On the anniversary of Sabra and Shatila: ‘We should talk about what we did to each other’

Maryanne Zéhil

When a Canadian editor specialising in the testimonies of genocide survivors starts to receive anonymous accounts of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, her investigation takes her to a small village in the Lebanese mountains and brings her closer to Ali, a Palestinian who grew up in the camps. Flashbacks to Ali as a child depict him peering through a window into one of the houses in the camp as the massacre takes place. Ali is driven by his mother to take revenge on the people who commanded such atrocities yet who walk the streets of Lebanon without ever being charged.

So runs the plot of Maryanne Zéhil’s 2012 feature film, La Vallée des Larmes (The Valley of Tears), which is based on the real-life events that took place 33 years ago today, and their ugly aftermath. On 16 and 17 September 1982, members of the right-wing Christian Phalange party entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila on the outskirts of Beirut whilst the Israeli army sealed the exits. Men were lined up against walls to be shot and women were systematically raped. In total, an estimated 3,500 people were massacred.

Through his letters to the editor, Ali hopes the world will understand what happened in the camp on those two days. The fact his mother insists he settles scores with these men is a comment on the culture of revenge in the Middle East. If Ali was born in New York, says Zéhil, far from the cycles of violence of the Middle East, he would have perhaps been an artist or played the saxophone; but he was raised in the Arab world: “Very often there is this kind of revenge – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – [Ali] was raised to take revenge and if not it’s considered a dishonoured family, if the family does not revenge the death of its members,” she explains.

One factor that may have intensified this desire for revenge is an amnesty law that was passed in Lebanon in 1991. The legislation exonerated Lebanese civilians and officials from prosecution for war crimes committed in the 15-year long civil war; to this day, no one who took part in the massacre has been brought to trial or sentenced. Zéhil points out that this means many of the people who took part in the Lebanese civil war and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila “indirectly or directly” now hold top positions in the government today.

Why they are allowed to be there is a question few seem able to answer. “Someone should take responsibility in order to put it aside, to forget about it,” says Zéhil. “Can you imagine those people, those Palestinian people who survived and who had all their family killed, they know that nobody paid for that? It’s totally shocking and I can’t understand this and I’m sorry to say I have no answer for that.”

Zéhil says it’s important for filmmakers and writers to talk about the past and keep the memory alive but politicians should play their part as well: “We as artists cannot alone make changes.”

Even today, Palestinians living in camps in Lebanon still do not enjoy the same rights as Lebanese citizens; for example, they are restricted to certain professions and cannot travel freely. Zéhil describes Lebanon as “a very fragile equilibrium” where each community has a slice of power. Christians can be appointed president of the republic, the prime minister is always Sunni and the head deputy of the chamber is always Shia.

“If they give Palestinians rights, and give them nationalities and give them everything that a human being is entitled to, it’s certainly going to create a disequilibrium because most of the Palestinians are Sunni. So this is a political reason why the Palestinians were always parked in camps and were not allowed to take part of the Lebanese nationality and life,” she says.

“Lebanon was always afraid to become the land of exile to the Palestinians indefinitely,” she adds. “They want the world to find a global solution for them not to stay in Lebanon because Lebanon cannot take them; it’s a very small country.”

Lebanese people are, to a certain extent, responsible for what is happening to their country, believes Zéhil, because they always put their own community first. “There are many small Lebanons and not really a country. They have towards the Arabs this kind of superiority; they think that they’re superior so they act as if everybody else is not worthy. They are racist, actually; I think that’s the whole picture. Not all of them of course, the minorities not, but the majority, since we see that if you go to the camps it’s awful. If you’re really a human being you cannot accept that people live around the corner in such places, but they do.”

Recently, Lebanon has been struggling to cope with a new influx of refugees - around one million Syrians have poured across their border in the past four years, escaping the Syrian war next door. In this respect Zéhil says Lebanon has played an important role: “I think that it’s great that they have opened the frontier because we saw countries around [who] did not. Lebanon is like a very contradictory place where people can do some extraordinary things and they can do at the same time some extraordinary, inhumane things.”

Whilst Zéhil’s film explores how Palestine, Lebanon and Canada have been involved in or affected by the massacre, Israel is noticeably absent and the focus is firmly on the Christian community and the role they played in the massacres. “I am Lebanese, I was born Christian,” she tells me. “I want to talk about what Lebanese-born Christians or even believing Christians did. I want to talk about my brother; I don’t want to talk about my cousin, I don’t want to talk about my neighbour. Let them each one do their own thing but I want to do mine. And mine was to limit this to the Lebanese responsibility, to the Christian responsibility.”

Before Zéhil began shooting La Vallée des Larmes the Christian community, who knew about the production, were angry, a sentiment echoed in question and answer sessions after her film was screened. “They just wanted to blame the others. They used to tell me: ‘why didn’t you talk about this massacre where they killed Christians, why didn’t you talk about this massacre where Palestinians massacred Lebanese.’ They were always blaming others.”

When they saw the film, she says, it was a different story: “They were very at peace with it. So I think there was something about forgiveness that was in the film that touched them and this gives me hope for artists not to give up, because if it only puts some light in the heart of ten people then it’s extraordinary.”

Zéhil hopes La Vallée des Larmes will encourage more people to take an interest in what happened 33 years ago. “My film is just a film. It’s just a fictional thing that was created with my sensibilities and my beliefs and through my eyes. And that’s it. If somebody is sensitive to it what might be a very great gift for me is that at the end of the film people would be interested in reading about these events.”

“I wish that people from other communities would do their own mea culpas,” she adds. “The Palestinians, the Israelis, Shia, Sunni, everybody. Perhaps we can start talking about the things we did to each other rather than the things that were done to us.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor