40 years on, survivors recall horror of Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila massacre

The 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre was one of the most significant milestones in Lebanon’s recent turbulent political history. – AFP

BEIRUT: Forty years after Christian militias massacred Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians in the country’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the horror of the tragedy still lingers in the memories of survivors.

Najib al-Khatib, whose father and 10 other family members were killed in the massacre, still remembers the stench of the corpses.

The 52-year-old Lebanese survivor said it “lasted for more than five or six months. A horrible smell”.

Najeeb Al-Khatib, 52, points to a spot that was littered with bodies after the Sabra and Shatila massacres 40 years ago.
Najeeb Al-Khatib, 52, points to a spot that was littered with bodies after the Sabra and Shatila massacres 40 years ago.

“They would spray chemicals every day, but the smell persisted,” he said AFP From the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp, where he lives with his family.

From September 16 to 18, 1982, Christian militias allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps on the outskirts of Beirut. They also killed at least 100 Lebanese and some Syrians.

Israeli soldiers, who invaded during Lebanon’s civil war in June of that year, sealed off the camp while militias continued their killing spree, targeting unarmed civilians.

Residents of the camp are preparing to mark the 40th anniversary of the massacre on Friday.

“To this day, we still have a stench in our heads – the smell of the dead,” Khatib said.

‘Horses and Bodies’

Khatib walks into a street in the impoverished Sabra camp where he witnessed atrocities four decades ago.

“This is my grandmother’s house. It was full of dead bodies during the massacre”, he recalled. “They’re piled up here. Horses and bodies, all on top of each other.”

“The area was full of people they killed,” he said.

One of Khatib’s most painful memories was finding his father’s dead body at his doorstep.

He said that he was shot in the legs. “They hit him in the head with a hatchet.”

Despite the global outcry, no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the massacre.

It comes just days after the assassination of Lebanon’s newly elected president, Bashir Gemayel – seen as a hero by many Lebanese Christians but hated by many in Lebanon for collaborating with Israel.

In Israel, an inquiry implicated several officials, including then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.

He blamed Elie Houbeka, the intelligence chief of the Lebanese Forces – a right-wing Christian militia – for the killings.

The LF, then allied with Israel, has remained silent, never responding to the allegations.

A group of survivors tried to sue Sharon in Belgium, but the court dismissed the case in September 2003.


Umm Abbas, a Lebanese resident of Sabra who witnessed the massacre, recalled the “unimaginable scenes” that went unpunished.

“What did I see? A pregnant woman whose baby had come out of her stomach, they cut her in two,” said the 75-year-old.

Another woman, “she was also pregnant, they also ripped the baby out of her stomach”, she said.

Sitting in a street, Umm Abbas recalled the bulldozers gathering the bodies and dumping them on top of each other.

“They put them all in a deep hole, I saw them,” he said.

Survivors mark the massacre every year, some visiting the cemetery in Sabra where many of the victims were buried.

A simple stone monument pays tribute to the “martyrs” of the massacre.

Palestinian Amir Okar prayed at the site, where there are still no graves on the makeshift graves.

“We found everyone slaughtered on the ground, in all the streets and in that street,” recalled the 59-year-old former militant.

“We found bullets and crackers and marijuana and drugs on the ground — nobody can kill like that unless they’re on drugs,” he said.

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