New Internationalist

Message of War

Issue 333

Reem Haddad visits the terrible past of Israel’s new Prime Minister in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Nouhad Srour didn’t look too pleased at the arrival of yet more journalists to get her story. Since Ariel Sharon became Israel’s new Prime Minister, reporters have been flocking to the Sabra and Chatila camps. This was the site where over 2,000 people were butchered 19 years ago. ‘It opens wounds every time I talk about it,’ said Nouhad. After a few seconds of silence, she looked at me.

‘And now Sharon is back,’ she said. ‘The devil is back.’

Sharon, known in Lebanon as ‘the butcher of Beirut’, was already a name which Arabs – Palestinians in particular – loathed. It was his visit last September to the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, holy to both Muslims and Jews, which ignited the current Middle East crisis.

I urged Nouhad on. Upon learning that my mother was originally Palestinian, Nouhad smiled.

‘Palestinian?’ she said as she grabbed my hand warmly. ‘Then you will be able to feel our suffering. Any Palestinian coming to visit us is like a breath of fresh air.’

And then, slowly, she began recalling that day in September 1982. Nouhad, then 16, gathered with her ten family members and two neighbours inside their home in one of the poverty-stricken narrow alleys of the Sabra and Chatila camps.

Unbeknown to them, Sharon, then Israeli Defence Minister and architect of the invasion of Lebanon, permitted the entry of Lebanese Christian militia into the camps. He claimed that 2,000 Palestinian fighters remained in the camps, though 10,000 had been evacuated from Lebanon a few weeks earlier. On the night of 16 September the militia went in as Israeli troops cordoned off the camps and fired flares to illuminate the skies for the operation.

When the family heard some noise outside, Nouhad’s pregnant neighbour and nine-year-old brother went out to investigate. Two shots were fired and both were killed instantly. The militia burst into Nouhad’s house and shoved everyone against the wall. As the horrified family listened, the men discussed whether to kill their victims inside or outside the house. As one soldier hesitated, another quickly machine-gunned the family. Nouhad was holding her six-month-old baby sister in her arms. ‘I felt something beginning to slide down my arm,’ she said. ‘I looked and I saw the baby’s brains fully exposed. She fell to the floor and tried to crawl towards my mother screaming for her. They shot her again and her voice just stopped.’

Nouhad herself fell. She was shot in the elbow and shoulder. She pretended to be dead until the militia departed. She then crawled to various family members to see who was alive. She felt her mother and her sister, Suad, stir. But 17-year-old Suad was bleeding profusely and couldn’t move. Nouhad and her mother rushed off to find help. Instead, they found the alleys of the camp filled with mutilated bodies. Many women had obviously been raped as their skirts were pushed up to their waists.

‘My friend’s aunt later came upon my best friend,’ continued Nouhad. ‘They had hung her from meat hooks thrust into her naked breasts.’

Once Nouhad was outside searching for help, Israeli troops prevented her from returning into the camp to retrieve Suad.

‘My sister spent three days on her own surrounded by bodies. When we found her, she was crippled and had gone mad.’

The massacre lasted for three days. Over 2,000 men, women and children were butchered.

In Israel, an investigation into the massacre found Sharon indirectly responsible and he was forced to resign as Defence Minister in 1983. ‘Often I think of my little brothers and sisters,’ Nouhad said, grasping my hand again. ‘I wonder what they would have grown up to be.’

For Palestinian refugees, the fact that the Israelis voted Sharon into office could only mean one thing: ‘They don’t want peace,’ said Nouhad. ‘What would be the message that you would get if you were in our shoes?’

Other Palestinians feel like Nouhad’s husband, who said: ‘Sharon and Barak are all the same.’ Nouhad, however, shuddered.

‘No, I’m more scared of Sharon,’ she says. ‘I know what he is capable of.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

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