While the vast majority of the 5,000 people reported 'missing' every year in Israel are found safe, some 500 open cases continue to haunt families.

July 9, 2009 11:33

crowd 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

When Betty Yaakobi's answering machine picks up in her Tel Aviv home, it doesn't have the ordinary kind of greeting you might expect. Her voice says: "If you have any information on the whereabouts of my daughter Adi, please leave your name and number." It was almost 13 years ago, on December 13, 1996, that Adi, then 17, left her home near Dizengoff Center, telling her mother that she was going to visit a friend in Netanya. She was never heard from again. Exemplified by the answering machine message, that day is still the focal point of Betty's life - a cataclysmic event that turned her life from color to black and white, a day where everything that came before it ceased to exist in the same manner, and everything that came after it was forever tainted. "I've already forgotten how life could be any different. I think of her the first thing when I wake up, and I go to sleep with her images," says Betty, sitting in a café on Rehov Dizengoff not far from her home. Adi Yaakobi is just one of the 5,000 people here who in an average year are reported to the police as missing. The vast majority of them are located within a short time, cases of mixed-up plans, flat tires, dead cellphones. Others prove to be thornier but are solved in due time - a hiker losing his way, a mentally or physically disabled person unable to make it back home, an ex-husband simply "disappearing" to avoid paying alimony, an underworld vendetta. Then there are the cases like Adi Yaakobi, one of the approximately 500 cases still open in the files of the Israel Police Missing Persons Department at National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem. That's where Dana Bennet's file was located, as well, until May when police arrested Adwan Yihya Farhan, a 32-year-old father of four from the Galilee village of Wadi Hamam, for the murder of the 18-year-old Tiberias waitress in 2003. Bennet's case was a windfall for the police - also enabling them to solve the open case of the 2003 murder of Czech tourist Sylvia Molrova, who disappeared a month before Bennet. It was a gruesome and demoralizing end to those cases, the worst nightmares realized for the families of Bennet and Molrova, who held out hope that perhaps their loved ones would one day turn up alive. And instead of offering a plausible explanation that might provide some solace or make sense of the whole tragedy, it only proved that, like other countries, Israel produces homicidal maniacs who kill for the sake of killing. > Without a trace... ACCORDING TO most professional assessments, it's easy to go missing here, but, unless you wind up in Bennet's unfortunate circumstances, it's more problematic to stay missing. This is generally thought of as a tiny country, easily traversable in a day, and not many places in which to hide or be hidden. Tiny also in its transparency; it's tough to keep a secret here, as Dudu Topaz can tell you. There's already a magnifying glass on the whole country. Neighbors know each other's business to the extreme, the Hebrew press splashes garish "scoops" on its front pages on a daily basis and kernels of rumors, like the kernel that wedged in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's eye last month, spread virally from a morning whisper at the grocery to radio headlines an hour later. Still, despite all our vast intelligence networks, both of the official kind and the underground water cooler variety, there are still some things we don't know - like the whereabouts of Adi Yaakobi or the other missing persons who haven't been located in 10, 20 or 50 years. While these cases have receded from the headlines, resurfacing only when victims like Bennet are discovered, they continue to grip those family members who are forced to carry on with their lives under a huge cloud of pain and uncertainty. With dozens of new missing people to look for each week, police investigators are forced to place the longtime cases on the bottom of their ever-growing case loads. Some of the families, therefore, seek solace or answers through private investigators, clairvoyants or psychologists. Looking for a missing person in Israel, given its size and information network, should be easy and straightforward. And sometimes it is. But it can also be as frustrating as looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. "Yes, we're a small country, but we have Nahal David, the Judean Desert, the Negev," says an official connected to police searches. "Israel may not be big, but a person is a lot smaller." WHEN THE police receive a call about a missing person, the reaction depends on the circumstances of the disappearance and the person who's allegedly missing. There's a myth that the police don't get involved with a missing-person case for the first 24 hours, a police source explained, adding that the complaints received are dealt with immediately. But with 5,000 complaints a year, it's impossible to address each case with the same urgency. According to the official, most missing people calls are the result of family or business arguments and end up being solved without any police involvement - a teen could have had a fight with his parents, a husband with his wife, business partners have a financial altercation and one of them takes off. Or sometimes it's even more innocent. "Yoav didn't return home from school one day," says Sima, a resident of Shoeva, between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, referring to her son, who attends junior high school in Jerusalem. "He finished at 1:30 p.m., and by 5, he hadn't come home. He had left his cellphone at home, and I had no way to reach him. I called his friends, who all said that he had