"I am one of those who was there, who was in Palestine. I saw it all with
Abu Ismail is sitting on a sofa as he speaks. The tape recorder sits on a low
table in front of him, absorbing his voice, and the noise of mopeds and people
from the alley outside. He is in his mid-sixties, but looks perhaps a little
older. We are sitting around the room.
There is Umm Ismail, and one of their daughters, two grandsons, myself and some
other visitors, and the children of Shatilla refugee camp who have brought me
here to listen to Abu Ismail tell the story of the massacre in his village of Safsaf,
near Safad, northern Palestine.
Abu Ismail's home is on the third floor of one of the tall, teetering
cinder-block structures that make up Shatilla refugee camp. It is on what passes
for a main street, a noisy, dusty alley with small shops and crowded with
I first went to Shatilla refugee camp last summer. Since then, I kept in touch
with some of the children I met by e-mail. I have come back to visit them for a
few days, and they decided they would take me to meet some of the older people
who witnessed Al Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948.
Abu Ismail was about twelve, and Umm Ismail about twenty-one when Safsaf
was attacked by Zionist forces in October 1948, shortly after the fall of
the city of Safad. Safsaf, which had been the
headquarters of an Arab Liberation Army battalion was the first village to fall
in the Haganah's operation "Hiram", according to Walid Khalidi's `All
That Remains'. Several massacres were committed in the village, details of which
Abu Ismail recalls vividly: "On the night of Oct. 29, around five in the
afternoon, two planes came and dropped bombs on the village. They destroyed the
grain silos and the mill. And so we knew that today Israel would attack
Although the village had been heavily fortified, the Arab Liberation Army
eventually withdrew, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Outgunned and
outflanked, the Zionists took the village. Many villagers were killed, or fled
to the nearby village of Jish or on to Lebanon. Those who stayed behind gathered
in a few storehouses "intending to surrender to the Jews, since we were defenseless",
remembers Abu Ismail. "The Jews came into the building. No one moved. `Get
out, get out, get out' they cried -- they took out all the men. They closed the
door on us. And then we heard shooting. After a while, we opened the door and
went outside. There was a line maybe fifty meters, of men. Dead. They had lined
them up against the wall and shot them with machineguns." The Jewish forces
used the dry collecting basin of the village spring as a mass grave. The
remaining villagers discovered this a few days later when the water, which
unbeknownst to the Jews was piped directly into the village from underground
thanks to improvements made by the British, began to taste rotten.
Abu Ismail and Umm Ismail, and a few other survivors, have drawn up a list of
fifty-four names of people killed in that massacre, among them Abu Ismail's
father and his older brother, to whom Umm Ismail had first been married.
Perhaps a few days later, recounts Abu Ismail, the Jewish forces told the women
and children remaining in the village they had to leave to an adjacent area
because there were explosives in the village and they wanted to destroy them.
"Now, there was a woman in one house who was hiding her husband under a
blanket. Women were sitting on top of him and around him, so he couldn't be
seen. When they were forced out, he was discovered. They took him out, and his
wife started screaming. They fired shots near her feet, and then they took the
man to Jish, where their headquarters were." There he was interrogated by
the Jewish commander, who, learning he was from Safsaf,
said, according to Abu Ismail: "I know your village. I used to come to it
as a boy with my father, Mordechai, to buy milk." The commander, whose name
Abu Ismail remembers as Manu, son of Mordechai, a Palestinian Jew from Safad,
sent the man back to Safsaf with the message: "Stay in the village, do not
go to Lebanon. We will look after you and I will come to the village in a few
Abu Ismail said the Jewish commander did come and brought food, but there were
only women and children left, terrified and traumatized by the massacres, and
unable to fend for themselves. Fearing the worst, they left for Lebanon, either
with men who had comeback under cover of night to fetch them, or alone to look
for surviving men who feared the consequences of returning.
Abu Ismail remembers every inch of Safsaf. As he speaks, his grandson fills in
the detail of a map he has drawn according to his grandfather's recollection of
each house in the village. When asked what he thinks of former Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Barak's offer to allow a few thousand Palestinians to return to
their homes in Palestine, he scoffs: "they are not serious about the right
of return. They may allow me and my wife to go back, but not my children and my
In contrast to Shatilla, which has been destroyed, rebuilt and rearranged
countless times, Palestinian residents of nearby Bourj Al Barajneh camp are
still grouped together according to their village of origin. In "Sheikh
Daoud" alley, named after a small village near Akka,
we met Umm Waheed.
