Sabra and Chatila taught me all massacres become 'alleged massacres' if we don't pay attention

Robert Fisk
Bodies at the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982: REUTERS

Not that long ago, I spotted a report in an American newspaper which referred to the “alleged Sabra and Chatila massacre”. Up to 1,700 civilians, most of them Palestinians, were slaughtered in the two refugee camps in Beirut in just three days in 1982.

They were killed by Israel’s Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies. The Israelis watched – and did nothing. Even Israel’s own commission of enquiry admitted this. With two colleagues, I entered the camps before the murderers had finished committing their war crimes. I hid with an American reporter in the back yard of a hut beside a newly executed young woman. I climbed over heaps of corpses. That evening, I burned my clothes because they smelled of decomposition. Photographs and film of the dead were later broadcast around the world.

Yet more than two decades later, this mass killing was merely “alleged”. And when I spoke to a younger colleague scarcely a year ago, he did not know the location of Sabra and Chatila, nor the number killed – almost 400 more than those who were murdered in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. But no international or world leaders visit the mass grave at Sabra and Chatila on the anniversary of the massacre of the Palestinians.

The greatest enemy of all journalists – and all politicians – is the failure of institutional, historical memory. It’s one thing to claim that a Middle East war is imminent because Iran threatens America or America threatens Iran or because Israel warns that Iran is making nuclear weapons. But if you count up all the previous threats of war between Iran and the US – not to mention Israel’s eight warnings over 15 years, each giving different dates for the ‘doomsday’ of Iran’s nuclear possession — you would do well to downgrade the threat of war.

These warnings are issued for us to trumpet like clowns on radio, television, on social media and in newspapers – which we are usually obedient enough to do. They do not represent any kind of reality. They are issued because the supposed warmongers believe – quite rightly – that we either do not remember the identical and equally fraudulent figures they issued years ago. Or because they are convinced (again, I fear, correctly) that we don’t care very much to ‘keep them to the record’.

But we should. If we want to remember the dead of two world wars with poppies – a genuinely felt remembrance, albeit through the provision of fashion accessories to pop stars, television presenters and politicians – then there is no reason to ignore or forget the history that came after 1945. Or the history of the Arabs. Or the Israelis – or the Jews who struggled to create a state of Israel.

This is one reason why I have spent – cumulatively – years of my time as a Middle East correspondent cataloguing the accounts of survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1917 (all, of course, now dead), the deliberate ethnic cleansing and mass murder of the one and a half million Christian Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. They were shot into mass graves, suffocated in caves in the Syrian desert, the women raped and forced into marriage, the children spitted on bayonets or stakes or hurled into rivers. Most major scholars of the Jewish Holocaust agree that the Armenian Holocaust – Israelis themselves use the same word – was real. This worst of all First World War crimes was denounced at the time and afterwards by American diplomats, by Western missionaries, even by Winston Churchill.

Yet the Turkish government today still refuses to recognise the Armenian genocide as a genocide. So, alas, does the Israeli government. So does President Trump (as did Obama and George W and their predecessors). Many European nations have stood by the truth of this ghastly historical event. So, despite Israel’s lamentable denial, have many Israeli civilians and Jews throughout the world. Indeed, German witnesses to the Armenian slaughter – diplomats and soldiers of the Kaiser’s Reich who were training the Turkish army – turn up 25 years later in Belarus and the Ukraine, busy exterminating tens of thousands of Jews. They learned their evil craft in the killing fields of the Middle East.

One holocaust leads to another, you see. And if you deny one, then you give fuel for racists to deny another. Turn your back on the Armenian genocide and you will, eventually, turn your back on the truth of the Jewish genocide and the greatest mass murder in modern history, perpetrated by the Nazis. There are, incredibly, films of the starving Armenian survivors of 1917. Some of the most harrowing photographs were taken by a German military officer who was appalled at what he witnessed in Turkey at the hands of his allies.

Journalists, I have always thought, must also be historians – not just fulfilling the old cliché about being ‘the first witnesses to history’ – but by retelling, with ever more detail, the stories of the past, even when no survivors are left alive, and when powerful nations deny the truth of Armenia’s suffering, just as Holocaust-deniers continue to taunt the Jews over the most tragic years of their history.

Before you write, I always say to myself, read books. Reflect on these terrifying events and write about them – from newly discovered and incriminating Turkish documents, crackling tape-recordings, even by visiting the gorges and rivers in modern-day Turkey where the Armenians were done to death – and always attack those who deny these facts of history. Reporters must investigate the past as well as the present.

Name the bad guys, I always say – and that applies to long-dead Turkish army officers who slew the Armenians just as it does to German SS officers who gassed the Jews. And, yes, the same applies to all the massacres of the Middle East. Name the still-living bad guys. And don’t be afraid of those who claim that this is not objective. Mass murder is a war crime and we journos surely oppose such iniquities. Looking back on it, that’s why I was padding across those mass graves in the Sabra and Chatila camps 37 years ago.

The final instalment of Robert Fisk's This Is Not A Movie series will appear on Thursday 19th December. Read the beginning of the series here