Bearing up in Beersheba

Yocheved Miriam Russo shares her thoughts and fears from the beleaguered South.

beersheba (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s the little things in life that can trip you up, and right now, I’m ready to howl. For three days, I’ve been out of milk, tomatoes and cucumbers, and running low on almost everything else – but from the look of things, I won’t be able to replenish my supplies today, either. It’s driving me crazy.
I live in Beersheba. This is the sixth day we’ve been under heavy bombardment by Grad missiles fired into our fair city from well-hidden locations deep in Gaza. Day and night, incoming rocket sirens wail – sometimes every few minutes, sometimes after pauses of several hours. We had one break that lasted almost 15 hours, but in the last 12 minutes, we’ve had four “missile incoming” sirens and too many explosions to count. A couple of days ago, several direct hits damaged three apartments in a nearby neighborhood.
As I watch the Internet postings of “Color Red” sirens from around the country, I know Beersheba isn’t alone. The entire South seems to be in Gaza’s crosshairs right now. I have to admit it: I’m tired, absolutely exhausted. The pressure of days and nights of unrelieved tension is taking a toll. And asking me to endure all this without tomatoes and cucumbers? Unthinkable!
It’s the little things that drive you nuts.
It’s not that I can’t go out and buy groceries. I could. Driving to the grocery store takes 10 minutes or even less, given no traffic. Once inside the store, I’d be fine – either the store itself is protected, or they have a safe room, something I don’t have in my own home. But it’s that fatal 25 minutes – 10 going, five to load the groceries into the car, 10 coming home again – that scare the wits out of me.
I don’t like being afraid like this. Mentally I try to shake it off, reminding myself I’m overreacting. Of course I can go to the grocery store! I should go! Friends have gone out and returned home, perfectly fine. But then the memory of one truly terrifying moment I experienced back in the days of Operation Cast Lead comes back to haunt me.
I didn’t have a car back then, and after being pinned in the house for a number of days, I found myself in a situation not unlike today: I needed groceries. It would be fine, I thought. I’d walk to the store, something I’d done once a week for years. Starting out, it was lovely, a beautiful, warm winter day, the taste of freedom adding to the perfection. About halfway there, just as I was entering the heart of Beersheba’s Old City shopping area, the siren started wailing.
Frantic, I looked around. Because of the situation, none of the shops was open. There was nowhere to run. I searched around for a wide doorway, anywhere I could take shelter, finally ducking into one that seemed the biggest. I stood there, my face turned to the building, hands over my ears, shaking, while BOOM after BOOM seemed to explode directly overhead. This was before the much-vaunted Iron Dome missile interceptor system; these rockets were damaging whatever they hit. Simply stated, I was terrified. Not physically hurt, just terrorized. Shaking so hard I could hardly walk, I grabbed my shopping cart and headed back home. I didn’t need anything from the grocery store that badly.
Today, remembering, my hands shake again, tears flow. Psychologists call it post-traumatic stress disorder; I call it rechargeable terror. I don’t have to actually experience it again to remember every excruciating moment and relive it. Worse yet, my fear is exacerbated by horrifying Internet photos of a car that suffered a direct hit earlier this week in Ofakim, just down the road. Four people were wounded, one seriously. There are also photos of a totally burned-up car hit by a missile in Beersheba. Driving to the store isn’t necessarily safer than trying to walk there.
The trauma of the photos aside, I wonder how people endured war before the Internet. How did they deal with the lack of information, the inability to communicate instantly, survive times when you didn’t know – and couldn’t find out – how friends and loved ones were faring? For me, it’s a source of not just news and information, but support from friends and family around the world. Many times over, people say that Facebook has become their main source of news – not original news, so to speak, but links to items of information they need. News that helps.
Several sites post siren alerts in real time. As soon as a siren starts to wail in some community in Israel, it’s noted on the website, or lands in your Facebook or email account. To me, that’s vital information. It lets me see where our enemies are focusing; I get a feeling of community, of strength, knowing that it’s not just Beersheba, not just me. A whole group of us “talk” to each other, commiserating. By doing so, we know we’re in this together.
WHAT’S BEEN eye-opening for me in the last few days is realizing that not everyone agrees with the benefits of the Internet. In fact, the subject of information disseminated via social media has sparked a number of heated debates, with proponents on both sides of the issue infuriated with those who disagree.
What’s the problem? Government officials and other service organizations have warned Israelis not to divulge the location of any individual rocket strikes. We don’t want to give our enemies any information on where the missiles they fired off actually hit. That’s fair enough and absolutely right. Ever since Seagram’s Distillery Company popularized the “loose lips sink ships” mantra during World War II, people know and understand the harm brought about by too much loose talk.
