Memories of 1982 massacre in Palestinian refugee camps kept alive

Three decades on, no Lebanese or Israeli citizen has ever been brought to justice for the slaughter in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut .

BEIRUT // In a crowded corner of southern Beirut, tucked behind a row of street stalls where traders hawk DVDs, shoes and clothes, lies an unremarkable patch of land, empty except for a collection of placards and posters.

One shows a woman standing over a pile of bloated, twisted bodies, an arm raised to the sky and a look of bewilderment on her face.

Others have images of dead bodies and a man wailing as he holds up the bloodied corpse of a baby. One placard reads: "We will never forget."

And here, indeed, they cannot forget. For this nondescript patch of land in Ghobeiry is a mass grave containing the unidentified bodies of scores, perhaps hundreds, of hastily buried men, women and children massacred 30 years ago in the nearby Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

For three days, Lebanese Christian militia scoured the camps and systematically slaughtered refugees trapped inside by an Israeli military cordon.

The massacre, against the backdrop of the country's 15-year civil war and Israel's invasion the same year, shocked Lebanon and Israel, and appalled a wider world that had thought itself inured to senseless bloodshed in what it saw as an inherently fratricidal corner of the Middle East.

Three decades later, there has been no accountability and no historical reckoning: no Lebanese or Israeli citizen has ever been brought to justice for the slaughter of those whose whose remains lie in the ground.

In the centre of the patch of land is a simple plaque commemorating the victims of the mass killing that took place from September 16 to 18, 1982. The Red Cross estimates up to 1,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were killed during in those three days.

By the archway at the entrance to the graveyard, a couple of people wander in off the noisy street and peer in. One lone Lebanese woman, her head covered with a black and grey hijab, also appears at the gate.

Umm Hussein Bourgi, now 74, gazes up at the image of her much younger self: she is the woman in the poster, standing over the corpses. Umm Hussein lost her husband and three sons aged 17, 18 and 19, in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

They are not among the dead in this mass grave. Umm Hussein reburied them in another cemetery shortly after the killings.

"My tears have all dried up," she says wearily. "I ask God to punish all the people who did this."

Mohammed Srour, a 50-year-old Palestinian refugee and father of five, stood at the entrance to the room where his father, four siblings and a neighbour were shot dead on the morning of September 17.

The room on the first floor of the home where he still lives is empty. He rarely steps foot inside the place where his family members were slaughtered and where his mother and two sisters were shot and left for dead, but survived.

Mr Srour was not in the house that morning, having been instructed by his father the day before that he should leave as tensions had been mounting. As the Lebanese gunmen entered Shatila on September 16, he managed to escape through the camp's narrow alleyways. The following morning, he overheard someone say that the Srour family were among the dead.

"Immediately I went to Gaza Hospital and people were saying to me, 'God be with you'. My brother was crying, but my mother didn't cry, she was in shock," he recalls.

Sitting in the living room of his home, Mr Srour takes out a pink plastic bag holding a stack of laminated photos of his family members and others who died in the massacre. His brother Fareed, then about 6, is shown smiling with his arm around his infant sister Shadiah sitting next to their brother Shadi. Just below is an image of the family members' bodies slumped together, their father shot in the back.

"Every day I remember my family, living in the same house you cannot forget the memory," he says. "The massacres and arrests and killings keep us attached to the hope that we will go back to our homeland."

Even for those born after what is known here simply as Al Majzarah - the massacre - the lasting impact still hangs heavily over Shatila. According to the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency, Shatila is home to more than 8,500 registered refugees, but many more live in the overcrowded and run-down neighbourhood.

Every year in mid-September residents hold remembrances. Some, including Tareq Othman, 27, a youth activist with a refugee group in Shatila, are now trying to mark the anniversary in a more positive way. This month a group of artists painted colourful murals on the sides of otherwise drab concrete structures in the warren-like Shatila camp, in part to commemorate the many who perished in those narrow streets.

"We try to face the sad memories with joy and look hopefully to go back to Palestine, our country," says Mr Othman.