What it looks like from Sderot

The fact that we know when the rockets are coming saves our lives. Still, is this any way to live?

By LAURA BIALIS
January 12, 2009 20:35
What it looks like from Sderot

sderot rocket shock 248 ap. (photo credit: AP)

 
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For the past two weeks, we've been awakened by the Tzeva Adom (Color Red) alert. This is one of the most bizarre air raid warnings in history. It starts with the click of a loudspeaker, and then a calm woman's voice says "Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom" over and over again. The alert has been difficult to hear at times, especially if you were playing music or watching TV. Last week, two soldiers from the Home Command Unit appeared at our door and handed us a home beeper system that goes off two seconds before the Tzeva Adom alert. So now the loud beeper sound is added to the repertoire. The moment of the alert, my husband Avi and I jump out of bed and run to our bomb shelter. We huddle there and hug each other, waiting to hear the explosion. Sometimes it's a distant thud. Sometimes it is terrifyingly close, and our house shakes. After about 20 seconds, it's over. They say that you have a 15-second warning. Actually, it varies. And once in a while, you will hear a Kassam land without an alert. Those are the worst times, because that means there is a very decent chance that someone has been hurt. Here in Sderot, we are accustomed to alerts on a weekly and even daily basis. But at the start of the military operation, the situation reached a new level. On December 24, we received over 60 rockets. The following Saturday, we heard a new sound - air strikes. It was a strange moment. Finally, after eight years, Israel was taking action. Since then, the Kassam attacks have been endless. In the old days, we knew there could be an alert. Now we know there will be. THE FIRST week, there were approximately 10 alerts in Sderot every day (some days more, some days less.) Keep in mind - each is accompanied by two to four exploding rockets. We stay alert at all times. If Avi takes a shower, I need to be nearby listening for the alert, ready to grab him out of the shower if need be (and vice versa). If we drive somewhere, we tune our radio to 104, the army channel. All alerts are broadcast on that station, so you can immediately get out of your car and run for cover. We also drive with seat belts off and windows open, just in case. (Several of the people who have died from Kassams were in their cars when the attack occurred.) Where do we run? Well, Sderot is pretty well prepared. There are bomb shelters of every shape and size everywhere you look - almost every 10 meters you have one. The idea is that you are always within 15 seconds of a shelter. However, this concept is flawed in its execution. Some areas are covered with shelters, but some residential streets have none. If you are on a residential street in the middle of an alert, you run into the nearest house. This is what happened today. As we heard the alert, we saw a flash of two people in front of our house. We ran, opened the door and the two young guys followed us, running into our bomb shelter. We waited to hear the explosions, they thanked us and were on their way. NOT ALL homes have bomb shelters. In fact, several of my friends don't have one, and 15 seconds is not long enough for them to reach the public shelter. They usually crouch in a stairwell hoping everything will be okay. But ironically, Sderot is probably the safest place in southern Israel at the moment. Because now the entire South is being hit: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba and Netivot, among others... We have friends in these cities, and when the rockets started to fall there, they were in shock for days. They are less prepared than us. There are no bomb shelters lining the streets of these towns, but fewer, larger community shelters where now many people are sleeping. While we definitely feel a sense of solidarity, the fact that large part of the country is living much like us - running for shelter and fearing for their lives - creates a whole new sad reality. When I first came to Sderot I didn't run to the shelter. The threat seemed so random. It seemed almost impossible that you were going to be hurt. The fear of Kassams is something that takes a while. It grows on you. Because now, I know too many people with near misses. I have a friend who reluctantly left his bed to go the shelter. He was lucky he decided to go, because the Kassam landed directly on his bed. I have another friend who miraculously survived a Kassam hit on her house. She is okay after massive rehab, but she has shrapnel in her brain that is too deep to remove. And I have friends who have seen people killed by Kassams - right before their eyes. I OFTEN feel that the international press doesn't get it. They make light of the rockets. Because when you come to Sderot for one day, the attacks seem random and you feel somehow immune from harm. The words "amateur homemade rockets" that I see written in most major news publications make the threat seem less serious. But the fact is, these rockets are nothing other than bombs, falling from the sky, designed to kill civilians. And they do. The press usually focuses on the number of dead people. If these Kassams are really dangerous, why haven't more people died? Good question. Thousands of lives have been saved by the 15-second warning system. With more than 10,000 rockets landing in this area in the past eight years, there would most likely be hundreds killed if not thousands. But the fact that we know when the rockets are coming saves our lives. Still, is