The problem is that the governmental directive is too vague. What do they mean, “location”? At any given moment, there are literally dozens of news and information websites and radio stations – including some from the government itself – that report every siren that sounds, in every community, in real time. They don’t list where, exactly. No street information or even neighborhood is listed, but they do specify the city or village. These sites are available to everyone. They’re the sites many of us follow and link on the Internet via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
To some, providing that information, making those links, is not only contrary to the government’s edict, but wrong in and of itself.
“How dare you?” one poster shouted in a recent all-caps post. “Home Front Command has instructed us not to divulge any information about rocket sirens and strikes, and here you are, posting it on the Internet! You are putting my life at risk, and I demand that you stop!”
Later, she explained, “Terrorists monitor Facebook sites, too. If you tell them where their last rocket hit, you’re giving them way too much valuable information.”
Others jumped in to defend the postings: “Are you telling me that some terrorist out there is monitoring my Facebook page, in English? That he’s sorting through my cartoons, pictures of cute kittens and photos of our family reunion, in order to find out where that last rocket hit? Why would he do that, when all he’d have to do is go directly to the government site, and get that same information in Hebrew – and probably in Arabic?”
To which the original protester responded, “I don’t know what terrorists are doing. But our government told us not to post this information, and you’re doing it. SO STOP.”
Then another poster suggested an even more radical proposal: “I don’t think the government should post that information at all. If terrorists are using it, they’re just hurting us all.”
Clearly there’s something more going on here than the battle of post-ordon’t- post. I think there’s a deeper issue, on which a recent exchange may shed some light.
A few days ago, a siren sounded in Beersheba which – for whatever reason – one Beershebite did not hear. That’s perfectly possible – I missed one myself last summer when I was sitting in a back room with two fans on and my ear buds in. Then, too, sirens don’t always sound city-wide; sometimes it’s just by neighborhood. But this particular person refused to believe that had happened. Instead, he vehemently insisted there hadn’t been a siren at all.
“It must have been car stuff,” he reasoned. “A sonic boom, an echo, something else. It couldn’t have been a siren.”
As others chimed in, affirming that a siren had indeed sounded, the man reluctantly conceded, “I guess you’re right. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that if I didn’t hear it, it didn’t happen. Then I could believe that this whole thing wasn’t happening, that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
HOW BAD is it? There is no single answer. We’ve all had to adjust the way we live – not just grocery runs, but everything. As in the darkest days in Sderot, families around the South have taken to implementing “shower teams”: One person showers, while another stands outside the door, ready to pound on it and alert the one in the shower to get out and run, since it’s hard to hear the siren with the water running.
In Beersheba, my guess is that maybe only a third of the residents have actual safe rooms, fortified against rockets. The rest of us find other places – the stairwells of apartment buildings, or in single family homes, an interior room, away from outer walls and windows. Most families who have safe rooms now sleep in them every night, and have designated them as daytime play areas for the children.
Another big issue families face is that of closed schools: With most parents working, how do they handle child care? That topic alone would fill a book.
Some businesses suffer. I ran out of dog food and called my longtime dog food supplier: “Would you mind delivering? Even with the rockets?”
He was delighted. “I’m happy to. Business has been terrible. Thank you for calling.”
One problem we all share: After six days of sirens and rockets, day and night, our nerves are worn raw – not just raw, but chafed and abraded until the slightest breeze of confrontation is enough to set off waves of fury and indignation. It’s easy to take offense at almost anything. Cabin fever takes several forms. People who live alone start to feel isolated. Those with families say too much family together time isn’t the best thing, either. Everyone needs a break. Pet owners compare how the animals are coping – someone has invented a “Thunder Jacket,” a closefitting shirt-like item for dogs that’s supposed to soothe the animal, making it feel wrapped up and secure. A cat tranquilizer has come on the market, and some people swear by it.
And of course, we differ on how we react to bad news. Some don’t want to hear about apartments hit, people wounded and hospitals crowded. Others want to know everything – what, when, where, how many injured and how badly? For them, knowing helps ease the tension. Not knowing is what scares them.
We are two Jews, a dozen different opinions. Sometimes we don’t even agree with ourselves. Yet one thing remains clear: When the chips are down, when missile strikes threaten to pound half of Israel into the ground, that’s when the goodness shows through. I doubt if there’s a single family in the South who hasn’t had multiple invitations to come stay, to get away, to take a break in some lessimpacted place. Some go, with great gratitude. Most of us stay put. This is our home, now and forever. There’s no way anyone in the world is ever going to be allowed to forget that.