The Israeli-engineered massacre of the Palestinian inhabitants of Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps followed the evacuation of the armed Palestinian resistance from the Lebanese capital in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Marking one of the most horrific chapters in the contemporary history of the Palestinian people, the massacre took place 28 years ago this month, on 16-18 September, 1982. Approximately 3,500 defenceless men, women and children were murdered over that 3-day period.
The following paragraphs, from the memoir of Singaporean-born British doctor Swee Chai Ang - From Beirut to Jerusalem: A Woman Surgeon With the Palestinians (1989) - recall this appalling atrocity:
"It was early in the afternoon when we got to the Commodore Hotel. We went to the press room, where TV crews had just returned from the camps, and were reviewing what they had just videoed in Saba and Shatila.
"First there were shots of the main road of the camp, the road we had marched down earlier that morning. Heaps of corpses on both sides of the road. The people rounded up by the gunmen had been shot after we had left. Then close-ups of the bodies filmed in the side-alleys of the camp. Bodies pilled on top of each other - mutilated bodies, with arms chopped off - bloated, decaying bodies that had obviously died a day or two before. Bodies whose limbs were still tied to bits of wires and bodies which bore marks of having been beaten up before their murder. Bodies of children - little girls and boys - and women and old men. Some bodies lay in blood that was still red, others in pools of brownish black fluid. Bodies of women with clothes removed, but too mutilated to tell whether they were sexually assaulted or just tortured to death.
"I started to cry. For the first time I grasped the scale of what had happened. The truth hit me painfully. I had been so busy that I had no time to think. But now, I knew that while we had been trying to save a handful of people in the operating theatres of Gaza Hospital [in Sabra camp], the camp folks had been dying by the thousands outside. Besides being shot dead, people were tortured before being killed. They were beaten brutally, electric wires were tied around limbs, eyes were dug out, women were raped, often more than once, children were dynamited alive. Looking at all the broken bodies, I began to think that those who had died quickly were the lucky ones.
"The machine-gun rattle that we had heard from the hospital was not fighting between PLO 'terrorists' and Israelis as I had vaguely assumed, but had been the sound of whole families being shot dead in cold blood. The heavy explosive noises we heard had been the shelling of the camp homes. The camps were completely sealed in by Israeli tanks, and not even a child could sneak out past them. When we asked the 2,000 people hiding in Gaza Hospital to run away, they had nowhere to go. So they were all captured when they left the hospital, and indeed, many of them were murdered later that morning. People full of hope and life were now just mutilated corpses. These were the folks who after months of bombardment had come back from the bomb shelters to live in the camps. They had been so optimistic just a few days ago. They had believed the promises of the USA and other powerful nations that they would be left in peace if the PLO left. They all thought they were being promised a chance at life.
"I had watched them rebuilding their shattered lives and homes just a few days before. I had spoken to women who had watched their sons, brothers and husbands being evacuated with the PLO under the peace agreement and then had taken the guns they left behind to surrender them to the Lebanese Army or throw them away on the rubbish dump. I had eaten in their homes and had drunk Arabic coffee with them. My surgical skills had enabled me to treat a few people, to save them so that they could be sent out into the streets, unarmed, to be shot down again, this time successfully. I hated my own ignorance which had deceived me into believing that we all had a real hope of peace in Sabra and Shatila, a real chance of a new life. Like everyone else from the West, I thought things would be all right once the PLO left.
"I had thought the old people could retire when the PLO went, and the children could grow up - instead of having bullets put through their heads, and having their throats slit. I was a fool, a real fool. It had never occurred to me that this would happen. It was a grim moment. I felt forsaken by God, by men, by a world without conscience. How could little children suffer the agony and the terror of watching scenes of torture, of their loved ones being killed, of their homes being blown up and bulldozed over. For these chidren, the mental scars, the psychological wounds, would probably never heal. It was one thing to die suddenly. It was entirely different to watch loved ones being tortured and killed, while awaiting one's own turn." (pp 66-68)