And now, after 19 years, perhaps the truth at last...

Another war on terror. Another proxy army. Another mysterious massacre. 

And now, after 19 years, perhaps the truth at last...

The eyes of the world are on Afghanistan, but today a Belgian appeals 

court is

due to consider a case with disturbing contemporary parallels. Robert 


reveals shocking new evidence that the full, horrific story of the 

Sabra and

Chatila massacres of 1982 has not yet been told

28 November 2001

Sana Sersawi speaks carefully, loudly but slowly, as she recalls the 


dangerous, desperately tragic events that overwhelmed her just over 19 


ago, on 18 September 1982. As one of the survivors prepared to testify 


the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon – who was then Israel's defence

minister – she stops to search her memory when she confronts the most 


moments of her life. "The Lebanese Forces militia [Phalangists] had 

taken us

from our homes and marched us up to the entrance to the camp where a 

large hole

had been dug in the earth. The men were told to get into it. Then the

militiamen shot a Palestinian. The women and children had climbed over 


to reach this spot, but we were truly shocked by seeing this man killed 


front of us and there was a roar of shouting and screams from the 

women. That's

when we heard the Israelis on loudspeakers shouting, 'Give us the men, 

give us

the men.' We thought, 'Thank God, they will save us.'" It was to prove 


cruelly false hope.

Mrs Sersawi, three months pregnant, saw her husband Hassan, 30, and her

Egyptian brother-in-law Faraj el-Sayed Ahmed standing in the crowd of 

men. "We

were told to walk up the road towards the Kuwaiti embassy, the women 


children in front, the men behind. We had been separated. There were 


militiamen and Israeli soldiers walking alongside us. I could still see 


and Faraj. It was like a parade. There were several hundred of us. When 

we got

to the Cit้ Sportif, the Israelis put us women in a big concrete room 

and the

men were taken to another side of the stadium. There were a lot of men 

from the

camp and I could no longer see my husband. The Israelis went round 

saying 'Sit,

sit.' It was 11am. An hour later, we were told to leave. But we stood 


outside amid the Israeli soldiers, waiting for our men."

Sana Sersawi waited in the bright, sweltering sun for Hassan and Faraj 


emerge. "Some men came out, none of them younger than 40, and they told 

us to

be patient, that hundreds of men were still inside. Then about 4pm, an 


officer came out. He was wearing dark glasses and said in Arabic: 'What 

are you

all waiting for?' He said there was nobody left, that everyone had 

gone. There

were Israeli trucks moving out with tarpaulin over them. We couldn't 


inside. And there were jeeps and tanks and a bulldozer making a lot of 


We stayed there as it got dark and the Israelis appeared to be leaving 

and we

were very nervous. But then when the Israelis had moved away, we went 


And there was no one there. Nobody. I had been only three years 

married. I

never saw my husband again."

Today, a Belgian appeals court will begin a hearing to decide if Prime 


Sharon should be prosecuted for the massacre of Palestinian civilians 

at the

Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. (Belgian laws allow 


to try foreigners for war crimes committed on foreign soil.) In working 

on this

case, the prosecution believes that it has discovered shocking new 

evidence of

Israel's involvement.

The evidence centres on the Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium – the "Cit้

Sportif". Only two miles from Beirut airport, the damaged stadium was a 


holding centre for prisoners. It had been an ammunition dump for Yasser

Arafat's PLO and repeatedly bombed by Israeli jets during the 1982 

siege of

Beirut so that its giant, smashed exterior looked like a nightmare 

denture. The

Palestinians had earlier mined its cavernous interior, but its vast,

underground storage space and athletics changing-rooms remained intact. 

It was

a familiar landmark to all of us who lived in Beirut. At mid-morning on 


September 1982 – about the time Sana Sersawi says she was brought to 


stadium – I saw hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, 

probably well

over 1,000, sitting in its gloomy, dark interior, squatting in the 


watched over by Israeli soldiers and plain-clothes Shin Beth (Israeli 


service) agents and men who I suspected were Lebanese collaborators. 

The men

sat in silence, obviously in fear. From time to time, I noted, a few 

were taken

away. They were put into Israeli army trucks or jeeps or Phalangist 

vehicles –

for further "interrogation".

Nor did I doubt this. A few hundred metres away, inside the Sabra and 


Palestinian refugee camps, up to 600 massacre victims rotted in the 

sun, the

stench of decomposition drifting over the prisoners and their captors 

alike. It

was suffocatingly hot. Loren Jenkins of The Washington Post, Paul Eedle 


Reuters and I had only got into the cells because the Israelis assumed 

– given

our Western appearance – that we must have been members of Shin Beth. 

Many of

the prisoners had their heads bowed. But Israel's Phalangist militiamen 

– still

raging at the murder of their leader and president elect Bashir Gemayel 

– had

been withdrawn from the camps, their slaughter over, and at least the 


army was now in charge. So what did these men have to fear?

Looking back – and listening to Sana Sersawi today – I shudder now at 


innocence. My notes of the time, subsequently written into a book about

Israel's 1982 invasion and its war with the PLO, contain some ominous 

clues. We

found a Lebanese employee of Reuters, Abdullah Mattar, among the 

prisoners and

obtained his release, Paul leading him away with his arm around the 


shoulders. "They take us away, one by one, for interrogation," one of 


prisoners muttered to me. "They are Haddad [Christian militia] men. 


they bring the people back after interrogation, but not always. 

