The Massacre in Sabra and Shatila in 1982
As reported by an eye witness Ellen Siegal
Nineteen years ago I volunteered to go to Beirut to work as a nurse. I wanted to use my profession to help the Lebanese and Palestinians who had been wounded in Israel's invasion of Lebanon. As a Jew I wanted to show that not all Jews supported this action. So it was that during the September 1982 massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, I was there, working in a hospital in Sabra. Afterwards, I went to Israel to testify before the official commission of inquiry whose task was to "investigate all the facts connected with the atrocity." [see summary of the Kahan Commission Report, American-Arab Affairs, Spring 1983.]
I was assigned to the Gaza Hospital, a Red Crescent facility, in the Sabra refugee camp in West Beirut. I lived at the hospital, sleeping on a hospital bed in a room shared by several health workers, foreign and Palestinian. My first patients were a large Lebanese family that had operated a grocery in the lobby of an apartment building. One day Arafat had visited this building. Israeli intelligence forces had been following his movements; shortly after he left, the building was bombed. Most of this family suffered burns. They were all put in one big hospital room. Daily, I would change all of their dressings: cleanse the burned areas, apply medication, and put on clean dressings. This was a long and painful process. It occurred with a limited water supply, sheets that could not be laundered very often, a scant amount of sterile equipment, open windows, and a less than clean field to heal in. Yet this was the most rewarding nursing experience that I ever had. Not only did everyone in this family survive; none of them ever developed an infection while in the hospital.
Slowly, day by day, the inhabitants of the camps began putting their lives back together. The PLO fighters were gone, the leaders were far away in Tunis. On September 10, the multinational forces, too, left Beirut. Then, within days, on Tuesday, September 14, 1982, Bashir Gemayel, the newly elected president of Lebanon, was assassinated. Gemayel had been the leader of the Phalangists (also referred to as the Lebanese Christian Militia, Lebanese Forces and Kataib), a military and political party vehemently opposed to the Palestinians. The absolute hatred of the Phalange towards the Palestinians and their desire for revenge were common knowledge in this part of the world.
After the assassination of President Gemayel, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) decided to enter West Beirut. They also ordered the Phalange militia to enter the camps "to search and mop up." This referred to any PLO fighters who might remain there -- but of these there were few. IDF spokesmen also gave another reason for allowing the Phalange to enter the camps: "to prevent possible grave occurrences and to ensure quiet". Throughout the night of September 14, the radio played somber music. Early the next morning, Wednesday, September 15, Israeli planes flew over the camps; we heard the explosive noise as they broke the sound barrier. We also began to hear light artillery fire from the area around the hospital. This continued all day, increasing as the hours passed. Next morning, Thursday, September 16, the hospital suddenly became very busy and very crowded. About 2,000 inhabitants of the camp rushed into the building seeking refuge. Another 2,000 could not get in; they huddled outside. The refugees were terrified and hysterical. Screaming, they kept repeating "Kataib, Israel, Haddad (another Lebanese militia)" and made a motion with their fingers and hand as if to show that someone was slitting their throat.
Inside the hospital, the scene was chaotic. The morgue was overflowing. Wounded were streaming in; some had been shot in the elbows and legs as they tried to run away. I remember a dehydrated premature baby that was brought in; in all the excitement it had not received enough fluid. I do not know what happened to this baby once it was rehydrated. Refugees crouched in every corner. We tended to the wounded. We tried to feed those who had sought refuge. Both heavy and light artillery fire continued all day. I kept listening to BBC news on my tiny transistor radio. The main story was the death in a car crash of Princess Grace of Monaco. The reports said nothing at all about what was happening in the camps. At some point, late in the evening, the second news item did relay the fact that the Israeli army was occupying West Beirut.
That evening, a few other health-care workers and I climbed to one of the top floors of the hospital; it had been unused since the recent invasion. Because most of the walls had been bombed out, the view was unobstructed. We watched for a time as flares were shot into the air, brightly illuminating different parts of the camp. After each flare, rounds of light artillery fire were heard. I thought people were trying to shoot down the flares. Not a sound was heard from the camps except the noise of the flares being projected and the shots that followed. No screaming, no cries for help, no human sound, nothing. Israeli planes continued to fly overhead as the night went on.
The next morning, Friday, September 17, suddenly and with great urgency, all of the Palestinian and Lebanese staff left the hospital. The hospital administrator had told them it was no longer a safe area. The only staff members who remained were some twenty doctors, nurses and physical therapists from Great Britain, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland and two of us from the United States, all volunteers. That afternoon, in great haste, the patients who could walk, left. The refugees inside and outside the building also fled. They feared it was no longer a safe place. The refugees told us that the militias were making their way towards the hospital. The only patients who remained were those who could not move easily and those in critical condition. About fifty people altogether.
