Reflections on the 25th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, 2007
Dr Swee Ang
The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel has an engraving on the wall, saying: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret to redemption”. Having worked and lived with those in exile and under occupation, I know Palestinians never allow themselves to forget the pain, death and suffering they have endured over the decades.
Every September, survivors and witnesses commemorate the massacre of thousands of innocent Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla camps. It is now a quarter of a century later and many of us have since died while the rest are a lot older. Sabra’s Palestinian refugee camp no longer exists, while Shatilla is a shell of its former self. The initial international outcry has long faded and the current media focus has shifted from those in exile to those living under occupation in Gaza and West Bank.
For those in exile, they see the prospect of ever returning home torn apart by the turmoil in the Occupied Territories. Gaza starves and is under military siege for months in an effort by Israel to topple a democratically-elected Palestinian government. The West Bank is cut up into pieces by a long serpentine Wall suffocating it like a boa constrictor. In 2006, Lebanon was savagely attacked by Israel in its war against Hezbollah. At least a million cluster bombs litter the southern half of the country. These were wickedly left at the moment ceasefire talks were being negotiated. Unless cleared, no one can return to the land to rebuild their homes and livelihood.
I mourn all who perished. On a personal level, I especially mourn the passing of Dr Fathi Arafat, brother of the late President Yasser Arafat. Both brothers died within days of each other, not knowing the fate of each. With their passing, Palestinians entered a new uncertain phase in their history. Dr Fathi was the founder of the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The PRCS served as a ministry of health with hospitals and clinics and treated all in need in the Lebanon. Dr Fathi had been my mentor and friend. Always an optimist, he had been inspiring to work with, and like my friends of the PRCS, I miss him.
Factionalism, military siege, starvation, arrests, bombs both conventional and unconventional, deportation and massacres are not new. They are weapons regularly deployed since 1948 to intimidate, terrorise and demoralise the Palestinians. Those who use these tactics aimed to crush them into giving up their aspiration to nationhood and to surrender their claim to membership of the human family.
But I remain optimistic and have reason to be so. Since I began my journey with the Palestinians in 1982, I have learnt that all the above repressive measures have failed to wipe the Palestinians out. I have seen strength and resilience in the face of untold hardships and persecution. I still have with me my picture of destitute Palestinian children of Shatilla camp standing amid the ruin and rubble. They survived the massacre but lost their parents and homes. We thought all was lost. But they raised their hands making the victory sign and said to me: “We are not afraid – let Israel come”. 1 have returned many times to the camp but never been able to find those children again. They must have perished since. But they live forever in my heart. Whenever the situation becomes unbearable, I revisit this picture for strength.
With each tragedy, the Palestinians’ resolve strengthens. Having been witness to this I can reassure my Palestinian friends in Occupied Palestine that they will overcome, because I have seen how the Palestinians in Lebanon overcame.
I have always felt it a great privilege and honour to be able to be a part of these events. It is a special gift from God that I am given the honour to join them on their journey in pursuit of justice. “From Beirut to Jerusalem” is my testimony of this journey. It is also my prayer for the Palestinians in exile that they too will make the journey one day. From exile they will surely return home
On 18 September 1982, the last day of the massacre, I emerged from the basement operating theatre of Gaza Hospital in Sabra and Shatilla camp. I had been operating for 72 hours to save a handful of people only to see piles of mutilated bodies in the camp alleys. I emerged from the hospital to see the body of an old man whose eyes were dug out. A terrified mother tried to hand me her baby to keep in safety. She failed in her attempt – and both were killed. The world was initially outraged, but forgot very quickly. The survivors of that massacre lived on through yet more violent events.
On that morning I felt trampled on and life became meaningless. As a doctor, I could do nothing to save the dead. As a human being my whole world had collapsed. Where was God, where was world conscience? I was alive, yet I felt dead.
I recall how I first came to Sabra and Shatilla a bigoted, self-righteous fundamentalist Christian. I believed in the goodness of the Western “Christian” countries and the righteousness of Israel. I thought I knew the Bible, and God was on OUR side. My favourite stories in the Old Testament at that time were how Joshua captured Jericho and the story of David and Goliath. I rejoiced in the military triumph of Israel. Just like my Christian friends, I celebrated the great Israeli military victory of the Six Day war of 1967, with the subjugation of Gaza and West Bank. I greeted the Foundation Day of the State of Israel as a day to rejoice.