Sometimes the

people do not return them." Then an Israeli officer ordered me to 

leave. Why

couldn't the prisoners talk to me, I asked? "They can talk if they 

want," he

replied. "But they have nothing to say."

All the Israelis knew what had happened inside the camps. The smell of 


corpses was now overpowering. Outside, a Phalangist jeep with the words

"Military Police" painted on it – if so exotic an institution could be

associated with this gang of murderers – drove by. A few television 

crews had

turned up. One filmed the Lebanese Christian militiamen outside the 


Sportif. He also filmed a woman pleading to an Israeli army colonel 


"Yahya" for the release of her husband. (The colonel has now been 


identified by The Independent. Today, he is a general in the Israeli 


Along the main road opposite the stadium there was a line of Israeli 


tanks, their crews sitting on the turrets, smoking, watching the men 

being led

from the stadium in ones or twos, some being set free, others being led 

away by

Shin Beth men or by Lebanese men in drab khaki overalls. All these 


knew what had happened inside the camps. One of the members of the tank 


Lt Avi Grabovsky – he was later to testify to the Israeli Kahan 

commission –

had even witnessed the murder of several civilians the previous day and 


been told not to "interfere".

And in the days that followed, strange reports reached us. A girl had 


dragged from a car in Damour by Phalangist militiamen and taken away, 


her appeals to a nearby Israeli soldier. Then the cleaning lady of a 


woman who worked for a US television chain complained bitterly that 


had arrested her husband. He was never seen again. There were other 


rumours of "disappeared" people.

I wrote in my notes at the time that "even after Chatila, Israel's 


enemies were being liquidated in West Beirut". But I had not directly

associated this dark conviction with the Cit้ Sportif. I had not even 


on the fearful precedents of a sports stadium in time of war. Hadn't 

there been

a sports stadium in Santiago a few years before, packed with prisoners 


Pinochet's coup d'etat, a stadium from which many prisoners never 


Among the testimonies gathered by lawyers seeking to indict Ariel 

Sharon for

war crimes is that of Wadha al-Sabeq. On Friday, 17 September 1982, she 


while the massacre was still (unknown to her) underway inside Sabra and

Chatila, she was in her home with her family in Bir Hassan, just 

opposite the

camps. "Neighbours came and said the Israelis wanted to stamp our ID 

cards, so

we went downstairs and we saw both Israelis and Lebanese Forces 


on the road. The men were separated from the women." This separation – 

with its

awful shadow of similar separations at Srebrenica during the Bosnian 

war – were

a common feature of these mass arrests. "We were told to go to the Cit้

Sportif. The men stayed put." Among the men were Wadha's two sons, 


Mohamed and 16-year-old Ali and her brother Mohamed. "We went to the 


Sportif, as the Israelis told us," she says. "I never saw my sons or 



The survivors tell distressingly similar stories. Bahija Zrein says she 


ordered by an Israeli patrol to go to the Cit้ Sportif and the men with 


including her 22-year-old brother, were taken away. Some militiamen – 


by the Israelis – loaded him into a car, blindfolded, she claims. 

"That's how

he disappeared," she says in her official testimony, "and I have never 

seen him

again since."

It was only a few days afterwards that we journalists began to notice a

discrepancy in the figures of dead. While up to 600 bodies had been 


inside Sabra and Chatila, 1,800 civilians had been reported as 

"missing". We

assumed – how easy assumptions are in war – that they had been killed 

in the

three days between 16 September 1982 and the withdrawal of the 


killers on the 18th, that their corpses had been secretly buried 

outside the

camp. Beneath the golf course, we suspected. The idea that many of 

these young

people had been murdered outside the camps or after the 18th, that the 


were still going on while we walked through the camps, never occurred 

to us.

Why did we not think of this at the time? The following year, the 

Israeli Kahan

commission published its report, condemning Sharon but ending its own 


of the atrocity on 18 September, with just a one-line hint – 

unexplained – that

several hundred people may have "disappeared" at about the same time. 


commission interviewed no Palestinian survivors but it was allowed to 


the narrative of history. The idea that the Israelis went on handing 


prisoners to their bloodthirsty militia allies never occurred to us. 


Palestinians of Sabra and Chatila are now giving evidence that this is 


what happened. One man, Abdel Nasser Alameh, believes his brother Ali 


handed to the Phalange on the morning of the 18th. A Palestinian 


woman called Milaneh Boutros has recorded how, in a truck-load of women 


children, she was taken from the camps to the Christian town of 

Bikfaya, the

home of the newly assassinated Christian president-elect Bashir 

Gemayel, where

a grief-stricken Christian woman ordered the execution of a 13-year-old 

boy in

the truck. He was shot. The truck must have passed at least four 


checkpoints on its way to Bikfaya. And heaven spare me, I realise now 

that I

had even met the woman who ordered the boy's execution.

Even before the slaughter inside the camps had ended, Shahira Abu 

Rudeina says

she was taken to the Cit้ Sportif where, in one of the underground 


centres", she saw a retarded man, watched by Israeli soldiers, burying 


in a pit. Her evidence might be rejected were it not for the fact that 

she also

expressed her gratitude for an Israeli soldier – inside the Chatila 


against all the evidence given by the Israelis – who prevented the 

murder of

her daughters by the Phalange.

Long after the war, the ruins of the Cit้ Sportif were torn down and a 


new marble stadium was built in its place, partly by the British. 

Pavarotti has

sung there. But the testimony of what may lie beneath its foundations – 

and its

frightful implications – might give Ariel Sharon further reason to fear 




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