September 2, 2005
The Haunting Days
By Musa Al-Hindi *
Beirut, Bourj Al-Barajneh, 16 September 1982: I was 16 years old when I first heard about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It was a sunny and muggy morning, a typical September day in Beirut in untypical times. I was on my way out of Uthman pharmacy having bought sedatives for my mother who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown after three months of Israeli bombardment in west Beirut. Just as she thought the worse was over, Israel invaded the city and its southern suburbs, ignoring its own promises to the US not to do so if the PLO fighters withdrew. According to a statement released by Tel Aviv, the Israeli army had no choice but to invade in order to protect inhabitants from Lebanese Phalangists enraged by the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel, a day ago.
Israel's occupation of west Beirut did not last long. Israel was no match for the determination of Beirutis, and after losing few soldiers and officers at the hands of the underground resistance, the Israeli army decided to withdraw. Tel Aviv was neither ready nor willing to get bogged down in guerrilla warfare in a city of over a million hostile and armed Arabs and Muslims.
However, prior to its withdrawal, Israel, while bragging about the Israeli army's "purity of arms", precipitated the massacre of 3,000 Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. Israel has always denied responsibility for the gruesome killings of the men, women and children in the two camps. Its soldiers might have not participated in the actual killings, but anybody familiar with the camps and their surroundings knows that they could see and hear the screams of the children, women and men being executed. The blood orgy carried out by scavengers of the right-wing Phalangists lasted two days, and the Israelis had established posts on top of buildings surrounding the camps.
During the siege of Beirut, which lasted over 60 days, I, like many others who refused to leave the city, developed a sense of cavalier fearlessness. It was a carelessness vis-à-vis death that I consciously cultivated. It was rooted in a mixture of feelings of defiance, fatalism and religious conviction. Two weeks after the beginning of the invasion on 4 June I resolved that I would not permit Israeli bombs to scare me. For the first time in my life I could feel the presence of God. As I reflected on my situation it became clear to me that I could not lose. I told myself, if I get killed I will be with God. If I don't, I will have survived the worst that the Jewish state could deliver. The next step was to train myself to get rid of my fear, which I did by strolling purposelessly in the streets of Bourj Al-Barajneh while the city and its suburbs were being mercilessly bombarded. Sometimes, to the great distress of my grandmother and aunts, I would show up at their doors with bread or Arabic sweets, neither of which they needed. But I wanted an excuse to justify being on the streets when everybody else was in bomb shelters (many of which proved useless in the face of state-of-the-art American bombs and missiles).
After few days of exposing myself to danger, I succeeded in greatly reducing (not completely eliminating) my fear. It was an exhilarating and liberating feeling. What surprised me the most, though, was that, in the process, I had lost my anger, especially towards the Arab states and peoples, who were busy following the 1982 World Cup matches taking place in Spain. I have to admit, the people of Beirut -- most of whom are fans of either Brazil or Germany -- also followed the games when there was a break in the fighting. I still remember how the Palestinian and Lebanese fighters stationed at the Boys Secondary School in the Al-Ma'morah area of Bourj Al-Barajneh hooked up a nine-inch black and white TV to a car battery (Israel had cut off electricity) to watch the Brazil-Argentina match. When Brazil won 3-1, we were all jubilant as if we had liberated Palestine, shooting in the air, while the fans of Germany among the fighters could not hide their fears that their team was no match to the brilliant Socrates, the Brazilian team's Captain, and his team. Less than two hours later Israeli bombs brought us crashing back to reality.
Although my triumph over fear outlived the siege of Beirut, my anger did not. It resurfaced with an overwhelming intensity, on either 16 or 17 September, as I learned about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It was a former Palestinian fighter who informed me on that fateful morning of the massacre on my way back from the pharmacy with the sedatives for my mum. I still remember his face. He was blond. He had a short beard and tired blue eyes. His name was Tarek. He told me and other bystanders that the Israelis and some Lebanese are killing people with knives and hatchets, and that they were killing children and raping women. At first I did not believe him. More accurately, I did not want to believe him. So I went home and turned on the radio. I methodically moved from one station to another -- the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, Voice of America, Voice of Lebanon, Voice of Free Lebanon, Voice of Arab Lebanon, etc.
It was during the late hours of that evening when I realized that something awful was happening. The sight of "light bombs" illuminating the dark sky over Sabra and Shatila confirmed my fears. Only later would the world know that the source of those bombs was the Israeli invaders, who illuminated the sky over the camps so that the vultures of the Phalangists, some of whom were high on drugs, could see their way around in the camps. I spent the rest of the night on the roof, tied to a transistor radio. It was during the early hours of the morning that the Voice of Arab Lebanon began broadcasting eyewitness accounts of the massacre. Reports were reaching it from various sources that a massacre had taken place in Sabra and Shatila, reports confirmed by other stations. By mid-morning, the official Lebanese station announced that the Israeli army and its Lebanese allies had withdrawn from the camps' perimeter and that the impotent Lebanese Army and Lebanese Internal Security Forces had taken charge of them. Lebanese and foreign journalists and TV stations poured into the camps.
It was around noon when I decided to go and see for myself. The camps were about two miles from Bourj Al-Barajneh. So I made up my mind to walk. I still remember the route I took: Imam Ali Street (where I lived), Uthman Street, Minshiyeh area, Ba'joor Street, Haret Hureik, Ghbayri neighbourhood, Airport Boulevard (Dweiret Al-mattar), Nazlet Al-Sifara Al-Kuwaitiyah. I used the southern entrance of Sabra. The area was filled with Lebanese soldiers, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and a large number of journalists, their noses covered. As I proceeded, I saw a bullet-ridden, grey donkey, its body covered with flies. A few metres down the road laid the body of an old man. He was dressed as if it was January: a wool jacket over a sweater. He, too, was covered with flies, except one part of his body -- a wooden leg. I felt sick to my stomach, but I decided to proceed.
In retrospect, I wish I did not, for what I saw will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life. I saw a middle-aged woman hysterically dancing over a pile of children bodies, pulling her own hair and scratching her face, singing unintelligibly. I tried to make some sense of her words. The only phrase I could hear was " ya mshaharah ya Subhiyeh " (O the ruined one, myself). The rest were just unintelligible sounds. A sobbing man -- either her husband or brother, I assumed -- was trying to make her stop, but without success. I can still remember her dark, wrinkled and bleeding face, her grey hair and the henna on her chin. Next to the pile kneeled a younger woman, with her face buried in the sand. Suddenly she stood up and started to tear the top of her dress, only to be stopped by other women in the crowd.
" Allah yhidek ya Israel "(May God destroy you, Israel), she screamed. " Allah yihra'ko ya Arab " (May God burn your religion O Arabs)." Another voice in the crowd screamed: "inbisit ya Abu Ammar, sadaqt el-yahud w-el-Amrikan (Be happy Abu Ammar 'Yasser Arafat'), you believed the Jews and the Americans)."
It was at that point that I decided to leave. I could not, nor did I need to see anymore. Enough. I left, fighting back tears. I went home, sneaked into my mother's bedroom and helped myself to the bottle of sedatives.
Few days later my youngest brother, Ali, was born. In retrospect, it was his birth and the frequent times I had spent holding and playing with him that gave me the strength to go on functioning. Ali is almost 17 years old now. He is still my favorite brother, even though he is a big fan of German soccer. In many ways, I owe my life to him.
Never forget Sabra and Shatila. Never.