Damour lay across the Sidon - Beirut highway about 20
km south of Beirut on the slopes of a foothill of the
Lebanon range. On the other side of the road, beyond
a flat stretch of coast, is the sea. It was a town of
some 25,000 people, containing five churches, three
chapels, seven schools, private and public, and one
public hospital where Muslims from near by villages
were treated along with the Christians, at the expense
of the town.
9 January 1976, three days after Epiphany, the priest
of Damour Father Mansour Labaky, was carrying out
a Maronite custom of blessing the houses with holy
water. As he stood in front of a house on the side
of the town next to the Muslim village of Harat Na'ami,
a bullet whistled past his ear and hit the house.
Then he heard the rattle of machine-guns. He went
inside the house, and soon learned that the town was
surrounded. Later he found out by whom and how many
-- the forces of Sa'iqa, consisting of 16,000 Palestinians
and Syrians, and units of the Mourabitoun and some
fifteen other militias, reinforced by mercenaries
from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a contingent
Father Labaky telephoned the Muslim sheikh of the
district and asked him, as a fellow religious leader,
what he could do to help the people of the town. 'I
can do nothing,' he was told 'They want to harm you.
It is the Palestinians. I cannot stop them.'
the shooting and some shelling went on all day, Father
Labaky telephoned a long list of people, politicians
of both the Left and the Right, asking for help. They
all said with apologies and commiserations that they
could do nothing. Then he telephoned Kamal Jumblatt,
in whose parliamentary constituency Damour lay. 'Father,'
Jumblatt said, 'I can do nothing for you, because
it depends on Yasser Arafat.' He gave Arafat's phone
number to the priest. An aide answered, and when he
would not call Arafat himself, Father Labaky told
him, 'The Palestinians are shelling and shooting at
my town. I can assure you as a religious leader, we
do not want the war, we do not believe in violence.'
He added that nearly half the people of Damour had
voted for Kamal Jumblatt, 'who is backing you,' he
reminded the PLO man. The reply was, 'Father, don't
worry. We don't want to harm you. If we are destroying
you it is for strategical reasons.'
Father Labaky did not feel that there was any less
cause for worry because the destruction was for strategical
reasons, and he persisted in asking for Arafat to
call off his fighters. In the end the aide said that
they, PLO headquarters, would 'tell them to stop shooting'.By
then it was eleven o'clock in the evening. As the
minutes passed and the shooting still went on, Father
Labaky called Jumblatt again on the telephone and
told him what Arafat's aide had said. Jumblatt's advice
was that the priest should keep trying to make contact
with Arafat, and call other friends of his, 'because',
he said, 'I do not trust him'.
about half-past eleven the telephone, water and electricity
were all cut off. The first invasion of the town came
in the hour after midnight, from the side where the
priest had been shot at earlier in the day. The Sa'iqa
men stormed into the houses. They massacred some fifty
people in the one night. Father Labaky heard screaming
and went out into the street. Women came running to
him in their nightdresses, 'tearing their hair, and
shouting "They are slaughtering us!" The
survivors, deserting that end of the town, moved into
the area round the next church. The invaders then
occupied the part of the town they had taken. Father
Labaky describes the scene:
the morning I managed to get to the one house despite
the shelling to bring out some of the corpses. And
I remember something which still frightens me. An
entire family had been killed, the Can'an family,
four children all dead, and the mother, the father,
and the grandfather. The mother was still hugging
one of the children. And she was pregnant. The eyes
of the children were gone and their limbs were cut
off. No legs and no arms. It was awful. We took them
away in a banana truck. And who carried the corpses
with me? The only survivor, the brother ofthe man.
His name is Samir Can'an. He carried with me the remains
of his brother, his father, his sister-in-law and
the poor children. We buried them in the cemetery,
under the shells of the PLO. And while I was burying
them, more corpses were found in the street.'
The town tried to defend itself. Two hundred and twenty-five
young men, most of them about sixteen years old, armed
with hunting guns and none with military training,
held out for twelve days. The citizens huddled in
basements, with sandbags piled in front of their doors
and ground-floor windows. Father Labaky moved from
shelter to shelter to visit the families and take
them bread and milk. He went often 'to encourage the
young men defending the town'. The relentless pounding
the town received resulted in massive damage. In the
siege that had been established on 9 January the Palestinians
cut off food and water supplies and refused to allow
the Red Cross to take out the wounded.
and children died of dehydration. Only three more
townspeople were killed as a result of PLO fire between
the first night and the last day, 23 January. But
on that day, when the final onslaught came, hundreds
of the Christians were killed. Father Labaky goes
on: 'The attack took place from the mountain behind.
It was an apocalypse. They were coming, thousands
and thousands, shouting 'Allahu Akbar! God is great!
Let us attack them for the Arabs, let us offer a holocaust
to Mohammad 'And they were slaughtering everyone in
their path, men, women and children.'
families were killed in their homes. Many women were
gang-raped, and few of them left alive afterwards.
