Back to Shatilla
By Ali Abunimah
The Jordan Times
July 13-14, 2001
"I AM one of those who was there, who was in Palestine. I saw it all
with my eyes."
Abu Ismail is sitting on a sofa as he speaks. The tape recorder sits
on a low table in front of him, absorbing his voice, and the noise of
mopeds and people from the alley outside. He is in his mid-sixties,
but looks perhaps a little older. We are sitting around the room.
There is Umm Ismail, and one of their daughters, two grandsons, myself
and some other visitors, and the children of Shatilla refugee camp who
have brought me here to listen to Abu Ismail tell the story of the
massacre in his village of Safsaf, near Safad, northern Palestine.
Abu Ismail's home is on the third floor of one of the tall, teetering
cinder-block structures that make up Shatilla refugee camp. It is on
what passes for a main street, a noisy, dusty alley with small shops
and crowded with people.
I first went to Shatilla refugee camp last summer. Since then, I kept
in touch with some of the children I met by e-mail. I have come back
to visit them for a few days, and they decided they would take me to
meet some of the older people who witnessed Al Nakba, the catastrophe
Abu Ismail was about twelve, and Umm Ismail about twenty-one when
Safsaf was attacked by Zionist forces in October 1948, shortly after
the fall of the city of Safad. Safsaf, which had been the headquarters
of an Arab Liberation Army battalion was the first village to fall in
the Haganah's operation "Hiram", according to Walid Khalidi's `All
That Remains'. Several massacres were committed in the village,
details of which Abu Ismail recalls vividly: "On the night of Oct. 29,
around five in the afternoon, two planes came and dropped bombs on the
village. They destroyed the grain silos and the mill. And so we knew
that today Israel would attack us."
Although the village had been heavily fortified, the Arab Liberation
Army eventually withdrew, leaving the villagers to fend for
themselves. Outgunned and outflanked, the Zionists took the village.
Many villagers were killed, or fled to the nearby village of Jish or
on to Lebanon. Those who stayed behind gathered in a few storehouses
"intending to surrender to the Jews, since we were defenceless",
remembers Abu Ismail. "The Jews came into the building. No one moved.
`Get out, get out, get out' they cried -- they took out all the men.
They closed the door on us. And then we heard shooting. After a while,
we opened the door and went outside. There was a line maybe fifty
metres, of men. Dead. They had lined them up against the wall and shot
them with machineguns." The Jewish forces used the dry collecting
basin of the village spring as a mass grave. The remaining villagers
discovered this a few days later when the water, which unbeknownst to
the Jews was piped directly into the village from underground thanks
to improvements made by the British, began to taste rotten.
Abu Ismail and Umm Ismail, and a few other survivors, have drawn up a
list of fifty-four names of people killed in that massacre, among them
Abu Ismail's father and his older brother, to whom Umm Ismail had
first been married.
Perhaps a few days later, recounts Abu Ismail, the Jewish forces told
the women and children remaining in the village they had to leave to
an adjacent area because there were explosives in the village and they
wanted to destroy them.
"Now, there was a woman in one house who was hiding her husband under
a blanket. Women were sitting on top of him and around him, so he
couldn't be seen. When they were forced out, he was discovered. They
took him out, and his wife started screaming. They fired shots near
her feet, and then they took the man to Jish, where their headquarters
were." There he was interrogated by the Jewish commander, who,
learning he was from Safsaf, said, according to Abu Ismail: "I know
your village. I used to come to it as a boy with my father, Mordechai,
to buy milk." The commander, whose name Abu Ismail remembers as Manu,
son of Mordechai, a Palestinian Jew from Safad, sent the man back to
Safsaf with the message: "Stay in the village, do not go to Lebanon.
We will look after you and I will come to the village in a few hours."
Abu Ismail said the Jewish commander did come and brought food, but
there were only women and children left, terrified and traumatised by
the massacres, and unable to fend for themselves. Fearing the worst,
they left for Lebanon, either with men who had comeback under cover of
night to fetch them, or alone to look for surviving men who feared the
consequences of returning.
Abu Ismail remembers every inch of Safsaf. As he speaks, his grandson
fills in the detail of a map he has drawn according to his
grandfather's recollection of each house in the village. When asked
what he thinks of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer to
allow a few thousand Palestinians to return to their homes in
Palestine, he scoffs: "they are not serious about the right of return.
