When is a siege not a siege?

By
August 10, 2006 11:12

Whether one's family is in Tel Aviv or overseas, it is not easy to just pick up and leave home.




According to the BBC reporter claiming this morning to be based in Haifa, this is not a city under siege. He talks about life going on as normal and with plenty of traffic and people on the streets - oh yes, of course, when the sirens start, everybody pops into their shelters for 15 minutes. I can only imagine that this reporter is sitting comfortably in one of the five-star hotels on the Carmel within easy reach of a large well-equipped shelter and with a few stiff whiskeys to dull his senses. For the shopping malls are almost empty, the restaurants and beaches deserted. During the short lull in the middle of last week, Haifaites, tired of being confined to their homes, did begin to venture out. After nearly three weeks without exercise, they relaxed on the beach or had coffee on the Carmel. But this was short-lived, followed by three days of bombing with resultant fatalities and wounded. One elderly woman died of a heart attack as she took shelter. Another owed her life to sleeping in a shelter, for a sudden attack on the bayside destroyed her home. And as I take a break from writing this article to watch the TV coverage of the tragic bombing at Kfar Giladi, the sirens can be heard again in Haifa. The paradox is that the people of Haifa were directed to return to work, but their children are left without their routine of summer camps. Even helpful grandparents are limited if their homes are not equipped with a security room or an adequate shelter. My fortnightly help bravely showed up for work on Tuesday and sadly assessed my unusually clean and tidy home - no sticky fingerprints or Bamba dropped behind the furniture. We have plans to take the children on trips south of Haifa, but now the missile on Hadera puts into question the wisdom of driving down the coastal road or giving the children a train experience. Many difficulties are faced by the returning "refugees," families who left Haifa when the missiles got too close for comfort but decided that unlimited time with their kind hosts or longing for the comfort of their own homes overruled the risks of coming back. Last Friday night we visited our son and his family on the French Carmel. They had spent a couple of weeks with my daughter-in-law's aunt in Rehovot. Their conditions were extremely comfortable in a spacious apartment with enough bedrooms and bathrooms not to feel overcrowded. The aunt had taken the family out on trips, and the two children aged eight and 12 were relaxed, up to a point. As the days stretched into weeks, they decided they wanted their home back and returned to Haifa. As we were finishing dinner, together with the extended family, the sirens started and we ran into their communal shelter, only half a floor down from their apartment. Other families joined us, and the usual discussion started - the speculation, sharing of experiences. Some of these families had spent time out of Haifa and reported on the extraordinary kindness and hospitality of their families and friends, or in some cases total strangers, who had offered them accommodation. But even in the best of circumstances they had felt after a week or so that the children were out of routine without their friends, their belongings and their own kitchen. Watching the children in the shelter, they superficially seemed in control of the situation. The two-year-old, who had been looking at her pop-up book before the alarm, sat on a chair and continued her reading, chatting to herself and drinking from her cup of juice. But the seven-year-old sat rigid in his chair, yawning from stress. Even after we returned to the house and he tried to continue playing, from time to time his face would become flushed and crumple. One of the neighbors knocked on the door. They live on a higher floor and her son refused to return home in case the alarms started again. He insisted on staying in this lower-floor apartment and sat trembling on the sofa. And the BBC reporter says Haifa is not under siege! Twice over the past three weeks, the R. family had left Nahariya. With three very lively active little boys, they had spent one week with in-laws in Afula, not feeling completely safe from missiles. They then rented a small apartment in Hadera while one of the parents commuted daily to the North. "Keeping the boys occupied in a small apartment without their belongings and their friends was very stressful," says their mother. They returned to Nahariya to remain most of the time in the shelter. My family was not evacuated during World War II, and although I was only a child at the time - born during an air raid on London - I was only aware in later years that I suffered post-traumatic stress. We slept in air-raid shelters for four years and the stress, fears and tension of our parents were obviously transferred to us. But, like that little girl in the shelter with her pop-up book, I appeared to be coping and unaware of the real danger to our lives. Later studies by Drs. Freud (Anna) and Fromm showed that children separated from their families by being evacuated suffered more stress than those left in war-torn London. But watching these children in the shelter on Friday night, I saw real fear and terror. "They talk and talk," says the little boy, "but it doesn't stop." In the case of the short-term refuge of these families from Haifa, this did not involve separation between small children and their parents. In each case, at least one parent had traveled with them and had been joined on weekends by the other. It was obvious, though, that they missed their homes and familiar routines. Adult citizens of Haifa who have children living farther south have received a lot of pressure to leave. While speaking on the phone to my son in New York, the sirens started. I simply moved the telephone to our so-called safe corner and continued the conversation. "What are you doing there?" he sounded frantic. "Get on a plane and come here." Whether one's family is in Tel Aviv or overseas, it is not easy to just pick up and leave home. I have tried to continue my work during this stressful time, and kind friends have lent me their safe basement room next to the shelter for my prenatal groups. Having a baby at any time is an overwhelming experience, and for those pregnant women and partners who have not left Haifa, these classes including some deep relaxation have given them reinforcement. M. and A., an Israeli Arab couple, live in Acre. When the war began, M. started labor and gave birth prematurely. Unable to do my usual postpartum home visits, we talked daily on the telephone, trying to solve those early feeding problems. As Acre was bombed more frequently, M. moved with the baby to her family in Nazareth on the day two Muslim children were killed by a missile attack on that predominantly Arab town. So for us, an occasional day's break in Tel Aviv with our daughter and a wonderful weekend with all the children at Neve Shalom gave us some fresh air, a chance to do some walking and feeling of normalcy. But our own home in Haifa draws us back after those interludes. Susan and Dick Rosenberg also resisted family pressure to leave Haifa. However, a direct hit on their next-door apartment block was rather too close to home. Their family in Beersheba drove up to rescue them, help them pack their bags and set off for what became nearly two weeks of refuge. "In addition to us, they gave accommodation to a Russian family of five," says Susan. "Our children gave us the main en-suite bedroom and they slept in the basement playroom, leaving the other bedrooms for the Russian family." After nearly two weeks Dick, a Mahal veteran who had been in charge of communications and was a foreign expert in Israel's young Navy from 1949-56, decided he wanted his own bed and space. "I am not going to let those bastards turn me out of my own home." With shoulders braced, says Susan, he went to the station to get the train back to Haifa. "After 63 years of marriage, I didn't think this was the time to be apart, so I followed," says Susan, no stranger to Israel's wars. Their aliya in 1973 coincided with the Yom Kippur War. "But this was the first time I was a displaced person," she says. So now the Rosenbergs join their neighbors in the shelter, chatting, swapping jokes and experiences. "I just worry I might be caught in the shower," she quips. Haifa is a city with many vital services that are essential to daily life in Israel. The Rambam Hospital in wartime is also a military medical center with helicopters arriving from the borders and ambulances bringing the more seriously wounded from the North. For the first time, it is also in the firing line. Ironically, like so many civilian areas in the North, this hospital serves a high proportion of Arab patients, and many of the medical and auxiliary staff are Arabs who have always worked peacefully together with their Jewish colleagues. Yes, Haifa is under siege, and it is time the foreign news services employed professional and honest reporters.

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