‘What a superb technological achievement!” I exclaimed. “Iron Dome?” a
social worker asked, “No,” I answered, “I fixed the TV.”
volunteering at the Stress Center in Ashdod, treating trauma victims during
Operation Pillar of Defense.
I was drawn to Ashdod due to memories from a
visit to the stricken city during Cast Lead four years ago, together with the US
defense attaché. We witnessed families running for shelter as sirens sounded,
and saw the destruction caused by a Grad impact.
There was no Iron Dome
Now, since for the first time in 25 years I’m not on the front
line of Israel’s defense, I was on pins and needles and decided to find a way to
Ashdod was practically a ghost town. Near city hall, people
carrying black cases were rushing to a rear entrance. I thought it was a SWAT
team, until I discovered they were musicians intent on a rehearsal at the
Performing Arts Center, and hurrying to get indoors. Surreal!
I was disappointed
to find city hall locked. As I turned to leave, two women wearing yellow
vests came running towards me. “We’re in urgent need of volunteers at the
Stress Center,” they said. “You just found one,” I answered. They handed me an
orange vest and exclaimed: “You’re in! Follow us.”
On the way, we passed
near a building that had sustained a direct hit a short while earlier. Dozens of
people were busy cleaning the street and fixing shattered glass in nearby
Near the Stress Center, a seemingly happy, carefree garbage truck
driver was emptying a dumpster into his truck. “Thank you!” I called out. “For
what?” he asked. “For showing us that life goes on,” I answered.
chuckled as he climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off.
Stress Center, professional caretakers and volunteers were attending to people
who were overwhelmed by the events and showed various symptoms, some emotional,
others physical, such as high blood pressure, headaches and nausea. I was
positioned at the reception desk, but was first asked to figure out how to turn
on the air conditioner, find garbage bags and fix the TV. I failed the first two
A friendly psychologist introduced herself in a French
accent: “Hello, I’m Dr. Grad. And that’s not a joke.” She turned to show
me her name printed on the back of her vest. It was true.
The team on my
first shift had a diverse combination of backgrounds and accents. We were
born in Morocco, France, Brazil, the United States, Uzbekistan, Iran, Romania,
Algeria and Israel. A real ingathering of exiles.
Every now and then the
sirens sounded, and we all rushed to the bomb shelter and waited, speculating if
the explosions were interceptions or impacts. The city was being targeted in
massive salvos, and people were saying that without Iron Dome, the damage would
have been devastating. One volunteer disagreed and pointed upward, saying: “It’s
all in His hands.”
Even the professional staff seemed
worried. Mothers told me of the difficulty of leaving their own
frightened children at home in order to treat others. One psychologist told me:
“The impact was so close, the building shook. I hugged my children, thinking it
was collapsing and this was the end.”
One siren caught me outside, away
from the center. Everyone ran for cover, but a big man was sitting outside a
kiosk drinking coffee leisurely. I put my hand on his shoulder and said in
Russian “Come with me.” He gave me a gold-toothed smile, hesitated for a moment,
but then ran with me to take cover.
Consecutive thunder-like noises were
heard. “There goes Iron Dome!” a woman cried out, pointing up, and then there
was silence, except the woman’s voice: “Please hit, please hit....” My pulse was
racing and I was thinking “This can’t be happening,” and “We can’t allow this to
Exploding sounds thundered overhead and we waited a few
moments before emerging.
A salvo of three Grads, headed our way, had been
Back at the center, an elderly couple entered. The woman,
shaking and crying, told us that the blast had torn her grandchildren from her
hands and shattered the windows. The more she spoke, the more agitated
she became. I changed the subject and asked her where she was born.
“Bombay,” she answered. I then asked her about her background and family. Soon
she was telling her life story and even managing a smile.
you,” I later asked her husband, “afraid?” The old man smiled and told me he had
come from India in the 1960s, fought in three wars as an artilleryman, and
“there’s no way I’m afraid of those guys.”
People kept coming in or
calling, mostly after impacts, and we did our best to calm, relieve and
I spent my last shift with two volunteers – an Israeli
psychologist from Belgium and an English speaking psychiatrist from
Jerusalem. With us were two psychologists who work for the city,
immigrants from Argentina and Uruguay. In a lively debate in mixed accents, we
analyzed the situation and talked about the psychological effects we were
The discussion was summed up by a grim-faced psychologist:
“This was nothing. We’re facing years of working with children suffering from
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s sad. It’s really sad.”
A few nights
later, I received a phone call from Ashdod around midnight. “Please, Reuven, you
have to help us!” “What happened?” I asked, expecting the worst. “It’s the TV.
It isn’t working again.”
Although this column may seem like just a
collection of personal anecdotes, the people and experiences I encountered in
Ashdod have given me profound insight and understanding.
During most of
my encounters, I heard not anger, but pain; not bitterness but sadness; not
hatred, but hope and prayers for peace.
I witnessed determination,
commitment, hope, friendship and humanism, and I was reminded that behind
strategic and national challenges, there are individual people, and that our
strength and resilience emanates from them.The writer is a former Israel
Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies