Shock and aftershock

The residents of the South, especially children, are suffering from the long-term effects of rocket barrages.

Damaged kindergarten at Nir Oz 521 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Damaged kindergarten at Nir Oz 521
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Standing outside a lime green painted kindergarten in Nir Oz, a kibbutz in the northwestern Negev, around three kilometers from the Gaza Strip, one is struck by a sense of having stepped into one of Terry Gilliam’s surrealist films.
While a pair of young girls swing on a tire suspended from a tree in a grassy square several paces away from the kindergarten and residents walk their dogs through the lush foliage planted along the kibbutz’s paths, it is almost possible to ignore the bomb damage that has brought members of the press from all over the world to this small hamlet of under 400 people.
Metro arrived in Nir Oz to see the damage wrought by the rockets and mortars of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. What makes this scene less Leave It to Beaver and more 12 Monkeys, with its twisted and dystopian take on the future, are the shattered roots and sap-dripping gouges in the trunk of the tree in which the girls are swinging and the holes, too numerous to count, that deface the wall of the kindergarten. In fact, it is only after one learns that the kindergarten was built to protect against rocket fire that the form of the building begins to look less like a modernist design statement and more like a massive concrete barrier.
However, this past week the concrete and metal of this reinforced building proved ineffective when a rocket landed between it and the nearby tree. A gash in the asphalt shows where the projectile landed in the road, spraying metal shards for meters in every direction. A nearby house also bears the scars of the shrapnel. The inside of the school suffered damage as well.
Hailing down only an hour before school began for the day, shrapnel penetrated the building’s small armored window. Luckily, the damage inside was minimal and, in an ironic twist, the school was cleaned up and opened on time as, penetrated or not, it was still one of the safest places for the children of the kibbutz.
As a group of three youngsters arrive and begin probing the bomb craters in the wall behind her, Carol Simantov, an American immigrant and the kibbutz’s nurse, tells reporters about the psychological damage caused by constant bombardment.
As the world discusses normality returning to the South, Simantov tells Metro that in her little collective, “normal” is just a word.
“Before Hamas took over, it was a different kind of life, and we knew nothing like this,” she says. “Today, the fact is that you only have 10 seconds” to take cover in your shelter or in one of the concrete pipes scattered throughout the kibbutz once the emergency siren sounds.
“This cease-fire that we are having now,” she says, has not affected her at all. “We have never had a cease-fire. We get 50 to 60 explosions – the sounds – a month, even when there is a cease-fire. We always say [the Palestinians] are trying it out on the small communities along the border until they get enough ammunition for the bigger cities.”
Turning to look at the damage behind her, Simantov comments that the rocket “exploded at 10 minutes to six in the morning, and I just said, ‘Thank God it wasn’t 10 minutes to seven’ because at 10 to seven, this whole road is full of mothers and children and people going out to work, so imagine what would happen.”
The issue of normality that Simantov raises is one that is a constant refrain from those living in the South. Whether complaining of missile and sniper fire that continues during times described as lulls by the world media or describing the intense psychological anguish felt by the residents, especially children, during the times between shellings, the residents of Israel’s southern districts are indignant at the characterization of cease-fires as a return to normalcy.
Asked if she is treating the children of her community for emotional trauma, Simantov says she is, as well as many adults, but that the trauma is mostly from prior rounds of conflict.
“You don’t feel it immediately,” she explains. “Most of the people I am treating now are still reacting from the war [Operation Cast Lead] two years ago. These are people such as ambulance drivers and workers who helped evacuate the wounded. When you see a building that is not protected and is suddenly torn apart, you realize what could happen to us [as well].”
One such resident who has been shattered by her experiences is Naomi Maximov, who broke her hip while running in a panic toward a bomb shelter. She is so traumatized by her experiences, she says, that she panics every time she hears an ambulance.
IN SPEAKING to residents of the South, it is apparent that not all children react in the same way. Just as many of the adults around them put on brave faces and refuse to give in to fear while some experience debilitating panic attacks, the children are similarly split in their reactions to the violence.