On that morning in Sabra and Shatilla God destroyed that self-righteousness. I was made to confront the broken bodies in the camp alleys. Through them I met the crucified Christ. Sin was no longer an intellectual business. In a split second the sins of hatred, of murder, of militarism, of greed, of anger, of cruelty were all translated into wounds inflicted on the bodies of the victims. The Palestinians were collectively crucified. I felt crucified with them and would have remained so until I remembered as a Christian that crucifixion was not the end. Deep in my Christian consciousness crucifixion is only the prelude to resurrection.
Jesus was crucified 2,000 years ago. Both Jesus and the massacred Palestinians were innocent and did not deserve to be tortured and killed. But there is one difference. Jesus chose to suffer and die for our sins, to take on the punishment which we deserved. He is our Messiah. The will of God is always justice and that would mean the perpetrators of crimes have to be punished. Jesus had borne the punishment for us. We are all therefore on a level-playing field before God our judge and redeemer. And I am just as guilty as those who committed the massacre. To some, war crimes are sins committed by others; and so they are. But that morning in the full glare of the blazing Beirut sun, I understood. Palestinians could only have died because collectively we have condoned it. Like the crucifixion, some Christians blame the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time; others blame Pontius Pilate and the Romans. Others blame the crowd which shouted: “Crucify Him”. But He was crucified on our behalf. In the same way I ask myself again and again – who has got the Palestinians’ blood on their hands?
After going through much soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that I, too, had blood on my hands. Up to that time I was bigoted and prejudiced. I cannot excuse myself by claiming ignorance. For the weeks preceding the massacre, I was too prejudiced to believe the stories told to me by the camp people. I rejoiced in the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut and failed to see the pain of the Palestinian families being split up. I was naïve to trust the Western countries which guaranteed the safety of those left behind. I was self-righteous, still thinking of Palestinians as terrorists. I cannot blame others if I who had eaten with them, stayed in their homes, enjoyed their kindness and hospitality, refused to understand until they were murdered. My prejudice had blinded me.
When I saw those broken bodies, I was stunned and emotionally numb. I asked God to forgive me and remembered praying, “Lord Jesus, I have spent more than 30 years denying the Palestinian people their existence. I have hated Arabs. I was blinded by prejudice. Please forgive me. Please let me make amends. Grant that I may spend the next 30 years serving the Palestinian and help me be their friend”. I repented. God forgave me and the Palestinians embraced me. Suddenly I am no longer the living dead. God had breathed into my withered soul and filled my heart with love for Him and for the Palestinians. He has brought me back to life. Step by step He brought me back to His side.
Many of my Zionist Christian friends have since shunned me. They refuse to talk to me for I have fallen for the “Philistines”. But I am no longer intimidated by all this. I have seen a different face of God – that of love, compassion and grace. I believe He will heal the broken bodies of the Palestinian people and give them strength to carry their burden. Just as He raised Jesus on the third day, He will bring salvation to the Palestinian people. From their crucifixion will come their resurrection!
For a long time after the massacres I could not bring myself round to read the Old Testament, thinking it was full of prejudiced passages supporting Israel. I finally plucked up courage to read it and feared it would be the last time before giving it up. I was pleasantly surprised. I went no further than the first book Genesis when I found out how God, after driving Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, followed them out. I learnt God never abandoned them. He made clothes of animal skins for them to keep them warm. I broke down when I read how God saved Ismael and his mother Hagar in the desert. Abraham was ordered by his jealous wife, Sarah, the mother of Isaac, to abandon them in the desert to die. Hagar placed Ismael under a bush when their water ran out. She went into the desert and cried out to God. God heard her and a fountain was opened for them to drink. He promised Ismael would be a father of many nations. Palestinians are the children of Ismael and the children of Abraham.
So on this 25th anniversary of the massacre I would want you my dear friends to open your hearts so that God can fill you with His love and compassion. May He also grant you the honour of joining the Palestinians in their journey from “Beirut to Jerusalem”. As we journey on, may we always have faith that God who made us is compassionate and just and there will be room in His heart for all His children, and His grace and justice will always sustain us as we submit ourselves to Him. May we be able to be like the grieving old grandmother from Shatilla, who lost 27 loved ones that morning. Yet she could still say: “the will of God be done”. She still called God holy and committed her dead children to His care. May we draw strength from our faith that He will heal the deep wounds. He will restore the broken lives. He will bring His justice, He will pour His grace and love on His children, He will mend the broken hearts, He will bring peace to the tormented souls. He will wipe away all tears. And bring us home, to the city He has built and bears His name. Al Quds.. Next year in Jerusalem.
Dr Ang Swee Chai (September 2007)
2007 Preface to Malay-language edition of ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’
Dr Ang Swee Chai is a guest contributor at Facilitate Global.