Sirens and rockets are reality of life in the North

By YAEL WOLYNETZ
July 26, 2006 00:02

 
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Until two weeks ago, Metulla resident Na'ama Levitt would wake up with her three children, dress and feed them, then take them to school and day care before going to work herself at the Canada Sports Center. In the afternoon, the family would spend time together or with friends, at the pool or at home watching TV and playing. "It was usually nice and relaxing. During the summer vacation they are allowed to stay up later than usual," says Levitt, who was born and raised in Israel's most northern town, only a few kilometers from the volatile border with Lebanon. "That was what it was like before all this started. Now there is no comparison. It is very quiet around here. Most of the residents have left and the only movement we see on the streets are army jeeps and tanks driving through towards Lebanon." Levitt's own children - the oldest two, 10-year-old Avia and Oria, six - have been evacuated to a special Jewish Agency summer camp in the Wingate Institute, and she is now left at home with her one-year-old son and her husband. "I wake up and do a few things around the house but I cannot go to work," she says, adding "I'm even more tired than usual because the loud noises of fighting, falling rockets and airplanes flying overhead are keeping me awake all night." Bellowing sirens, exploding rockets, gunfire and constant pounding have become part of everyday life for the remaining members of the Levitt family and for other residents across the North of Israel. It is a new reality that includes long stretches in bomb shelters and sealed rooms, difficulties performing everyday tasks such as food shopping, banking or going to the post office, and a looming worry that when this is all over psychological and financial struggles will then begin. "I'm comfortable at home, even with the situation," explains Levitt, when asked why she has chosen to stay in Metulla right now. "If I was in Jerusalem or the center I would just go out and waste my money on coffee and things. I have to start watching my money, I've not received a salary in nearly three weeks." "I hope I will have the strength to carry on like this," she answers, when asked how the attacks have been affecting her psychologically. "I've lived here 27 years and remember harder times than this." Six kilometers south, in Kiryat Shmona, the story is similar. Originally from the US, Susan Shosh Peretz has been living in the city since 1981 and is now responsible for the municipality's international relations. "Kiryat Shmona is the most bombarded city in the world," she begins. "It's been under fire for 37 years and its residents are, unfortunately, used to this. We are very strong people though." She estimates that only 30 percent of the city's 250,000 residents remain and those that have stayed are spending their days in bomb shelters or security rooms. "The longer [the people] stay in shelters, the more difficult it will become," says Peretz, who was in Tel Aviv on Monday trying to raise funds and supplies for the residents. "There is a lot of anxiety. People are just sitting around watching TV and it is very nerve-wracking. We need more psychologists and social workers. It is a bad situation, even worse than the last military incursion." "Those that have the means have got out," she continues. "It is only the sick and those socially and economically restricted that have been unable to depart. There is a severe shortage of goods such vegetables and fresh fruit and the problems are growing worse day by day." Peretz says that there have been some initiatives by organizations and individuals to help those now stranded in the city. And some businesses have tried to carry on as usual, despite the daily threat, she says. One such business is Minimarket More on Rechov Haetzel. Run by husband and wife team, Motti and Aliza Avraham, the supermarket is keeping as many hours as possible. "It is important for us to stay open and to service our customers who have always remained loyal to us," says Motti, talking from his sealed room as Katyushas fall outside. "During a time like this, we cannot leave them without food especially for those who have decided to stick it out and not leave the city." The couple is working hard to cater to people's needs and has even set up a system of "tabs" for those who currently have no access to their money. Motti says that in terms of operating hours, the store is open a few hours a day, changing on a daily basis. "We post a note on the door of our store, and our customers know when to come based on that," he says, adding that while not all of their suppliers are currently delivering to Kiryat Shmona, there are enough arriving with fresh produce, dairy products and meat to keep the store stocked. For Safed resident Felica Hazen just getting to a local store to buy food is a challenge. In her neighborhood, the supermarket is also only open for a few hours a day and she only goes out to buy the basic necessities. A single mother of three, Hazen says she now spends most of her time indoors. "[My] life has changed drastically from all points of view since the onset of this war," she says. "The atmosphere in my house is one of distress. On my part because it is very difficult to live during a time like this, and on my kids' part because they are very limited with what they can do; they can't ride their bikes outside, play ball, or even go to summer camp." As an afterthought, Hazan adds jokingly: "Of course there is that element where they enjoy their Mommy being home all day, but they see that Mommy is stressed so it is not as pleasant." She turns serious as she describes how she manages to make it to the bomb shelter