’t.

“While we were being led at gunpoint, we found a small alley that led to the camp so we split off from the marching, cattled crowds and made it back to the main mosque in the camp. The mosque was full of people from Shatila. On arrival, we told them that they [the Phalange] are killing and slaughtering families but the elders of the camp said we were lying; that there was nothing, that we should calm down. Upon our insistence the elders decided to go see what was going on. The elder men never came back to the mosque. After waiting in the mosque for few hours with no news about the elders we and other families went to Gaza hospital at the the entrance to Sabra.

“We used to live in the street of Hay al-Gharbi next to the Doukhi grocery store. In our neighborhood only my family and our neighbor survived the killing, the rest were all killed. I remember seven or eight corpses on top of each other, in the street below our building; we had to step over them.

“The Israelis and Phalangists led us in a march, to finish us, to kill us like they did to the others. Luckily, we managed to escape through the alley. The Israelis were dressed in full military uniform with iron helmets. The Lebanese militants were dressed in cowboy hats, blue jeans and daggers hanging from their belts. Some among them wore black ski masks. All carried Kalashnikovs.

Putting Sharon in the dock

“A few years ago 300 of us hired the lawyer Shibli Mallat to sue Ariel Sharon [Israel’s defense minister in 1982, and later, prime minister] for the massacre and we wanted to take him to a tribunal in Belgium. We saw pictures of Sharon standing at the sports stadium next to Israeli tanks overlooking the camp, and we know he was watching the massacre and the killing of Palestinians. I still want Sharon to be put on trial even if he, ironically, has been in a coma for years and clinically dead.

“Thirty years after the massacre, take a look at how we live. We are seven people staying in two small rooms. Our life has been deteriorating for the last 30 years; we still can’t work and can’t move outside the camp to a decent place. We buy drinking and washing water on a daily basis. We buy electricity from a generator; the Lebanese government only gives us two hours of power a day. My two sons work at an aluminum factory. Because they are Palestinian they get paid less than their coworkers. And my 23-year-old daughter works at a café.

“My daughter went to get a loan from a bank like her coworkers did but when she got to the bank and showed her papers they told her, ‘Sorry, you can’t get a loan because you are Palestinian.’ Being a Palestinian in Lebanon is a daily, ongoing struggle for survival. That’s why each time a woman gives birth we make sure the newborn is brought up to believe in the right of return to Palestine and we emphasize that we are only guests here.

“We want to return to Palestine but until then I want to leave this country and go anywhere we’ll be treated as human beings. We never gave up, Palestine is ours, and we are going to return, but we are tired of not being able to live an honorable, decent life.

“We are from Jaffa. My mother never stops talking about the time she lived in Jaffa, and the way Israelis started coming as refugees, at first sheltering in houses, then starting to push Palestinians out of their houses.”

Atrocity ignored

On 16 September this year, Pope Benedict XVI visited Beirut, where he urged the Lebanese — both Christians and Muslims — to coexist in peace. The pope preached on various issues concerning the region but failed to mention the Sabra and Shatila massacre and the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Many were furious with his omission of any reference to the massacre in his public address on Beirut’s waterfront. As he was speaking on the anniversary of the massacre, the omission was all the more hurtful.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre is one of many atrocities that occurred during the long years of the Lebanese civil war. Ironically, political leaders, who were then warlords, were sitting on the frontline on Sunday during the Pope’s sermon; among those leaders were members of the Phalangist party, who are believed to be responsible for the massacre in Sabra and Shatila.

There will come a day when Lebanon will break the taboo of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and justice will be served to the families of the thousands killed 30 years ago. But until that day comes, Palestinian refugees will still be marginalized, living in inhumane conditions inside overcrowded camps.

Moe Ali Nayel is a journalist and fixer based in Beirut.