Sitting in her living room in Ashkelon, holding her young granddaughter in her arms, June Narunsky, a veteran immigrant from South Africa, describes the gradual reduction in panic exhibited by her grandchildren.
“To cope with this whole situation is quite stressful, but generally we manage. We have rockets constantly coming in Ashkelon and, unfortunately, people don’t understand how much damage a rocket can do, how badly people can get injured or be killed,” she says.
“One evening I was sitting on the couch watching television with my grandchildren, this little one, Michy, who was eight, and Dave, who is four, and the siren went off. Michy insisted on picking up her brother, and they are nearly the same size; she had to take him down the passage to the safe room.”
Her youngest grandchild, however, was at first “[un]sure what to do with himself.” He would “run around in circles,” she says. However, after a while, running for safety “becomes such an automatic thing, it’s really not good. We continue in our daily lives, but it becomes stressful.”
Her grandchildren respond to reporters’ questions with curt monosyllables, seemingly intimidated by the camera flashes and the audio recording devices being thrust in their faces by the journalists crowded into the tightly packed living room.
“No,” Narunsky’s granddaughter answers in a small voice when asked if she is scared, moving up closer against her grandmother.
Another person at the meeting, holding her scared-looking daughter in her arms, says that in her child’s school there are no bomb-proof rooms and that children are told to hide under their desks in case the air-raid siren sounds.
The stoicism exhibited by these children seems to have been echoed by others. One parent who has seen this in his own children states that they must be “crazy” to put up with the rockets with such aplomb.
DESPITE SUCH statements, other parents and health professionals see residents of the South as raising a generation of emotionally damaged children.
Leah Melloul, the spokeswoman for the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, spoke with reporters outside the small emergency room of the hospital. She cited a significant increase in bedwetting among the children of the region. The stress on the children is compounded by that shown by the parents during the barrages.
“The rockets are actually more a psychological weapon,” Melloul asserts. “You have to understand the feeling of a mother. I’ll give you an example of myself, a mother of four. In Ashkelon, you have 30 seconds to run for your life. I don’t have small kids, but just imagine a mother with three little kids, not to mention the pets that are running around, or the grandmother or grandfather that lives [with them] in the same house. What kind of decisions does this mother need to make within 30 seconds? Who is she going to pick up, run to the shelter and save his life? Because you never know where this rocket will hit.”
Referring to post-traumatic stress disorder and its prevalence in the South, Melloul says she believes that Israelis are “actually building up a new generation of children that have no future because nobody can understand what this means that you have to run for shelter sometimes up to 50 or 60 times a day. When I travel in New York or no matter where, when I hear the siren of an ambulance, I have a split second that I say to myself, ‘Where am I going to look for cover?’ So that’s the post-trauma.”
Melloul implies that even those children who seem to be behaving normally are still suffering from mental anguish and that despite the supposed respite of the putative cease-fire, those who have suffered will continue to do so with no surcease afforded by the absence of rockets.
“These children that are living in the area, over 200,000 children, nobody can understand when they pee in bed at night, when they don’t want to go to the bathroom, when they sleep with their parents, when the parents cannot go to work because there is no school, so it’s not only about how many are dying; it’s that nobody in the world can understand how you can live, not 10 years and not 10 months and not 10 days, under this kind of situation. In the Western world, nobody can understand that in my town I have to run to the shelter, sometimes up to 50 or 60 or even 100 times a day.”
Just as Simantov says that the trauma takes some time to fully take hold of a victim, those who have not yet reacted to the violation of missiles falling on their neighborhoods may yet suffer the mental scarring of those who are currently being treated for PTSD.
More than 10 kindergartens in Ashkelon have been hit since the shelling from Gaza began a decade ago, says Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin. “From the last round of violence, we have dozens of children and adults being treated for trauma.”
The suffering of these victims throughout the South does not go away just because a temporary halt to rocket fire is negotiated. And, as many have said with heavy hearts, they are beginning to think that normalcy will never return.