with three kids in tow. "I have a bag packed for each kid. I keep the bags by the door along with their shoes. Whenever a siren goes off, each kid puts on their shoes, grabs their bag and we run as fast as we can to the bomb shelter above us," she says. Even though the English-language library where Hazan works has been open for several hours each day since the conflict began, she says she is not able to work because she lives too far way. "It is too dangerous to go to that side of town, even if I were to bring my kids with me. I do not live as close as Edith does," she says, referring to her 80-year-old co-worker Edith Geiger. Geiger is sympathetic towards people such as Hazan, who no longer have babysitters to help them. "For these people, their lives have radically changed, no longer going to work they do not have the outlets they are used to," she says. However, she herself sees the continual running of the library as an essential service. She notes that in the past week and a half, many parents have taken out books, games, videos and jigsaw puzzles in order to keep their children occupied during this time. "When people feel there is a break and have not heard a siren in a while, they come to the library looking for things to break up the monotony," says Geiger, who feels that the citizens of Safed are working together to get through this stressful period. "For those of us who are up North, we are managing to live in this peculiar way," she says. "We have sent up an email group, Safed Line where we can communicate with one another and give each other advice, tell each other what the other is doing. You feel better knowing what other people are doing." Nearby in Rosh Pina, Yael Dekel is also getting used to a new lifestyle in the North. "My life has obviously changed in the last few weeks," she says. "My 15 year-old daughter has refused to come home and is staying with relatives in Givat Shmuel where she feels more secure." Dekel described how she and her family were forced to relocate her nephew's Bar Mitzvah, set to take place in Kfar Giladi, to Jerusalem. "Everyone was upset that this had to happen, but it was more important not to take away from the happiness of the Bar Mitzvah boy, who is from Haifa and has experienced enough there," she says. "We all booked 23 rooms in a Jerusalem hotel." It was after spending the weekend in Jerusalem that Dekel's daughter realized she did not want to return to Rosh Pina, says Dekel. Dekel estimates that at least 50% of the residents have left the town of roughly 2400 residents. "I walk by people's homes and they are empty," she says. "I don't blame them; it's hard to stay here, especially for families with children. To keep them confined and entertained in a tiny bomb shelter is very difficult." "I would not even have gone into the bomb shelter if not for my little granddaughter who upon hearing the siren asked me 'Savta [grandma], please come with me,'" adds Dekel nonchalantly. Although Katushyas have fallen very close to her home, most have landed in open fields. "You don't feel it unless you know someone that was affected personally," she says. In Karmiel, Haifa and the surrounding areas, life has also changed beyond recognition. Alex Gan, who lives in Timrat near Haifa, says that he has been trying to carry on with his life as much as possible. "I work in the Galilee and we hear the sirens a few times a day," says Gan, who was only a few meters away from the fatal rocket attack last week that killed eight Israel Railway workers in the Haifa Bay area. "We just go down to the bomb shelter and then come up when the army gives us the all clear." He continues: "While it is not pleasant seeing the casualties of these rocket attacks, you get used to it." "We are functioning as well as possible," concurs Asher Goldstein, English publications editor in the division of external relations at the University of Haifa, which called all its employees back to work on Sunday. "It's on everybody's mind," continues Goldstein, whose office is on the 28th floor of the 30-floor building, one of Haifa's tallest structures. "There are some people who will not work on the top floors and they have been given a work space either in the basement or on the first floor." Goldstein describes how when the sirens are sounded, he and his colleagues do not have time to make it into the bomb shelters in the basement and are forced to take refuge in the building's southern stairwell. "Most people seem calm on my floor," he says. "Though there are one or two who hurry to the stairwell when there is a siren." In Karmiel, Municipal Spokeswoman Levia Shalev Fischer believes that only about 40% of the residents of her hometown are left. "I say this because according to the garbage men, the rubbish disposal in the city has gone down by half," she says of the city of approximately 45,000. "The town is empty, the streets are empty and there are no cars around. It is not a good feeling." She says that the municipality has set up emergency services to ensure that those forced into public bomb shelters are fully supplied with food and other essential items. The city has also installed new sirens in many places to make sure that everyone has fair warning when the rockets are on their way. On a day-to-day level, Shalev Fischer says that most businesses are closed except for the big supermarket chains, which are open only a few hours. "There is no sign of entertainment," she says. "People just go out and buy what they need very quickly without hanging around." "Some days there are more than seven sirens. On others it is much quieter," says Shalev Fischer. "People have become very sensitive to sounds; every door that slams they jump. Life has changed here without a doubt."

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