“I AM one of those who was there, who was in Palestine. I saw it all with my eyes.”
Abu Ismail is sitting on a sofa as he speaks. The tape recorder sits on a low table in front of him, absorbing his voice, and the noise of mopeds and people from the alley outside. He is in his mid-sixties, but looks perhaps a little older. We are sitting around the room. There is Umm Ismail, and one of their daughters, two grandsons, myself and some other visitors, and the children of Shatila refugee camp who have brought me here to listen to Abu Ismail tell the story of the massacre in his village of Safsaf, near Safad, northern Palestine.
Abu Ismail’s home is on the third floor of one of the tall, teetering cinder-block structures that make up Shatila refugee camp. It is on what passes for a main street, a noisy, dusty alley with small shops and crowded with people.
I first went to Shatila refugee camp last summer. Since then, I kept in touch with some of the children I met by e-mail. I have come back to visit them for a few days, and they decided they would take me to meet some of the older people who witnessed Al Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948.
Abu Ismail was about twelve, and Umm Ismail about twenty-one when Safsaf was attacked by Zionist forces in October 1948, shortly after the fall of the city of Safad. Safsaf, which had been the headquarters of an Arab Liberation Army battalion was the first village to fall in the Haganah’s operation “Hiram”, according to Walid Khalidi’s `All That Remains’. Several massacres were committed in the village, details of which Abu Ismail recalls vividly: “On the night of Oct. 29, around five in the afternoon, two planes came and dropped bombs on the village. They destroyed the grain silos and the mill. And so we knew that today Israel would attack us.”
Although the village had been heavily fortified, the Arab Liberation Army eventually withdrew, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Outgunned and outflanked, the Zionists took the village. Many villagers were killed, or fled to the nearby village of Jish or on to Lebanon. Those who stayed behind gathered in a few storehouses “intending to surrender to the Jews, since we were defenceless”, remembers Abu Ismail. “The Jews came into the building. No one moved. `Get out, get out, get out’ they cried — they took out all the men. They closed the door on us. And then we heard shooting. After a while, we opened the door and went outside. There was a line maybe fifty metres, of men. Dead. They had lined them up against the wall and shot them with machineguns.” The Jewish forces used the dry collecting basin of the village spring as a mass grave. The remaining villagers discovered this a few days later when the water, which unbeknownst to the Jews was piped directly into the village from underground thanks to improvements made by the British, began to taste rotten.
Abu Ismail and Umm Ismail, and a few other survivors, have drawn up a list of fifty-four names of people killed in that massacre, among them Abu Ismail’s father and his older brother, to whom Umm Ismail had first been married.
Perhaps a few days later, recounts Abu Ismail, the Jewish forces told the women and children remaining in the village they had to leave to an adjacent area because there were explosives in the village and they wanted to destroy them.
“Now, there was a woman in one house who was hiding her husband under a blanket. Women were sitting on top of him and around him, so he couldn’t be seen. When they were forced out, he was discovered. They took him out, and his wife started screaming. They fired shots near her feet, and then they took the man to Jish, where their headquarters were.” There he was interrogated by the Jewish commander, who, learning he was from Safsaf, said, according to Abu Ismail: “I know your village. I used to come to it as a boy with my father, Mordechai, to buy milk.” The commander, whose name Abu Ismail remembers as Manu, son of Mordechai, a Palestinian Jew from Safad, sent the man back to Safsaf with the message: “Stay in the village, do not go to Lebanon. We will look after you and I will come to the village in a few hours.”
Abu Ismail said the Jewish commander did come and brought food, but there were only women and children left, terrified and traumatised by the massacres, and unable to fend for themselves. Fearing the worst, they left for Lebanon, either with men who had come back under cover of night to fetch them, or alone to look for surviving men who feared the consequences of returning.
Abu Ismail remembers every inch of Safsaf. As he speaks, his grandson fills in the detail of a map he has drawn according to his grandfather’s recollection of each house in the village. When asked what he thinks of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer to allow a few thousand Palestinians to return to their homes in Palestine, he scoffs: “they are not serious about the right of return. They may allow me and my wife to go back, but not my children and my grandchildren.”