They may allow me and my wife to go back, but not my children and my
In contrast to Shatilla, which has been destroyed, rebuilt and
rearranged countless times, Palestinian residents of nearby Bourj Al
Barajneh camp are still grouped together according to their village of
origin. In "Sheikh Daoud" alley, named after a small village near
Akka, we met Umm Waheed.
Umm Waheed named her daughter Badr, meaning "full moon", because that
is what she saw in 1948 when she gave birth alone in Sheikh Daoud, to
which she had returned after all the inhabitants had left to Yaraka, a
neighbouring village. Her family came back to fetch her and the family
went from village to village as the Zionists advanced, and eventually
left for Lebanon.
Asked how she endured this, she says: "I am strong, I am very strong."
During the "war of the camps" in the mid 1980s, when Bourj Al Barajneh
was besieged by the Amal militia, Umm Waheed helped deliver ammunition
to the resistance fighters and baked bread in her house to share with
the other residents of the camp. Umm Waheed's home is a single
meticulously kept room with bare concrete floors, that also serves as
a small store from which she sells basic supplies, soft drinks and
juice from an electric machine that whirs away near the door so that
passersby might be tempted by it.
She tells how she left Palestine. She begins to sing a quiet song,
`Tarakna al buwab mfattaha' (We left the doors open). These are words
she has composed herself in order to pass on the history of Palestine
to the children in the camp. She remembers that the villagers did not
want to leave. "Three times the women and children returned to Majd Al
Kuroum," -- the last village Umm Waheed stayed in before fleeing to
Lebanon -- "and three times the Arab Liberation Army let it fall."
"When we got to Lebanon, they made us live on beaches. Everything was
wet and windy in winter. In summer everything was full of sand. But we
endured," remembers Umm Waheed. "After a while, we were given guns,
and they said we would do guerrilla operations, but they amounted to
nothing. So many of our men were killed for nothing. People are dying
now in Palestine, but they are in the homeland. Aren't houses being
demolished on their heads? Let the houses be demolished, the land will
remain. If they let us go to Palestine, we would live on the bare
ground like the people there. We will resist with them. If we die, may
God make it easy on us. If we live, we will continue to resist. We
will put a sheet over our heads for shelter. Let them come and burn
the sheet and strike us. The land will remain."
Later we accompany Umm Waheed to her son's house, a little way down
the alley. There, with members of her family, we watch the new film by
Mai Masri, `Dreams of Fears and Hopes', which documents the friendship
that developed over the past two years between children in Shatilla
refugee camp and children in Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied
West Bank. Several of those who appear in the film, including Umm
Waheed, Mahmoud, 14, Rabie, 15, Ismail, 15, and Safa, 13, are watching
the film with us.
There are tears in the room as the screen shows the children's first,
and then second and last, meeting at the border, following Israel's
withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. The third time they go
back, the children find fortifications which have stopped the meeting
of human flesh, embraces, exchanges of laughter, tears, memories and
gifts through the barbed wire. But the friendship continues despite
all the borders Palestinians find before them: physical borders that
separate them, legal and social borders that deny them civil rights,
decent education and a chance to work, and, above all, the right to
return to their country and their homes.
During my first visit to Shatilla I met Samar, then a young woman of
fifteen. Her strength and eloquence made her a leader and an example
for the other children. A few months after my visit she was spirited
out of the camp -- her family, like so many others, found an escape
route out of desperation. Now Samar and her family await the slim
possibility of being granted asylum in a European country. They find
themselves refugees again, their freedom restricted in every way.
Samar writes occasional letters to her friends in Shatilla. They
gather to read the latest during my last day in Shatilla. Despite the
innumerable and indescribable hardships of life in the camp, Samar has
found a place on earth worse than Shatilla: it is to be in double
exile, a refugee from her country, and a refugee from the friends she
grew up with and who sustained her. In each other, the children of
Shatilla have found a hope, strength and support that the rest of the
world has denied them or done its best to destroy.
There is a lot of talk, even a little excitement in Shatilla about the
court case in Belgium against Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacre in
this place and a little distance away in Sabra. But people have
learned not to put too much hope in anything. And even if the case
does go somewhere, what will it mean for the people still here, the
ones who, the day after the massacre, got up and continued with life,
who endured? Will the world care any more for their futures and rights
than it does now? Few here are prepared to say it will.