Fatima Ghazzawi smiled wanly at her questioner, wondering where to begin and trying not to cry. She shifted in her seat, hid her face in her hand, looked up at the wall, then at the floor. Talking about the night she lost her left leg was not easy.
She remembers people running around in panic and terror. She recalls being shot in the leg and seeing her cousin shot in the face. Flares lit up the night sky as she lay in the street bleeding about 100 meters from her home. After about three hours, a young man picked her up and took her to the hospital.
Ghazzawi, 17, was living with her husband, her son and her mother-in-law in the Palestinian shanty-town of Shatila when it was attacked last September by Christian Lebanese militia. According to Israeli Defense estimates, more than 700 civilians were slain in Shatila and its sister camp of Sabra. Hundreds of others, among them Ghazzawi, were wounded.
Two weeks ago, she and 12 other young people, ranging in age from 2 to 24, arrived in the United States from Lebanon for medical treatment under the sponsorship of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), an organization of Americans of Arab descent.
They are the first group of at least 50 youths ADC hopes to bring to the United States for rehabilitative treatment through its "Save Lebanon Fund." Most of them were wounded in hostilities that followed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last June. The others were hurt in earlier fighting between feuding Lebanese factions in the civil war that began in 1975, ADC's executive director James Zogby said.
The costs of artificial limbs and other expenses will be covered by contributions from Arab-Americans, most of whom are Lebanese. More than 50 medical facilities have donated free treatment for the children, who are staying with private families in Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and Washington, Zogby said.
Ghazzawi and two other girls have come to Washington and will be given free rehabilitative treatment at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. A fourth, a 2-year-old girl who lost sight in one eye after a fall while running during an air raid, is here to seek treatment that might restore her sight.
When ADC announced its plans to bring war-injured youths here last August, Israeli officials labeled it a "propaganda effort" by the American-Arab organization and threatened to block their departure from Beirut airport, which they then controlled. But that threat evaporated when Beirut and its airport came under international control.
Zogby said his organization is not trying to make political points with the program. Those selected to come here were chosen by medical personnel at Beirut hospitals who considered any young victim of war, no matter what nationality or how they were injured. Ghazzawi is the only Palestinian in the first group.
"The project is nonpolitical and nondiscriminatory; we're not asking how the children got injured or who fired the shot," Zogby said.
In a letter to former senator James Abourezk, ADC's organizing director, Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, expressed support for the program and said the United States "is deeply concerned over the human toll hostilities in Lebanon have taken."
Whatever their injuries, all the youths who come to the United States have one thing in common: War has been the natural environment for most of their lives. Fourteen-year-old Amal Kadi, for example, who is here with Ghazzawi, was hit by "a missile" while drawing water from a fountain in Beirut in 1978. Her right leg had to be amputated.
"I laugh and joke a lot, but I'm always sad . . . my life has been all sorrow," said Kadi, whose Kurdish parents migrated to Lebanon from Turkey 35 years ago.
For all of her 17 years, Ghazzawi, a girl with short black hair and a wide smile, has known no other life than that of a refugee. Her parents went to Lebanon from Palestine in 1948.
When she was 10, her father was killed when Christian militia forces attacked the Palestinian refugee camp in which she was living with her family, she said.
Ghazzawi married a Palestinian from Shatila and moved there.Their son, Mohamad, was born last May. Her husband escaped death during the massacre last September by hiding with other men in the mosque.
Asked how her life has changed since that night, Ghazzawi replies, "It's no good. When I see a human being walking in front of me, I say I should walk like that too."