Kiryat Shmona still a ghost town [pg. 1]

The word cease-fire meant nothing to three-year-old Adi Vazana, who was scared to return to her home in Kiryat Shmona on Monday. She didn't understand that Hizbullah had stopped launching rockets into the northern communities as it had done for the last month and that the sound of IDF artillery would no longer punctuate the air. Lying on the floor of her grandmother's home, she still believed rockets could fall. She held her hands to her ears and with a shy smile said, "There may be booms." Further down the street from the Vazana home, Uri Azarzar stood in the wreckage of his apartment, damaged by a rocket on Friday, without knowing where his three children - three, six and nine - would sleep when they returned with their mother after spending four days away from the city. All the windows in the apartment were broken. Glass shards were scattered across the rooms and had even landed on the Winnie the Pooh book the children had left behind on the sofa. "I guess we'll sleep here," Azarzar said. While the guns of war fell silent at 8 a.m., the city itself had yet to return to normal by late afternoon. Most of the stores remained closed and the streets were empty. Sweeping up the debris in his small restaurant, which also lacked windows, Ya'acov Peretz showed how three missiles had fallen in the area and damaged his store in the last month. Just repairing the store alone would take two to three weeks, he estimated. Even city hall was dark as Mayor Haim Barbivai opted to spend one more day working out of a bomb shelter in accordance with instructions from Home Front Command, which as a cautionary note asked people to wait until late afternoon to leave such safe areas. "Tomorrow morning we will move upstairs," Barbivai said. Now that the cease-fire is in place, the main focus has to be restoring the city and upgrading the quality of life here, he said. It's a move that he estimates would cost NIS 80 million. His city of 24,000 residents suffered more than 700 rocket hits, which damaged some 2,000 homes, two shopping malls, scores of stores, five schools, 16 nursery schools and a number of public institutions. The constant barrage led some 17,000 residents to leave the city, so that for most of the war, Kiryat Shmona resembled a ghost town. While structural damage was great, the city was lucky in that there were no deaths, only two lightly wounded, Barbivai said. It's the first time the city has been spared such fatalities from rocket barrages. From 1968 to 2000, 32 residents lost their lives from rocket attacks by various terrorist groups in Lebanon. The city was such a constant target that it had over time become a symbol of the northern life on the firing line. "Maybe it's the fact that the city's name starts with the letter 'k,' which is also the first letter in the world Katyusha," joked the mayor. Rockets have been falling in the city since he first moved there at 16 in 1968, Barbivai said. The first victim, he said, was his wife's brother, David Tadmor, then in his 20s. "My children grew up with them. Now I have a grandchild. So we have been dealing with them for three generations," he said. Barbivai dismissed questions about support for the cease-fire as irrelevant, noting only that "time will tell. If it leads to peace then it's good; if rockets fall again, then it's bad." But other residents said they would have preferred if the army had finished the job. Uri's older brother, Meir Azarzar, said initially he wanted a cease-fire for selfish reasons. His daughter had been set to marry on August 10 and the celebration was cancelled because of the fighting. But that fact aside, he is ready to be finished, once and for all, with rockets. His family, too, has been a victim of violence. His older brother Uri, then nine, was killed by a rocket in 1969. He took out his key chain and showed how he had inserted a photo of him into it. His younger brother Uri, whose apartment was hit by a rocket on Friday, was named in his memory. They also lost a brother who was killed in the 1980s while fighting in Lebanon. Their neighbor, Adi's mother, Mali, said she felt the same way. A native of Kiryat Shmona, she said, she was sure the rocket threat was not eliminated when the IDF pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000. Its absence since marked "a false peace," she said. Similarly, she said, she felt that this is just a lull in the storm. Only now her children know they live in danger. "I hide under my blanket when there is noise," said Adi as she mimicked how she pulled the blanket over her head. Holding her one-year-old son in her arms, Mali descended into the building's bomb shelter to show how people slept on narrow bunk beds and lived in a room that smelled of mold. Initially she, her husband and their two small children stayed in their own building which had a safe room but no shelter. "We were the only family still in the building, everyone had fled," she said. But as time went on, she believed the safe rooms did little, so she relocated her family to her mother's apartment. Even that didn't work so well, she said, because when a warning siren rang out they rarely had enough time to grab the children and make it downstairs to the shelter. Only during the last three days were they able to find a place to stay outside the city. On top of that, the war broke out at a time when their personal finances were low, so they struggled to find money for food and basic supplies. "But I would have sat here for how ever long it took if it meant the end of the attacks," she said.