Reflections from Shatila

Thousands died and their lives destroyed for crime they did not commit

Muhammad Hamid Zaman January 08, 2019
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University He tweets @mhzaman

Jamila remembers the three days of hell vividly. It started on September 16th, 1982. Running back and forth between her house and the nearby mosque, she lived through one of the most brutal massacres of the Lebanese civil war. She remembers the sounds of gunfire and the accompanying sense of deathly anxiety about what may happen the next minute, and how she and her family had to cheer one another up, despite what they knew was happening all around them. The far-right militia, or the Phalange, with the help of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Defence Forces, had encircled the refugee camp in Shatila, where Jamila, her parents and her family had lived for decades. Over the next two days, women, men, children and adults were massacred through guns, grenades and knives. Several hundred were butchered. As Jamila saw the littered bodies, she recognised many of the people.

I met Jamila over the weekend as I visited the camp that is now teeming with Syrian refugees. The zigzagging alleys, the overcrowded rooms and the ever present danger of electrocution by bare wires that are dangling everywhere, define the Shatila camp today. Jamila still lives in Shatila and is now head of an educational initiative to teach young children. She smiles often and keeps talking about why education is the only hope for the Palestinian and Syrian children. She teaches children their alphabets, sings and dances with them, and celebrates their birthdays with the love of a dear family member. Her classrooms are joyful and warm and carry an infectious commitment for a better future.

Jamila and other survivors, whom I met, remember not just the brutality of Israeli Defence Forces and the Phalange militia but also those who were complacent or complicit. Archival work from historians of the region has shown that the US did little to protect the civilians, despite knowing what was probably going to happen. The survivors kept telling me how much they respected the Italians and the Norwegians — journalists and doctors — who came to their help. But they also remember those who looked the other way, came up with lame excuses, or simply just did not care.

As I listened to Jamila — my mind immediately raced to the attacks on innocent civilians in a country not far from Lebanon. Ordinary Yemeni citizens have been on the receiving end of brutal atrocities in the last couple of years and those who have chosen to support the aggressors, whether through direct military support, logistical help or tacit support, have blood on their hands. Thousands have died and their lives destroyed for a crime they did not commit. Millions more are homeless, facing starvation or wasting away by cholera. Just like Shatilla, there was an initial blockade of all news coming from the camp — but as it reached the rest of the world, it unmasked the darkest side of the human existence. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day, we will get to learn, in detail, how the fabric of existence of ordinary Yemenis was shredded to pieces.

I hope that one day, those who have ventured deep into the camps of the aggressors, either through direct support or by making hollow and hypocritical claims of being neutral arbiters, will get to look into the eyes of Yemenis answer for their crimes. The stains of blood are hard to wash and they don’t fade away with time. The world remembers Ariel Sharon in a certain way, and thousands of boys and girls, whose lives are touched by the infectious laughter and a commitment to peace by Jamila will remember her in another way. The question for us, and our policymakers, is how would we like to be remembered?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2019.

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