This year, while Palestinian refugees in Lebanon prepare to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre, the country is receiving thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria. We pray that, with international resolve, the conflict will end soon and the Syrian refugees will be able to return home.Sixty-four years ago, in 1948, Lebanon received another group of refugees; some of the 750,000 Palestinians fleeing the massacres and the destruction of the villages and towns in Palestine. They were put in tents and promised the right of return to their homes. But most of Palestine was renamed Israel and so the refugees and their descendents remain in Lebanon, dispersed in 12 official UN-run refugee camps, forming part of the 4 million-strong Palestinian diaspora worldwide today. For them, there was no enthusiasm from the Western powers to address the root cause of their dispossession and no practical support for their right to return to their ancestral homeland.
Every September, hundreds of Palestinians and friends from around the world meet in Shatila, at Martyr’s Square, where a thousand of those killed in Sabra-Shatila are buried. We mourn and remember those whose lives were cruelly cut off. In so doing we ensure that they will not be forgotten; we also pay homage to their families.
That was my first visit to the Middle East; I never knew Palestinians existed until then. The western popular press only told of the terrorist PLO, which hated Jews, planted bombs and hijacked planes. They said that this group had built their base in Lebanon and that Israel was helping Lebanon to flush them out, even if Lebanon had to be flattened in the process. One Israeli spokesperson announced, “To make an omelette, one has first to crack eggs”!
I arrived in a Beirut that was devastated after 10 weeks of heavy bombardment. There was scarcity of food, water and medicine due to the military blockade. Homeless families flooded abandoned car parks and schools, and even slept on the road-side. I was taken past Akaa Hospital, a five-storey building reduced to rubble and mangled wires. This hospital was at one end of Rue Sabra, the main street of Shatila Camp. At the other end was Gaza Hospital, which was still standing, despite the tenth and eleventh floor being wrecked by artillery. Both were state of the art Palestine Red Crescent Society hospitals, and both were targeted despite flying International Red Cross flags. I was placed in Gaza Hospital to head the orthopaedic department and facilitate its re-opening.
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.
For me, one painful question needs to be answered. Not why they die, but why did they die as refugees? After 64 years, how can we allow a situation where a person’s only claim to humanity is a refugee identity card? This question has haunted me for 30 years. It has yet to receive an adequate answer.
For those of us who are privileged to enter their lives and receive their generous hospitality, our gratitude knows no bounds. We discover true friendship. We have learnt that poverty and deprivation are no obstacles to human dignity. We admire their courage in their daily struggles. When their children embrace us, new life and hope return.
One such occasion happened last year when a group of young Palestinians put on an event for those of us who came to join the commemoration of the Sabra-Shatila massacre. They had no money and no sponsors, so they held the event in Martyr’s Square in the evening. It was poetry reading with hip-hop; instant painting of the silhouettes of their friends onto the whitewashed walls; and traditional dabkeh dancing. Nearly all of them were born after the massacre, so they asked me to give them my firsthand account.
I recalled the events of 1982, ending with the following:
“A few days after the massacre, I walked down Rue Sabra towards Gaza Hospital. The stench of decaying human flesh was unbearable. Survivors were identifying the remains of their loved ones. A group of kids spotted me and called out ‘Doctora Sine’ (Chinese Doctor). Most of them were orphans, destitute and homeless. Suddenly they stood in front of me and asked for their pictures to be taken. As I released my camera shutter, they raised their hands in a victory sign and said ‘We are not afraid’. That picture has as background broken buildings, mass graves, and hopelessness but the children in the foreground defied them with their hands raised in a victory sign. I have been back to Lebanon many times but have never found those children again. They might have perished. But they will always be my inspiration. During the darkest hour, I will see them with their hands raised up, defying intimidation and death, poised to regain the dignity they had been robbed of.”
Since then, I have met many more children in Gaza and the West Bank. They are just as courageous and precious as their peers in Lebanon. They have suffered so much but remain fearless and steadfast.
On this, the 30th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre, we need to reflect on how the Palestinians have built and rebuilt their lives courageously over the last 64 years, and how we as friends can support them in their struggle for justice. We will look through our tears to see the wonderful young generation. Life has returned to Shatila. After thirty years with the Palestinians, I have learnt this lesson on hope.
Dr Swee Chai Ang is the author of “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, and the Patron and co-founder of British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.