“Life has to go on, but we can never forget the massacre”

This story is part of a series of interviews with Palestinian refugees on the 39th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. See the series here.

Content warning: This interview contains potentially distressing details of violent attacks on civilians.

Laila* is a Palestinian mother of seven children who has lived through poverty, war, and displacement in her fifty years of refuge in Lebanon. Following the Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) in 1948, Laila’s family left their home in Al-Houla area in northern Palestine and sought refuge in Burj el Shemali camp in Tyre, in the south of Lebanon. In 1978, during the Lebanese civil war, her family was displaced to Shatila camp in Beirut. Sadly, the camp where they were hoping to find safety ended up being the place where half of the family lost their lives a few years later.

“In 1982, after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel [the president-elect and the Phalangist party leader], we started hearing shooting, but we didn’t think much of it. But on the night of 16 September, the shooting intensified, bombs were falling on the camp, and we occasionally saw armed men passing by,” said Laila. “Everyone was scared. My extended family came to our house, and we stayed together to support one another. My relatives then got too scared and escaped to Gaza Hospital [adjacent to the camp]. My father refused to leave; he was confident that no one would harm a peaceful and unarmed family, and a father with his young children.”

Laila’s eyes sparkled every time she spoke about her father. “He was a great man. While other fathers were making their daughters stay at home, my father wanted me to continue my education. He enrolled me in a school that taught French. He was very proud of me and used to ask me to read to him in French.”

“We started hearing shooting, but we didn’t think much of it. But on the night of 16 September, the shooting intensified, bombs were falling on the camp, and we occasionally saw armed men passing by.”

On 17 September, Laila’s family woke up to the sound of heavy knocking on the door. “I ran and opened the door. It was a group of armed militia who forcibly entered the house and began searching it. My father told them that we don’t have weapons. My baby sister, Shadia, started crying. So I held her and stood behind my father. A militiaman − whose face, voice, and accent I can still clearly remember to this day − came into the house and said to the other men ‘haven’t you killed them yet?’. I was staring at him, so he yelled at me and told me to look the other way. They asked my father to bring his identity card, and when he turned around to get it, they shot him dead,” Laila recalled.

“Then they asked my siblings and I to stand in a straight line facing the wall and started firing at us. My sister Shadia died in my arms, and I was shot in the back. Luckily, I ended up with only a shallow wound, and I found myself still breathing. Two of my brothers managed to escape, but three of them were killed that day. The militia then left the house when they thought everyone was dead.” Afterwards, Laila paced around to see if any of her family were still alive. Laila’s mother and sister, Samah, were. Laila told Samah, who was severely injured, to stay put while she and her mother went to Gaza Hospital to get help.

“When my mother and I left the house, we saw dead people on the street covered in blood. Our neighbours asked us what was happening. They were hearing the shooting but did not know where it was coming from. We hid in many of our neighbours’ houses until we reached Gaza Hospital. We were bleeding and in a very bad shape. When we finally got there, we were surprised to see my two eldest brothers who did not spend the night at our house that day. The next day, we heard that the International Red Cross had entered the camp and taken Samah to the hospital. Our lives have been difficult since then, and our wounds have not healed. Life has to go on, but we can never forget the massacre,” said Laila.

Laila had tears in her eyes as she described the horrendous conditions she and other Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are enduring now. She believes her current living conditions are the worst she has ever experienced and that the impact of the economic crisis has matched that of war and displacement. “Everyone is stressed and angry. They feel disrespected and humiliated because of the current conditions. It hurts to see elderly people, women and children struggling,” she explained.

Laila hopes that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are able to have a comfortable life and eventually able to return to their homeland in Palestine. She calls on foreign governments and politicians to display a sense of humanity and to stand with Palestinians who have been enduring injustice for decades. But Laila has no doubt that Palestinians will return to Palestine one day, regardless of how long it takes.

You can support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the economic crisis by making a donation to MAP today.

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*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Photo: Ahmad Laila / Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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