Sabra and Shatila and the Brave Woman Who Awoke the Press to the Massacres

It was December 1982, and I had decided to go back to Beirut after the withdrawal of the Israeli troops to check on my parents.

I traveled alone, leaving from JFK the day after Christmas on a British Airways flight to London with a Middle East Airlines connection to Beirut. The first leg was the most fun flight I have ever been on; the whole airplane was like a huge party, Christmas revisited, and no one ever stayed in their seat more than 10 minutes. We were all smoking, drinking, and chatting in groups of five or more in the isles and only sat down when it was time to land.

Suspended in mid air traveling across the Atlantic, that flight was the release I needed after months of agony following the news in Lebanon. It was the relief valve I did not expect, but I took full advantage of before facing the gloom left behind by the Israeli invasion.

In contrast, the flight from London to Beirut was a somber reminder of what lay ahead. I was surrounded by other Lebanese, who were taking advantage of the Christmas and New Year’s break to go home for similar reasons. Very few words were spoken as each person was burdened with his or her own thoughts, and possibly grief.

I was one of the fortunate; my parents were okay and so was my extended family. Within minutes of getting home and greeting my parents, I went to pay my condolences to our neighbors, who had lost their eldest son and breadwinner. He had been shot by an Israeli sniper while crossing the street.  In addition to his parents, he left behind a young wife and three kids, a nine-year-old girl being the eldest.

This was the first heart wrenching experience within 15 minutes of my arrival. Our neighbor’s grief was so deep, there was nothing I could have said or done that would have consoled her. I just sat there and listened while every bit of me was tearing apart.

A day later, I went to visit an old friend in Shayyah, a district south of Beirut sandwiched between Sabra, Shatila, the airport, and to the east, across from what many know as the Green Line lays the Phalangist section of Shayyah.

There was a lot of catching up to do. I had not seen her in almost two years and so much had happened since.

As always, I admired her for being the fighter, the eternal optimist, the rock, and the one who always finds a way, regardless of what is going on around her, to stay focused while she juggled her teaching job, her social work at the refugee camps, her studies for a graduate degree, and cared for her ailing mother.

(She is a friend I have not seen, called, or written to since. Some might wonder what kind of friendship it is. It is the friendship that transcends time and space and I know well that when we meet again it will feel like our last meeting was only yesterday.)

We sat on the small balcony overlooking her narrow street that parallels the Beirut-Damascus main road. We had never sat there before because it used to be reserved for the mop, the broom, the cleaning bucket, and the onions and garlic that hung from the wall. We usually sat on the larger balcony at the other side of the apartment, facing south, but that had fallen out of favor since the invasion, because it was unsafe.

I did not have much to tell her.  She understood well the state of mind of people like me – people who watched what was going on in Lebanon from the safe distance of Europe, America, or Africa, feeling guilty for not being with their loved ones, constantly worrying, seeking and clinging to any bit of news, working, going to school, and faking normalcy while dealing with their colleagues at work and school mates.

The news was all from her side.  I knew that her social work had exposed her to a lot, but I was not prepared to hear what she had to tell me.

The story she told me was her personal experience, and as such, I left it to her alone to share with others.

Since the time I heard her story, I had hoped to read it in a magazine or a newspaper.  Perhaps people in Europe got to read it; but I certainly did not read it here in the States. I have always felt that the story, as a first hand account of what happened around Sabra and Shatila while the refugees were being slaughtered, should be widely shared.

Today, I feel that the passage of time insulates my friend and gives me the freedom to share it with you.

Soon after we sat down on the balcony, I asked about what happened in the camps. My friend’s eyes drifted away. She looked down her narrow street, and did not answer.

Her silence was way out of character, and when it drew long, I craned my neck over the little coffee table between us and saw a face almost composed and tears barely kept at bay. I sat back in my chair, braced myself, and solemnly waited.

She never looked at me. She kept looking down her street and began to talk.

“I was sitting right here that night. It was mid evening. I was tired, but could not sleep. I could sense something was terribly wrong. I just did not know what it was or how bad it was. You just felt it in your stomach, your chest, the air felt different,” my friend said.

She was on her second little pot of coffee, smoking her Rothmans, and waiting for something, but not knowing what it was.

About ten in the evening, she saw an elderly woman turning onto her street, dazed, weeping, screaming, and beating her chest hysterically. At first glance, my friend   thought it was her mother, but she knew her mother was already in bed. She could not make out what the woman was saying so she rushed out and caught up with her half way down the street.

My friend tried to hold the elderly woman by the shoulders and have the woman acknowledge her presence; but the woman kept on walking. My friend caught up with her and faced her again, now trying to endear herself to the woman by calling her hajjeh.

“Hajjeh, what is it, what happened?” my friend said. She might have even addressed        the woman as mother until finally the woman started repeating, ”They are killing us! They are slaughtering us!”  She could not say anything else. That was her answer to any question she was asked.

From her accent and the embroidered dress, the pride of every Palestinian woman, my friend suspected she was a camp resident and insisted on knowing where the woman lived. Upon hearing Shatila she had no other choice but go there.

With the other neighbors now surrounding the woman trying to calm her down and doing their best to help her, my friend got in her car and drove in the direction of the camps.

She knew her way around very well down to the little alleys of the camps, and once she arrived, she planned to connect with the other social workers that lived in the camps to try to get to the bottom of the woman’s story.

Her first approach to Shatila was blocked by Israeli tanks – a common occurrence so she did not think much of it.  She tried to convince the Israeli soldiers to let her through, but they turned her back. She was not discouraged; she knew other ways into the camp.

Next she attempted to enter the camp from the east, on a small dirt road next to what used to be stables for Arabian race horses. Israeli soldiers were blocking that road too. It was then that she became very alarmed. Hardly anyone knew there was a road there; to most people and even some locals, it was just a driveway leading to a house.

Her last option was the entrance by the new cemetery, but that was a main road and she knew that it would be blocked too. Still, she tried to get through with the same result – Israeli soldiers blocked her way.

By now she was convinced that something ominous was taking place in the camps and what the woman was describing was just a sliver of what was happening.  My friend’s attempts to talk her way through the last roadblock were feeble at best. While she was talking to the Israeli soldiers, she was simply buying time, weighing her options, and deciding on her next move.

She had come to the conclusion that she could not enter the camps on her own and her best option would be to reach the European journalists her sister had introduced her to. She had to get to the Commodore Hotel in west Beirut where almost all European journalists stayed, and sound the alarm.

She made a u-turn and turned left on the main thoroughfare heading for west Beirut; again, another Israeli roadblock and she was turned back. Now the sky was falling and she had no options left. Southern Beirut was completely isolated from the rest of the city by Israeli troops.

As determined as she was to get to west Beirut, my friend found herself driving home with a million thoughts in her head, and the one that kept hammering at her was,
get to west Beirut.

The only option left was to cross the green line, the dividing line between the two hostile sections of east and west Beirut, a line known to be infested with snipers and booby traps.   But the biggest unknown was the eastern side, the side she would use to get to the Museum crossing. She had no idea what the Phalangist militia, known for revenge killing and whose leader and Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel had been assassinated a few days earlier, would do to her.

Alarmed, I interrupted her story at that point..

“You did not cross!?” I said, half question, half assertion.

As if in a trance, she totally ignored me, and continued describing the street she used to get to the green line. She told me exactly where she turned her headlights off. It was pitch black, and she could hardly see ten feet ahead of her, but she did not want to be discovered. She got to the line without incident. The line on her side was deserted as she had expected.  The Israelis had driven the militias underground, but she did not know what was on the other side.

She stood there at the green line, the engine of her little French car idling in a whisper. Dark buildings surrounded her, and cinder blocks from the blown out buildings seemed to protrude from the pavement highlighted by whatever light there was. She could not risk dashing across the line in the dark to be greeted by a hail of machine gun fire on the other side. She was also concerned about crossing too slowly and being hit by a sniper.

Taking the darkness into account and the Martian landscape that could easily blow out a tire, she decided to brave the sniper and cross slowly, concocting the story  she would tell anyone on the other side who confronted her.

Call it luck, fate, or whatever it is, the other side was just as deserted, just as dark, with almost the identical cinder blocks that she had to maneuver around. About four blocks into the eastern section, she saw a light in the street to her left and decided to head that way.  That was north, the direction she wanted to go.

She had never been in that area of Beirut, but she knew where north was. The civil war that divided Beirut along that line and created those two alien sections of east and west had started seven years earlier. At the time, she was too young to drive and her school was in the other direction.

Eventually, heading north, she reached the main road in Fern Al-Shebbak where the old tramway tracks used to run; a familiar road and the other Beirut-Damascus connection. The road was relatively well lit, and to her left she could see a building with a Phalangist flag hanging from a balcony and  jeeps parked in front.  She soon realized it was their district headquarters and she had to pass by it to get to the Museum; that she did. After all, who would hurt the prettiest girl to ever drive a little French car?

At the Museum crossing, she told the militia men at the roadblock that she was a refugee in east Beirut for the past week and was called to the American University hospital to be by her ailing mother. It was the perfect line that gave her cover and explained her agitated state. She crossed without incident and used a variation of that line a few more times on her way to the Commodore Hotel.

At the hotel, now on a short fuse, she raised hell at the front desk and made the desk clerks wake up the television crew. Half awake, they met with her and listened to her story. She told me that she was talking so fast that they had to stop her often and make her repeat things till it all sunk in.

That is how the foreign press in Beirut learned about what was going on in the camps. I cannot recall how the crew managed to get into the camps. I do recall being told that they got in after all their videotapes were confiscated. But they managed to keep their equipment, and the cameraman still had a tape hidden; he loaded his camera and carried it upside down by the handle with the trigger pulled. He walked the alleys of Sabra and Shatila, and brought back the first images from the camps, upside down images of the mutilated bodies of women, children, and the elderly.

To this day, I don’t know the true impact of what my friend did; it was certainly selfless and heroic. Other than telling it like it is, she did not elaborate much that evening and I never asked her any questions. The whole experience of telling seemed too traumatic to her and I did not want to prolong it. From what I read later, it seems to me that what she did, in the least, undermined the attempts by the Israelis to clean up the crime scene, which they had started to do as the story broke out, and she helped to expose the massacre for what it is.

Those first inverted images from the camps seemed to be taken from the proper perspective for our lopsided world.  Despite the recommendation by the Israeli Kahane commission that Sharon not be allowed to hold public office again, he managed to jumpstart the second Intifada, secure the Israeli premiership, give the West Bank its own Sabra and Shatila by the name of Jenin, build a wall taller and longer than the Berlin wall, and effectively created ghettos in the West Bank that rival those of Poland.

Also, despite the UN’s characterization of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila as a war crime, we know that Sharon, even a healthy Sharon, would not have been prosecuted for that crime.

Sharon later managed to team up with the American neo-cons and pass on his Middle East vision.

The neo-cons in turn brought us Iraq and gave the Iraqis their own Sabra and Shatila experience; there, it is called Fallujah. (More recently, their callousness and continued inaction hit the home front just as hard as Katrina, augmenting the losses in property and human life.)

Martin Luther King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Dr. King was talking to all of us, and we need to act on his message. Injustices that go unchecked and their perpetrators who go unpunished can only lead to more injustice.

Almost 25 years ago, a young Lebanese woman heeded King’s universal message.  Against all the odds and the attempts to conceal a crime, she made the conscientious choice of risking her own life in order to save others’, and to serve justice. Not all of us have the opportunity or desire to put our lives on the line the way my friend did, but we need to go far enough to make sure the horrors of Sabra and Shatila never happen again. After all, Dr. King’s “everywhere” will eventually include us too.

copyright 2006 MAHER OSSEIRAN

MAHER OSSEIRAN is an Arab-American, peace activist, and a member of Al-Awda, an organization advocating the right of return of the Palestinians to their ancestral land. He can be reached at