Umm Waheed named her daughter Badr, meaning "full moon", because that
is what she saw in 1948 when she gave birth alone in Sheikh Daoud, to which she
had returned after all the inhabitants had left to Yaraka, a neighboring
village. Her family came back to fetch her and the family went from village to
village as the Zionists advanced, and eventually left for Lebanon.
Asked how she endured this, she says: "I am strong, I am very strong."
During the "war of the camps" in the mid 1980s, when Bourj Al Barajneh
was besieged by the Amal militia, Umm Waheed helped deliver ammunition to the
resistance fighters and baked bread in her house to share with the other
residents of the camp. Umm Waheed's home is a single meticulously kept room with
bare concrete floors, that also serves as a small store from which she sells
basic supplies, soft drinks and juice from an electric machine that whirs away
near the door so that passersby might be tempted by it.
She tells how she left Palestine. She begins to sing a quiet song, `Tarakna al
buwab mfattaha' (We left the doors open). These are words she has composed
herself in order to pass on the history of Palestine to the children in the
camp. She remembers that the villagers did not want to leave. "Three times
the women and children returned to Majd Al Kuroum," -- the last village Umm
Waheed stayed in before fleeing to Lebanon -- "and three times the Arab
Liberation Army let it fall."
"When we got to Lebanon, they made us live on beaches. Everything was wet
and windy in winter. In summer everything was full of sand. But we
endured," remembers Umm Waheed. "After a while, we were given guns,
and they said we would do guerrilla operations, but they amounted to nothing. So
many of our men were killed for nothing. People are dying now in Palestine, but
they are in the homeland. Aren't houses being demolished on their heads? Let the
houses be demolished, the land will remain. If they let us go to Palestine, we
would live on the bare ground like the people there. We will resist with them.
If we die, may God make it easy on us. If we live, we will continue to resist.
We will put a sheet over our heads for shelter. Let them come and burn the sheet
and strike us. The land will remain."
Later we accompany Umm Waheed to her son's house, a little way down the alley.
There, with members of her family, we watch the new film by Mai Masri, `Dreams
of Fears and Hopes', which documents the friendship that developed over the past
two years between children in Shatilla refugee camp and children in Dheisheh
refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Several of those who appear in the film,
including Umm Waheed, Mahmoud, 14, Rabie, 15, Ismail, 15, and Safa, 13, are
watching the film with us.
There are tears in the room as the screen shows the children's first, and then
second and last, meeting at the border, following Israel's withdrawal from
southern Lebanon in May 2000. The third time they go back, the children find
fortifications which have stopped the meeting of human flesh, embraces,
exchanges of laughter, tears, memories and gifts through the barbed wire. But
the friendship continues despite all the borders Palestinians find before them:
physical borders that separate them, legal and social borders that deny them
civil rights, decent education and a chance to work, and, above all, the right
to return to their country and their homes.
During my first visit to Shatilla I met Samar, then a young woman of fifteen.
Her strength and eloquence made her a leader and an example for the other
children. A few months after my visit she was spirited out of the camp -- her
family, like so many others, found an escape route out of desperation. Now Samar
and her family await the slim possibility of being granted asylum in a European
country. They find themselves refugees again, their freedom restricted in every
way. Samar writes occasional letters to her friends in Shatilla. They gather to
read the latest during my last day in Shatilla. Despite the innumerable and
indescribable hardships of life in the camp, Samar has found a place on earth
worse than Shatilla: it is to be in double exile, a refugee from her country,
and a refugee from the friends she grew up with and who sustained her. In each
other, the children of Shatilla have found a hope, strength and support that the
rest of the world has denied them or done its best to destroy.
There is a lot of talk, even a little excitement in Shatilla about the court
case in Belgium against Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacre in this place and a
little distance away in Sabra. But people have learned not to put too much hope
in anything. And even if the case does go somewhere, what will it mean for the
people still here, the ones who, the day after the massacre, got up and
continued with life, who endured? Will the world care any more for their futures
and rights than it does now? Few here are prepared to say it will.
July 13-14, 2001