The sounds of high explosives, mortars and artillery fire, both light and heavy, continued almost non-stop, and they were getting closer. Smoke began pouring in through the windows. Doors and windows were shaking. We evacuated all our remaining patients to the lower floors. We taped up windows so that the glass would not shatter. The electricity kept going off; we were pumping oxygen by hand. The doctors operated by flashlight.
Sometime Friday morning, in the midst of this bombardment, a film crew from Visnews came. They did some filming, then left. Late in the afternoon, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross appeared; they evacuated half-a dozen critically injured children, whom they placed in other hospitals around the city. They also left us oxygen, blood and other vital and much-needed supplies. Finally, the ambassador of Norway came by. Each of these visitors was given a list of names of all the foreign volunteers.
That evening, as I was working in the Intensive Care Unit, two unfamiliar young men approached me. They looked different from the local population; well groomed and freshly shaven, with neatly ironed shirts and well-tailored trousers. One of them asked me, "Are the Kataib coming tomorrow morning to slit the throats of Palestinian children?" He asked me this twice. His eyelids appeared to be drooping. He wanted to know who was in the hospital. I answered, "All foreigners." I later learned that there were about 20 of these young men wandering around the hospital smoking hashish. To this day, I have no idea who these men were.
By that evening, the heavy artillery had ceased. Only the sound of light artillery and gunshots could be heard. That night I managed to get a few hours' sleep. Very early on Saturday morning, September 18, I was awakened by one of the other nurses. On an ordinary morning, we awoke to the tinkling of the bell of the vendor selling Arab coffee from his colourful cart. This morning there was an eerie silence; even the familiar crowing of the roosters had ceased. My colleague said, "Get downstairs right away. The Lebanese Army wants all the health workers to assemble at the entrance." One of the soldiers had instructed her to tell others "not to be afraid," as they were the Lebanese Army.
I looked out of a space that had once held a glass pane, blown out long ago by the force of a high explosive. In front of the hospital stood about a dozen men in uniform, wearing helmets and holding rifles. Others were herding away people who lived close by the hospital. I quickly put on my lab coat over the green hospital uniform that I had slept in, grabbed my passport, and made my way down eight flights of steps. In the bright morning sun the international health workers who had come to help stood together at the front door of our medical facility. The men and women waiting for us were clean, their uniforms starched and well-fitting -- but they bore the insignia not of the Lebanese Army, but of the Phalange. In contrast to them, we were a haggard and exhausted group; many of us had blood, pus and other human waste on our uniforms and lab coats. The militiamen spoke with each other in Arabic and French and to us in English. They told us they were taking us away for a while, but that we would be coming back. A few of the doctors successfully negotiated with them to allow one doctor and one nurse to remain in the Intensive Care unit.
Our captors led us down the road in front of the hospital and on to Rue Sabra, the camp's main street. As we were marched along, I heard gunshots being fired on the right, then the left, then the right. After each one, I instinctively ducked. Someone told me, "Keep walking." The militiamen themselves did not react at all; they completely ignored the sound. It was as if they had not heard it.
Some of the camp residents, including some of the cooks and cleaners who worked at Gaza, followed us. The militia stopped them. Along the way, a Palestinian had joined us; fearful, he begged for one of us to give him a lab coat. Someone did. He looked Arab, though, and was quickly confronted by a militiaman asking for his ID card. The Phalangist slapped his face with the card and made him take off the lab coat. I turned around and saw him on his knees begging. As before, someone told me, "Keep walking." The next thing I heard was a shot. I did not look back.
As we continued marching down Rue Sabra, we saw dead bodies lying along the sides of the street; some were old men, shot point-blank in the temple. As we moved on, we approached a large group of camp residents, mainly women and children, huddled together, with men in uniform guarding them. They were very scared. We were worried about them, and they were frightened for us, seeing us led past them at rifle point. A few of them gave us the "V" sign. It seemed that with their eyes and their lips they wanted to reassure us and thank us for coming to help them. One young woman, fearing she would not survive, stepped out of the crowd and handed her infant to one of the female doctors. Dr. Swee Ang was able to walk a few feet with the baby before a Phalangist stopped her. He took the baby away from her and handed it back to the mother. For a few seconds, I thought about the Holocaust, about mothers being sent off to concentration camps. I had read much about Jewish women in Germany and Poland handing over their babies to others in order to save them from extermination.
