The Israeli army invaded Lebanon in June 1982, laying siege to a resistant West Beirut.
A US-negotiated ceasefire led to an agreement allowing for the evacuation of PLO forces from West Beirut to Tunis. The agreement also guaranteed the protection of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in West Beirut once the evacuation had been completed. Following the further withdrawal of a US-French-Italian multinational peacekeeping force from the area, and in violation of the ceasefire, Israeli forces entered West Beirut, blockaded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra & Shatila, and, from 16-18 September, unleashed their ally, the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia on the defenceless, war-weary residents of the camps. Up to 3,500 were massacred.
A Singaporean orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Swee Chai Ang, working for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Sabra's Gaza Hospital, graphically recorded her dawning horror at the sheer scale and brutality of the massacre in a memoir, From Beirut to Jerusalem: A Woman Surgeon With the Palestinians (1989):
"The Israelis dropped us at the compound of the American Embassy in West Beirut. I did not want to go into the embassy: I wanted to go back to the camps. But I knew that I could not. While the rest of the team went into the embassy, I decided I would walk to the Commodore Hotel to talk to the journalists there, to see if I could find out more about what had happened. Paul Morris came with me.
"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 Sabra and Shatila.
"First there were shots of the main road of the camp, the road we had been 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 left. Then close-ups of the bodies filmed in the side allies of the camps. Bodies piled 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, 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 round 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 had heard had been the shelling of 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 two thousand people hiding in the 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 of 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 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 alright once the PLO left. I thought they were the ones whose presence caused all the attacks on the camps.
"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 children, 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 ones own turn." (pp 66-68)