Barrels of blood

The ZAKA chairman and founder reflects on the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada.

Now, 10 years after the outbreak of the second intifada, I look back at that period and still find it difficult to believe. That was when I and my fellow ZAKA volunteers would go to bed fully dressed, with our shoes on and our emergency medical kits by our side. And, of course, that was when we hardly slept.
We were constantly listening to our beepers, waiting for the next call. We would run from suicide bombing to bus attack, from a shooting incident to a road accidents.
This was the atmosphere that defined those times and fixed the daily agenda. That was our life.
I understood that Israel was in such trouble and that, in this situation, anyone who wanted to help and contribute should do so. I understood that if we, as men of faith, had the strength to deal with such difficult scenes, then this was our place – at the scene of terror attacks, doing work that has to be done, work that can only be done by those who are fortified by their faith .
On several occasions, we would return home after working at a scene where entire families were wiped out, and we would see that the sun still shone and people still went about their daily business. We would rely on black humor, sometimes even bordering on cynicism, to get us through those dark times.
We relied on our families to help us return to some degree of normality.
We would also find ourselves dealing with difficult questions related to our faith. People would confront us and ask: “Why did it happen to this family? What did they do?” And I would reply: “You can ask me, but I have no answers.”
AND THEN there were times when we really did break down. I can still remember the suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem in August 2001. We worked feverishly, trying to save those who were still alive and only then did we deal with the horrific carnage of death. With painstaking care, we cleared the scene, ensuring that every body part was collected, allowing a proper Jewish burial for all the victims.
It was then – and only then – that the full horror washed over me and my fellow ZAKA volunteers. We looked around and realized that we were literally standing in pools of blood, some three or four centimeters high. Here I was, in the center of Jerusalem, the beating heart of the State of Israel, at the iconic junction of King George Avenue and Jaffa Road, and I was standing in Jewish blood. Slowly, carefully, we collected the blood into four large barrels for burial with the 15 victims, seven of whom were children.
That image, of four barrels of Jewish blood in the center of Jerusalem, will never leave me.
With time came bitter experience. We were about 600 volunteers in ZAKA at that time, and we quickly began to organize ourselves into an ever more professional operation.
In the early days of the intifada, it took us 12-14 hours to complete our work at the site of a suicide bombing. We managed to get that down to three hours. We also learned forensics and identification techniques during those painful years – even the smallest parts can be the ones that result in a positive identification and therefore a burial.
At the time, I thought we were dealing with kavod hamet – honoring the dead. By the end, I realized that we were actually honoring the living, because a family whose loved one cannot receive a full Jewish burial has no rest. It is for them that we toiled.

The writer is chairman and founder of ZAKA, a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victims Identification. It was founded in 1989 and has grown into a UN-recognized international volunteer humanitarian organization with 1,500 volunteers. ZAKA specializes in lifesaving, rescue and recovery operations in Israel and around the world, including natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year.