Comment: Fifteen years after the bloodbath, the world turns its back

Robert Fisk in sabra and chatila

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Exactly 15 years ago, I walked into a place of such horror that - for the first and only night of my life - I suffered ferocious nightmares. I had walked into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut while Israel's Lebanese militia thugs were still finishing their work of butchery and rape. There were corpses covered in flies, disembowelled women, babies with bullets in their heads. To cross one street, I had to clamber over a pile of bodies, their arms and stomachs and heads pressing around my legs. All that moved were the flies that covered my face and the minute hands of the watches on dead wrists. On the other side of the pile was a mass grave. When I hid from the militiamen, I found myself crouching beside a beautiful young woman whose blood was still running from a hole in her back.

I stopped counting bodies when I reached 100. They say that 600 were killed although there is, I am certain, a mass grave near Beirut golf course which contains perhaps another 1,400 Palestinians - because truck- loads of bodies were seen being driven there under the eyes of the Israelis and because 2,000 was the number of refugees listed as missing after the slaughter. Either way, the Israelis had surrounded the camp, had sent in the militiamen to kill "terrorists" and had then - according to Israel's own commission of enquiry - watched the killings going on for two days.

The world expressed outrage. And Israel's minister of defence, Ariel Sharon, was sacked from his job after the commission found that he bore "personal responsibility" for the atrocity. Israel identified the leader of the gunmen who entered the camp as a Lebanese militiaman called Elie Hobeika. The world demanded that the murderers be brought to justice. And there were promises galore: a new Middle East peace, protection for the Palestinians, an end to the Lebanese bloodbath.

And yesterday, walking through the filth and sewage and ruined (but still inhabited) huts of Sabra and Chatila, it was difficult to avoid the thought that the survivors of that most terrible massacre - understandably regarded in the Arab world as a war crime - have been kicked in the face by the world which expressed so much shame and revulsion. The mass grave is now covered in mud - children were playing football on it yesterday morning - and the Palestinians live among 20ft high heaps of rat-infested garbage. The smell of faeces seeps out of doorways where old women huddle beneath fading monochrome photographs of their dead. "And what did the world do for us?" Deebeh Saleh Hussein asked me in the little hut she calls home. "What did you journalists do for us when you made us re-open our wounds?"

Deebeh Hussein lost her husband Younis, her four sons - Ghazi, Ahmed, Madi and Mohamed - her son-in-law Hussein Ali, her own brother Hussein Saleh and his son Saleh, a cousin, the husband of another cousin and his 18-year-old daughter Afifi. All of them were hacked to death with axes by Israel's proxy militiamen. And when Deebeh Hussein asked me what the world had done for the people of Sabra and Chatila, I had to answer her with one word: nothing.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the killings, the press concentrated on Israel's self-examination rather than the victims and their surviving relatives, not to mention the purpose of the slaughter. In its first cover issue on Sabra and Chatila, Newsweek's headline read: "Israel in Torment". The other main reports were entitled: "The Anguish of America's Jews" and the "Troubled Soul of Israel" - and all this when one might have expected that torment and anguish to be uniquely that of Palestinians like Deebeh Hussein, whose entire family was cut to pieces in Beirut. Not so, it seems. Had Palestinians massacred 2,000 Israelis 15 years ago, would anyone doubt that the world's press and television would be remembering so terrible a deed this morning? Yet this week, not a single newspaper in the United States - or Britain for that matter - has even mentioned the anniversary of Sabra and Chatila.

And why should they? For the Palestinians in Beirut are non-persons. They or their parents fled from Palestine in 1948 - from that part of Palestine which became Israel - and can never return. They are cut out - totally - from the so-called Oslo "peace process", save for a dismissive reference to "refugees" in the last section. Nor can they live in Lebanon in any sense of the word. They cannot work; they cannot have Lebanese citizenship. And they exist without protection. Three years after the massacres, Sabra and Chatila was eight times besieged by Muslim Lebanese militiamen. So many died under the shells that the Palestinians buried their dead in basements. I saw some of these subterranean graves yesterday, bedecked with dust-covered, withered wreaths.

And what of Messrs Sharon and Hobeika, the Israeli minister and the Lebanese Maronite whom Israel held responsible? Well, Mr Sharon is back in the Israeli cabinet as minister of national infrastructure. And quite incredible as it may seem, Mr Hobeika now holds a remarkably similar job in Lebanon. He is the minister of electricity and hydraulics in Beirut. And what of Sabra and Chatila? The Lebanese government, it seems, is planning to construct a spanking new motorway through the middle, a product of Beirut's wealth and reconstruction which will force the Palestinians from their huts. No one knows where they will go.

It's not surprising, therefore, that Deebeh Hussein would like to get away, at least for a few months, from the heat and slums and shit. She has a daughter, Huda, who survived the massacre and now lives in Chicago. Deebeh says she holds American citizenship. So Deebeh set off recently to the US embassy in Damascus to ask for a visitor's visa. She was told, she says, that she could have no visa if she did not have children or a husband or property in Lebanon outside the Sabra and Chatila area. She has no Lebanese passport. And she certainly got no visa. So even 15 years after the bloodbath of Sabra and Chatila, the world is still punishing the survivors for being victims.

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