My Story: The children of Sderot

These are not men who normally cry, but the events of the previous night - the fact that they could do nothing to protect their families was too much. It broke them.

By MASHA RIFKIN
May 31, 2007 13:17
My Story: The children of Sderot

kassam damage 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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The bus driver nearly pushed me off the bus, then sped away faster than I thought possible, rounding turns on two wheels. The Sderot I stepped into that Thursday was not the same one I had left - it was a ghost town. No cars, no people walking outside. Silence. I ran to where I was supposed to meet Natasha - afraid of being caught outside during a Kassam warning. We were evacuating people today, the government granted us some 30 houses in a kibbutz near Beersheba and a few hotels in Eilat. There we sat, calling people for 12 hours without rest, assuring them that Kassams do not fall in the kibbutz, signing them up, arranging buses, hotels. I was surprised by how many people declined to leave: "No, I'm sorry, I'm afraid to leave work - I can't afford to lose my job - but can you take my children?" The answer was always the same, no children without parents. It was nearing 11 a.m. when Deputy Mayor Tal Nachshonov called us into the other room. Natasha and I, first in the room, plopped down - Natasha by the window - and suddenly BOOM. Natasha screamed and jumped up, "Wow! I felt that one! The shock wave! It went through my body! God, that one was loud! What was it, a Katyusha?" The rest of the volunteers rushed in, no one had heard the warning. Soon, phones began to ring - we found out it hit a synagogue. Anna, one of my fellow volunteers, started to panic. "My sister, my sister was in that synagogue..." She ran out of the office. We all returned to work, finishing in the early hours of the morning. Later that day, my friend Noam and I visited the synagogue. It had originally been built in two parts, the main part where the congregation sits, and a smaller addendum used for studying. The addendum was completely demolished, and the area for the congregation, aside from a few scratches, untouched. We entered the addendum and were joined by a small group of men who were at the synagogue the night before. "There were 300 of us in the synagogue... most in this room, when the cleaning lady walked in," one of the men began to explain. "She told every single person to get out because she wanted to clean, and forbade us to come back in, because apparently we always make it dirty afterward. She finished cleaning, and left - two minutes later, the Kassam hit this room." He shook his head in disbelief, "The hand of God is in this place." The cleaning lady, I later found out, was Anna's sister. Another man pointed to one of the walls, and chuckled, "Look, God has a sense of humor!" I looked to where he was pointing, and there it was. Amid the wreckage - the demolished roof, the cracks along the walls, the broken furniture - were two pictures of rabbis, hanging close to the ceiling in a glass frame, completely untouched. While the rest of us chuckled along, a warning began. The men grabbed me and hurried me into the room of the congregation, pushing me against a wall. They began to sob, praying loudly through their sobs, violently rocking back and forth. These are not men who normally cry, but the events of the previous night, their screaming wives and hysterical children - centimeters away from death - the fact that they could do nothing to protect their families was too much. It broke them. Later that night, Natasha and I joined a family for Shabbat dinner. It was a quiet Shabbat, a sad one. They had sent the children away, and couldn't join them for fear of losing their jobs. Alla, the mother, showed me all the favorite dishes of her children that she had made anyway. Dinner was filled with a mix of silence and short spurts of conversation, all of us jumping at the sound of a car horn outside, or the clock which chimed every hour. Around 1 a.m. the warning sounded. We stayed at the table in utter silence. There would be no time to help the grandparents into a safe room, and make it ourselves. Then I heard it - the whistle of the Kassam. When you can hear the whistle, you know the Kassam is coming either very close, or right for you. BOOM. Our plates shook; my wine glass fell over. The Kassam fell across the street. Alla ran to the window, and we all screamed at her to get away from it, another one could fall any second. And then it began, the argument. Alla screamed at Sasha, her husband, "That's it! My heart can't take this anymore! I can't, I don't have any strength left! I want to leave!" "Oh yeah?" he answered, "Where will you go? With what money? What idiot will buy our house in Sderot, what idiot will rent it? You think we can afford two apartments?" Alla screamed back, "I don't care! I can't take this anymore, Sasha, look! Look! Our children aren't even with us on Shabbat! How long will this go on? It's never going to end, you know that! We'll find a way, I don't care, I'm leaving with the children!" Sasha looked at her and answered sternly, "Fine. You can leave without me then." The next day, as Natasha and I were driving showing a group of reporters around, the alarm went off. This was the first time I was caught outside, and my hands began to shake uncontrollably. The driver quickly pulled over, and we all jumped out of the car, crouching by a nearby wall. "Where can we go so we're safe?" one reporter asked. Natasha could only answer by laughing. What a silly question. There is no place that's safe. There were no bomb shelters to run to - 25 out of 57 of them have no electricity or water. I don't even know where any of them are located; no one I've spoken to does. My thoughts were interrupted by the whistle. The Kassam was headed right for us. It crashed down the street, hurting no one. Natasha looked at me, and decided it was time to take a break from the Kassams. We went to Ashkelon for dinner. At night, we walked through a children's park. I felt like I had stepped into a different world. Children were outside, and parents were walking their dogs. Meanwhile I could hear the boom of the Kassams falling in Sderot. And nothing - no one noticed, they continued with their lives as if there were no blood and terror 20 minutes away. It eventually became too much for me. Three days of being afraid to shower or use the bathroom for fear that I wouldn't have time to make it to a safe place. As soon as I was able to stop my hands from shaking after a missile fell nearby, another siren would go off. I was a complete mess, and I had no family to protect, no children to worry about. Natasha sent me back to Tel Aviv, and even here I receive frantic phone calls. People pleading with me, begging me to send them somewhere, anywhere. People screaming at me to take their children, even though they're not able to leave. "My children can't sleep at night! They're three, four years old, they don't understand what's going on, they cry the whole night! We don't even have a safe room. Please, I don't care what the hotel looks like, I don't care where I go, I just want them to have one night of peaceful sleep." I forwarded some calls to Natasha, thinking maybe she had more information. Noam called me. "Natasha has collapsed," he said. Not only was she handling hundreds of phone calls, attempting to evacuate hundreds of people, but in addition she was watching her four-month-old granddaughter, because her daughter and son-in-law could not leave work. It was her fourth day without sleep. I spoke to Natasha today, she sounded like she had slightly more strength. "It's a mess, Masha," she told me "there aren't enough people to help. This city is just not prepared for an emergency." The writer is a Cornell University junior and a volunteer at the Mishol social work office in Sderot.

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