Of clowns and Kassams

In Sderot nursery schools, no one plays outside in the playground these days.

kassam drill 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
kassam drill 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
It's Thursday morning, and we're awakened at about the same hour we usually are this week by the sound of sirens, seemingly set to coincide with the time when all the children of Sderot are going to school, kindergarten or nursery school throughout the town. After taking cover in our security room, thinking all the time of the 1,000 families in this city who don't have one, I leave home with my sister, Rivka, and her cousin, Hadassah, who are dressed as clowns. They are trained clown therapists off to meet others from around the country who have volunteered to perform in front of children in Sderot's nursery schools. We arrive at the first one a little after 8:30 a.m. All the children are already sitting in their seats, thinking that at this very time Wednesday a few rockets fell so close to this place, and killed Yaakov Yaakobov, who was buried Wednesday afternoon... While the "clowns" perform, with balloons, tricks and a man playing a guitar, we speak with the teachers. One of them, Debbie, details how they had just managed to go to their security room with 15 children aged 3-5, in 15 seconds. She describes how they walk quickly, in a way which has already become routine, stay quiet and wait to hear the explosion of the rocket. The children, she says, have already gotten used to this somehow. Debbie mentions that the children have begun to take yoga classes, trying to ease the unnatural reality of not being able to play outside in the nursery school playground. No one is taking chances these days in Sderot. When they go home, Debbie says she reminds the children not to go to any playground and to run home as fast as they can. The children's parents do not have private cars to pick up their kids, and we can see them trotting alongside their youngsters to get them home as fast as possible. It's surreal to see the empty playground, built recently to improve the quality of life in Sderot. Debbie remarks that the last time the children were allowed in the playground was a month ago... On Fridays, the children have a "wishing day," where they can ask for anything, Debbie explains. The only wish, she says, is for the Arabs to stop firing missiles at us... We listen to the radio as Debby speaks, and hear a calm announcer say that the morning's missile has "only hit an empty lot, and that some people were treated for shock" before then going on to the sports news. It would seem that those working at Israel Radio, 55 minutes from here, do not understand what a trauma victim is. When we arrive at the next nursery school, Ofra the teacher is talking about snails, which turn up in the winter, and asks the children: "Why does the snail have a shell?" The children answer in chorus: "So it can be protected from the Kassams." Ofra mentions that the children have building and puzzle pieces made from Kassam rockets, as if they were a new form of Lego, and that they all say that they want to be soldiers when they grow up, to "fight those Arabs who fire Kassams on us." She describes how she gets phone calls several times a day from her son in a paratrooper unit, asking if she's safe. A psychologist at the kindergarten remarks that it is a good sign that the children can express themselves in drawings, building, and random chit-chat about where the Kassam fell yesterday, or about how loud the explosion was. What about the ones who are just sitting in the side of the small classroom, not even responding to the crazy clowns going wild, we wonder. Maybe it's because they understand that tomorrow a rocket is going to fall, and maybe it will fall close to them. The kindergarten security guard tells us that the first words out of the mouth of her baby cousin were "Shahar Adom" (the Red Dawn alarm code), along with the more traditional Abba and Ima. At the Yasmin nursery school, you can actually see a Kassam hole on the road that was covered up only a few days ago. This is the nursery school where a Kassam missile scored a direct hit in June 2004, killing two people - Afik Zehavi, 4, from that nursery school and Mordechai Yossophov, 49. Ofra tells me that when she and her family visited Dimona and Beersheba, her first grader Elad looked up in the sky for something. She asked him: "What are you looking for"? Little Elad answered: "There is no protection on the schools here, or protected area we can run to when the siren goes off." He also wondered, "Why are the Arabs bombing only in Sderot and not in Beersheba?" Her story left us to wonder about such a kid, who doesn't know any other reality than this one, which has existed for six years now. Dalia Yosef, head of a project that deals with the Community Protection Services and who works with children aged 2-4, offers research data showing that 50% of these children suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which will be with them for many years to come, and that only half of them have been treated. Dalia describes stories of teachers - not the children - breaking down, and not knowing what to do. They are simply not trained and inexperienced and have no one to supervise them. When the siren goes off, the teachers have to handle the hysterical children, while many times, the teachers themselves have children in different kindergartens and schools, many of which are unprotected. Out of over 100 kindergartens in the western Negev, indeed, only half are protected... Questions arise, like how do you deal with four-year-olds who witnessed Fatima Slutsker being blown to bits, or Maor Peretz losing both his legs? What do you do when the siren goes off and the children are getting on the bus? Do you run toward the bus, get all the children out, and run back to the shelter? All in 15 seconds? Before the clowns' performance, children from another nursery school right next door come in. The first thing the teacher says is where to go when the siren goes off, because not everyone is going to fit into the small protected room, so they have to split into groups. Later on, teacher's assistant Ilanit tells me that she was concerned that the kids were sitting too close together, not keeping the path clear to the protected room. The daily routine revolves around the Kassam and when\where it's going to hit. Five minutes after we leave the last nursery school, the siren goes off and three explosions are heard. One seems to have been very close by. We think about what the children and teachers were going through at that moment. My training as a forward observer in an artillery unit on the Lebanese border did not prepare me for this.