left school when they did." Sima called the police, who told her to wait for an hour or two, saying that their first mode of action would be to send up a helicopter over the bus route Yoav would take home from the center of Jerusalem. However, at 7 p.m., Yoav walked into his home, unaware of the tumult surrounding his "disappearance." The explanation? "It was a series of coincidences. He had run out of punches on his bus card, and didn't have any money with him. So he figured he would wait at the bus stop until he someone he knew showed up to lend him the fare," says Sima. "He sat there for five hours!" Not all cases have such happy endings. In 2002, the country was captivated by the disappearance of 22-month-old Jerusalemite Hodaya Kedem-Pimstein, whose father, Eli, reported her missing. After an intensive three-day search, her body was found in a desolate, rain-soaked field on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and her father was arrested for murder. "The whole force was out working on that case for three days - we had police from outside Jerusalem, helicopters, the whole works," says the police source. Four years later, Pimstein was ordered by a court to pay the state NIS 1.5 million in damages for the cost of the search. To minimize the outlay and maximize their resources, the police divide reports of missing people into two types: the "normal" case of someone not returning home or arriving at work - they're considered missing and possibly in danger. Then there are "extreme" cases, which include minors, security personnel including soldiers and police, subjects older than 60, mentally challenged people with handicaps like autism or physically challenged cases in which the subject has something like cerebral palsy, people taking life-saving medication or people known to family or labor and social welfare personnel as having suicidal tendencies. Once the police decide, as in the case of 13-year-old Yoav, that there's an immediate danger, they have a multitude of resources at their disposal: mobile units, roadblocks, navigators, ATVs, mobilizing civil guards, divers. Parallel to the physical search, police investigators gather intelligence, taking testimony from family members, checking the subject's personal computer and cellphone. As routine procedure, they also check hospitals and psychiatric wards, lists of traffic accidents, all police lockups and border crossings. WHAT OFTEN stymies the police is not knowing what type of missing person they're looking for, which they categorize into three groups. One is people who disappear of their own free will. They want to get away, clear their heads, leave for a different place, go to the desert or for a hike, and they simply don't announce to anyone that they're taking off. They show up three days later in Eilat and say, "What? People were looking for me?" Sometimes the thoroughness of the investigation backfires and the police end up locating someone who didn't want to be found. According to the police, they need to weigh the circumstances of the disappearance carefully to try to determine if the missing person is in danger, or indeed even missing. "Say I'm married and I have a girlfriend in another city. I go there and end up sleeping there and my wife calls the police. It makes no sense for the police to implement all these units and search mechanisms only to find [a guy] at his lover's house. He could actually sue the police - he didn't want to be found and you had no business finding him," says the official. "There's a need to remember that going missing is not a crime. A person can decide to disappear and not announce it. If we were business partners and I owed > Without a trace... you money, I decided to take off to Eilat or Sinai. You call the police and they locate me in Eilat. Did I ask you to find me? I have a financial dispute with my partner, it's not a police matter." The second category of missing people consists of those who left their homes and tragedy befell them. They went mountain climbing and fell, hiking and slipped, or out to sea and went overboard. Nobody was there to see their calamity or help them, and they died waiting to be found. In May, this occurred twice in one week. Lone hiker Eran Galil, 22, from Hadera was found in Nahal Arugot near Ein Gedi, after being reported missing four days earlier. The massive search operation included hundreds of police and volunteers, as well as a helicopter. Police believe that he fell somewhere near the creek and into the riverbed, where he was found. Another hiker's body was found two days later in Nahal Ketura, some 40 kilometers north of Eilat. The 33-year-old father of two from Herzliya had left on his own and hadn't contacted his wife in two days, when she called the police. In both instances, the police knew basically where the hikers were and that they were in danger. Speed becomes of great importance. For the third type of missing people, speed doesn't really play a factor. These are the victims - people who have been kidnapped, murdered or somehow taken against their will. Of the 5,000 annual reports of missing people, on average all but 25 have been found by the end of the year. Unfortunately, it's in this latter category of victims where they're likely to wind up. While the police are authorized to close the case of a missing person after 50 years, in practice, this hasn't been done. There's still a case on file of a 70-year-old man who went missing in 1949, which would make him 130 years old today. For the first five years that a case is open, it's taken care of by the police's investigation branch. After that, it's transferred to National Police Headquarters, where it's reviewed periodically and leads are checked. Until there's concrete evidence though, the cases are not treated as murders, they're still missing people. "The Dana Bennet case only became a murder case a month ago," says