10 years on, a mother remembers Helicopter disaster

'I speak to Assaf when no one listens.'

chopper disaster 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chopper disaster 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Sometimes I imagine you as a husband and as a father of two. You carry a boy on your shoulders and support him with a big, loving hand. You hold a girl firmly in your other hand, hugging her like you do, with great love." These are the words of Shlomit Sibony, mother of St.-Sgt. Assaf, 20, who died on February 4, 1997, in the Helicopter Disaster, on the way to fight in Lebanon. In the 10 years since the cold, foggy night when 65 Nahal infantrymen and eight air force personnel were killed in a collision between two IAF helicopters over Moshav She'ar Yashuv in the Galilee, Shlomit Sibony, 59, has divorced and recovered from cancer. "I speak to Assaf when no one listens, but I made a conscious decision not to dwell on the anger anymore. For me, for my family and for Assaf's sake," she told The Jerusalem Post. A memorial ceremony will be held Sunday at the Har Vegay School at Kibbutz Dafna, near the crash site. Shlomit was born and raised in Kibbutz Nir Am near Sderot. It was there that she and her former husband, Sidne, raised their children Assaf, Yuval, 28, and Dafna, 22. She has lived in student housing at the kibbutz for the last several months, while her home is being renovated. Shlomit offers mint tea, cookies and dried fruit to this reporter and Maj. Sarit Kojikaro, an IDF officer appointed to accompany the family. Shlomit looks strong, as if nothing could break her spirit. Her daughter Dafna sits quietly beside her. Dafna has not left her mother's side ever since that life-changing night in 1997. "I have decided to watch the ceremony on TV this year, even though I made a decision not to deal with it anymore. Apparently I already knew everything they had to say, I was just blocking it," she says. "There was one father, a good friend of mine who passed away in the meantime, who right from the start took upon himself the mission of finding out what went wrong that night. He used to call and update me about every new finding he had come up with and where the army went wrong. I used to tell him that I don't want to hear about it, what good can it do? And he literally died from this constant occupation with the bereavement. The cancer had eaten him from the inside." It took a while, however, for Shlomit to decide that her life was at stake, too. "In the first years after Assaf's death I dealt constantly with the loss. I volunteered at Yad Labanim [which represents families of fallen soldiers] and in the Kibbutz secretariat. I established, together with another bereaved father, a monument in the memory of our sons at Beit Lid. "In short, I was very active, constantly on the phone and running from meeting to meeting, until I became ill with cancer. At this point, three years ago, I realized it was a sign I must not ignore. I stopped dealing with anything that had to do with the loss and bereaved families, and thank God, I have recovered," she says. In an effort to replace the womb that was taken out of her body, Shlomit started sculpting in clay. She found comfort and strength in making clay figures of women whose powerful center is gushing out of their stomachs. Eventually she left her career as an educator and became a full-time artist, also teaching sculpting and art to local children. "It is not an easy thing to start a business of your own because it means bills to pay and a living to make. But I don't give up. I just hope I'll manage to make more money out of it, especially since the kibbutz was privatized and each member is responsible for his own fate." On the way to see the bird-watching lookout that the family established in memory of Assaf, we pass the family home. "Today, when I am renovating my house, a difficult thing in itself, I have to give up all sort of things and memories. For example, I had to erase the wall where my children used to measure their heights, and it is not easy. Assaf was very tall, almost two meters, and every time he entered the house, he had to bend down. By changing the house he grew up in, I have to give up those memories," she says. Shlomit says the parting from Assaf's belongings started long ago. "Assaf moved to a different room when he was a 12th grader. For a year after his death, I couldn't move his things and I left them just as he did. I couldn't accept the idea that his death was final. I entered his room a year later and realized that mice had been visiting, and I said, 'That's it, his things are too important to be left like that.' "Together with Sidne, finally, we arranged his things. We gave away some of his personal belongings to family members and close friends, and kept things like letters and a very little of his clothes. It was a long process that took us a few years, and every year the pile gets smaller. Each time, I have to decide what to keep and what to throw away, because each object holds memories and discussions we had with Assaf. Anyway, I now really believe it is impossible to keep everything exactly as it used to be," she says. The lookout is located in a magnificent spot overlooking the soon-to-be-blossoming South, Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip - the launching pad for countless Kassam rockets - and Nir Am. Here, the family built a wooden monument from which 20 clappers hang, representing the number of the years Assaf lived. The metal clappers play in the wind where Assaf used to bring the kibbutz's cattle herd to graze. "This is how I want to remember Assaf," Shlomit breathes in relief, "beautiful, blooming and close." She smiles as she hugs her daughter.