A tale of three cities

Inauspiciously, they started late, and, as the convoy finally headed out, the radio reported that the katyushas were falling on Kiryat Shmona. No one complained and no one asked to get off the "From Jerusalem with Love to the North" buses and vans. Even Shlomi and Michael, the drivers of the private bus company chartered for the day, admitted that they felt that this was "more than a job," and quickly became part of the municipal task force. "This is what genuine solidarity action looks like," said Yossi Sharabi, director of the municipal Social Affairs and Youth Department. "Each and every one of these employees has been through the worst moments of Jerusalem during the intifada. And they still feel they have something to give to the North." It was Mayor Uri Lupolianski who had came up with the idea of the "From Jerusalem with Love to the North" project. "I was listening to all the declarations since the war began," Lupolianski explained. "I have always preferred deeds to talk, so I decided that we, the people of Jerusalem who have suffered so much and know something about life in emergency situations, should do something besides declaring our sympathy." Lupolianski said that he had contacted the mayors in the northern cities to determine their precise needs and organized accordingly. "Of course, we can't replace the government," he said. "But we can do a few things, show solidarity, and alleviate part of their burden." The convoy that pulled out of Rehov Shivtei Yisrael on Tuesday morning, on their way to Kiryat Shmona with a stop-off scheduled for Tiberias, was a bit unusual. Headed by Ziv Ayalon, the director of the municipal Emergency and Security Department, the bus-full of department heads and other high-ranking employees led the ranks. The Special Arts Department's mobile unit was next in line, followed by a large truck filled with merchandise donated by "Shivuk Hashikmah" supermarkets, owned by city council member Rami Levy; a mobile children's library, a donation from the citizens of Jerusalem and the Department of Libraries; and then a van filled with wheelchairs donated by Yad Sarah. Next came Moshe Suissa, head of the Fire Department, whose staff volunteered to replace the firemen in Kiryat Shmona for four days of shifts. The Veterinary Department closed the ranks with two vans, manned by Dr. Zohar Dvorkin, chief municipal veterinarian, and four of his inspectors. In total, nearly 100 people in 13 different vehicles, all covered by posters announcing "From Jerusalem to the North with Love," made the trip. Earlier in the morning, a mobile petting zoo had left the Biblical Zoo, made a quick stop in Tiberias, and then continued to Kiryat Shmona, moving from one shelter to another. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the animals who managed to bring back smiles to dozens of frightened children crowded into the shelters. The luggage compartments were filled with sandwiches and soft drinks - "We're not stopping on the way," Ayalon warned - together with children's toys and, katyushas oblige, helmets and flak jackets. "It's not wise to try and find the size that fits you when the rockets are whistling past your ears," Ayalon told the assembled. "So do all the fitting now, while it's still calm," he added with a thin, ironic smile. spirits remained high, with even a bit of self-deprecating and sometimes macabre humor. Referring to the municipal rehabilitation program, which has included extensive layoffs and personnel reductions, the employees joked among themselves. "Let's try to guess whom they're trying to get rid of, even if it means that they have to sacrifice a large percentage of the staff." By the end of the day, even the press was no longer public enemy number one, as we were all greeted by a bombardment of shells as we entered Kiryat Shmona. Commenting on the somewhat eclectic array of equipment and supplies, a worker from the psychological service of the education department explained, "We know from our experience that in moments of high emergencies, people tend to pay attention to the most urgent needs. That's normal. It's what happened in Jerusalem during the awful period of the terrorist attacks. Afterwards, we realized that lots of problems that kids experienced much later really started then. With our experience, we can help our colleagues prepare." "We also try to prepare the staff for the problems that they, themselves, might face," added Bonny Goldberg, head of the municipal Authority for Community and Family. "We have been in contact for a few days and today we are coming to meet the staff in Tiberias and in Kiryat Shmona, to provide specific answers to the specific problems that they presented." Approaching Tiberias, the delegation met with local officials. And when told about a handicapped citizen confined to the shelter after his wheelchair was broken as he dashed for cover, Mayor Lupolianski immediately presented him with one of the wheelchairs he had brought. "Who said Nasrallah is bad for us," quipped a staff member as the group of secular and ultra-Orthodox employees scrambled to get the cumbersome helmets on their heads and ducked behind the bus along the main street of Kiryat Shmona. As the day went on and they became accustomed to the sounds of the katyushas, the workers cavalierly stopped wearing their protective gear. The atmosphere of camaraderie and common fate remained. Arriving in Kiryat Shmona, the staff of the Arts Department had a bit of trouble locating the shelters and found themselves wandering about the desolate city. They finally managed to find four shelters. "In the first shelter," Yael, an art counsellor, recalled on the long ride home, "we found a woman with two children sitting at the entrance to the shelter. She told us that this was the first time in two weeks that she dared to get out to breathe fresh air. I felt my heart fall down inside me." She continued, "We worked with the kids, I think they got a feeling that someone did care for them, perhaps for the first time since this war started." Meanwhile, while the obligatory speeches were delivered, city veterinarian Dvorkin toured the city in search of abandoned or sick pets. "We performed emergency surgery on a dog and found abandoned dogs who had been without food or water for days," he said. Dvorkin and his staff had brought hundreds of kilos of dog and cat food with them. "We're feeding the animals on the streets of the city." Dvorkin was joined by Dr. Bronislav, the local city veterinarian, who had come to Kiryat Shmona from Russia some 15 years ago. "I don't even have money for food for street cats," he said sadly. Then he added, "And that's not only true for the cats. Yesterday I got my salary for May. If not for the war, I probably wouldn't have been paid for another two or three months. That's the way it's been for the municipal employees for the past few years." Only three families remained in one of the most abandoned neighborhoods in Kiryat Shmona. As the sounds of the IDF's bombardment echoed through the empty streets, they tried to understand exactly what the delegation was doing there. "We came as a delegation of solidarity from Jerusalem," explained Dvorkin. "We brought food for the street cats," added one of the inspectors with a welcoming smile. A middle aged man's expression seemed to say, "You're kidding me, right?" Hesitating a bit, he asked again, "You came from Jerusalem?" "Yes, a whole delegation. More than a dozen vehicles." "All the way from Jerusalem to bring food and water to the cats of Kiryat Shmona?" he persisted, looking startled. "Yes, we brought food for the cats and dogs and we'll treat them if they need it. We've already operated on two dogs today." On the way back, the radio reported that just minutes after the delegation departed, a heavy barrage of katyushas had hit the city. "This is the worst moment," a woman commented in the dark bus. "At the end of the day, we go home and they stay here with the katyushas and the fear and all the problems. I hope the message of solidarity helps, even if just a little."