The very first network documentary my husband ever worked on was a film about Sabra and Shatilla for ABC News. Sabra and Shatilla is a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The film was broadcast in 1983 and even then, the images on the screen were shocking. The actual massacre took place in a few brief days in September of 1982. During that time Israel controlled the entry to the city of Beirut. As the story goes, the Israelis stood by as Christian Phlangists went on a slaughtering spree. The numbers of the dead are still in debate, with estimates fluctuating between 700 to 800 (which is what the IDF or Israeli Forces reported) to the thousands claimed by the Palestinians. One thing you can’t debate, is you would not want to be trapped in Sabra and Shatilla if gunmen were on the loose. The place is a messy and chaotic web of buildings with narrow alleyways and electrical wires jury-rigged and haphazardly strewn like webs from bulging electrical boxes.
We explain to my daughter, Thea, just how the Palestinians got here and why they’ve been living in Lebanon since 1948. It’s a history lesson that she knows but still seems to baffle her when we pull up to this depressing neighborhood West of Beirut. She wonders out loud if this region would have simply found something else to fight about were it not for the “Palestinian problem.” David explains that the Palestinians are a pawn in a bigger game and nowhere is this more evident than in Sabra and Shatillah.
Note to fellow travelers to Beirut. You don’t want to just show up at the gates of Sabra and Shatilla and wander in. Our visit has been vetted and approved by the head honcho of the camp, a fairly good-looking Palestinian with a John Edwards haircut named Kassam Aina. We meet him at his office at the entryway to the camp and he welcomes us by sitting at his desk, lighting a cigarette and telling us about the problems in the camp (houses without ventilation, no health services, etc, etc…). According to Kassam, over 30,000 Palestinians live in the camp, a fact that seems inconceivable because this jumbled web of buildings is all of a few city blocks wide. Portraits of Arafat and Mahkmoud Abbas flank his desk. Kassam offers us a tour of the camp. The place is positively choking with dust and little kids darting between mopeds and pulleys hoisting bags of cement perilously high up on top of buildings with a structural basis that is suspect at best. There is one drab cement courtyard, which Kassam explains is the only playground in the entire camp. Kids kick an old soccer ball around and when it bounds onto a nearby roof, a young boy climbs Spider-Man style to the top to retrieve it. We wander around the camp with Kassam and his two “road dogs,” we call Fric and Frac, both sporting identical buzz haircuts with bleached strawberry blonde hair. We come to one alley and Fric, who is missing one eye, tells us this is where he was shot. He lifts up his shirt and shows us a deep scar up and down his belly. Thea snaps a picture.
We’re all dizzy from the close quarters, noise and dust and Dee says she’d like a cup of coffee. Lynn eyes me and says, “This is the last place I’d go for a cappuccino” Kassam is all too happy to comply so we stop at a stand in the makeshift market and get what may be the best cup of coffee we’ve had in Lebanon. We don’t exactly fit in here, so little kids dart around us and stare. The brave say ‘Hallo!” giggle and dart down the nearest narrow pathway.
When we visited Sabra and Shatilla two years ago, we were offered a brief glimpse into the home of a Palestinian refugee woman. Her entire home was 10 feet by 12 feet at best, all concrete, with a small shelf for a Bunsen burner and a few pots and pans. This time Kassam offers up another home for viewing which he says is the finest home in all of Sabra and Shatilla. Greeting us at the doorway is a little girl named Angelie, wearing a smocked pink dress and, in a complete contrast to the other kids in the camp, this cutie is clean as a whistle. Her young mother proudly shows us about her residence, a three-room affair with gold and maroon draped curtains and a giant flat screen TV in the living room. To say these folks are upwardly mobile is an understatement. As is tradition, I take off my shoes and sit on the living room couch. There isn’t enough room for our merry band of travelers to enter, so just Kassam, Lynn, Mary and I enter while the others wait in the alley. Angelie, the little girl climbs up onto my lap and I chat with her father while her mother scurries into the kitchen to boil water for coffee. You cannot enter any home in Lebanon without being offered a beverage or a major snack. Angelie is a wildly adorable three and a half-year-old who quickly gets the cue that I’m completely smitten by little girls. Her father takes the opportunity to do what we did early in our parenting career. We called this activity, “Stupid Pet Tricks for Kids.” We used to encourage ours to recite their ABC’s or clap their hands for variations on the peek-a-boo theme. Angelie’s father proudly leads her in a series of exercises. “How old are you?” She repeats the question after him every time, forgetting to give the answer until he prompts, “I am three years old” and so on. Then he asks, “Where are you from?” Angelie giggles and hides in her dad’s chest and says, “Where are you from?” then Angelie, suddenly bold, stretches her arms and says, “I am from Palestinia.” Kassam tells Angel’s mother we don’t have time for coffee so we say goodbye to this little girl and her father, neither of whom have ever set foot on Palestinia soil, and head to our next Lebanese adventure.