An open letter to the survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre

Ellen Siegel is a registered nurse. She volunteered her expertise and services at the Gaza Hospital in Sabra Camp in Beirut in 1982, and was there during the massacre. She testified as a witness befoe the Kahan Commission of Inquiry in Jerusalem in late 1982. Ms. Siegel is the Vice-Chair of the Medical Committee of American Near East Refugee Aid, a member of the Middle East Committee of the Peace Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and active in the Jewish peace movement. She currently works as a community mental health nurse for a non-profit organization. She wrote the following letter to her friends and fellow massacre survivors and witnesses in Beirut in the wake of Belgium’s decision to weaken its universal jurisdiction (anti-atrocity) legislation in response to pressure from the US Government.

July 29, 2003

My dear friends,

I met many of you last September, on the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. I had not been back to Beirut, or to the camps, or to Gaza Hospital, where I had worked as a nurse, since the summer of 1982.

I wanted to return, to re-trace my steps. I wanted to remember, to be there beside you, to stand in solidarity with you. Most of all, I wanted to honor and pay tribute to you and your loved ones.

I would like to share my experience with you.

My first day, at sunrise, I headed for the camps. I was dropped off at what had been the entrance to the hospital, the very spot where we nurses and doctors were told to assemble twenty years ago by the Phalangist militia. I was met and accompanied by a Palestinian woman familiar with the camps.

What had once been a place where Palestinians and Lebanese living in the camps came to have their babies, went to have operations performed, where clinics once served the medical needs of the camp inhabitants and where a huge Red Cross banner once hung, had now become an almost uninhabitable place for displaced persons.

Now, the entrance is dark, foul smelling, rat infested, and piled with trash. You need matches or a flashlight to find the steps leading to the stairway and to light the stairwell. Palestinian, Lebanese, and possibly other Arab nationals squat in this building. The well they use for water had recently been destroyed. Wires hung from ceilings and walls, hooking up electrical power. Conditions are extremely unhealthy.

I walked up to the ninth floor and looked out. I could see the entire camp; the streets, the alleyways, and the top of what had been the Israeli Forward Command Post. The last time I looked out from this spot two decades earlier, it had been at night. What I saw then were flares being shot into the air, which were used to illuminate areas of the camp. After seeing this, twenty years later, with my naked eye, there was no doubt in my mind that the Israeli Defence Forces officials and soldiers, using sophisticated binoculars, could clearly see what was happening in those camps.

I then proceeded down Sabra Street. It is much denser, more crowded than it was in 1982. I was taken to shelters were people tried to hide during those terrible days, I saw the walls that had bullet holes where mass executions occurred. The complexity of the winding alleyways and warrens in these camps makes carrying out an operation such as the massacre very difficult. It could not have happened haphazardly. Planning and coordination had to occur.

The mass grave, at the end of the main street, was being spruced up for the anniversary. A brick wall now covers the spot where a firing squad lined up the health care workers. I walked past the Kuwaiti Embassy. There is now a statue and a roundabout before you come to what had been an abandoned UN building used for interrogating us. A brick wall now covers the spot. The building used by the Israelis as their Command Post remains. Standing at that spot, you overlook the camps.

I returned to visit with you several times. I met with survivors and families of martyrs. I attended the commemoration march and walked hand in hand with you. I attended the ceremony at the gravesite. I brought roses, together we placed them on the soil. I silently recited Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. My last visit to the grave was a few days after the formal ceremony. It was then that I saw the silent grieving of loved ones. I realized, sadly, that yet another generation of Palestinian refugees was growing up in those deplorable camps.

The Palestinian women in these camps are extraordinary. Through no fault of your own you have spent most of your adult life moving from one squalid camp to another. You once thrived in villages in mainly northern Palestine. You farmed, harvested crops, and raised livestock. You were self-supporting. Throughout this incredible ordeal of becoming a refugee you have remained strong and proud. You have not lost your dignity. I have only the greatest respect for you.

You are such patient people. You wait to return to your homeland, you wait for justice. Every once in a while there is a ray of hope, like when Belgium passed an anti-atrocity law. You thought that Ariel Sharon, Amos Yaron and others responsible for that massacre would be tried as war criminals. Some of you traveled to Belgium, many of you gave detailed accounts of those dark days twenty years ago. You pulled out large framed and yellowing photos of your loved ones - you shared memories. For a while it seemed that there would be a hearing. At last, plaintiffs/survivors would be able to tell their story before an official court. But, it seems, this is not meant to be. Due to enormous pressure on the government of Belgium, mainly from Israel and the US, justice will be eluded once again.

This massacre could not happened without Israel’s active participation under the command of Ariel Sharon, Amos Yaron, and others. Israel prevented terrified residents from leaving, they supplied the flares to the Phalange in order to light up neighborhoods so they could find their victims, they lent a bulldozer to help bury bodies, they were in communication with the murderers, and they could see what was going on in the camps. The Israeli Commission of Inquiry found that Sharon bore indirect responsibility - a decision questioned by many outside of Israel’s establishment. The Phalange militia carried out the actual slaughter of men, women, and children. In seeking justice, we must not ignore this fact.

The Palestinians cannot get a fair hearing in Israel. The Israeli government just announced that they were not responsible for Rachel Corrie’s death. It seems the driver of a bulldozer did not see her standing there waving her arms. Rachel Corrie, a US citizen, did not get a fair hearing.

Your friends from around the world will once again try to help you. We will write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails, and write articles, op ed pieces and the like. As you sit and wait, remember that your cause is heard. I do not know how many more generations you will have to wait. Do not despair. We will continue to seek justice on your behalf.

Our thoughts are with you.

Ellen Siegel, RN
Washington, DC