SABRA AND SHATILA
By Robert Fisk
we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o'clock on the morning of
September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have
been easier to re-tell in the cold prose of a medical examination. There
had been medical examinations before in Lebanon, but rarely on this
scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army.
In the panic and hatred of battle, tens of thousands had been killed
in this country. But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down
unarmed. This was a mass killing, an incident - how easily we used the
word "incident" in Lebanon - that was also an atrocity. It
went beyond even what the Israelis would have in other circumstances
called a terrorist activity. It was a war crime.
Jenkins and Tveit
were so overwhelmed by what we found in Chatila that at first we were
unable to register our own shock. Bill Foley of AP had come with us.
All he could say as he walked round was "Jesus Christ" over
and over again. We might have accepted evidence of a few murders; even
dozens of bodies, killed in the heat of combat. Bur there were women
lying in houses with their skirts torn torn up to their waists and their
legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men
shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were
babies - blackened babies babies because they had been slaughtered more
than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state
of decomposition - tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US
army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.
Where were the murderers?
Or to use the Israelis' vocabulary, where were the "terrorists"?
When we drove down to Chatila, we had seen the Israelis on the top of
the apartments in the Avenue Camille Chamoun but they made no attempt
to stop us. In fact, we had first been driven to the Bourj al-Barajneh
camp because someone told us that there was a massacre there. All we
saw was a Lebanese soldier chasing a car theif down a street. It was
only when we were driving back past the entrance to Chatila that Jenkins
decided to stop the car. "I don't like this", he said. "Where
is everyone? What the f**k is that smell?"
Just inside the
the southern entrance to the camp, there used to be a number of single-story,
concrete walled houses. I had conducted many interviews in these hovels
in the late 1970's. When we walked across the muddy entrance to Chatila,
we found that these buildings had been dynamited to the ground. There
were cartridge cases across the main road. I saw several Israeli flare
canisters, still attached to their tiny parachutes. Clouds of flies
moved across the rubble, raiding parties with a nose for victory.
Down a laneway to
our right, no more than 50 yards from the entrance, there lay a pile
of corpses. There were more than a dozen of them, young men whose arms
and legs had been wrapped around each other in the agony of death. All
had been shot point-blank range through the cheek, the bullet tearing
away a line of flesh up to the ear and entering the brain. Some had
vivid crimson or black scars down the left side of their throats. One
had been castrated, his trousers torn open and a settlement of flies
throbbing over his torn intestines.
The eyes of these
young men were all open. The youngest was only 12 or 13 years old. They
were dressed in jeans and coloured shirts, the material absurdly tight
over their flesh now that their bodies had begun to bloat in the heat.
They had not been robbed. On one blackened wrist a Swiss watch recorded
the correct time, the second hand still ticking round uselessly, expending
the last energies of its dead owner.
On the other side of the main road, up a track through the debris, we
found the bodies of five women and several children. The women were
middle-aged and their corpses lay draped over a pile of rubble. One
lay on her back, her dress torn open and the head of a little girl emerging
from behind her. The girl had short dark curly hair, her eyes were staring
at us and there was a frown on her face. She was dead.
Another child lay
on the roadway like a discarded doll, her white dress stained with mud
and dust. She could have been no more than three years old. The back
of her head had been blown away by a bullet fired into her brain. One
of the women also held a tiny baby to her body. The bullet that had
passed into her breast had killed the baby too. Someone had slit open
the woman's stomach, cutting sideways and then upwards, perhaps trying
to kill her unborn child. Her eyes were wide open, her dark face frozen
"...As we stood
there, we heard a shout in Arabic from across the ruins. "They
are coming back," a man was screaming, So we ran in fear towards
the road. I think, in retrospect, that it was probably anger that stopped
us from leaving, for we now waited near the entrance to the camp to
glimpse the faces of the men who were responsible for all of this. They
must have been sent in here with Israeli permission. They must have
been armed by the Israelis. Their handiwork had clearly been watched
- closely observed - by the Israelis who were still watching us through
When does a killing
become an outrage? When does an atrocity become a massacre? Or, put
another way, how many killings make a massacre? Thirty? A hundred? Three
hundred? When is a massacre not a massacre? When the figures are too
low? Or when the massacre is carried out by Israels friends rather
than Israel's enemies?
That, I suspected,
was what this argument was about. If Syrian troops had crossed into
Israel, surrounded a Kibbutz and allowed their Palestinian allies to
slaughter the Jewish inhabitants, no Western news agency would waste
its time afterwards arguing about whether or not it should be called
But in Beirut, the
victims were Palestinians. The guilty were certainly Christian militiamen
- from which particular unit we were still unsure - but the Israelis
were also guilty. If the Israelis had not taken part in the killings,
they had certainly sent militia into the camp. They had trained them,
given them uniforms, handed them US army rations and Israeli medical
equipment. Then they had watched the murderers in the camps, they had
given them military assistance - the Israeli airforce had dropped all
those flares to help the men who were murdering the inhabitants of Sabra
and Chatila - and they had established military liason with the murderers
in the camps