By now we were halfway down Rue Sabra into Shatila; the camps sit beside one another, with no visible line dividing them. The number of militiamen increased greatly; they were everywhere. These looked different from the ones who had escorted us out of the hospital. They were sloppy and inkempt; their uniforms were dirty and rumpled, without any identifying insignia. They seemed exhausted, edgy and ill tempered. Throughout this ordeal, most of the uniformed men were in constant communication with someone. There were many walkie-talkies in use.
Our group began to tighten up. It was dawning on us that we might not make it out of these camps alive. A few of us were crying softly. As we reached the end of the camps, our captors began harassing us. They yelled, "You are dirty people, you are not Christians! Christians don't treat terrorists who kill Christians." The ranting continued, "You are communists, socialists, Baader-Meinhof." They were closing in and encircling us. They collected our passports, ordered us to keep walking. The crackling sound of their walkie-talkies became a familiar noise.
As we reached the end of the camp, the landscape had changed dramatically. Where homes had stood were piles of rubble. A yellow bulldozer was moving earth back and forth in an area that had been dug up and greatly enlarged. The bulldozer was scooping up dirt, moving it, then dumping it back out, back and forth. This spot was very busy, with lots of men in uniform. We had to stop many times in order to let the bulldozer go past and do its job. I noticed it had a large Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, stenciled on its side.
When we turned the corner of Rue Sabra, our captors steered us out of the camps towards the Kuwaiti embassy. They asked those wearing white lab coats to remove them. They lined us up in a row in front of a bullet-ridden wall. Facing us were about 40 men in uniform: a firing squad. Their rifles were ready and aimed in our direction. Behind them was a pick-up truck carrying more militiamen and what looked like a piece of anti-aircraft equipment. After a short time, the men in the firing squad lowered their rifles and marched back into the camps.
It is my understanding that someone from the IDF had been able to stop this imminent execution of foreigners. Members of the IDF stationed at the Israeli forward command post became aware of what was happening. An Israeli official had run to the spot and ordered the militia not to carry this out; he then left. Militiamen marched us past the embassy of Kuwait. Here another Israeli official appeared, spoke with one of the physicians, then left. The militia remained in control of us. They took us to the courtyard of an unused U.N. building for "interrogation."
The courtyard was littered with Israeli army rations, empty food cans, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot from September 17 and a few discarded parts of IDF uniforms. The Phalangists called us up one by one for questioning. They asked me what nationality I was, why I had come to Lebanon, who sent me. One of them told the other American not to be afraid, "as you are an American," and bade him "welcome".
A woman in a Phalange uniform pulled up in a jeep marked with a Red Cross. Beside her sat a young boy who had several of what looked like fresh stab wounds on his body. The woman said, "Look, see how we treat the enemy". She appeared to treat the wounds, pouring some sort of liquid on them and covering them with tape. Then she ordered the boy out of the jeep. He began pleading with the militia. They put him into another jeep and drove away with him.
Around 9:30 or 10 a.m., our "interrogation" suddenly stopped. Someone handed our passports back to us. The Phalangists led us across the street to a five-storey building overlooking the camps. The IDF had occupied the building and was using it as its forward command post. I noticed Israeli soldiers on the roof looking through binoculars. A jeep filled with Phalange militiamen was parked at the entrance to the command post. The occupants made it known that they wanted to take a pretty Norwegian nurse away with them. They seemed quite insistent. One of our doctors asked someone from the IDF to intercede. He did, and the jeep drove off without the nurse.
Within minutes of our arrival, a crew from Israeli Television appeared. Bottled water, fresh fruit and bread were brought to us; the crew filmed us as we ate and drank. Our presence was of little interest to the Israelis. I was not aware that any of them asked what had happened to us.
The Israelis said they would allow three of the doctors to return to the hospital. An Israeli officer gave one of the physicians a note in Hebrew and Arabic, telling him that the note would get him past the checkpoints on the way back to the hospital. The doctor still has this note and has offered it as testimony. The IDF loaded the rest of us into jeeps. I sat in the front seat of the jeep that led the convoy, as I was familiar with Beirut. The IDF offered to drop us off anywhere along the coast but said it was too dangerous for them to drive into the city proper, as they were too few. The driver, a young soldier, told me that today was his Christmas (not knowing I was Jewish, he was trying to explain this holiday of Rosh Hashanah to me) and that he did not like going into homes "seeing women and children." I asked him, "How many people had he killed?" He answered, "That is not a question you ask somebody." As we drove past soldiers from the Lebanese Army he added, "The Lebanese Army was impotent; they were here and did nothing. Israelis had to do all the work."
As we drove along the periphery of the city, we could see many buildings occupied by the IDF. We had to stop a few times to avoid land mines. In the front seat, next to me, was an enlarged map of Beirut covered by a piece of clear plastic with Hebrew writing on it.
