“There was no moon that night, so they lit up the sky with flares,” said Abu Ardeini, aged 53, her dark eyes framed in deep wrinkles that speak volumes of her pain.
“The militiamen stormed our house with machineguns, and finished off some of my relatives with knives. They slaughtered my cousin Amal, and then sliced open her womb. They pulled her unborn baby out. I never thought I would survive.”
Lebanon was consumed by civil war.
For three long days in 1982 – September 16 to 18 – Christian militiamen allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians in the two camps, on the outskirts of Beirut.
They also murdered at least 100 Lebanese and some Syrians.
Israeli troops, which had invaded Lebanon in June, had sealed off the camp while the militiamen committed their killing spree, targeting unarmed civilians.
“Thirty years have gone by, but I can remember every single detail of what I saw,” said Abu Ardeini. “My youngest child was just two weeks old. The children were screaming, while the militiamen were competing to see who could kill the most people.”
Every year, activists from all over the world travel to Lebanon to join survivors of the massacre, and visit the graveyard in Shatila, where many of the victims were buried.
But despite a global outcry, no one has ever been arrested, no one ever tried, no one convicted.
In Israel, an official inquiry placed personal but indirect responsibility on then defence minister Ariel Sharon. It blamed Elie Hobeika, intelligence chief of the Lebanese Forces, for the killings.
The LF, a right-wing Christian militia then allied to Israel, have never responded to those accusations, and maintained total silence.
“No Lebanese or international court has ever indicted any of the men behind the massacre. They all got away with impunity,” said Abu Ardeini.
“We have lost all faith in the law. We Palestinians are the weakest link in the Arab world. We don’t have a state, so the killing of our people does not matter to anyone.”
Abu Ardeini also lamented the conditions of life for some 280,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the majority of whom still live in squalid camps, deprived of many social and economic rights, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.
“Our relatives died quickly, whereas we die a slow death,” she said.
Samiha Abbas, a Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian resident of Sabra, cried: “That day was different from all others.”
She lost three of her children and four other relatives. “Zeinab was 16, Ali was 10, and Fahd was 20 years old.”
Gripping their framed photographs to her chest, she collapsed in tears as she recalled the events.
“I demand to know why they killed my children. I have lost my mind to grief!” she cried. “I am Lebanese, but one Lebanese government after another has treated me like dirt.”
Living in close quarters with Palestinians who fled to Lebanon following the creation of Israel in 1948, Lebanese survivors have fared no better than the refugees in attaining justice. Abbas lives in Sabra, where a chaotic jumble of electrical cables runs from house to house, rats scurry around poorly built homes and rain pours through ceilings in the cold winter.
“I practically had to beg to raise my children,” said Abbas. “We are the victims, but successive Lebanese governments have treated us like criminals, marginalising us to make sure our voice isn’t heard.”
A group of survivors tried to launch a lawsuit in Belgium against Sharon over the massacre, but the court threw out the case in September 2003.
Mohammed Surur, 50, lost five family members to the massacre.
Surur joined some 200 Lebanese, Palestinian and Western activists in Beirut on Tuesday to commemorate the victims. They marched through Shatila, with children waving Palestinian flags, singing patriotic songs.
“They killed my father and my three siblings, including my sister Shadia, who was 18 months old at the time,” said Surur.
“I call on the Lebanese state to open the Sabra and Shatila file, to investigate what happened, to reveal who was responsible and to bring justice to the victims. I am sure it won’t happen, though,” he said resignedly.
“But we Palestinians, we know how to get justice our own way. And one day, we will.”