Militia boasts of role in Sabra massacre

From the archive (legacy material)

Inigo Gilmore | The Observer | 30 October 2005

It was one of the most shocking massacres to scar the Middle East, the slaying of more than 2,000 Palestinians by Christian militiamen in the wretched Lebanese refugee camps.
Now a film has returned to the story of Sabra and Shatila. But for the first time it has told the story of the slaughter through the voices of the killers. In Massaker, six former Christian Phalange militiamen tell of their training by Israeli allies and recount the events of 16-18 September, 1982, when hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children were killed in the Beirut camps.
Although the identities of the men are disguised in the 90-minute documentary, they make no attempt to hide the gruesome details of the massacre, with some boasting about their killing skills with AK-47 assault rifles and butchers’ knives.
Several parts of the film assault the viewers’ senses, including one where a man describes how another militiaman, a butcher, took pleasure in carving up his victims. Another recalls how even the wails of old Palestinian women ‘left them cold’ as they systematically moved into the camps, tossed grenades into houses and sprayed rooms with gunfire, killing at close range.
The film is ground-breaking because it is the first time that members of the various militias involved in the 1975-90 civil war have spoken at length on film about what happened, particularly in such candid detail. It has been shown at festivals in 15 countries, and in France and Greece Massaker will go out on general release.
The directors say that they deliberately made a ‘politically incorrect’ choice in portraying the massacre from the perspective of the perpetrators. The characters are unpalatable and the directors hope not only to confront their audiences about the violence generally, but to tackle the Lebanese head-on about their past deeds.
One of the directors, Lokman Slim, says he hopes it can bring people together – if not to ‘reconcile’ them, then to educate them about chapters of their common history.
‘Personally I don’t think there are victims and perpetrators [in this conflict],’ said Slim at his office in south Beirut, a stronghold of the radical Hizbollah movement.
‘I think each perpetrator was a victim, because he was amputated from a part of his humanity, and this amputation makes him a killer … If someone is at the same time a perpetrator and a victim, is he somehow less responsible for what he did? No. As long as we are not recognising what we did towards each other, we will never reach a point of real reconciliation.’
Only one of the six men interviewed shows any sign of remorse.
Some Lebanese have raised questions about the merits of the film, with one critic, writing in Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, accusing the filmmakers of providing the killers with a platform from which ‘they make excuses for themselves and boast’.
The men interviewed in the film were loyal to Lebanon’s then new President, Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated on 14 September, 1982, in an explosion at the Phalangist headquarters in east Beirut, a killing which has never been solved. A day later the Israeli army moved into west Beirut in violation of existing agreements.
Israel’s Defence Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, authorised the entry of members of Gemayel’s Lebanese Forces (a Phalangist militia) and Saad Haddad’s South Lebanon Army into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, home to 30,000 Palestinians whose refugee families had moved to Lebanon in successive waves since 1948.
The camps had been sealed off by Israeli tanks. When the militiamen, who were worked into a frenzy after being told that the Palestinians were responsible for Gemayel’s killing, entered on the evening of 16 September, the only resistance they encountered was from a few lightly armed young men.
For the next 38 hours, the militiamen raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred civilians. The exact number killed is still not known. On 22 September the International Red Cross gave a figure of 2,400, but Palestinians claim more died.
One of the most controversial revelations in the film is the alleged extent of Israeli involvement in the preparation and execution of the operation, down to providing body bags before the killings began. ‘You’ll be needing these,’ one of the militiamen is told by an Israeli officer.