(photo credit: Zaka)
Now, 10 years after the outbreak of the second intifada, I look back at that
period and still find it difficult to believe. That was when I and my fellow
ZAKA volunteers would go to bed fully dressed, with our shoes on and our
emergency medical kits by our side. And, of course, that was when we hardly
We were constantly listening to our beepers, waiting for the next
call. We would run from suicide bombing to bus attack, from a shooting incident
to a road accidents.
This was the atmosphere that defined those times and
fixed the daily agenda. That was our life.
I understood that Israel was
in such trouble and that, in this situation, anyone who wanted to help and
contribute should do so. I understood that if we, as men of faith, had the
strength to deal with such difficult scenes, then this was our place – at the
scene of terror attacks, doing work that has to be done, work that can only be
done by those who are fortified by their faith .
On several occasions, we
would return home after working at a scene where entire families were wiped out,
and we would see that the sun still shone and people still went about their
daily business. We would rely on black humor, sometimes even bordering on
cynicism, to get us through those dark times.
We relied on our families
to help us return to some degree of normality.
We would also find
ourselves dealing with difficult questions related to our faith. People would
confront us and ask: “Why did it happen to this family? What did they do?” And I
would reply: “You can ask me, but I have no answers.”
AND THEN there were
times when we really did break down. I can still remember the suicide bombing at
the Sbarro pizza restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem in August 2001. We worked
feverishly, trying to save those who were still alive and only then did we deal
with the horrific carnage of death. With painstaking care, we cleared the scene,
ensuring that every body part was collected, allowing a proper Jewish burial for
all the victims.
It was then – and only then – that the full horror
washed over me and my fellow ZAKA volunteers. We looked around and realized that
we were literally standing in pools of blood, some three or four centimeters
high. Here I was, in the center of Jerusalem, the beating heart of the State of
Israel, at the iconic junction of King George Avenue and Jaffa Road, and I was
standing in Jewish blood. Slowly, carefully, we collected the blood into four
large barrels for burial with the 15 victims, seven of whom were
That image, of four barrels of Jewish blood in the center of
Jerusalem, will never leave me.
With time came bitter experience. We were
about 600 volunteers in ZAKA at that time, and we quickly began to organize
ourselves into an ever more professional operation.
In the early days of
the intifada, it took us 12-14 hours to complete our work at the site of a
suicide bombing. We managed to get that down to three hours. We also learned
forensics and identification techniques during those painful years – even the
smallest parts can be the ones that result in a positive identification and
therefore a burial.
At the time, I thought we were dealing with kavod
hamet – honoring the dead. By the end, I realized that we were actually honoring
the living, because a family whose loved one cannot receive a full Jewish burial
has no rest. It is for them that we toiled.
The writer is chairman and
founder of ZAKA, a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victims Identification. It was
founded in 1989 and has grown into a UN-recognized international volunteer
humanitarian organization with 1,500 volunteers. ZAKA specializes in lifesaving,
rescue and recovery operations in Israel and around the world, including natural
disasters such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year.