Footage from the 1980s gets me every time. It’s the graininess, I think, and the punchy contrast that sometimes convinces me I’m seeing the world through all the wrong lenses.
It can be an eerie feeling watching a man’s grainy and somewhat abstracted face rush across the screen. But what if the element of familiarity jumps at you and you recognize the beard, or maybe the color of his hair, or the trademark cigarette in between his index and middle fingers in his left hand?
This might sound unreasonable to you but that element of familiarity is what has kept me from Sabra and Shatila. The massacre, its memory now thirty years old, caught on film, tape, and paper, has tested me each time its anniversary solemnly marched by.
Sure, I know a bit of the history and background of one of the world’s most gruesome, most forgotten massacres. But ask me if I’ve seen any footage or if I’ve ever looked into primary sources beyond face value and you’d get an embarrassed ‘no’.
That changed yesterday. I managed to find a few scattered clips of the 1982 massacre. I spent much of the afternoon and evening catching up on my history.
The camera pans over mutilated bodies. In one scene, the unbalanced color levels make it difficult to distinguish limb from limb. In another, the fuzziness can’t mask the look of shock on a physician’s face as she assess the damage to a child’s leg caused by one of the many fragment grenades tossed into dense alleyways by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen. Another clip: a body is wrapped in a red and white cloth. Feet dangle as a group of men rush the body inside somewhere. It’s an aerial view, probably the worst view.
The element of familiarity reared its ugly head. I saw in the distorted faces of the victims and the somber faces of their mothers a very common tale of existence. Most of the thousands killed were descendants of families that had fled the mass evictions and pogroms of the 1940s and the brutal expansionism of the 1950s and 1960s. These Palestinians were forced from their homes at least once already. And as Phalangist militias took down door after door under Israeli cover, they were forced from their homes once again.
Sabra and Shatila are two neighboring refugee camps in West Beirut. Their populations have grown closer through tragedy than through anything else. From the 16th to the 18th of September 1982, armed squads put the camps under siege. Israeli forces secured the perimeter of the camps, controlling access into and out of the camps. Phalangist militias were given the green light to assist Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, in “mopping up” the camp populations. In they went, and whenever it was too dark to see, Israeli soldiers fired flares.
Rat tat tat tat, you’d hear. Then it’d turn dark again. Brief silence, followed by a flare. Rat tat tat tat, recalls Eileen Seigel, a Jewish nurse who volunteered her medical services to the massacred Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
An Israel-tagged bulldozer navigated through the camps’ streets, knocking walls over piled bodies.
Trucks with tarpaulin-covered beds carried empty bodies. Some were unloaded over sites that later became mass graves. Others, nobody really knows.
This all happened in between Israeli shelling. In one instance, the bombing of West Beirut was so intense that an American chancery was almost hit. Wanton destruction regardless of the target, Israel and its allied Phalangist militia agreed.
There was also a stadium involved. In one account, it was said to be the Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium in the Bir Hassan neighborhood of West Beirut, adjacent to Sabra and Shatila. Whatever its identity, the stadium saw many men disappear. By day three of the massacre, Phalangist forces rallied up the survivors and marched them over the dead bodies in the street — the smell of the corpses was just too much to handle, eyewitnesses remember — toward the stadium where they separated the men from the women.
Israeli soldiers, who were discretely operating alongside the Phalangists within the very perimeter they set, took a more authoritative role here. The women huddled for hours as the men were taken away, in groups and sometimes one by one, and never seen again. “Further interrogation,” reporters were told.
As in every massacre, the lucky ones made it out alive. It’s disturbing to think how the element of familiarity treats them every time they walk down their Sabra streets or their Shatila avenues. Or whenever they cast a glance at the stadium they parted ways in three decades ago. Or however grainy the footage is as a camera settles on a dark doorway framed by walls with bullet holes the size tennis balls.
So I finally faced a fear of mine. It was the one page of Palestinian history that I just couldn’t bear to discover for myself. A friend asked me why I even bothered, especially since I knew what was to come. But maybe that’s the real element of familiarity — the disposition to expect the worst. Maybe that’s what we should all be afraid of.