Built on Corpses
The three days of horror in Sabra and Shatila 40 years ago leave deep scars even today
If you don’t know where it is, you might simply walk past it: a place where the bodies of hundreds of women and children killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre are buried. An invisible graveyard whose location seems to have been chosen chaotically and by chance. As if there had been nowhere else to put them.
It’s a hidden place, but Nuhad Srour Mirai always finds it, sometimes she even wanders there in her sleep. With sure steps she makes her way through people, scooters, chickens, and stalls. Between a stall selling vegetables and one selling clothes, she turns to the right.
Not 20 metres further on, she comes to a square of trampled dusty brown earth. There is a grey stone at the far end, framed by two banners showing pictures of corpses crumpled on the ground and words naming Israel and its allies as perpetrators for the massacre that took place here in September 1982.
But this is not a place that offers comfort. Vendors throw empty boxes and rubbish here, flies the size of peach seeds, attracted by the stench, buzz between visitors’ eyelashes. A tiny white kitten fights its way out of a mountain of rubbish, wavy strips of cardboard sticking to its matted fur.
Nuhad stands in the middle of the square, her shoulders dropping as she looks down at the ground. For quite a while she says nothing. Her thoughts seem to drift away from this place, towards a day 40 years ago when the unimaginable happened. “I was always afraid that something like that could happen again”, she finally says.
What happened has become the subject of films and books and yet remains incomprehensible. This September marks the fortieth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which mainly radical Christians slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian along with many Lebanese citizens in the middle of Beirut. The horror lasted three days because no one stopped it — not even the Israeli army, which surrounded the camps throughout. Journalists who went to the camp after the massacre described girls raped with crucifixes and pregnant women having their foetuses cut out of their bellies.
What had happened? And what does it mean for a society like Lebanon, where these things are never dealt with? One that is still divided and shaken by crises?
The Fog of War
In September 1982, the civil war in Lebanon had reached its climax. For seven years, different groups had been fighting each other, roughly grouped into left-wing Muslim Palestinian and right-wing Christian alliances. The reality was more complex, increasingly so after Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982. Israel had been an indirect actor in the war for some time, since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasser Arafat declared Beirut its headquarters in the early 1970s.
In search of allies, Israel and the right-wing Christian Lebanese Kataeb Party, or the Phalange, came together shortly after the war began. They were united by the desire to expel the PLO from Lebanon, while Israel’s Defence Minister Ariel Sharon was driven by the wish to establish a Christian Lebanon on Israel’s northern border, with a certain Bachir Gemayel at its head.
Bachir Gemayel was the son of Kataeb’s founder, Pierre Gemayel, who modelled the party on fascist groups in Europe, including the Hitler Youth. Bachir’s son eventually founded the Kataeb Regulatory Forces as the military arm of the party, thus helping the Christians to regain their strength.
Bachir was also considered a very charismatic man, and was elected Lebanese president on 23 August 1982 . Despite his own brutal past, he made it clear that he sought to be president of all Lebanese and no longer distinguished between Christians and Muslims.
The Lebanon campaign was Sharon’s project from the beginning.
On 14 September 1982, Bachir Gemayel was assassinated at the age of 34. He was addressing his party for the last time before being sworn-in as President, when a bomb killed him and 26 other people that afternoon.
Assaad Chaftari, then deputy chief of intelligence for the Phalange, remembers: “We had the real culprit a day later. We knew that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) was behind the assassination.”
But chaos reigned in Beirut in the hours and days after the attack, and Palestinian terrorists were quickly blamed for Bachir’s death. The PLO had withdrawn to Tunisia at the end of August, but the assassination served as proof to Israel that Arafat had not kept his side of the bargain, and was used as a pretext to search for the allegedly responsible terrorists in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, in the middle of Muslim West Beirut.
“The Mossad had knowledge that between 1,500 and 2,000 Palestinian terrorists were still squatting in the camps. There was concern that if the Israelis withdrew too soon, they would succeed in rebuilding the structures within and in between the camps”, Chaftari, who worked closely with Israeli foreign intelligence at the time, says.
A Unique Opportunity
Defence Minister Ariel Sharon in particular shared this concern. Respected in Israel as an outstanding general, he still lacked a political profile for career advancement. This war was to give that to him.
