Reflections on the 39th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre

By Dr Swee Chai Ang

The steadfastness and courage of Sabra and Shatila are in all of our hearts. Today, we commemorate the cruel injustice inflicted on the Palestinians in the massacre of 1982, knowing that this is just one of the continuous assaults on Palestinians since 1948. We resolve to continue to be with you all in your difficult journey in solidarity, hope and love, knowing that one day, the freedom and peace stolen from the Palestinian people for all these years will be won back through your struggle. We commemorate with tears, but pledge our commitment to this struggle with all our strength and lives. We know that the day will come when our children’s laughter will be the reward of years of sacrifice and endurance.

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. It bombed Lebanon by land, air and sea, and laid siege to Beirut. Israel killed and wounded thousands of innocent people and made at least 100,000 homeless within a few weeks. Beirut city was denied electricity, medicine, food and water.

I resigned from my job at a hospital in London to help the victims in Lebanon. At that time, my sympathies were with Israel, and I had not known that Palestinians existed. But I could no longer stand by and watch the wounding and killings of women, children and unarmed civilians – or watch them being made homeless as the bombs continuously fell on Lebanon.

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I arrived in Beirut in August 1982, and was seconded to Gaza Hospital in Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. It was one of nine hospitals and 13 clinics of the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the only one that was not flattened by the bombs.

The people of Sabra and Shatila told me about their suffering ever since they were driven out of Palestine to become refugees in 1948. Many of the residents of Sabra and Shatila were third and fourth-time refugees being driven from camp to camp when their families were killed and homes destroyed by Israeli planes. That was the first time I heard about their terrible suffering. That was also the first time I met Palestinians.

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After resisting the continuous bombardment for ten weeks, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) evacuated in exchange for peace. The US promised that it would protect the 300,000 Palestinian refugees left behind in Lebanon. They were encouraged to return from the shelters to the refugee camps to rebuild their homes and lives. But this did not happen.

Three weeks later, on 15 September, 1982, Israeli tanks were allowed to overrun Beirut. A large number surrounded and sealed Sabra and Shatila refugee camp so that no one could leave nor enter the camp.

Sniping started once the camp was sealed. Initially, the wounded and dead brought into the hospital were mainly women gathering water and food for their families. By the afternoon of the next day, men, women, children and babies were shot in their homes. Many were brought in dead and filled the mortuary.

More than 2,000 frightened people fled into our hospital with stories that the Haddads, Kataebs and Israelis were killing defenceless families in the camp. They feared for their lives.

They could not escape, and no one protected them.

The hospital ran out of blood, medication and food. Our medical and surgical team worked non-stop. I wanted the nurses to give the last packet of blood to a wounded mother, but she pleaded for it to be given to her child, and she died shortly afterwards.

At night, the skies of Sabra and Shatila were lit with Israeli military flares. We heard explosions and machine gun noises throughout, and the wounded continued to be brought into Gaza Hospital.

It was especially painful to operate on a little boy who was shot along with 27 members of his family. As the bodies fell on him, he passed out and was mistaken for dead by the murderers. When he awoke, he was in great pain. Years later, he told of how he heard women being rounded up and raped. His physical wounds may have healed, but his emotional scars are still with him today. It took my American colleagues four years to get him out of living in the house where his family was murdered. He was not the only child who suffered in this way.

At dawn on 18 September, 1982, soldiers with machine guns forced the entire international medical volunteer team out of the hospital.

When we were marched into Rue Sabra, we saw groups of old men, women and children rounded up by militia. A frightened, desperate young mother tried to give me her baby, but was forced to take it back. She begged them to spare her baby. They were all subsequently executed, including the mother and baby.

There were dead bodies piled up in the camp alleys and bulldozers destroying camp homes. We had struggled for 72 hours non-stop without food and sleep to save dozens of lives. But within the same 72 hours, at least 3,000 were killed.

I was 33 years old then. I grew up a Zionist Christian and never knew Palestinians existed until I stepped foot in Sabra and Shatila. I knew then that it was my human responsibility never to walk away from this horrendous injustice. I also realised that I must speak up on behalf of the victims. The dead could not speak up, and the survivors needed my voice.

After testifying to five Commissions of Inquiry on Sabra and Shatila, including travelling to Israel with Ellen Siegel to give evidence to the Israeli Kahan Commission of Inquiry into the conduct of the Israeli Army in Sabra and Shatila, I returned to the UK. The Palestinians in Lebanon continued to be destitute, homeless and hungry. Justice seemed not to be in sight. The situation was dire for them, and indeed, they continued to suffer and become more desperate. Children were born and grew up in the long, dark shadow of the massacre, and there was no hope of returning to Palestine. Could we make their lives just a little bit easier?

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) was founded in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, under those circumstances. We wanted to support the Palestinians in any small way that we could. The founders of MAP formed the organisation so that the horrors of the massacre could be turned into a bridge – a positive channel of friendship and solidarity between people in the UK and the Palestinians – not only in Lebanon, but also in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in the diaspora.

Since then, MAP has not only worked with the Palestinians in Lebanon, but also in Gaza and the West Bank. The existence of MAP is also our way to let them know we will never forsake or forget them. What MAP is doing is minuscule, a drop in the ocean, but we are part of the tide moving towards justice for the Palestinians.

As for me, I count myself privileged and honoured to be able to journey alongside the Palestinians, to be accepted as their family. Whether in Shatila, in Gaza, onboard the Freedom Flotilla Al-Awda to Gaza, in Israeli prison or being deported, I want my life to be an acceptable tribute to the Palestinians. They welcomed me into their broken lives and homes and made me one of their own, offering me Arabic coffee in the midst of the rubble they call home. For this, I will thank God every day of my life, until death do us part.

(Source / 18.09.2021)

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