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29 Years After the Massacre at Sabra Shatila

Sabha, Libya.

“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” was the general consensus following a discussion between this observer and a gathering of Palestinian refugees in Sabha, Libya, many of whom would very much like to travel to Shatila camp in Beirut this week and participate in the 29th annual commemoration of the 1982 Israeli facilitated massacre that left more than 3000 dead and hundreds  still missing. Sabha, now the district Capitol, is about 400 miles south of Tripoli in the Saharan desert, and is  one of the four main areas that NATO concedes is still controlled by pro-Gaddafi  loyalists,( the other three are Sirte, Bani Walid, and  Jufra)  and for that reason NATO has intensified its, sometimes seemingly indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas. Today, NATO is desperately wanting to announce “mission accomplished” and put an end to its ill-conceived mission “ to  protect Libya‘s civilians”,  that President Obama assured the World nearly 7 months ago,  “will last days, not weeks.”

NATO continues to hope that no one bothers to carefully examine what it has wrought here because no person of good will would accept its  massive gratuitous carnage. NATO’s bad luck it that its war on Libya’s civilian population continues to be documented and it will be held accountable, at least in the court room of public opinion and conceivably elsewhere.

It was from Sabha, following the 1969 September 1st Fatah Revolution that Gaddafi announced “the breaking dawn of the era of the masses”. As NATO tightens its noose around Sabha, the cousin of the  “brother leader” (as Moammar was nick named by Nelson Mandela in gratitude for Libyan support for the long African National Congress (ANC) resistance to South African apartheid),  and his  able spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, reminds his audiences that the deepening civil war in Libya which was forced on this peaceful people by NATO and its ill-advised rush for regime change, is just beginning.

Ibrahim and some diplomats here believe it  may well engulf other parts of Africa and the Middle East. Musa added yesterday, “Our leader will die in our sacred country for what his hero, Omar Muktar sacrificed his life for, and that is our country’s freedom from colonialism.”

Today Sabha, with a usual population of around 130,000 is now less than half that but hosts a few thousand Palestinian refugees, who appear to avoid current Libyan politics.  Some are survivors of the 1982 Israeli facilitated massacre at Shatila camp in Beirut and they insist that no Palestinian or Hezbollah groups were fighting anywhere in the East or around here.  Maybe a few individual Palestinian members of the Benghazi based Muslim Brotherhood happened to be Palestinians but that was about all the gathered explained.

Many of Libya’s Palestinian refugees in Libya, like those is the Diaspora, desperately seek to learn what became of their family members who disappeared before, during and following the events of Sept. 15-20, 1982. Palestinian refugees, like  their Lebanese sisters and brothers suffer unrelenting pain and anguish as they resolve to take concrete steps to  learn what happened to their loved ones. For more than 30 years Palestinians in Lebanon have disappeared as a result of various Israeli invasions and the Lebanese civil war with innocent refugee camp residents becoming victims of shifting regional and local political alliances. Thousands of Palestinians, like Lebanese from all the sects, became victims of enforced disappearances, abductions and other abuses.

Seriously compounding the problem, Lebanon has failed to legislate a truth, justice and reconciliation agency.  Consequently, along with the failure of the governments of other states that were involved, the result has been that the whereabouts of many Palestinians remain a mystery and those responsible remain unidentified and unpunished. Robert Fisk, writing in the UK Independent claims that more than 1000 Palestinians are buried in pits in Lebanon’s only Golf Course that is adjacent to Shatila camp and the Kuwaiti Embassy.

Dr. Bayan Nuwayhed al Hout — author of “Sabra and Shatila: September 1982” told this observer:  “I’m positive that dozens of people were buried there with the help of bulldozers. The bulldozers were used to get rid of the dead bodies.” Author Al Hout is referring to the fact that Israel supplied bulldozers, paid for by American taxpayers, to their allies, the right wing Christian militia that committed the slaughter with Israeli facilitation.

On Saturday morning, September 18, 1982 Israeli Mossad agents inside the camp actually were observed  driving three of the bulldozers in a frantic attempt to assist the Christian militia in covering up evidence of the crime before the exported international media arrived on the scene. The late American journalist, Janet Lee Stevens, documented that  during Sept. 18 and 19th, most of the massacre victims killed during this period were slaughtered inside  the joint Israeli-Lebanese Forces “interrogation center.”  Janet testified that these killed  were put in flatbed trucks and taken to the Golf Course, just 300 yards away, where waiting Israeli bulldozers dug pits. Other trucks drove in the direction of East Beirut.  At the time of her death, seven months later, Janet was preparing her report for publication. This observer packed Janet’s belongings and after some wrangling with the US Embassy staff who had arrived on the plane President Ronald Reagan sent to return Janet and the other Americans remains to the US, her two cardboard boxes of papers and research notes were onboard.