“The Lebanon campaign was Sharon’s project from the beginning”, says Chaftari, who met Sharon in person.
It was his idea to establish a Christian Lebanon with the help of us, Christian allies. But in Israel he now had to prove that we, although still Arabs, were indeed allies of Israel. That we acted when it mattered.
The Israelis had asked the head of the Regulatory Forces, Fadi Frem, for men he could send to the camps. Frem replied that he needed at least 24 hours. Another man intervened: Elie Hobeika, head of the Phalange’s intelligence service. He could round up a few men, street units from the surrounding area. As it turned out later, men for simple, brutal work.
Nuhad Srour Mirai, of course, knew nothing of these events so close to her home. She was 16 years old and lived with her family just outside the Shatila camp when the massacre happened. Throughout that day, there had been gun battles between the Israeli army and armed Palestinians around the camp. “There was such a strange atmosphere. You knew something else was going to happen.”
Rumours circulated that the Christians would use Bachir’s murder as an excuse to kill Palestinians. “Our father worked in Achrafieh, a Christian area in East Beirut. After Bachir’s death, a colleague who was a friend of his told him, ‘They will frame you for this. Take your family and flee.’”
But Nuhad recalls that her father did not believe it. “He said that we didn’t have any young fighters in our family, that we weren’t targeted. And that the Israelis, who had control over the camps, would not allow women and children to be killed.”
Nevertheless, the father had sent Nuhad’s older siblings, Maher and Souad, to retrieve Souad’s friends from a nearby bunker and join them in their house, thinking they would be safer. Bombs had been falling all day, they heard rockets and gunfire.
As long as there are so many life-threatening triggers, trauma cannot integrate itself and be processed.
They had not found anyone in the bunker, Maher and Souad reported, just the chaos left of people who had been there. But then, on the way back, they had seen the first piles of bodies, dead people thrown on top of each other and intertwined like Mikado sticks. “We begged our father to escape, but he wouldn’t. Until she died, my mother said to me, ‘If your father had listened to me, everything would have turned out differently.’”
From the mass grave, now 56-year-old Nuhad leads the way back to the market, down the street lined with stalls, past cows and goats picking scraps of food from the street, unaffected by the commotion. She turns into another street, then goes around a narrow corner and into a dark passage between two houses.
All that remains of Nuhad’s family’s house is the door, set in stone, behind which new entrances have sprung up as if they had multiplied over the decades. The camps of Sabra and Shatila and the areas around them have continued to grow, in height and width, and are now home to more than 20,000 people.
Nuhad carefully runs her hand over the scratched wooden door that used to lead to their home and now leads to nowhere. “We stayed. Eight children, our parents and Leyla, a pregnant family friend. We slept together on the floor.”
Nuhad says it remained quiet through the night, only in the early hours of the morning did they hear noise again, and suddenly they were everywhere. “I heard them jumping from roof to roof, above me, next to me”, Nuhad says, wiping sweat from her brow.
They were banging on the door. My father opened it and there must have been 30 men in uniform standing in front of it. The men were aggressive, shouting at my father. He told them: “We are not fighters, we are not who you are looking for.”
The men led the entire family out and forced them to line up, from tallest to shortest. Nuhad draws the shape of a thick invisible caterpillar with her hands and walks a few steps forward and back again.
Then, Nuhad says, the fighters looked indecisive about what to do with her family and tookthem back into the house. They took all the money and valuables they could find and looked ready to move on. But then another man came along, apparently the leader of the group, and shouted: “What are you doing here, don’t you know how to shoot? Don’t you know how to kill?”
“He showed them”, Nuhad remembers, holding an invisible gun in front of her stomach while mimicking the sound of an automatic weapon: “Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta.”
“We fell over each other like dominoes.” She heard the reloading of magazines while other men joined in. She slid to the ground, her sister Shadia, one-and-a-half-years-old, in her arms. She felt she was injured but still alive. She heard her father’s gasps and saw the bloody bodies of her siblings.
Tears mingle with the sweat on Nuhad’s face as she recounts those moments.
