Monday, 15 September 2014

Remembering Sabra and Shatila: Um Aziz and the massacre of 1982

Remembering Sabra and Shatila: 
Um Aziz and the massacre of 1982

to remember

I remember
أنا بتذكر
You (m) remember
أنت بتتذكر
You (f) remember
أنت بتتذكري
You (pl) remember
أنتو بتتذكرو
He remembers
هو بيتذكر 
She remembers
هي بتتذكر
They remember
هن بيتذكرو
We remember
نحنا منتذكر 

Last week I left Lebanon to return to England for the funeral of my grandfather, who lived a long and peaceful life. The service was held in a small medieval church near his home in the middle of the Cotswolds, nestled between peaceful trees and a gently flowing stream. The air was cool and the changing autumn leaves were loosened from their branches by a light breeze. When the hymns had been sung and we had listened to the beautiful tributes, we followed the small coffin, laden with fresh lilies, as it was carried slowly out of the church into the September sunshine. Beneath the sadness of this moment, I recognised the simple power of this rite of passage, this ritual of gathering to honour our dead. Everyone there that day was given a chance to close a chapter, to say goodbye to a person they had loved. 

The ceremony struck a stark contrast to the memorial site of the Sabra and Shatila massacres I had visited just days before in the southern suburbs of Beirut, massacres that will be remembered this week in Lebanon and in Palestinian communities worldwide. 

Thirty two years ago, at 6pm on the 16th September, 1982, the premeditated killing of an estimated 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians living in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila began. Israeli tanks surrounded the camps as people were butchered in their homes and on their streets by Lebanese Christian militia for three days.

The memorial site, just visible behind the busy souks and streets of southern Beirut, is also the site of a mass grave for those who were buried quickly to avoid the inevitable rotting caused by the heat of the Lebanese summer. A square of red-brown earth marks the final resting place of the grandfathers, grandmothers, sons, daughters, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends who were murdered so horrifically thirty-two years ago. An estimated thousand lie there.

You can read many accounts of those three days in Sabra and Shatila. The first-hand account of Dr. Ang Swee Chai, a Singaporean doctor who was working in the camp hospital, Gaza Hospital, at the time of the massacres, and now director of British NGO, Medical Aid for Palestine, was recommended to me by a friend. You can learn more about Dr. Ang Swee Chai and the NGO in her BBC HARDTalk interview here

This is an extract from an article she wrote two years ago, A lesson on hope on the thirtieth anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre

"On 15 September, several hundred Israeli tanks drove into South and West Beirut. Some of them ringed and sealed Shatila Camp to prevent the inhabitants from fleeing. The Israelis sent their allies, a group of Christian militiamen, into the camp. When the tanks withdrew from the perimeter of the camp on the 18 September, they left behind 3,000 dead civilians.
Our hospital team had worked non-stop for the previous 72 hours, but we were ordered at gun point to leave our patients and were marched along Rue Sabra out of the camp. As I emerged from the basement operating theatre, I learnt the painful truth. While we were struggling to save a few dozen lives, people had been killed by the thousands. Some of the bodies were already rotting in the hot Beirut sun.
The images of the massacre are seared on my memory. They include dead and mutilated bodies lining the camp alleys, bodies which only a few days before were living human beings full of life and hope, rebuilding their homes, trusting that they would be left in peace to raise their young ones after the evacuation of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] . These were the people who had welcomed me into their broken homes, serving me Arabic coffee and whatever food they found; it was simple fare but given with warmth and generosity. They shared with me their broken lives and how they came to be refugees in Lebanon. They showed me faded photographs of their homes and families in Palestine before 1948 and the large house keys they still treasured. The women shared with me their beautiful embroidery, each with motifs of the villages they left behind. Many of these villages were destroyed by the nascent Israeli state after they left.
There were patients we failed to save and those brought in dead to the hospital. They left behind orphans and widows. A wounded mother begged us to take down the hospital's last unit of blood from her to give to her child. She died shortly afterwards. The rape of women before they were killed left cruel psychological scars on their children who survived.
The frightened faces of families rounded up by gunmen; the desperate young mother who tried to give me her baby to take to safety; the stench of decaying bodies as mass graves continued to be uncovered day after day, will never leave me. The piercing cries of women who discovered the remains of their loved ones from bits of clothes or refugee identity cards as more bodies were found continue to haunt me.
The people of Sabra-Shatila returned after the massacre to rebuild their homes once more. Gaza Hospital re-opened. But their courage was rewarded with yet more violence. Shatila, Burj-el-Barajneh, and Rashiddyeh camps were besieged and attacked from 1985 to 1988, during which time 2,500 refugees were killed and 30,000 were made homeless. Nahr-el-Bared Camp in the north of Lebanon, home to 40,000 Palestinians, was flattened by the Lebanese Army in 2007 and is yet to be rebuilt completely. The Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon are the most squalid and deprived in the Middle East.
Add to this the Lebanese law prohibiting Palestinians from taking up 30 professions and 40 artisan trades outside the refugee camps, and it is not difficult to see how the younger generations despair; some youngsters drop out of school to look for manual labouring work. Palestinians are also prohibited from owning or inheriting properties. With these unjust laws in place, they are confined to the refugee camps with no escape. Denied the right of return to their homes in Palestine, they are not only born refugees, they will also die refugees and so will their children."

A friend invited me to visit the Shatila regufee camp last week, where her friend Zeinab grew up and now works to provide scholarships for young Palestinians. Zeinab and her family survived the massacre and live just minutes away from the memorial site. When we first entered Zeinab’s house, built over three floors in the busy warren of narrow streets that make up the refugee camp of Shatila, we were invited to share a delicious Palestinian dish of aubergines stuffed with fragrant rice, served with a thin and spicy tomato soup. The dishes, plates and refreshing glasses of sweet fruit juice were generously served on a round silver platter.

Later that evening Zeinab took us to a neighbouring camp, Burj-el-Barajneh, to the home of a woman known to her friends as Um Aziz, mother of Aziz, and popularly known in
 the camps as the Mother of Martyrs. Um Aziz told us how, on a serving platter similar to the one we had eaten from, she had placed her two infant daughters as an eighteen year old fleeing her home in Akka, Palestine, now Acre, northern Israel. Alone and abandoned by her family, Um Aziz walked from northern Palestine to Lebanon with her daughters on a tray above her head. Like many of the thousands who fled or were driven from Palestine following the 1948 war with Israel, called  al-nakba - the disaster - by Palestinians, her daughters did not survive the journey.

However, it is not these early losses that haunt Um Aziz, but the faces of four young men in portraits hanging on the walls of her living room. Her youngest son was thirteen and the oldest was twenty-seven when they were taken from their breakfast and driven away in trucks in those deadly days of September of 1982. Like other mothers, Um Aziz followed the trucks as far as she could, but never saw where her sons were taken. To this day she does not know what happened to them, and to this day, she harbours hope that they will one day return to her. 

We listened as she bravely told us her story, with translation from Zeinab. You can listen to Um Aziz in a recording of the interview here

Um Aziz following the massacres of 1982, with photographs of her four sons pinned to her chest. With thanks to Zeinab for this image.

For the Palestinians of Beirut this week there will be mourning and remembrance to honour those who were lost and those who are missing. They are remembered, as Palestine is remembered. 

When I return to Beirut next week, I look forward to learning more about Zeinab’s work providing education opportunities for young Palestinians in Lebanon.

Thanks for reading.

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