Unfortunately, but understandably, a family member, who I was advised did not understand Janet’s work in Lebanon, discarded her papers, following Janet’s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia and  before they could be collected by the University of Pennsylvania for analysis and preservation.  So we are deprived of most of Janet’s data on the missing Palestinians which confirmed the fate of several hundred who disappeared during the massacre. Fortunately, in February of 1982 Janet had forwarded some of her conclusions to friends and for publication.   What needs to be done to locate the missing Palestinians and Lebanese?   A serious and sustained effort to locate the disappeared Palestinians and Lebanese and bring some degree of solace and closure to their families should be undertaken without further delay. These Palestinian and Lebanese families have no idea if their loved ones are dead or alive.  Obviously they are unable to organize a dignified burial or even properly grieve.

Families of the disappeared suffer from a series of legal, financial, and administrative problems that result from not knowing what became of their missing loved ones. A recent Amnesty International study of Lebanon’s problems on this urgent subject included the experience of Wadad Halawani, the founder of the Committee of the families of the Kidnapped and missing in Lebanon.  Wadad described her life after her husband, was taken away from their home in Beirut in September 1982, apparently by agents of Lebanese military Intelligence, the Deuxième Bureau.  Wadad was forced to raise  her two young children, aged six and three alone following his disappearance, and she described how she “lost her balance in life.” She did not know “how to protect the children from the rockets” and was “lost for answers to their endless questions” about their father for which she had no replies.

From knowing many families of missing husbands, Wadad outlined the problems faced by them, personal, social, legal, administrative, and economic. On the  personal and social level, she explained  that a  Palestinian or any woman in Lebanon, whose husband is missing is neither a married woman nor single, divorced or a widow, and for all that time she will have faced serious problems and obstacles linked to the low status of women. On the legal and administrative level  she explained that “a woman cannot spend her husband’s money nor dispose of his property, such as selling his car, as she does not have power of attorney allowing her to do so. Nor can she get a passport for herself, nor for her children if they are under 18 as the guardian required the father even though the mother is raising the children.

On the economic level, Wadad told Amnesty International that most of the missing people are from poor families, so the loss of the breadwinner has had devastating impact. In many cases, the families have been unable to cover basic daily needs, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and the costs of education. The families of missing and disappeared Palestinians and other persons have the right, under international law, to the truth which means a full and complete disclosure about events that transpired during the disappearance of their loved ones.

In March 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that this includes the right to know the exact fate and whereabouts of each victim. International law and human rights standards also require each party to an armed conflict must take all feasible measures to try and account for people reported missing as a result of the conflict, and release all relevant information concerning their fate or whereabouts. This applies to Israel during the September 1982 massacre. More than once over the past three decades Israeli officials have reported that Israel has detailed records of what its sponsored militias did inside Shatila camp and on the periphery with respects to eliminating terrorists and hiding their remains.  To date Israel has refused UN and international demands to turn over its records. The international community must sanction Israel until is complies with international law on this subject.

In addition,  friends of Palestine including NGO’s and relevant UN agencies should immediately  establish an  agency cooperating with  independent experts and representatives of civil society, including relatives of missing individuals,  in cooperation with the Government of Lebanon to investigate the fates of every missing Palestinian and Lebanese including locating and ensuring protection for mass graves and for exhumations, to be carried out consistent with international standards to identify  human remains and match them with DNA from relatives.  The Embassy of Palestine in Lebanon would be a good choice for organizing the collection of DNA samples from Palestinian families with missing relatives. As many Palestinians and their supporters arrive at Shatila camp in Beirut this weekend, the thoughts of Palestinians in Libya and the diaspora, land their friends around the world will be with them.  As a young Palestinian lady in Sabha told this observer, and sounding very much like Miss Hiba Hajj in Lebanon’s Ein el Helwe camp: “Every Palestinian must visit this site you told us about of this mass murder of our brothers and sisters. I will do it soon. I promise you.   It is not an option, it is an obligation.”

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Libya and can be reached c/o fplamb@gmail.com

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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