Forty years after Christian militiamen massacred Palestinian refugees and Lebanese nationals in the country’s refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, the horrors of the tragedy are still seared in the memories of survivors.
Najib al-Khatib, whose father and ten other family members were killed in the massacre, still remembers the stench of the corpses.
It “lasted for more than five or six months. A terrible smell,” said the 52-year-old Lebanese survivor.
“They sprayed chemicals every day but the smell stayed,” he told AFP from the Sabra camp for Palestinian refugees, where he lives with his family.
From September 16 to 18, 1982, Christian militiamen allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps on the outskirts of Beirut. They also murdered at least 100 Lebanese and some Syrians.
Israeli troops, who invaded in June of that year as Lebanon’s civil war raged, sealed off the camp while militiamen continued their killing spree, targeting unarmed civilians.
Campers are preparing to mark the 40th anniversary of the massacre on Friday.
“To this day, the smell is still in our heads – the smell of the dead,” Khatib said.
– ‘Horses and Corpses’ –
Khatib was walking down an alley in the impoverished Sabra camp where he had witnessed the atrocities four decades earlier.
“This is my grandmother’s house. During the massacre it was full of” corpses, he recalls. “They were piled up here. Horses and corpses, all on top of each other.”
“This area was full of people who were killing them,” he said.
One of Khatib’s most harrowing memories was finding his father’s body on the door of his home.
“He was shot in the legs,” he said. “They hit him on the head with a hatchet.”
Despite worldwide outcry, no one has ever been arrested or brought to justice for the massacre.
It came just days after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel – regarded as a hero by many Lebanese Christians but hated by many in Lebanon for his collaboration with Israel.
In Israel, an investigation found that a number of officials, including then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, were indirectly responsible.
She blamed Elie Hobeika, intelligence chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces – a right-wing Christian militia – for the killings.
The LF, then allied with Israel, remained silent and never responded to the allegations.
A group of survivors tried to file a lawsuit against Sharon in Belgium, but the court dismissed the case in September 2003.
– “Inconceivably” –
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 with her baby ripped out of her stomach, they cut her in two,” said the 75-year-old.
Another woman, “she was pregnant too, they ripped the baby out of her tummy too,” she said.
Umm Abbas sat in an alley and remembered bulldozers picking up corpses and throwing them on top of each other.
“They put them all in a deep hole, I saw them,” she said.
Survivors commemorate the massacre each year, with some visiting the Sabra Cemetery where many of the victims were buried.
A simple stone memorial honors the “martyrs” of the massacre.
Palestinian Amer Okkar prayed at the spot where the makeshift graves do not yet bear headstones.
“We found everyone slaughtered on the ground, in every alley and along this street,” the 59-year-old former militant recalled.
“We found pills and machetes and hashish and drugs on the ground – nobody could kill like that unless they were drugged,” he said.