One woman saved her adolescent daughter from rape
by smearing her face with washing blue to make her
look repulsive. As the atrocities were perpetrated,
the invaders themselves took photographs and later
offered the pictures for sale to European newspapers.
Survivors testify to what happened. A young girl of
sixteen, Soumavya Ghanimeh, witnessed the shooting
of her father and brother by two of the invaders,
and watched her own home and the other houses in her
street being looted and burned. She explained: 'As
they were bringing me through the street the houses
were burning all about me. They had about ten trucks
standing in front of the houses and were piling things
into them. I remember how frightened I was of the
fire. I was screaming. And for months afterwards I
couldn't bear anyone to strike a match near me. I
couldn't bear the smell of it'.
and her mother Mariam, and a younger Sister and infant
brother, had been saved from being shot in their house
when she ran behind one Palestinian for protection
from the pointing gun of the other, and cried out
'Don't let him kill us!'; and the man accepted the
role of protector which the girl had suddenly assigned
to him. 'If you kill them you will have to kill me
too,' he told his comrade. So the four of them were
spared, herded along the streets between the burning
houses to be put into a truck, and trans-ported to
Sabra camp in Beirut. There they were kept in a crowded
prison hut. 'We had to sleep on the ground, and it
was bitterly cold.'
eventually Father Labaky found the charred bodies
of the father and brother in the Ghanimeh house 'you
could no longer tell whether they were men or women'.
a frenzy to destroy their enemies utterly, as if even
the absolute limits of nature could not stop them,
the invaders broke open tombs and flung the bones
of the dead into the streets. Those who escaped from
the first attack tried to flee by any means they could,
with cars, carts, cycles and motorbikes. Some went
on foot to the seashore to try to get away in boats.
But the sea was rough and the wait for rescue was
long, while they knew their enemies might fall upon
them at any moment. Some 500 gathered in the Church
of St Elias. Father Labaky went there at six in the
morning when the tumult of the attack awakened him.
He preached a sermon on the meaning of the slaughter
of innocents. And he told them candidly that he did
not know what to tell them to do. 'If I say flee to
the sea, you may be killed. If I say stay here, you
may be killed.'
An old man suggested that they raise a white flag.
'Perhaps if we surrender they may spare us.' Father
Labaky gave him his surplice. He put it on the processional
cross and stood it in front of the church. Ten minutes
later there was a knock on the door, three quick raps,
then three lots of three. They were petrified. Father
Labaky said that he would go and see who was there.
If it was the enemy, they might spare them. 'But if
they kill us, at least we shall die all together and
we'll have a nice parish in Heaven, 500 persons, and
no check points!' They laughed, and the priest went
to the door.
was not the enemy but two men of Damour who had fled
the town and had seen the white flag from the seashore.
They had come back to warn them that it would not
help to raise a flag. 'We raised a flag in front of
Our Lady, and they shot at us.'
they discussed what could be done. The priest told
them that one thing they must do, although it was
'impossible', was to pray for the forgiveness of those
who were coming to kill them. As they prayed, two
of the young defenders of the town who had also seen
the flag walked in and said, 'Run to the seashore
now, and we will cover you.
two youths stood in front of the church and shot in
the direction from which the fedayeen were firing.
It took ten minutes for all the people in the church
to leave the town. All 500 got away except one old
man who said he could not walk and would prefer to
die in front of his own house. He was not killed.
Father Labaky found him weeks later in a PLO prison,
and heard what had happened after they left. A few
minutes after they had gone, 'the PLO came and bombed
the church without entering it. They kicked open the
door and threw in the grenades.' They would all have
been killed had they stayed. The priest led his flock
along the shore to the palace of Camille Chamoun.
But when they got there they found it had already
been sacked and partly burnt. They found shelter,
however, in the palace of a Muslim, who 'did not agree
with the Palestinians', and then got into small boats
Which took them out to a bigger boat, in which they
sailed to Jounieh. 'One poor woman had to give birth
to her baby in the little open boat on the rough winter
all, 582 people were killed in the storming of Damour.
Father Labaky went back with the Red Cross to bury
them. Many of the bodies had been dismembered, so
they had to count the heads to number the dead. Three
of the men they found had their genitals cut off and
stuffed into their mouths.
The horror did not end there, the old Christian cemetery
was also destroyed, coffins were dug up, the dead
robbed, vaults opened, and bodies and skeletons thrown
across the grave yard. Damour was then transformed
into a stronghold of Fatah and the PFLP (Popular Front
for the Liberation of Palestine). The ruined town
became one of the main PLO centers for the promotion
of international terrorism. The Church of St Elias
was used as a repair garage for PLO vehicles and also
as a range for shooting-practice with targets painted
on the eastern wall of the nave.
commander of the combined forces which descended on
Damour on 23 January 1976 was Zuhayr Muhsin, chief
of al-Sa'iqa, known since then throughout Christian
Lebanon as 'the Butcher of Damour'. He was assassinated
on 15 July 1979 at Cannes in the South of France.