I loved Shadia very much, always took care of her. But I had fallen and she didn’t understand what was going on. She saw our mother, said “Mama, mama”, and crawled towards her. That’s when they shot her in the head.
16-year-old Nuhad didn’t know it yet, but at that moment, her brothers Shadi, three years old, Farid, five, Nidal, 14, her father, and pregnant Leyla died in her house alongside Shadia, who was only one-and-a-half years old. Her mother, older sister Souad, Maher, and seven-year-old Ismail survived. “My mother noticed that I was still alive. She sought my gaze and made me understand: play dead.” Maher had managed to hide in the bathroom with Ismail. Souad was hit by 16 bullets that paralysed her. She would spend many years of her life in a wheelchair.
What they also didn’t know was that the massacre has just begun. In the following days, hundreds of people would die in the Sabra and Shatila camps, in the areas around them and in the nearby sports stadium. To date, the number of victims varies between 750 and 3,500. But many bodies were bulldozed away or quickly buried somewhere else.
Many men had taken drugs, including cocaine, and had lost all inhibition.
Beirut, the city that keeps rising, is also built on corpses.
Nuhad recalls that when the men were gone, Maher and Ismail came out of the bathroom. As if in a trance, Maher had lifted Shadia up, brain matter oozing from her skull, but he had not realized it. “‘Maher, please put her back’, our mother said”, Nuhad recalls. Details like this are burned into her memory: glances, gestures, precise fragments of sentences.
Maher, Ismail, their mother, and Nuhad fled, leaving Souad, who was too badly injured, behind. They lost each other, and were only reunited again days after the massacre ended. When they returned to the house, Souad was no longer there: she had been taken to a hospital, which they would only find out later. At first they only found the other’s bodies, washed off almost any recognizable trait by the heat. Leyla and little Shadia were taken to the mass grave, the father and brothers were buried elsewhere.
When the massacre ended after three days of international pressure, the pain awakened. “For a month I just sat by Souad’s bedside. I couldn’t go back to that house”, says Nuhad. After that, the siblings slept together in one bed, jumping at every noise.
The family stayed there for three more years. Today, Nuhad says, “I never got over it.”
A Clean Conscience
Miriam Modalal is a German-Lebanese psychologist and trauma expert who now works at UN Women in New York. Previously, she spent several years in Lebanon as a peace and conflict consultant. “As long as there are so many life-threatening triggers, trauma cannot integrate itself and be processed. For Palestinians in Lebanon, this means that as long as they live in inhumane camp situations, suffering micro-aggressions every day by having to pass checkpoints to get home for decades for example, no healing can begin”, she says.
For Georges Khalil (name changed), the Palestinians at the time were perpetrators, not victims. Since he was a boy, he heard stories of Palestinians waging war in his country, Lebanon. Growing up in a Christian area, he feared the Islamization of Lebanon and joined the Phalange.
He only agreed to the interview under the condition that he would not be recognizable under any circumstances. He does not take off his yellow-tinted sunglasses once during the conversation in a French bistro in Beirut.
In a low voice, he narrates how on 14 September 1982, he received a call from Elie Hobeika asking him to verify Bachir’s death. Khalil went to the hospital and saw the body of the man who had meant so much hope to him. “Bachir was not only our leader. He was our hero, our inspiration.”
Bachir’s face, he says, was bandaged with only his eyes and part of his mouth showing. “I knew it was him but I didn’t want to believe it.”
Then, on Thursday, 16 September, he made his way to the Shatila camp.
Khalil takes a sheet of paper and draws the Sabra and Shatila camps, the surrounding areas and the barracks he entered that afternoon. There he met leading Israeli figures, even Defence Minister Ariel Sharon passed by briefly. The drawing shows how close the barrack was to the camp’s border.
“Until then, I had been with Hobeika most of the time. Not once did I hear that he gave the order for a massacre”, Khalil says. However, he confirms that Hobeika rounded up at least some of the men that went inside the camps.
“The permission for the groups that were there to enter the area was given at 18:00 by the Israeli army”, Khalil says. He draws several round circles to represent Israeli tanks that surrounded the camp. Then he scribbles wildly with the pen in the Shatila area, saying: “This is where we went in.”
When Khalil went inside Shatila to see what was happening, he says he saw “crazy people”. Men who had madness crawling in their eyes.
