On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre

Both 16 September and 25 May deserve to be etched in our memories as irksome reminders of our complacency as human beings. The first is the date of the Sabra and Shatila massacre that marks its 30th anniversary today. The second is the date of the Houla massacre in Syria, which only three months later has already been overcome by the whirlwind of regional developments.

Confronted with atrocities on a large scale, the mind responds with rejection, shock and horror. The first reaction is one of moral indignation upon viewing photos of defenseless men, women and children murdered; their bodies carelessly tossed around. Such images prompt us to condemn the perpetrators and to demand that justice is served for both victims and survivors.  These occurrences, one likes to assume, are unforgettable. In both massacres however, we have let the perpetrators slip away without incrimination or retribution. Our weak memories failed to enact appropriate memorials to honor the wronged and our resolve has faltered in enacting justice.

To compare the two massacres, one having taken place in 1982 in the framework of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the other having taken place only three months ago, in the context of the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime, is not a leap of logic. Both massacres confront us with our own apathy in the face of the most atrocious of crimes. Choosing to recall the massacres only within the confines of their respective national struggles, we have become oblivious of the moral and human dimensions of the attacks. Indeed, when one compares the reaction to the two events — separated as they are by three decades — one wonders whether we have become even more complacent than before about the value of a human life. History has taught us little.

Thirty years ago today, in retaliation to the assassination of then Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, the Israeli backed Phalangists entered the adjacent camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. They lit the sky with white phosphorous flares and for two days, they killed men, women and children. The Israeli army later claimed that it was not aware of the killings. The Kahan Commission, the commission of inquiry established by the Israeli government and the only official enquiry into the massacre, maintained that the direct responsibility for the attacks lied with the Phalangists. Ariel Sharon was forced to resign as Defense Minister, only to later climb the career ladder to the position of Prime Minister. The commander of the Lebanese Forces, Elie Hobeika and other militia leaders received amnesty.

The exact death toll has never been verified. No precise list of the names of the dead and the missing was ever made. The number was estimated, however, to be more than 2,000. Most of the victims were buried in a mass grave which became the official memorial for the massacre. And like the investigation into the massacre, the memorial as well was largely abandoned. No one was held responsible for the killing of innocent civilians, no one was sentenced and no one paid a price. It seemed, even after thirty years, that the residents of the camps have not even begun to put the massacre behind them yet, weaving it instead in the overall narrative of Palestinian history of dispossession. What is certain is that in our reaction, or lack thereof, to the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, we have marked Palestinian refugees in general not only as victims of Israeli aggression, but more importantly as dehumanized visitors in neighboring Arab states.  In this dehumanization, we are all complicit. Arab and world acknowledgment of the massacre remains minimal to say the least.

This year, the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre comes only a few months after the Houla massacre in Syria in which more than 100 people were killed including 32 children under the age of 10.  Once again we were faced with the same shocking images of expressions of frozen horror on the faces of men, women and children. The Syrian government refused to take responsibility for the tragic attack and instead joined in condemning the unidentified perpetrators of such senseless cruelty.

Both massacres are horrifying of course, in terms of the violence committed against unarmed civilians. But they are even more horrifying because we have come to routinely dismiss them from our immediate concerns, burying their relevance under political analysis that claims to attempt to understand and justify grievances, motives and alliances of the different actors of a given conflict. There is no official memory day planned for both massacres and no appropriate memorial sites. The only established facts are that innocent and defenseless civilians were killed, and that the responsibility for their senseless murder has been successfully evaded.

In a region blundering in daily renewed agonies and tribulations, news and memories of both massacres have been buried, for those watching from the sidelines, under the piles of headlines of regional developments. Constructing literary and physical memorials for the victims of such atrocious events could only assure us of our own humanity. Memorials are actually meant to preserve the pain, the shock and the indignation that are first felt toward such crimes. Remembering means ensuring that such tragedies are never again repeated. 

Assmaa Naguib holds a doctoral degree in literature. She is interested in the literature of exile and migration in relation to nationalism.

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