With current tensions in both Lebanon and Palestine threatening renewed civil conflict, the Arab American Institute marks the 25th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila with a heavy heart.
In June 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon heightened already tense relations between Palestinians and Lebanese. These tensions led to a devastating climax on September 16 when the Israel Defense Forces surrounded the Palestinian refugees camps of Sabra and Shatila and a Lebanese militia then entered the camps, killing unarmed men, women, and children. Official estimates of the dead range from 700 – 3,500.
That summer, Arab Americans helped Jill Drew, an American nurse, travel to Lebanon to volunteer with refugees under the auspices of the Middle East Council of Churches. Jill spent four months at the American University of Beirut Hospital, caring for civilians, including those injured in Sabra and Shatila. Following are excerpts from Jill’s moving diary from 1982.
September 15, 1982
This morning at 5 a.m. I awake already standing upright. Israeli jets are screaming over the rooftops of Ras Beirut. “Please,” I hear myself say, “what is it?” It has to be Syrians. It has to be. But the sound is Israeli. And Barbara, my night nurse, comes over to my room at 7:30 with the news: Gemayel is dead. A 300-pound TNT explosion in Kataeb headquarters has killed many.
The streets are deserted. We walk to our café on the Hamra and we order drinks – Barbara has more gin. The waiter and I laugh because it’s only 9:00 a.m. How odd to laugh now, I think, why my knees are shaking even though I am sitting down.
I say the names of all the people I know who are in danger. I say them like prayers, over and over again. Still mumbling, I go to the hospital – and am greeted with hoots. It is a day off. There’s some comfort, however, in just being there – working and listening to my patients talking endlessly about Lebanon, about dreams they once had. – yesterday – about the possibility of peace.
I work with Nabil, an 18-year-old from Sidon who is going to die from bullet wounds. I change his dressings, his sheets – try to change his fate. Goddamn it, I know and he knows that nothing will change and that one of these days his respirator will be a joke. His dying is a secret we share, and because we share it, his death will become my death.
When he begins to hemorrhage from all his tubes, he watches the blood pouring out of his body and his eyebrows rise in alarm. His eyes watch my face then, and when we look at one another even for a moment it becomes eternal sharing. I am beginning to wonder which of us is going to die, and I think about him all the time – even when the bleeding has stopped, the wounds and incisions are clean again and packed, his parents and aunts and uncles are finally sleeping in the hallway outside the room and on the floor beside his bed.
Nabil’s aunt Noha and I have a long conversation in French – about him, about this summer, about the shooting. She tells me often that someday when this is over and Nabil is well we will all be together at their village north of Sidon and we will have a tremendous celebration. Once Nabil listened to us and smiled at me through his tubes and lines and held my hands very tightly. I kissed his eyes – maybe because I didn’t want to share any death at that moment – and now I just kiss his eyes every so often because that is part of the sharing.
I stay at the hospital off and on all day. What I am waiting for? The Israelis? They are here. They finally made it into West Beirut.
At 5 p.m., I go out and visit my friend Khalil and his wife Elizabeth. We sit in their apartment and Elizabeth gulps Valium and I gulp beer. Lots of beer. Maybe it blurs the edges of today’s horror. It surely provides calories – I don’t really eat.
The funeral for Bashir is over, and we can hear the shelling from the port. The camps have been surrounded. The Green Line between East and West Beirut is closed for a week.
I hurry back to my own neighborhood and buy some wine and stick it in the fridge in my room. Out of force of habit. There isn’t any electricity tonight. I have lived without it for so long that I feel slightly uncomfortable when the lights are on. Beirut is full of lessons – for example that darkness provides safety. It isn’t always so important what or who I see – it’s who can see me.
I go back towards the hospital. In front of the Orthodox church the first load of refugees from Sabra and Shatila have arrived in two trucks. The men are negotiating with a neighborhood man, the women are pale, the children hastily packed.
“Will they be able to stay?” I ask someone.
“There is no choice,” someone else answers.
“Take care,” calls one of the shopkeepers.
Now my mind is on superalert, my senses sharpened. Just south of here the sound of gunfire echoes over the rooftops.
The hospital is subdued. In front of the emergency room, people are sitting on stretchers waiting – for what? Casualties, maybe. I go upstairs to my ward. Nabil is still alive.
When I leave, I walk towards the Mazraa, the coast. Very few people are on the street – due to a curfew, I find out later. But boys are out, all walking towards the port. They don’t look very old – Nabil’s age, 18 maybe younger.
I begin to say the names of all the friends I have, being especially careful to repeat those of the ones living in the camps. I make myself remember each member of every family – the uncles and grandmothers and small children. Samira, Mouna, Ida, Nidal, Khaled, Mohammed, Mahmoud, Ata Mahmoud, Fatieh, Hassan, Hussein, Abed, little Hassan, Abdullah, Marwan. Then I go back to my camp people. And I say the 23rd Psalm. I have said that one many times.
I go to see my friend Mohammed in his restaurant. He’s passing out Kalashnikovs to assorted males assembled by the doorway. Mohammed is a Palestinian and a freedom fighter.
“They won’t come here,” he tells me as we walk outside together. “Just all around us.” He has sweat on his face. “Don’t go to the camps now,” he adds. Maybe he’s reading my mind. “I will let you know how you can help.” He goes back to the guns. The shelling is far away and sporadic now. I keep thinking I hear airplanes.
I go on walking and saying the names. All the way up the hill to Verdun Street. Every so often I stop to look about me and light a cigarette. Most of my life in Beirut I have lived on cigarettes and air and 7-Up and Lebanese beer and wine when it’s available and food when my knees shake. Food had become revolting by the second day after my arrival.
It’s so quiet now that I can hear my own footsteps on the pavement. I’ve nearly reached Verdun Street when I see the tanks. Good, solid, tan Israeli tanks. I keep walking, thinking maybe they will think that I live on Verdun Street, that I’m an ordinary Lebanese-looking middle-aged lady just going home from work. “Maybe,” I say out loud.
A soldier tosses a cigarette down by my feet. “Where are you off to?” he asks – in Arabic.
“Mazraa,” I reply briefly. My conversation with any soldier tends to be brief. I find I’m almost abrupt if it is a soldier with a tank.
“Mazraa no.” He waves back towards the hill I’ve just climbed.
“Why?” I ask in English.
He pauses. “You are ingleesi?”
“Yes,” I answer, “and I want to go to Mazraa.”
“There are military operations there.” He sighs and looks out and down over his gun. “You will go back now.”
I go back slowly. The sky is getting dark. To the south there are flares over the camps, lighting them up. I go down the hill and cut back up a side street. There’s a place in the Verdun district where you can see all the way to Mazraa and beyond, and I have to get there. I hurry, pausing in the doorways to look up the streets. No one is about.
When I reach the lookout place, I see what I think must be the entire Israeli army down on the Mazraa and over the coast. I hear the sound of the tanks moving and of the armored cars, heavy and grating. The sky above Sabra is pink: sunrise, daylight pink. The flares look like embers from a hung fire.
My knees begin to shake again. Sometimes I have to lean on them so I can stay standing upright. I stay on the lookout for a long time and must watch.
On the way back to my room I say the names of all the fighters I’ve known – Hani, Farhat, Abdullah, little Hassan. Where are they now?
I see one of the small Sabra children in a picture in my mind, and I say his name over and over again and the name of his little sister and the name of his mother and her sister – Hammoudi, Mouna, Noha, Samira – until it’s like music and no one knows I’m crying.
September 16, 1982
I get up at 5 a.m. this morning and go out. It’s quiet and still almost dark. By 6 a.m. the fighting has started down by the port and in Wadi Abou Jamil and I can hear the sound of explosions.
At the hospital, no one has slept well. Many of the patients have insisted on being moved into the hallways because of the shelling.
Nabil is back from one of his surgeries and Toufic, his father, chases around all day finding ice. Ice water stops the bleeding. Toufic is paying the bill in cash, it seems. Nabil is not considered a war casualty paid for by the government. Or by the Red Crescent. Or by the Israelis. Perhaps they should make a round in this ward and see what they have done. What we – the Americans who finance this carnage – have done.
Look, America – look at Nabil. Look at little Khalil who lives near Fakhani and who ran out with some of his pals to play and stepped on a bomb, detonated it, and blew his legs off. He also blew his perineal area out, and his entire rear end is one huge repair. Khalil is 12. He’s been here four or five days now, and I’ve never heard him cry. Even during his dressing changes. He has a face like a son of God, with high cheekbones, a wide generous mouth, perfect teeth, and beautiful almond eyes.
When I am not with Nabil, I am with Khalil. The administration of this hospital will send him down to the fourth floor – four South – where the “poor” people go. In the meantime he is here, and being so young he gets the best we know to give, which isn’t much. Cleanliness and freedom from pain.
Today, the practical nurse, a young Lebanese girl named Miriam, looks frightful. Her color is grayish-yellow, and there are dark half-rings beneath her eyes. Her father, she tells me, lives just off of Rue Clemenceau.
“How old is your father?” I ask.
We are standing on the balcony, and there are tears on her face. I can’t even see Rue Clemenceau because of the smoke from the shelling. We watch as right below us more young boys go towards the port. It’s just past 7. The boys are wearing jeans and sneakers. Why don’t I say their names, too? They look like the boys who hang around the newsstand in my neighborhood. But I don’t know them. Miriam and I listen to the explosions. Fires are beginning to burn in that part of the city.
At first it seems the port itself is burning and then the smoke clears and there’s another explosion and more machine-gun fire and the strange whistling sound of rockets, and the black smoke rises up from another section further up the hill. Beirut is on fire again. I think about the old city and all the war-shattered streets and about Wadi Abou Jamil and the people I’ve seen there.
I wonder about Miriam’s father. Is he in his room, underneath a bed, crawling along the floor towards a chair, a cupboard, anything for cover? Or is he just sitting there all alone waiting for it to be over? And is he wondering when he will die?
The explosions became louder, the hospital building itself seems to shake every so often, and the glass in the doorframes rattles. Miriam and I go back inside. We can hardly, I think, stand idle – like some distorted Nero figures, watching Beirut burn while the people in their beds wonder what’s going to happen to us all.
Nabil slept through it all. I don’t think he will die today and perhaps not tomorrow. I don’t think so because there isn’t room for so many deaths in one day. I begin to change the packing in his buttock wounds. To do this I have to turn him to his left side, and he chokes and gags on the dotracheal tube. The buttock wounds are exit wounds from shrapnel and bullets and they are as deeps as the muscles themselves. I can fill one of them with a five-inch packing.
When I turn him, his abdominal dressings fall off onto the bed and his colostomy and incisions pour out bloody fluid, bile, and liquid feces. The bile is eating away all his skin. His sacrum looks as though someone had put a hot iron on it. Noha helps me.
Nabil’s mother does not help, mainly because we have convinced her to leave the room. Take a break, lady, we are many mothers here. A woman from across the hall will bring her coffee and cigarettes and they will sit and smoke together. Little Khalil’s mother joins them often.
Today it takes almost two hours to clean Nabil, dress the wounds, change the linen, suction out his tubes, lavage him with iced saline, regulate his intravenous tubes, push his medications, renew his supplies. While I work I always talk to him, in English and in my terrible Arabic.
Today he opens one eye and peers at me. The whites of his eyes are yellow like saffron, his skin is slightly orange, the jaundice comes and goes. While he is peering out at me, the explosion comes from somewhere close by. The entire room rocks. I nearly crawl underneath the bed from fright, then I feel guilty. Noha puts her arm around my shoulders.
“Malesh,” she says. “Never mind.”
I hang around the room after that, scrubbing surfaces with alcohol, tying up trash bags, arranging dressings, daring the walls to fall in.
“You rest,” I tell Nabil, “just rest.” Rest until I come back and we go through the dressings, the linen, the blood pressure, the lavages, the routine all over again. Or until one of your family comes down the hallway and tells me, “Blood, Jill, blood.” Nabil shuts his eyes, and I touch his face. It’s burning hot. Today is a day of fear and fires.
I go into another room and out to the balcony. From down the street, the second floor of the bank building, comes a tremendous shattering sound. The glass wall of the building smashes down into the street below. A street lamp lies twisted at a grotesque angle, and I didn’t even see it fall. I didn’t even jump. What am I waiting for? For the building to fall down, for the balcony where I stand to part company from the hospital wall and go crashing down 10 floors?
“My hands hurt,” I say aloud.
A man’s voice replies, “Don’t worry, they aren’t shooting at us. Stay, stay and watch.” The young orthopedic resident stands next to me. “Look,” he points past the corenr and beyond the crumpled street lamp. “Look,” he repeats, “here they come.”
We stand there glued to the balcony railing as one by one, at long and agonizing intervals, the tanks come up from the port. Further down towards the sea, an armored track vehicle cruises slowly along an empty street. Has everyone died, I wonder, did they leave, are they hiding? Isn’t anyone going to throw a small grenade, even an egg, anything? Where did everyone go?
“I would like to have a gun now,” I tell the doctor as I watch the lone armored car go slowly past.
Once upon a time, I used to be a disarmament worker. I went to national conferences, read a hundred books, absorbed even more lectures and sessions, created neighborhood peace groups. I wore pins with doves on them, stayed up all night sewing armbands with ribbons in colors that the Hiroshima victims chose to commemorate the dead of 1945.
I carried handmade banners in the streets, and I raged against the potential death of children, of adults, of civilization, of my daughters, my son, my grandson, and myself. I shared meals with Tokyo schoolteachers who had been victims of a holocaust. We held hands, exchanged addresses, prayed with each other, and marched together.
And now, look. Nabil is dying in agony from our bullets, and he is a child. Khalil is no longer charred, but he will lose the motion in his arm. Little Khalil with the face of God’s grace will never walk—indeed, he will probably never have the controlled use of his bowels again. Ibrahim will never walk. Hani is demented. Farhat will lose the use of one leg. Abbas down the hall has lost a hand—granted he is old, but with the hand went his son, his wife, and seven grandchildren, and two daughters. Little Hassan will never walk; big Hassan will walk artificially. Mohammed has no ankle bones.
Hussein will never walk, and with his leg went his mother and his grandparents. He has two brothers, one with a broken back and neurological damage and the other with no arms. His father goes from floor to floor of this hospital watching over the remains of his family.
Oh, shall I say their names over and over again? With what colors will I commemorate my friends Samira and Abed and the boys who were walking towards the port last night and this morning? What gay ribbons somewhere for Hammoudi and Mouna? And maybe I should put small bells on those ribbons to ring lightly in the wind—pretty ones, to show my love for their laughter.
I follow the progress of the armored vehicle and watch the top of the driver’s head and listen to the grating of heavy steel on the pavement. Ride to Mazraa, I tell the soldier in my mind, blow the hell out of the small shop where I buy 7-Up and cigarettes. Then wreck our florist, the florist who always—no matter what your country does—opens up shop every morning and defies you with flowers, who loves Barbara and gives her flowers because he knows she loves growing things, who tells me “Ah’len” even when I don’t stop to look at the roses, who shoves a perfect carnation in my hands almost every day.
“If you had a gun now,” says the doctor, “if you even shot into the air, they would come here and kill us all.”
“Back to work,” I reply. “Time for vital signs. Besides you have your work cut out for you today.”
True, true. The armored car has vanished. I go back to Nabil. It’s only 11 o’clock. Today is the longest day.
The casualties are arriving—Shahine and Mohammed, a new Hussein, Faisal. “You take 1019 and 1011,” my head nurse tells me. “You can’t watch your friends the Israelis arrive all day.”
Shahine and Mohammed have identical wounds: some scattered shrapnel, hunks of arm missing, chest tubes, blood and dirt and metal splinters ground into them all over. A woman with blue eyes and red hair shoved back in a knot huddles by Shahine’s bedside, crying, disheveled, and miserable. I take his blood pressure—it’s not bad—and put tape on the chest drainage bottle. Together the woman and I wash some of the grime off of him. His skin is warm, and he’s awake—quiet, but awake.
“Where do you live?” I ask in my bad Arabic.
“Wadi Abou Jamil,” he answers. He’s young and tall and thin. The blood from the chest tube is spare. I put the time on the bottle tape, hang a new IV, and watch him breathe.
“Fi waja?” I ask. He waves his good arm. I go to get some Demerol. I don’t ask for it, I take it.
The red-haired woman is pale and exhausted: her eyes are red. I haven’t cried all day. I go back to the nurses station and take some Valium for the woman. She sits down. I go on to the man named Mohammed.
Mohammed looks awful. He’s older than Shahine, heavier. His chest if filling rapidly with blood, and his breathing is labored.
“Where do you come from?” I ask.
I think about Miriam and her father. I think about all the times I’ve walked down Rue Clemenceau.
Mohammed never opens his eyes. I speed up the IV, his vital signs are poor. Maybe this one will die. I go out and call the doctor in surgery. “We are busy down here,” he tells me.
“Well, one of you better come here soon,” I snap.
“Fine,” he shouts. “I’ll come up there and you can come down here.”
I smash the phone down.
A heavy-set pretty woman is sitting next to Mohammed’s bed. “Ah’len,” she whispers.
“Where do you come from?” I ask in Arabic.
I think about all the tanks around the camps.
“Tonight you stay here,” I tell her. I’m tired and angry. I go and steal a blanket and a pillow for her.
Nabil is asleep again. Little Khalil is lying on his ruptured butt watching the ceiling. Big Khalil is staring at the wall. Saleh has his head under the pillow.
It’s nearly 5 o’clock. The Israelis have encircled West Beirut.