‘This was nothing’

Every now and then the sirens sounded, and we all rushed to the bomb shelter and waited, speculating if the explosions were interceptions or impacts.

Ashdod blast site_370 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
Ashdod blast site_370
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
‘What a superb technological achievement!” I exclaimed. “Iron Dome?” a social worker asked, “No,” I answered, “I fixed the TV.”
I was volunteering at the Stress Center in Ashdod, treating trauma victims during Operation Pillar of Defense.
I was drawn to Ashdod due to memories from a visit to the stricken city during Cast Lead four years ago, together with the US defense attaché. We witnessed families running for shelter as sirens sounded, and saw the destruction caused by a Grad impact.
There was no Iron Dome back then.
Now, since for the first time in 25 years I’m not on the front line of Israel’s defense, I was on pins and needles and decided to find a way to contribute.
Ashdod was practically a ghost town. Near city hall, people carrying black cases were rushing to a rear entrance. I thought it was a SWAT team, until I discovered they were musicians intent on a rehearsal at the Performing Arts Center, and hurrying to get indoors. Surreal!
 I was disappointed to find city hall locked. As I turned to leave, two women wearing yellow vests came running towards me. “We’re in urgent need of volunteers at the Stress Center,” they said. “You just found one,” I answered. They handed me an orange vest and exclaimed: “You’re in! Follow us.”
On the way, we passed near a building that had sustained a direct hit a short while earlier. Dozens of people were busy cleaning the street and fixing shattered glass in nearby stores.
Near the Stress Center, a seemingly happy, carefree garbage truck driver was emptying a dumpster into his truck. “Thank you!” I called out. “For what?” he asked. “For showing us that life goes on,” I answered.
He chuckled as he climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off.
At the Stress Center, professional caretakers and volunteers were attending to people who were overwhelmed by the events and showed various symptoms, some emotional, others physical, such as high blood pressure, headaches and nausea. I was positioned at the reception desk, but was first asked to figure out how to turn on the air conditioner, find garbage bags and fix the TV. I failed the first two assignments.
A friendly psychologist introduced herself in a French accent: “Hello, I’m Dr. Grad. And that’s not a joke.” She turned to show me her name printed on the back of her vest. It was true.
The team on my first shift had a diverse combination of backgrounds and accents. We were born in Morocco, France, Brazil, the United States, Uzbekistan, Iran, Romania, Algeria and Israel. A real ingathering of exiles.
Every now and then the sirens sounded, and we all rushed to the bomb shelter and waited, speculating if the explosions were interceptions or impacts. The city was being targeted in massive salvos, and people were saying that without Iron Dome, the damage would have been devastating. One volunteer disagreed and pointed upward, saying: “It’s all in His hands.”
Even the professional staff seemed worried. Mothers told me of the difficulty of leaving their own frightened children at home in order to treat others. One psychologist told me: “The impact was so close, the building shook. I hugged my children, thinking it was collapsing and this was the end.”
One siren caught me outside, away from the center. Everyone ran for cover, but a big man was sitting outside a kiosk drinking coffee leisurely. I put my hand on his shoulder and said in Russian “Come with me.” He gave me a gold-toothed smile, hesitated for a moment, but then ran with me to take cover.
Consecutive thunder-like noises were heard. “There goes Iron Dome!” a woman cried out, pointing up, and then there was silence, except the woman’s voice: “Please hit, please hit....” My pulse was racing and I was thinking “This can’t be happening,” and “We can’t allow this to happen again.”
Exploding sounds thundered overhead and we waited a few moments before emerging.
A salvo of three Grads, headed our way, had been intercepted.
Back at the center, an elderly couple entered. The woman, shaking and crying, told us that the blast had torn her grandchildren from her hands and shattered the windows. The more she spoke, the more agitated she became. I changed the subject and asked her where she was born. “Bombay,” she answered. I then asked her about her background and family. Soon she was telling her life story and even managing a smile.
“How about you,” I later asked her husband, “afraid?” The old man smiled and told me he had come from India in the 1960s, fought in three wars as an artilleryman, and “there’s no way I’m afraid of those guys.”
People kept coming in or calling, mostly after impacts, and we did our best to calm, relieve and assist.
I spent my last shift with two volunteers – an Israeli psychologist from Belgium and an English speaking psychiatrist from Jerusalem. With us were two psychologists who work for the city, immigrants from Argentina and Uruguay. In a lively debate in mixed accents, we analyzed the situation and talked about the psychological effects we were witnessing.
The discussion was summed up by a grim-faced psychologist: “This was nothing. We’re facing years of working with children suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s sad. It’s really sad.”
A few nights later, I received a phone call from Ashdod around midnight. “Please, Reuven, you have to help us!” “What happened?” I asked, expecting the worst. “It’s the TV. It isn’t working again.”
Although this column may seem like just a collection of personal anecdotes, the people and experiences I encountered in Ashdod have given me profound insight and understanding.
During most of my encounters, I heard not anger, but pain; not bitterness but sadness; not hatred, but hope and prayers for peace.
I witnessed determination, commitment, hope, friendship and humanism, and I was reminded that behind strategic and national challenges, there are individual people, and that our strength and resilience emanates from them.
The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.