By Lee Rhiannon*
Greens NSW MP
The words Sabra and Shatila have resonated in my family since October 1982. As a mother, then with two young children, I remember so clearly when my mother, Freda Brown, then the President of the Women's International Democratic Federation, returned home to Sydney that year.
As WIDF President Freda worked with women's organisations in most countries. Her work revealed many shocking stories of brutality against women, but usually there was inspiration and hope. This time however her stories about what she saw at these two Palestine refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila located in Lebanon, was deeply shocking and distressing. Hearing stories of such horror from an eyewitness, who in turn is someone you love, had a huge impact on me.
I was already very aware of the great wrong that was being perpetrated against Palestinian people but the Sabra and Shatila massacre burnt the justice of this cause deep into my heart.
Freda was one of the first western women to enter Sabra and Shatila after the Israel Defence Forces allowed members of the Lebanese fascist Phalange militia to go on their killing vendettas between September 16 and 18 1982. She had a terrible story to tell.
While the dead bodies of thousands of mainly women, children and elderly people had been cleared away by the time Freda and the rest of the WIDF delegation arrived at Sabra and Shatila the carnage was still very apparent. The Palestinian Women's Organisation, affiliated to the PLO, hosted the WIDF visit and conducted Freda and her colleagues through the camps. They saw first hand the dynamited buildings, people with life threatening injuries who still had not received medical attention, and children so traumatised they could not speak.
Some people survived under horrific circumstances. Freda met women who had lost their children and all their immediate relatives and in many cases had witnessed the slaughter of their loved ones.
A month after the Sabra and Shatila slaughter little had changed for the surviving refugees. Freda found the survivors living under appalling conditions, forced to sleep together in a few dilapidated buildings and old tents. Water was available intermittently, a handful of dedicated medical personnel working around the clock could not meet the needs of survivors, and aid organisations were kept at bay by the Israeli authorities.
I can remember my mother telling me the stories of the survivors. They described how the Phalange militia perpetrated the slaughter and how they coped with the enormity of the loss of loved ones.
Until I heard my mother’s stories about her visit to Palestine the enormity of the barbarity let loose at Sabra and Shatila had not impacted on me. This was not a top rating news story as was clearly warranted.
In her reports and speeches on her visit, Freda explained how the survivors of Sabra
and Shatila knew that the world's media was largely ignoring the story of the massacre and their ongoing living hell. The survivors' common plea was for their story to be taken to the world. Freda addressed United Nations forums and visited many countries to speak about the war crimes perpetrated at Sabra and Shatila.
Gradually, the story of how the horrific events unfolded was reported and people came to understand that this crime was made possible because of the action of the Israeli Defence Forces. The massacres occurred after the Israeli army entered Beirut and surrounded the two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, allowing the Phalange militia to enter. After two days about 3000 people had died and most of the buildings had been damaged or flattened outright.
I follow the news closely and have read about other massacres perpetrated on innocent people. But the words Sabra and Shatila still shock me deeply having heard the stories from my mother and also because at the time I was breast-feeding my second child. My secure and happy life was deeply unsettled with the many stories I heard but particularly the report of one woman found still holding her baby. The bullet had gone through both the mother and baby.
There is another name I remember from 1982, Sharon. When confronted with stories about such horror inflicted on fellow human beings one wants answers about how this could happen. Ariel Sharon, was the Israeli Defence Minister in 1982. Prior to the Sabra and Shatila massacre his name had been in the news because of the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon. Day after day I remember hearing reports not only of civilian deaths but also of an army hell-bent on destroying the very services people need - hospitals, schools, orphanages and school buses.
Ariel Sharon was the Minister responsible for the operations of the Israeli Defence Forces in Beirut. In 1983 I read a brief report that Mr Sharon had been removed from office by an Israeli tribunal investigating the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He was found to be indirectly responsible for the killings at Sabra and Shatila. Thousands dead, untold destruction to basic infrastructure and ongoing trauma to the survivors and the result is only a Minister removed from office.
Twenty-one years later the outrage I felt on hearing and reading about what happened to Palestinians living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps still upsets me. My life is still secure and happy. My third child was born in 1983. All my children, now young adults, are healthy. The baby I was breastfeeding in 1982 is now a mother. Freda is a great grandmother and I am a grandmother for the first time. The contrast in my personal situation with the lives of most Palestinians strengthens my commitment to a Palestinian state.
This article was written in October 2003 and published on an Australian-Palestine website that is no longer on line. Lee Rhiannon at the time was a MP in the NSW Legislative Council. She is now a Senator in the federal Australian parliament.