this any way to live? Can you imagine this happening in any city in America or Europe? On Sunday, I filmed a home that had been completely destroyed that morning. It was a small, three-room place. No bomb shelter, but miraculously, the room where the owner took cover wasn't hit; the rest of the house was demolished. I've seen tons of footage of destroyed homes in Sderot and filmed in broken houses. But I had never set foot on fresh rubble just a few hours old. I was shaken. That house was struck by a Kassam, which is approximately six to eight kilos of explosives attached to a metal tube with fins. Last night we were informed of new intelligence that Hamas intends to begin shooting Grads into Sderot. Grads are twice the size of Kassams and are what Hamas uses to bomb the further cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba. Now you know why my cameraman has headed out of town. WHEN I first came here over a year and a half ago, Sderot was almost like a ghost town. Now the international media has descended on us in droves. There are TV trucks and cameramen everywhere you look, and reporters from every network, broadcasting in every language from the hilltops and town corners. At least my friends who own Coffee To Go, the local café, are finally getting some business. (When I first arrived here and hadn't yet found a house, Avi used to joke that I was single-handedly keeping the place afloat.) All around, you just feel war. People stay in their houses, schools are closed. Learning Together, a wartime television program broadcasts daily high school classes for kids who can't go to school. The classes are taught by famous writers, poets and philosophers. The war is the only thing people talk about. It's hard to get things done. It's hard to keep ourselves from watching the news all day. And the weirdest thing is to watch the news about something that just happened a block away. Sometimes you realize that you are the news. Two nights ago we sat in Coffee To Go for dinner. Suddenly, Tzeva Adom. We ran to the interior of the room, away from the glass storefront. The Kassam exploded just across the street - the café rocked with the blast. Journalists who had been on a coffee break raced out to try to get shots. Five minutes later, a large-screen TV above our heads was broadcasting an update from Sderot - including what we had just felt and heard. I GET e-mails from people and read articles calling Israel's response "disproportionate." It upsets me. I feel they just don't have a clue. What would be a proportionate response? For us to shoot unmanned missiles targeted at civilians every day? Instead, we are doing something more effective and humane - we are taking away their weapons. We are bombing their stockpiles, tunnels and terror infrastructure. We are sending SMSs and leaflets warning civilians to leave areas that will be bombed. And we are doing what we need to do to stay alive. From this corner of the State of Israel, it is obvious that if we don't do something now, we are looking at an existential threat. If anyone has any doubts about that, then I invite them to come live with me here in Sderot. I have an extra bed and am happy to offer it. I guarantee they will change their mind once they've spent a few days in my living room. JUST BEFORE the war started, I did an interview with Yossi Cohen - an established Sderot musician who plays bass in Avi's band and has a band of his own. He's had his own share of trauma - he now suffers a hearing loss from a Kassam that landed right near him, and has anxiety and depression as a result of another close landing that killed someone. He also happens to be one of the nicest people I know. Yossi works for the city (his day job) doing landscaping projects. He took me to his most recent work of art. It was a bomb shelter - one I had passed a million times. But now it had been painted a nice shade of brown, and was covered with panels of green vines. Design-wise, it looked like something you would see in Palm Springs. It seemed so surreal to create designer bomb shelters. Yossi explained that someone thought it would be a good idea to boost morale. These kind of absurdities run amok in Sderot. A few meters away, was a smaller bomb shelter with graffiti spray painted on it. I asked Yossi what it said (my Hebrew still not up to par). It says, "Secede from the pathetic state." Yossi added, "I know who wrote it." This sort of sentiment wasn't unusual in Sderot. When I first arrived, I was told by many residents that this was a city without a state. And last year friends told me they were not planning to put up a flag on Independence Day. Sderot had such a terrible year. It was hard to feel patriotic. But then everything changed. We watched speeches by [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni about how after eight years, something had to be done and they were going to do it. Avi felt they were finally apologizing to the people of this area for ignoring their suffering for so long.It's hard to live here and not wonder, "Will we survive? As a country? As a people?" I have been thinking this on a daily basis, and last night went to bed in tears after a stressful argument with a friend on this topic. Maybe we won't make it. But we've got to do everything we can to try. Here in Sderot, we are part of a country again. And as a people, a nation, we have history on our side. The flags and those two thoughts are going to get me through this war. The writer, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles, moved to Sderot in 2007 to make a film about life in that city through the eyes of its musicians. www.sderotmovie.com

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