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Beirut Palestinians recall Sabra, Shatila massacre

A Palestinian woman, Sheikha Inbitawi, waves a Palestinian flag during a march in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut on Saturday  

BEIRUT, Lebanon (Reuters) -- Palestinians in Lebanon recalled family and friends killed in Beirut by Christian militiamen 18 years ago on Saturday in the worst atrocity of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

They held rallies, protest marches and a photography exhibition to mark the Sabra and Shatila massacre -- a tragedy most Palestinian refugees say they cannot forget.

Camp residents said their bitterness and sorrow would only be erased when they won the right to return to their homeland.

Christian militiamen started a three-day killing spree in Sabra and Shatila on September 16, 1982, after being let in by Israeli soldiers who sealed off the two camps when they occupied the western sector of the Lebanese capital.

The militiamen massacred more than 1,000 men, women and children in one of the worst atrocities of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war while the Israeli soldiers ringing the camps stood by.

The corpses lie today in a patch of land between the camps normally used as a rubbish dump but cleaned up for the anniversary.

"That's Abu Mahmoud," said Aisha, gripping the arm of her teenaged daughter and pointing to a picture of an old man's bloated corpse dotted with flies.

"I remember very well the day we found him and my father. I remember the black blood in the streets, the stench. It feels just like it was yesterday. My father had a feeling something was going to happen so he sent the women and children south for a few days. He died and we survived."

Refugees unwelcome

Life came to a standstill at Shatila on Friday night as dozens of Palestinians chanted anti-Israeli slogans while marching through the sewage-soaked roads towards the cemetery.

Some held candles stuck in plastic bottles. Others held banners demanding the right of return to the homes they were forced to leave during the 1948 creation of Israel.

"We don't want to be naturalized (Lebanese) nor do we want to go to a foreign country, we want to return to Palestine. Death to Israel," they shouted, walking past mounds of garbage and mangled cars.

Aly Faisal, from a radical group that criticized Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's decision to delay the declaration of an independent Palestinian state this month, told the rally he wanted a country that would avenge the Sabra and Shatila killings.

"Soon, we will have a state that will go to the International Court of Justice and sue Israel for the death of our kin," he said. "The time of reckoning will come soon."

The United Nations estimates there are 365,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Most live in wretched conditions in a country that barely tolerates them.

Lebanese authorities, wary of the role the Palestinians played during the civil war, deny them basic rights and access to a range of professions from medicine to brick-laying.

Officials, recalling the Palestinian guerrilla attacks that led Israel to invade Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, still regard the refugees as a potential source of violence.

They vow never to naturalize them, fearing that the Sunni Muslim refugees would alter Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance and inflame sectarian sentiments that set off the civil war.

"Any Palestinian who tells you that he doesn't want to return to the homeland is lying," affirmed Issa Hamoud, a 36-year-old fighter who now repairs watches. "Any one who resides outside their home lives in humiliation. Just look at what happened to our people right here."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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