In contrast to Shatila, which has been destroyed, rebuilt and rearranged countless times, Palestinian residents of nearby Bourj Al Barajneh camp are still grouped together according to their village of origin. In “Sheikh Daoud” alley, named after a small village near Akka, we met Umm Waheed.
Umm Waheed named her daughter Badr, meaning “full moon”, because that is what she saw in 1948 when she gave birth alone in Sheikh Daoud, to which she had returned after all the inhabitants had left to Yaraka, a neighbouring village. Her family came back to fetch her and the family went from village to village as the Zionists advanced, and eventually left for Lebanon.
Asked how she endured this, she says: “I am strong, I am very strong.” During the “war of the camps” in the mid 1980s, when Bourj Al Barajneh was besieged by the Amal militia, Umm Waheed helped deliver ammunition to the resistance fighters and baked bread in her house to share with the other residents of the camp. Umm Waheed’s home is a single meticulously kept room with bare concrete floors, that also serves as a small store from which she sells basic supplies, soft drinks and juice from an electric machine that whirs away near the door so that passersby might be tempted by it.
She tells how she left Palestine. She begins to sing a quiet song, `Tarakna al buwab mfattaha’ (We left the doors open). These are words she has composed herself in order to pass on the history of Palestine to the children in the camp. She remembers that the villagers did not want to leave. “Three times the women and children returned to Majd Al Kuroum,” — the last village Umm Waheed stayed in before fleeing to Lebanon — “and three times the Arab Liberation Army let it fall.”
“When we got to Lebanon, they made us live on beaches. Everything was wet and windy in winter. In summer everything was full of sand. But we endured,” remembers Umm Waheed. “After a while, we were given guns, and they said we would do guerrilla operations, but they amounted to nothing. So many of our men were killed for nothing. People are dying now in Palestine, but they are in the homeland. Aren’t houses being demolished on their heads? Let the houses be demolished, the land will remain. If they let us go to Palestine, we would live on the bare ground like the people there. We will resist with them. If we die, may God make it easy on us. If we live, we will continue to resist. We will put a sheet over our heads for shelter. Let them come and burn the sheet and strike us. The land will remain.”
Later we accompany Umm Waheed to her son’s house, a little way down the alley. There, with members of her family, we watch the new film by Mai Masri, `Dreams of Fears and Hopes’, which documents the friendship that developed over the past two years between children in Shatila refugee camp and children in Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Several of those who appear in the film, including Umm Waheed, Mahmoud, 14, Rabie, 15, Ismail, 15, and Safa, 13, are watching the film with us.
There are tears in the room as the screen shows the children’s first, and then second and last, meeting at the border, following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. The third time they go back, the children find fortifications which have stopped the meeting of human flesh, embraces, exchanges of laughter, tears, memories and gifts through the barbed wire. But the friendship continues despite all the borders Palestinians find before them: physical borders that separate them, legal and social borders that deny them civil rights, decent education and a chance to work, and, above all, the right to return to their country and their homes.
During my first visit to Shatila I met Samar, then a young woman of fifteen. Her strength and eloquence made her a leader and an example for the other children. A few months after my visit she was spirited out of the camp — her family, like so many others, found an escape route out of desperation. Now Samar and her family await the slim possibility of being granted asylum in a European country. They find themselves refugees again, their freedom restricted in every way. Samar writes occasional letters to her friends in Shatila. They gather to read the latest during my last day in Shatila. Despite the innumerable and indescribable hardships of life in the camp, Samar has found a place on earth worse than Shatila: it is to be in double exile, a refugee from her country, and a refugee from the friends she grew up with and who sustained her. In each other, the children of Shatila have found a hope, strength and support that the rest of the world has denied them or done its best to destroy.
There is a lot of talk, even a little excitement in Shatila about the court case in Belgium against Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacre in this place and a little distance away in Sabra. But people have learned not to put too much hope in anything. And even if the case does go somewhere, what will it mean for the people still here, the ones who, the day after the massacre, got up and continued with life, who endured? Will the world care any more for their futures and rights than it does now? Few here are prepared to say it will.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in the Jordan Times in the 13-14 July 2001 issue.