“Of course, these men, like all of us, had lost their leader. They were angry beyond measure. But there was more.” Many men had taken drugs, including cocaine, and had lost all inhibition, Khalil describes.
He saw men lining up a group of women against a wall while another man forcibly draggeda girl into a house. “I went to one of the men, asked him what they were doing and that they should stop until I spoke to their leader. As soon as I turned around, I heard the gunshots.”
Khalil says he never killed anyone who was unarmed and therefore has a clear conscience. He says he even tried to prevent something worse from happening, but had no chance against the madness in the camp.
As Miriam Modalal explains,
For something like this to be possible, the brain looks for explanations. Actually, values and one’s own actions no longer fit together but one distorts and suppresses what has been done. You tell yourself that this action is necessary for your own survival. And one dehumanizes one’s counterpart. Palestinians, even unborn ones, become only terrorists.
One thing is certain: Many descriptions and claims from these days can no longer be verified. Thus, there will probably never be 100-percent certainty of what happened on those three days in September 1982. The Regulatory Forces were probably not the only ones who entered the camps, rather other groups also took advantage of the opportunity.
“The responsibility for what happened is on more than one side, contrary to what the media published. Time will reveal the truth. The interest in killing Palestinians was shared by many at that time”, says Khalil. “There were already other groups inside when we went in.”
The need for identity in Lebanon is great, and the different groups serve that.
Nuhad also says some of the men who killed in her house had Muslim names and thus may not have been part of the Phalange, but that is not certain either. Something else, however, is: the massacre of Sabra and Shatila was neither the first during the 15-year Lebanese civil war, nor was it the last. Palestinian groups also carried out massacres in Christian areas, such as in Damour in 1976.
There were large demonstrations in Tel Aviv in the days after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and the Israeli government set up the Kahan Commission to investigate its own involvement. Ariel Sharon was eventually compelled to resign as defence minister, but recovered politically and was elected prime minister in 2001.
The siblings Maher and Souad, who survived the massacre, wanted to sue Sharon in a Belgian court around the same time, with Elie Hobeika testifying. He had information about Sharon and the massacre that he wanted to make public, he stated at the time. Shortly after saying that, Hobeika was killed by a car bomb. To this day, it is unknown who was behind it.
During his interrogations, part of the Kahan Report, Sharon repeatedly affirms that he only learned about the events in the camps on Friday afternoon, 17 September . But Georges Khalil says: “We got the information before. We all knew what was going on inside, including high Israelis responsible. Yet no one did anything about it. It was deliberately allowed to happen.”
Ariel Sharon died in 2014. He, like many others, will not be held accountable. In Lebanon, the massacre as well as the civil war as such, has never been dealt with. Today the Phalange operate as a normal party, even winning the majority of seats in the country’s last parliamentary election.
“As long as one resorts to toxic mechanisms to deal with trauma, the real work cannot begin”, says Miriam Modalal. The leadership circles of the various sectarian and political groups in Lebanon still serve the old identity narratives deeply rooted in society, because that is where their power lies. “The need for identity in Lebanon is great, and the different groups serve that.”
Modalal says that anyone who questions the narratives and thus the identity of their group is always questioning themselves and what they have believed in all their lives. “This is an incredibly painful process.”
Assaad Chaftari, formerly one of the leaders of the Regulatory Forces, has gone through it. He broke with the militia before the end of the war. Years later he co-founded Fighters For Peace, a group made up of former civil war fighters who hold training sessions and workshops with young people, and speak in schools and events about their past, which once separated them and then brought them together.
Trauma expert Miriam Modalal says that these things need to happen at an institutional level. Victim narratives would have to be transformed, real dialogues would have to be held. With regard to the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon particularly, the realities of life must change, the undignified life in the camps must end. A long way, but one that is feasible, says Modalal. In Lebanon, however, the will to do so is lacking.
Maher Srour Mirai, who survived the massacre at the age of 15, met Assaad Chaftari, and today they are friends. At their first meeting, Chaftari sank to his knees and kissed his feet. “I cannot forget. But I have forgiven him”, Maher Srour Mirai says.
An amended version of this essay first appeared in taz.