In the summer of 1974, shortly after I arrived in Beirut
to make my way as a journalist, I started volunteering to teach English
in Shatila, one of a number of refugee camps around Beirut that gave shelter to Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war in Israel/Palestine.
Eight years later, the name “Shatila” was to become inscribed on the conscience of the world, after the Israeli-orchestrated massacre there that left hundreds– quite possibly as many as 2,000–of the camp’s civilian population dead.
But those days were still far in the future when I first walked along the broad, but chaotic and filthy thoroughfare that led to the heart of the refugee camp in 1974.
By then, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere had been living
in that precarious status for 26 years. It seemed like a long time
already. The teenage girls I was teaching had all been born in Lebanon.
But their parents and grandparents still had vivid memories of the
homeplaces they had left inside Palestine… and to which they still hoped
After all, hadn’t the UN General Assembly promised them that much– as,
too, the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”?
Well, I didn’t worry myself too much with those politico-legal nuances
as I struggled once a week in the crowded sitting room of a concrete refugee
“home”, to help the group of five or six girls with their English-language
In those days, Shatila was an extensive, sprawling maze of (mainly)
one- and two-story concrete boxes in which whole large extended families
lived. Most family homes consisted of two or three square-ish rooms,
some of them piled up on top of each other to leave space for a small ground-level
courtyard. Around the courtyard would be a few straggly flowering
plants or herbs set into large recycled cans (powdered milk cans, usually– either
“Nido” or “Klim”) that would give the tiny, much-used outdoor space a little
memory of the farm the family had left behind in Palestine. Some families
even managed to grow little grape arbors.
The girls– like their many siblings– were enrolled in the schools that the
UN refugee agency UNRWA had, with the technical help of UNESCO, set up inside
the camp. The schooling was all bilingual, Arabic and English. (That
fact riled many Lebanese Christian families, since they had invested heavily
in getting a French-language education for their kids– but then English
proved much more sought-after in the employment world outside.)
But the girls I was teaching really had to struggle with their English!
There was Khadija, a smart older sister with a sunny personality who
sometimes winced with pain from her polio-derived lameness; her giggly younger
sister Najat; their boisterous neighbor Ruqaya; and a handful of others
whose names I don’t recall. They or one of the moms would always bring
me coffee and offer candy, sweets, and cigarettes. There would be
younger siblings bursting in and out of the room where we tried to study,
and sometimes my students, who were between 13 and 15 years old, would have
to miss some of the session while they helped their moms with urgent household
tasks. Once, I went at the beginning of Ramadan and the girls were
sitting around a huge round tray of zucchini doing the intricate work of
stuffing them with a rice-based stuffing, in preparation for that evening’s
fast-breaking meal. (They also told me how you could avoid fasting if you
said you had your period… and how, during that yearly month-long observance,
the many girls’ periods would miraculously start lasting for several extra
I stuck with them for only a few months. The civil war tensions worsened;
my career started taking off; my first husband and I moved to an area further
from the camp… Lots of stuff happened. A couple of times afterwards,
I would see Khadija in one of the Palestinian offices, where she had
found an administrative job. (I am not sure, frankly, that my English
teaching had helped her or any of them very much. I was completely
untrained at it. Still, maybe I didn’t do any harm.)
… In 1982, I was newly arrived in the United States, a single parent
of two small children, and trying to write my first book. (I had a fellowship for that, at Harvard. Needless to say, the Center for International Affairs there had little or no experience with a newly-arrived Research Fellow who was also a single mom…) That
summer, Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon decided to try to “solve” Israel’s
problems with the Palestinians by invading Lebanon. The Israeli ground forces
made it to Beirut fairly quickly; then they stayed there, ringing the city
in a punishing siege for several weeks… Slowly, they tightened their
noose there, but they met fierce resistance from the Palestinians and the
Lebanese leftist and Muslim groups that were holed up inside west Beirut.
Scores of thousands of civilians were holed up inside there with them.
(Inside their own homes, that is.)
Shatila camp was at the edge of the besieged area, and got very badly hit
during the siege..
In August there was a peace settlement. Arafat agreed to leave Beirut
with all the PLO’s fighters, on ships sailing from Beirut to an uncertain
future in Tunis and elsewhere. In return for that US-negotiated exodus,
the Israelis agreed not to enter west Beirut. (I wonder why
some similar agreement could not be negotiated for Fallujah, now?)
Acouple of weeks after the PLO completed its withdrawal the pro-Israeli
Lebanese militia boss Bashir Gemayyel, who was shortly to become Lebanon’s
next president, was assassinated in East Beirut. Sharon, seeing his
dreams of a political victory slipping from his hands, sent his tanks rumbling
into all of West Beirut. (Never mind his previous promises to the
He also, simultaneously, shipped hundreds of fighters from Bashir’s Falangist
militia to the edges of Shatila camp. IDF officers and soldiers then
gave those enraged avengers strategic cover from nearby rooftops while they
went on a 48-hour rampage of killings within the camp.
The PLO really had withdrawan all its trained fighters. The result
was a slaughter that killed at least 800 unarmed Palestinian refugee– maybe
as many as 2,500. Since several suspected mass graves in the region
were never opened, no-one ever knew the true toll.
(People talk about the “Sabra and Shatila” massacres. Sabra is the
name of the general region there, but not of a camp. The camp there
is called Shatila Camp.)
In the US, I watched completely frozen as the news of the massacres unfolded
on TV. I was living in Washington DC by then. I didn’t know
many people there, and I felt isolated, violated, and impotent.
The whole of that summer had been really terrible for me. I’d left
Beirut only the previous year, so I still had scores of good friends who
were trapped inside Beirut throughout the entire, weeks-long siege. And
being there in the US was quite unreal. I remember the news pics of
Jane Fonda sitting gleefully on an Israeli tank in the Lebanese mountains
as it bombarded my friends inside Beirut… Jane Fonda!!! That’s
how uninformed most people even from the US “left” were about what was going
on in Lebanon.
(In Israel itself, the peace movement was far more grounded and savvy.
Throughout the war, pro-peace activities had mushroomed, Then
when news of the September massacres started emerging, 600,000 Jewish Israelis
converged on downtown Tel Aviv in a nearly spontaneous protest. Their
actions helped persuade Sharon and his PM, Menchaem Begin, that they’d better
pull the IDF back out of Shatila and the rest of West Beirut fairly rapidly…
An official Commission of Inquiry in Israel later found that Sharon bore
considerable, if not totally direct, responsibility for the massacres, and
recommended that he never again be allowed to occupy any high, security-related
… I returned briefly to Lebanon in late 1982, and then again in the summer
of ’83. On both those occasions, Beirut was living in a eery state
of thinly-veiled Falangist control. One of the main aims of
the Falangists was to do whatever they could to reduce the number of Palestinians
still living in the country.
I asked some of my friends who were still in West Beirut about the prospect
of going back to Shatila to see what had become of my former students there.
Those friends all said it would be very risky. The Falangists
had such networks of informers around and inside the camps, they said, that
if I went in unannounced and started asking questions there then either
I might myself become a target, or anyone inside the camp might be targeted
after I’d left. It was scary stuff.
Then in early 1984, the US– reeling under a campaign that local Shi-ite
groups had mounted against them– suddenly withdrew the troops it had had
in the country since the massacres. So it was the Shi-ites who took
over most of West Beirut after that… And the organization then dominant
among the Shi-ites, the “Amal” movement, was very hostile indeed to the
Palestinians. (This might seem a little complicated. But
bear with me.)
For three years, 1985-88, Amal maintained its own ghastly siege around
Shatila camp. Amal militiamen pushed in against the camp from all sides,
killing many more camp residents and forcing the survivors to live in ever
more overcrowded conditions.
… After 1983 I didn’t come back to Beirut till ’99. That year, we were doing
mainly touristy things here, with a group of friends. Figuring how
to go back to Shatila didn’t seem easy…
So, this time around, November of 2004, was it. A friend of a friend of a friend helped
set it up. I just wanted to go back in a low-key way and see the camp
was… Maybe find out what had happened to Khadija, Najat, Ruqaya,
and their friends…
(… to be continued)