Content warning: This article shares a firsthand account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, Lebanon. Certain details might be difficult for some to read.
The first day of the massacre, I remember looking up to the hills and on top of buildings, seeing Jewish soldiers looking down on our village in shock.
I am sure some of them wanted to help but were ordered not to.
It was Sept. 16, 1982. I was living in the same refugee camp I had been born into, Sabra and Shatila.
During this time, a friend and I had volunteered as White Helmets, or volunteer medical emergency assistance.
We were perfect for the job. We had grown up in Sabra and Shatila. We knew all the back alleys, all the hiding spots and winding roads.
A neighbor had donated a Volkswagen to us to use as a makeshift ambulance.
We painted a big red crescent on the hood indicating the medical status of our vehicle and placed a gurney in the back along with a very basic first-aid kit.
My friend drove, I rode passenger, looking for wounded people in the streets. They were not hard to find. Many people were sniped by hidden hitmen, others brutally tortured.
People would run at us, wailing that those behind were being butchered. We saw unimaginable things – missing heads, severed limbs, a pregnant woman with her stomach cut out.
We encountered the very depth and breadth of human viciousness; things no one should see. We would take both the living and the dead and drop them off at the hospital.
The hospital was one of the first sites bombed by the Israeli army before the “peace” agreement. What was left of it was extremely overwhelmed.
The first night of the massacre, after spending the day transporting the wounded and the dead, my friend and I wanted to keep helping. Because we knew the camp so well, we felt we could still aid in finding the injured.
We did not make it far before bullets raided our vehicle. I was confused and shocked – sickened because I knew immediately that the shots were meant for us.
It was not too dark yet, whoever was shooting at us knew we were medical volunteers. The sniper shot my friend, and the ambulance crashed.
Horrified and out of sheer instinct, I opened the door and took off running. As I was running, I remember passing many bodies, tripping over them, slipping in their blood, until I found a house that was open.
Inside, there was a small pit with a chimney where the family who lived there would cook meat. I climbed up in the vent.
At this point, everything becomes very fuzzy to me. I heard soldiers come into the house looking for me.
I do not know how I pulled myself up into the flue. I do not know how I could have pulled myself up high enough where they did not see my feet sticking out.
I can only explain the unexplainable by giving credit, as my mother did, to God.
I am not sure if I passed out from fear or lack of oxygen, or both, but for the next two days I stayed in the chimney flue, existing somewhere between a dream and awareness.
I remember hearing the bullets and the screams. I could hear Jesus’ and Mary’s name being invoked as the Christian Maronites slaughtered Muslim Palestinians.
I, too, was invoking the names of Jesus and Mary for protection and mercy. I was in and out, in and out of consciousness, until suddenly I heard crying instead of screaming and people howling “Allahu Akbar,” which is a Muslim phrase meaning “God is great.”
It was then I realized these are my people. So, I came out.
It was like waking up from a nightmare and stepping out into something much worse. It was like the Day of Judgment. Bodies and body parts all over the streets. Mothers crying. I was dazed.
I didn’t know what day it was. I hadn’t eaten. I saw the ambulance we had crashed, but my friend was not in it.
A sinking feeling hit in the pit of my stomach. I did not know if he had been alive or dead when I left him there.
I had lost my white helmet, but I was still wearing the uniform. I had soiled it, and it was stained with my friend’s blood splatter.
When I stepped outside from my hiding place, it was like walking into a parallel universe. Nothing was the same, yet everything was familiar.
The Maronite soldiers had taken brushes, dipped them in the blood of their victims, and painted red crosses throughout the camp. I remember most vividly their laughter.
It was an astonishing bit of irony that the people bringing aide to our camp, post apocalypse, also displayed red crosses. Red crosses were on the ambulances and on the coats of the medics.
I again thought of the soldiers invoking Jesus’ and Mary’s names as they butchered my neighbors in cold blood.
But I also thought of how I had heard the name of Jesus and Mary invoked when precious people fed and clothed me.
The Jesus that compelled them to take care of the refugee was the same Jesus those who had slaughtered my loved ones had invoked just hours before. I could not reconcile that Jesus and Mary with the other.
Today, I should have hatred in my heart for people practicing the Jewish or Christian faiths, but I do not.
This is because, although I have had traumatic experiences with other faiths, I have also had incredible healing relationships with people, Christian and Jewish.
My study of other faiths and more importantly my interfaith relationships have taught me a lesson I wish the world would learn. Religion is not violent, religiosity is.
It is not the faith that compels violence, but the hatred in one’s own heart and fear of the “other” that drives brutality.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (Aug. 22). The other articles in the series are:
Is Our Concern Over Religious Persecution Too Narrow? | Rob Sellers
Judaism Can Be Antidote to World’s Evils | Fred Guttman
Baptists Must Reckon with Their Past | Scott Stearman
Senior Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, and chair of Islamic Studies at Wimberly School of Religion at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace and Purpose, and appeared in the short documentary “Mercy” (2018) and the feature-length documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” (2010).