Eyewitness Don Wagner of Sabeel Recommends Al-Jazeera Film


We are a few days away from the 30th anniversary of the "almost forgotten" Sabra/Shatila massacre that took place in two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Beirut during September 16-18, 1982. Al-Jazeera has just aired a remarkable film that follows three medical professionals--an American Jew, a British-Asian Evangelical Christian, and a Muslim, who were working in Gaza Hospital on that fateful weekend. They recently returned to the camps and the film follows their journey. We walk with them as they visit the hospital where they worked, that now serves as an apartment building housing some of the survivors of the massacre. Several of the survivors are interviewed, and as they recall the horrific events of that weekend thirty years ago, we see original footage of Gaza Hospital in full operation. The survivors and the medical staff remind us that while the Phalangist (predominantly Christian Lebanese) militia conducted the massacre, it was coordinated with the Israeli army that controlled the perimeter of the camps and put up flares so the massacre could continue into the night.

The producers of the film, which is only 47 minutes in length, intersperse footage of the aftermath of the massacre, as residents of the camps returned to identify and bury their dead relatives. It was at that point that I entered the camps, on Monday, September 19th, and I saw families returning to their bulldozed homes. I recall that as I walked into the camps, relief workers handed us a handkerchief smothered with cheap cologne held to the nose because the stench of death was too overpowering. It was utterly agonizing to helplessly watch the families returning to their demolished homes, weeping as they pulled from the rubble bodies or fragments of limbs of their children,2.0 spouses, and neighbors.

I later sat beside two mass graves where Red Crescent workers buried the dead. I counted over 400 body bags in just one grave site. While these memories still haunt me, I know all too well that I was able to fly out of Beirut a few days later, while the surviving refugees had to eek out a meager living and survive and had nowhere to go.

They would face yet another siege and massacre in 1987, this one at the hands of the Lebanese Shiite Amal militia. Somehow, we must never forget this tragedy as an important event in the history of Palestine. It is another reminder of why we must struggle for the right of return and an independent Palestinian state. It is why we oppose home demolitions with ICAHD and others today, as Israel continues its slow, under the radar ethnic cleansing. It is why we are committed to non-violent resistance, because we see where the logic of violence can lead. We pray for and remember the vulnerability of the refugees in Syria, Gaza, even the West Bank and elsewhere, and ask "How long, O God?" Please take 47 minutes to watch this moving film, and be renewed in your commitment to continue the long struggle for justice for the Palestinian people.

Don Wagner