the police source. "I can't say if any of the other 500 cases involve murder. Maybe they all just live somewhere else now." FROM THE nondescript optical business he owns on Tel Aviv's busy Rehov Ibn Gvirol, or from his ordinary middle-aged, close-cropped graying but fit appearance, or from his easygoing, cheerful demeanor, you'd never have an indication that Yossi Yaakobi has had anything but an ordinary life. But in a country where almost everyone has a story, the one Adi Yaakobi's father keeps inside him is unlike most. "I used to walk Adi and her twin sister Sarit [now 29, and graduating from fashion design school] to and from school every day. They used to laugh at me; I was very protective. When we got divorced when they were young, I asked Betty to let me continue taking them to school. I bought an apartment right around the corner," says Yossi, sitting at a homey restaurant across the street from his store. In the short walk there, he had received the good wishes and handshakes of a handful of passersby, as well as advice from one bespectacled client about a pinching feeling on the nose. When he entered the restaurant, he was greeted like he was returning home after a month-long stint of reserve duty. These days, the tables have turned. Now, the people surrounding Yossi are protective of him. Thirteen years after Adi's disappearance, Yossi keeps an even keel by ensuring his days are chock full so he doesn't have time to think. "I'm out of the house at 7 a.m., I close the store at 7:30 p.m., I go to the gym and I get home and take a shower. By then it's 10 p.m, and the TV news is over," said Yossi, adding that he doesn't read newspapers either. "I read Yisrael Shelanu - it's dropped next to my door on the 15th floor and I have enough time to read the sports section on the elevator down. That's it. "Every day when I wake though, I realize it hasn't been a dream. And when people ask me about it, I talk freely; I don't have a problem with it. She's always with me, but I've carried on with my life." That routine includes regular visits to a therapist. "I'm very afraid of the psychological side, that maybe a fuse in my brain could short and I might lose it. I know it's very important to talk about my feelings," says Yossi. According to Solly Dreman, emeritus professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University and an expert in family transition and change, the emotional problems for parents and families of missing persons is more acute than families of a loved one who has been killed. It's the element of uncertainty. "In Judaism, a person is considered dead only when there's absolute evidence that he died. A family can't bury their missing member, neither physically nor psychologically," said Dreman. Yossi confesses that if he had continued to focus on Adi and the search for her, he wouldn't have been able to carry on. "At some point, I thought to myself - what can I do? To invest my whole life in looking for Adi, at the expense of any other life, or to take into account that I still have Adi's sister, a close family, and begin to focus on my real life? If Adi is alive someplace and doesn't want to see us, then I'll wait for the day when she decides she does want to see us. She knows I'm here. It's impossible to continue otherwise." FOR YOSSI'S ex-wife Betty, the opposite it true. For 13 years, her life has been devoted to finding Adi. Betty, who immigrated from Argentina in 1973, has left no stone unturned in her quest to find out what happened to her daughter. She's been in touch with Interpol, the FBI and even went to meet Yasser Arafat in Ramallah - she said he listened politely and said he would try to help her, but she never heard from him again. "Everything I've tried to do, no matter what it is, I feel I end up back at the beginning. But what can I do? I have to keep on trying," says Betty, who walks slowly, talks haltingly and behaves like she's slightly shell shocked, as if the tragedy took place last month instead of more than a decade ago. "I'm afraid to move from my home - what if she came back and I wasn't there?" Betty claims that she and Adi have been forgotten, fallen through the cracks of the law-enforcement apparatus that's supposed to find her and the social support infrastructure that's supposed to help people like her. "There's all this talk of 'the Jewish people,' and in the end you stand alone. I'm in touch with the police, I consult with them. Sometimes I'm in such a state of despair that I need a word with them to keep going. But still, at the end of the day, I'm alone. "People don't like to hear about it or think about it - it always comes back to the possibility of something like that happening to their own daughters, and they just don't want to know from it." Even Yossi, who seems to have adjusted to Adi's absence better than Betty, mentioned the sense of isolation at the heart of the matter. "Look, it's not like when a soldier disappears, and there's organized support from the army and official bodies. There's nothing like that for us. Nobody updates you - nothing. You're alone to continue alone throughout the whole ordeal," he says. "The police may be in touch with Betty, but I don't think they're calling her and initiating anything - she's in touch with them. The police have called us now and then, one time to go to [the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at] Abu Kabir to give a DNA sample, things like that. But they don't come and sit and explain what they've been doing." While the police aren't in touch with the families of missing persons on a regular basis, they will update them if there are developments in the case. And, of course, when a breakthrough like the whereabouts of Dana Bennet occurs, the family is notified immediately. The traumatic discovery of Bennet brought mixed emotions with it for the Yaakobis, who both say that they had sporadic