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September 18, 1982. A day that will live in infamy. At least as far as many Lebanese and Palestinians are concerned. And yet it often feels like I’m the only person in America who remembers it. For it was on this day thirty years ago that the world first learned about what would soon become known as the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
As word leaked out there was horror, outrage: Over a three-day period, as many as 1,700 Palestinian refugees had been murdered by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the squalid camps just south of Beirut.
The massacres made major headlines, even in the United States. And yet the story was overshadowed to a certain extent by the death of Princess Grace of Monaco in a car crash. Not surprisingly, those of us in Lebanon who were reporting on the unfolding tragedy at Sabra and Shatila saw no comparison in importance between the two stories.
The moment we heard about the massacres, many of us in the press corps blamed ourselves for failing to act on our initial suspicions that “something” might have been going on inside the camps. The Lebanese capital had been convulsed by violence since the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel four days earlier, on September 12. In response, after bombarding the Lebanese capital all summer in an effort to remove PLO leaders, the Israelis had reinvaded West Beirut.
On the evening of September 16, at least a day and a half before the massacres were discovered, a colleague said he’d heard something about flares being fired in and around the camps. He asked if I wanted to go to the camps with him. I said no, a decision that haunts me still. Upon his return, he said that when he got there the camps had been sealed off by the Israelis. He was refused entry, which, for his own safety, was probably a good thing. Otherwise, who knows? He too might have become a victim.
On September 18, a beautifully clear Saturday morning, I was down on West Beirut’s famed Corniche interviewing people about the reinvasion of Israeli forces that had taken place following Gemayel’s assassination when all of a sudden a voice from the bureau came crackling over the cameraman’s walkie-talkie. The message was filled with static, and yet I heard something that sounded like the word “massacre.”
Unbeknownst to us, the killers apparently left the camps several hours before we arrived. It never crossed our minds at the time that had we gotten there sooner, like my colleagues Robert Fisk and Loren Jenkins, we might well have come face-to-face with the killers.
Years later, while comparing notes about that terrible day, I told Robert Fisk that the moment I stepped inside the camps it felt like I was stepping onto the set of a macabre western. The first thing I saw were several bodies lying in the middle of one of the main streets. For some reason, it reminded me of the aftermath of a terrible saloon fight. Only the people lying here weren’t actors about to get up from where they’d fallen to film another take. One of the images Fisk and I remember most vividly–although he probably saw it hours before I did–was that of an elderly man in his pyjamas who had obviously been mercilessly gunned down in cold blood.
As the crew and I continued walking through the camps, we saw other scenes too horrific to describe. I remember one: a group of men, their bodies half-under a parked vehicle, as if they’d been trying to hide. I was struck by the fact that they seemed so defenseless. Almost as defenseless as the women and children. From the beginning the crew and I knew without saying as much that we would have to live with whatever we were seeing for the rest of our lives. And yet obviously whatever trauma we might have been experienced was nothing compared to what family members of those who had been murdered would have to endure. Many, if not most, have had no choice other than to continue living out their days in the squalid camps where their loved ones were so brutally slain. Unlike us, they didn’t have the luxury of walking away.
At least 1,700 dead–men, women and children. Possibly even double that number. The estimates vary wildly, and probably always will. After thirty years, the Sabra and Shatila massacres remain as incomprehensible as ever, although many of the details eventually became clear: According to Israel’s own official report, the Israeli military ringed the camps and then allowed, and even encouraged, their Lebanese Christian allies to conduct their murderous spree.
Still, no one can say with any certainty why the massacre happened. No one has ever been charged with the crime, much less convicted. Revenge is certainly a motive: During the Lebanese civil war, there had been countless massacres of Palestinians by Christians and vice versa. Other theories abound: that the massacres were conducted by the enraged Christians forces to avenge Gemayel’s assassination, even though the Palestinians had nothing to do with the Christian president-elect’s death. Another is that the Israelis were hoping that the massacre would push the inhabitants of the camps into Jordan, where, in a two-pronged approach, Palestinians from the occupied West Bank camps could somehow be forced out to join them. Still another is that the massacres were permitted in part to prove to the Palestinians and the Lebanese that the United States was powerless to protect them. Whatever the reason or reasons, the Sabra and Shatila massacres were at the very least a display of the purest evil imaginable that may very well have been carried out by the perpetrators simply because they could.
Peggy Riley Thomson is a journalist who has reported from London and the Middle East for a variety of news organizations.