Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Reflections—35 Years after the Sabra-Shatila Massacre

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Reflections—35 Years after the Sabra-Shatila Massacre

Article excerpt

Special Report

THIS PAST SEPT. 16-18 marked the 35th year after the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. A commemoration is held every year to mark this occasion. Seventeen years ago, the Italian solidarity group "Not to Forget Sabra and Shatila Committee" noticed that the mass grave of those killed had turned into a garbage dump. They decided to clean up the area and plant trees. In time, a monument was built.

This was my 10th year attending the commemoration. It might seem that, after 35 years, the massacre would be almost forgotten, would have lost its significance. Not so. This year the commemoration seemed to bring together more international participants than ever. People came from Italy, England, Finland, the U.S., Switzerland, France, Spain and Japan. Each one was eager to learn more about the situation of Palestinian and other refugees and to show their solidarity. Most of all, they wanted to help, to see what their organizations could do to alleviate some of the suffering.

Thanks to As'ad Abu Khalil ("the angry Arab"), the media in Lebanon were notified that Dr. Swee Ang and I would be present for the event. Swee and I had worked together in the Gaza Hospital in Sabra camp during the massacre. She is a British orthopedic surgeon, originally from Singapore, and the author of From Beirut to Jerusalem. The two of us have become two of the non-Palestinian keepers of the memories of the massacre. Numerous TV stations and journalists requested interviews with us, but this year's program was too full for us to do more than a few. Each involved the retelling of those days, how the event has affected us, what our thoughts are about the camps today. Recalling the events over and over made me sad. So did the current condition of the refugees, the deterioration of the camps, the diminished hope among the people.

Our host was Beit Atfal Assamoud (BAS), a large humanitarian non-government and non-sectarian organization that is not affiliated with any political or religious groups. BAS started after the Tel Zaatar massacre in 1976 to care for the children who had been orphaned. BAS made sure that we saw camps, met those who live and work there, and learned about their programs. We visited the camps of Bourj Al Barajneh, Shatila, Sabra, Mar Elias, Nahr El Bared, Rashidieh and Wavel. One story sticks in my mind: When the Syrian Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk arrived at Bourj Al Barajneh, they remarked how awful the conditions were there, and asked "How can you live like this?" Long-time residents of the camp realized that they had become used to this poverty, these inhuman conditions. Most of the camps remain filled with dwellings that lack sunlight, proper ventilation, water and electricity; electrical wires hang down over the narrow, muddy pathways.

When I visited Sabra, the camp had not had water or electricity for two days. Five-and six-year-old children were carrying huge plastic containers of water up a darkened stairway; one slipped and fell in a puddle on the way up the steps. Nahr El Bared has been partially rebuilt-the homes are smaller, the streets wider so tanks can roll through. On the other hand, it is much cleaner than the other camps.

This was the first time I had been to Wavel-the closest camp to the Syrian border, packed with Syrian Palestinians. One of the worst sites there is a building with a zinc roof that houses about six families. The living areas are tiny, barely enough for a few mats on the floor. Thin walls act as partitions, toilets and showers are open-no doors, no privacy. …

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