contact with Bennet's parents, Vicky and Binyamin, through the years. "It raises hope, but also sadness, all together," said Yossi. "On the hopeful side, maybe because of this, the police will start putting an emphasis on Adi's case again, and check angles they haven't pursued in the past." Betty, who was in Argentina at the time Bennet's body was found, caring for her ailing mother, says this would hopefully help the Bennet family move on. But both Yaakobis state that they shied away from reading or watching new reports about the case because it was too painful. Neither of them went to pay a shiva call. YOSSI AND Betty Yaakobi belong to a special "club," albeit one that exists only in the minds of its members. They're the families with missing people, and membership is possible whether a loved one disappeared last week or, like Adi, in 1996. At one point, early in their ordeal, the Yaakobis were part of an effort to actually form a club with other bereaved parents to provide some support and solace to their inner turmoil, and to work together as a group to push for more manpower for the police investigations. "If I, as one family, go to the police, I don't have any power or clout. But if 10 families go together, it's different," Yossi explains. The Israel Police Web site lists 64 missing persons, among them are a dozen or so high-profile cases like: • Alexandra (Sasha) Brandt was nine when she disappeared on November 24, 1994. She was last seen leaving school, with witnesses giving statements that a man approached her and she was walking with him. • IDF soldier Guy Hever was 20 when he disappeared on his way home from his Golan Heights base on August 17, 1997. • Andrei Bozrotzko was 17 when he disappeared on August 22, 1997. He never returned home from school. Police intelligence reports indicate he was abducted by criminals, beaten to death and buried in a secluded area. • IDF soldier Majido Halabi was 20 when he disappeared on May 24, 2005. He left his Daliat al-Carmel home and has not been seen since. "I and a few other families tried to set up a support group, but it was very difficult," says Yossi. "We met a few times, but there was a misconception among some families that they would come, and within a short time, their missing family member would be found. "Some of the families didn't want to participate, saying, 'We have nothing in common with you,' but like I told Guy Hever's mother, 'When I go to the police station and see your son's photo next to my daughter's, I see we have something very important in common.'" > Without a trace... The fledgling group never got off the ground, aside from a few meetings with a former Israel Police psychologist, and a failed attempt to organize a missing persons unit composed of retired police detectives who would take on the cases on a volunteer basis. According to psychologist Dreman, a support group could theoretically be beneficial if a veteran was able to ease the plight of someone with a fresh missing person in their life. However, he cautions against people in the throes of such strong emotions being thrown together. "If you're mourning all the time, you can't get back to business. If people are wallowing in sorrow, it's hard to come out of the situation. You need some combination of dealing with the past and getting on with the present," he says. ULTIMATELY, THE tie that binds the families of missing persons is the feeling of being suspended between earth and sky, the burning desire to find out what happened to their loved ones - even if the answer, as in the case of Dana Bennet, is their worst nightmare come true. "Uncertainty is a huge cause of stress, and the families of missing people are in such a state of stress - it's a real psychic stress," says Dreman. "Some people turn to mysticism or go to séances or other supernatural ways to try to discover the fate of their missing loved one. They need to know, even if the answer may be shocking." "Not knowing kills you. You keep having fantasies of her walking back in. What good do they do me? They don't make me feel better," says Betty. "Would I rather know that she was dead? What do you think? It's the uncertainty that's horrible." "I don't know how I'd react if I discovered that Adi had met the same fate as Dana Bennet. But to be in this limbo situation is very difficult, not easy at all," adds Yossi. Someone would rather get the bad news than to be kept in the dark, even if the news is bad, explains Dreman. "It's just like in a war situation. Before a battle takes place, you wait and wait. The anxiety is terrible. Once the battle begins, even if it's awful, at least it's something tangible you can contend with. And at the end, you bury the dead, mourn and put up a tombstone. You can't mourn someone who hasn't been buried. Mourning is the equivalent of acceptance, and until the person is found, that's hard to have." According to Dreman, whether the person is found dead or alive, or never turns up, at some point there has to be acceptance. "I don't know if you can put the person away completely, but you have say, 'We've done as much as possible, the chances are not great that we're going to find him.' Maybe there needs to be a commemoration of the person in some sense and an acceptance of the situation without necessarily giving up hope that someday he will be found." Whether or not that acceptance can be found, the families of missing persons try to cope with their bizarre situations in whatever way works for them - Yossi with his business and his gym, and Betty with her answering machine. Asked if anyone had ever provided worthwhile information on a message, she laughs bitterly. "If it had helped, I wouldn't be sitting here now." People who might have information on Adi Yaakobi's whereabouts are requested to leave a message in Hebrew or Spanish at (03) 522-5906.

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