A few other health workers and I asked to be dropped off at the American Embassy, which was located on the coast. We went in. I told an Embassy employee that something was terribly wrong in those camps; I wanted to report what I had seen and heard over the past few days. I was told that the person in charge was out, to come back the next day.
I did go back the next day. By then the world knew what terrible things had happened in those camps during the past few days. I met with Political Affairs Officer Ryan Crocker; he had been to the camps, had counted bodies.
Early in October, I heard that the government of Israel was establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the massacre and inviting witnesses to testify. I knew that the Palestinians and Lebanese who had survived would not go to Jerusalem to testify. They were frightened; the idea that they might go to Israel to appear in court was unrealistic. I remembered what I had learned as a child: someone needed to speak for them to be their voice. I asked all of the health workers who had been present during the massacre and who were still in Beirut if they would like to testify. Only Dr. Swee Ang and Dr. Paul Morris accepted.
I contacted a Washington Post correspondent, asking for his help. He advised me to write a statement and have it notarised by the American Embassy. For several days I sat quietly, writing a 12-page document describing what I had seen and heard between September 14 and 18. On October 14, a vice-consul at the U.S. embassy notarised it. A New York Times correspondent made sure it was delivered to the Commission of Inquiry in Jerusalem.
Two weeks later the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baabda, East Beirut, contacted me through the International Red Cross. Drs. Ang and Morris and I were instructed to take a taxi to the IDF headquarters in Baabda. From there, the IDF would drive us through the south of Lebanon and northern Israel and on to Jerusalem. We left for Israel on October 31. From Baabda we drove straight through to the border with Israel. Along the way we passed through Israeli checkpoints and piles of rubble, which had once been the homes of Palestinians.
In West Jerusalem we were put up at a five-star hotel; we remained under IDF guard throughout our stay. On the morning of November 1, we appeared before the Commission. I was first. I introduced myself, read through my 12-page document, and answered questions. Towards the end of my testimony I reminded the Justices that as Jews we continue searching for Nazi war criminals in order to punish them and to bring about justice. I said, "I hope that justice will also be done in regard to this massacre". Justice Aharon Barak responded, "Justice will be done".
About a week after I returned home to Washington DC, I received two notes. One was from a Swedish nurse who had listened to the news of our testimony with some of the people in the camp. He wrote, "We heard your voice; you spoke for the people of Sabra and Shatila". The other note was from an American nurse who was working at a different hospital in Beirut. Her note was dated November 1, 8:00 PM. She wrote, "I was with my friends in Sabra when the news came on the radio about your testimonies. Everyone present was so proud and so happy". These messages mean a great deal to me.
In February 1983, the Commission published the Final Report, together, with an 'Appendix A' in Hebrew and an authorized translation in English. 'Appendix B' remains secret. Regarding our evidence before the Commission, the report stated, "We heard testimony from two doctors and a nurse who worked in the Gaza Hospital, which was run by and for Palestinians. There is no cause to suspect that any of these witnesses have any special sympathy to Israel, and it is clear to us both from their choosing that place of employment and from our impression of their appearance before us -- that they sympathize with the Palestinians and desired to render service to Palestinians in need."
My response is that sympathy for and my desire to help the Palestinians have little to do with wanting to bear witness to the truth. Had I volunteered my nursing services in Israel and witnessed an atrocity perpetrated against Israelis, I would have followed the same path of speaking out, of not remaining silent.
As the occupying force in Beirut, the IDF under the command of Ariel Sharon was responsible for the safety of the population. The IDF opened the refugee camps to a militia with a history of hatred and indiscriminate violence against Palestinians. It sealed off the refugee camps. It refused to allow terrified, pleading camp residents to escape through the exits of the camps. The IDF supplied the flares that lit the way for the murderers; it provided a bulldozer to help bury bodies in a mass grave and hide it with earth. And no official intervened when it became clear that innocent lives were being taken.
An extensive communication system was in use, on September 18 at least, as evidenced by the continual use of walkie-talkies. The Israeli forward command post overlooked the camps. The IDF could intervene to stop the execution of light-skinned, blond-haired health workers holding Western passports and could stop the Phalange from abducting a Norwegian nurse. Given these facts, I believe someone in that IDF command post knew what was happening could even see at least some of what was going on in the area. A note written in Hebrew and Arabic allowed doctors to get past checkpoints and return to the hospital. The fact that the Visnews television crew, the International Red Cross representatives, and the Ambassador of Norway were able to enter and leave Gaza Hospital in the midst of the massacre means that someone had the authority to allow safe entries and departures in the area. Someone had the authority to rein in the killers.
And so, Justice Barak, justice has not been done.
Copied (and edited) from the website of Jewish Peace News: