Dark portents of a slaughter foretold: Robert Fisk finds in Sarajevo disturbing parallels with the massacres in Sabra and Chatila, which began 10 years ago today

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SARAJEVO is an oddly appropriate place to remember Sabra and Chatila. True, the smell of dead people - hundreds of dead people, men, women and children heaped together in the sun - is something that returns with the memory. The odour of corruption is strangely imperishable; much more so when the dying city outside one's window, the unburned garbage, the fractured gunfire, the hopeless political demands are so similar to the sounds and smells and lies of Beirut in 1982.

A city under siege whose Muslim majority vainly awaits Western support, a new population of refugees, a capital surrounded by a hundred little Sabras and Chatilas; was it not the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which ultimately doomed the Palestinians, the Lebanese and the people of Sarajevo, albeit that their moment of fate came a decade apart?

These 10 years have refracted the reality of what we saw in those terrible Beirut laneways. When I entered the camps on the last day of the massacre, the immediate truths were undeniable. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians - 600 by one conservative estimate, though another 1,400 are still believed to lie beneath a sinister and flourishing mound near the Beirut golf course - were slaughtered by the Christian Phalange militia, watched over and observed by the Israeli army, which had sent the Phalange into the camps to hunt down 'terrorists'. That much was clear, although the physical sense of shock we felt that morning needs to be explained to be understood. I and the two colleagues with whom I entered the camps had never seen so many dead before. Tangled together in alleyways, spreadeagled across the floors of their half-dynamited homes - the women had clearly been raped, in some cases disembowelled - I stopped counting when I reached a hundred.

We had hid in a back yard after hearing a Phalangist armoured vehicle still in the camp. In the yard, I found a young woman lying on her back, a halo of clothes-pegs round her face, the blood still running from the bullet-hole in her back. The murderers must have left as we entered the gate. In the days that followed, the corpses lay where they had been knifed or gunned down, giving forth a stench that spread for two miles across the city.

We knew the Christian militia, Israel's allies in its disastrous invasion of Lebanon, had committed this massacre. Israel agreed, oddly denying that its other rag-tag private army of Lebanese Christians, run by Major Saad Haddad, could have been involved (though several of Haddad's men clearly were, by his own admission). We also knew - because they were watching us through their binoculars from the buildings around the camps - that the Israelis must have seen all that had happened here. And done nothing.

Their subsequent inquiry into the slaughter, a fascinating if flawed document which indirectly blamed the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, the army chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, and his defence minister, Ariel Sharon, showed the Israeli army to be culpable by negligence if not intent. The Israelis blamed the Phalangist militia leader, Elie Hobeika. Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest at what was - though we failed to appreciate this at the time - a war crime.

Not that those with blood on their hands or their consciences need have worried unduly. Mr Sharon was later to be made minister of housing - responsible for Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands - in the Shamir government. Mr Hobeika, having converted to Syria's cause, was to be made minister without portfolio in a later Lebanese government - responsible for the rehousing of Lebanese refugees. The American press briefly condemned Israel, but without much conviction.

In years to come, however, it was a different kind of responsibility we failed to assess. On the first, the second, the third anniversaries, we would prowl the hovels of Sabra and Chatila to search for unrecorded memories, some survivor's clue as to why this massacre had occurred. The indifference of the Lebanese population to the Palestinian refugees who had lived in their midst since 1948 and 1970 and whose guerrilla army had treated Lebanon with callous disregard; this we could not disregard. An official Lebanese 'inquiry' concluded shamelessly that 'persons unknown' had killed the Palestinians of Sabra and Chatila. Today, the mass grave of the victims has been turned into a football pitch by Lebanese Shia Muslims. There were those who would later say Israel was also guilty of the crime of indifference, although this was to short-change reality. The Israelis would not have been indifferent if the occupants of the camps had been Jews rather than Arabs.

If foreign correspondents exercised their critical faculties a little more boldly in the aftermath of the massacre, Israel also lost the moral high ground which it had claimed for itself in its 34-year war against the Arabs. If the Syrians were guilty - as they were - of slaughtering thousands of their own people in the Muslim uprising at Hama the same year, the morality of the Middle East dispute had become muddied. Yet the West also bore a measure of responsibility for the events of 1982 - for supporting Israel so uncritically, for allowing Israel to invade and partition Lebanon, for promising the Palestinians that a PLO evacuation from Beirut would safeguard the lives of Palestinian civilians.

Conscious-stricken and anxious to impose its own 'civilised values' upon the protagonists - and here begin the painful parallels with Sarajevo - the Americans, the French, the Italians and later the British sent troops to 'protect' the civilian population of Beirut, especially the Muslims. The Marines and the French paratroopers set up their headquarters within a mile of Sabra and Chatila, too few to restore order, swiftly abused by Israelis and Lebanese alike of favouring each other's respective enemies.

Promises were broken, trust was abused. Within a year of the massacre, the US was trying to rail-road Lebanon into an unofficial peace treaty with Israel - an act which led to the suicide bombing of the American embassy in April of 1983 and of the US Marines and French paratroop headquarters six months later. Within another half year, all four international contingents would retreat from Beirut, despairing of their mission but satisfied, no doubt, that the savagery of Lebanon was confined to the Middle East, to the amorphous world of 'Middle East terrorism', an idea to which the Israelis so readily subscribed as memories of Sabra and Chatila grew dimmer.

But as we all know - indeed, I can hear the proof of this outside my window as I write - the savagery of the old Ottoman Empire, and of all that unfinished business of the post-1918 world, was incubating far outside the Levant. And when it gave birth to massacres inside Europe itself, the world's conscience produced a gesture little more relevant than the dispatch of the doomed US Marines. Now it is the United Nations in Croatia and the Ukrainian UN conscripts across the road from my room in Sarajevo who are trying vainly to prove to the Muslims of Bosnia that the world has a conscience, that it respects international law, that it opposes aggression.

Leaving aside the embarrassing precedent of oil-rich Kuwait - for whose immensely wealthy emir and his subjects the West readily went to war - what conclusions are we, let alone Muslims, supposed to draw from the continued siege of Sarajevo and the de facto division of the internationally recognised state of Bosnia? This is not a question of right or wrong, of heaping all blame on the Serbs or of suggesting that all of Bosnia - whose capital contains just over 50 per cent Muslims and whose Serbian population never wished for an independent state - stands behind the government of Alija Izetbegovic.

But how come the West, which so bitterly, and rightly, condemned Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and its responsibility for the 1982 massacre, now commits an almost equal crime of indifference when confronted with the massacres of Christians and Muslims in the European nation once called Yugoslavia? The shells falling over Sarajevo last night were no different in effect to the shells which fell on Beirut in 1982 when the same nations which are now appealing for restraint from Serbs and Bosnians and Croatians urged restraint upon the Israelis.

Truly was there a dark portent in the most eloquent and immediate self-criticism to come from Israel in the aftermath of the Sabra and Chatila massacre 10 years ago, from an elderly professor at the Hebrew University. The Israelis could no more escape guilt, he said then, than could the Germans who used proxy militias in the Second World War. And he went on to compare the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians with the Croatian massacre of Serbs. Were we not warned?

(Photograph omitted)