Jan. 8, 2009
YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO , THE JERUSALEM POST
I know, because I'm sitting in my Beersheba kitchen, hands over my ears, listening to the city's warning sirens wail. Actually, I'm straining to hear the "WHUMP!" that will tell me the miserable thing landed somewhere - somewhere else, that is. I suppose if it had landed on me, I wouldn't have heard it - isn't that the way it works?
The sirens are working again today - they aren't always - so today, whenever one sounds off, I run for the kitchen, where I plunk myself down into an old red wooden chair. Sitting in the kitchen makes no sense at all. I don't have a "safe room" in my house, and the roof that covers the kitchen is no different than the roof that covers the other rooms, but still, this is where I go. The kitchen is the smallest room, so maybe it just feels more sheltered. One of my dogs - Molly Goldberg, the mostly-border collie - runs with me, and when I sit down, so does he - and then he starts howling. I suppose the noise hurts his ears. My other dog - Rachel, the mostly-poodle - is still out in the yard, barking. As far as she's concerned, her job description includes warning enemies of all kinds away from the front gate. I didn't have time to catch her and bring her in when the sirens started. The siren is nothing short of ear-splitting.
The city speaker that broadcasts the warning signal must be mounted on a utility poll very close to my yard. Over and over it whoops, blaring so loud I almost miss the final decisive "Whump!" Finally, I hear it. Now there's about 30 seconds of absolute silence, and then all the other sirens start up, the ambulances, fire trucks and probably police cars. They screech, bleat, wail and yowl all out of cadence, but the cacophony is almost welcome - it's the only way I can gauge where, in which direction, the rocket landed. I listen carefully, now, to see if the emergency vehicles seem to be heading toward me, or away. Not that it matters.
At least as far as I'm concerned, the terrorists have already achieved their goal. I'm terrorized. I'm shaking like the proverbial leaf, although now that Beersheba is in its third day of being bombed, by the time a half hour has passed, I've pretty much stopped shaking. The first night, when the sirens erupted at about 9 p.m., I didn't really return to normal much before the next morning, when another volley of rockets started hitting. It was a near-sleepless night. I know a little too much about rockets and what they can do.
Over the last couple of years I've spent several days in Sderot, interviewing, taking pictures and reporting on the scene. With one exception, every day I was there, there was at least one Color Red Kassam warning, the alarm that signals a rocket is on the way. Only once was I actually inside someone's home where a real, honest-to-goodness safe room existed. The rest of the time I was outside, or in a car, or in an unprotected building, and we took shelter as best we could.
The first time, a group of us hunkered down underneath a stranger's carport, shielding ourselves from onslaught beside a really nice Peugeot. Other times, I was riding with someone, and we got out of the car and lay on the ground, right by the car. Still others, I was in unprotected buildings there, too. I just stayed where I was. There wasn't any place to run, anyway.
In Sderot, the city warning isn't a siren, it's a woman's voice that urgently repeats, "Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom! [Color Red]," giving you 15 seconds to find shelter. The warning words - "Color Red" - don't make much sense unless you know the history.
Almost nine years ago, in the early days of terrorist rockets in Sderot, our Arab cousins would fire them early in the morning, during the hours when children would be on their way to school.
Being outside, the children had no protection against the bombs or the deadly shrapnel. Back then, the words the anonymous woman repeated were "Shachar Adom!" - "Red Dawn." But then a little girl named Dawn told officials how painful it was for her to hear her own name being used as a death warning, so they changed the word to "color" instead. By any name, the voice still sends spikes of terror up your spine.
But still, in Sderot, when the rockets hit, I was appropriately nervous, but not nearly as terrorized as I am here, in my own home. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's because in Sderot, I was visiting. I knew that at the end of the day, I was leaving.
Here, when the rockets hit and I'm in my own house, it's intensely personal. I'm not visiting here - they got me where I live. In a few minutes I'll start checking the Internet, to see if local news services have reported where the rocket landed, and what, if anything, it hit. By then the phone will be ringing and e-mails will be coming in. In Beersheba, a group of us women-of-a-certain-age who find ourselves single for any of the traditional reasons have banded together as an ad hoc sort of family.
Now, during this onslaught, having someone call me, or being able to call someone myself, is a great comfort. We trade experiences, end up by laughing a little, and pretty soon things seem better again. E-mails of support pour in from all over, some from friends in the US I know very well, others from people in Israel, mostly those who live up North, and so far are escaping the terror themselves.
For almost everyone in the US, I have to do a little education. It's hardly surprising, I guess, but the international media have focused, almost entirely, on the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. The most anyone there has heard or even read about terrorist rockets being fired on Beersheba, it's that only one single rocket hit here, someplace.
So they e-mail to ask, "So how close were you?" There was a time when I'm sure I must have asked that same naïve question myself. But now that I'm in the belly of the beast, experiencing terror first-hand, I know how silly that question is. The issue isn't "how close was I to the one that hit." That rocket - wherever it hit, whether it was a block or a mile from me - isn't really the problem. That rocket is down.
I have nothing to fear from it anymore. Terror happens because I don't know when or where the next missile will hit - that's what's scary. It's living moment by moment, in a state of anxious expectation overlaid with dread. When outside in the pathway in front of my house, a neighbor drops something - maybe a garden tool or a metal pan of some kind - and there's a "clang!" I jump so high you almost have to scrape me off the ceiling. When a jet overhead - our guys, thank God - breaks the sound barrier, I'm ready to dive under the bed.
A car horn in the street makes me run for the kitchen, until I realize it was only one single bleat and can't possibly be the warning siren. Knowledge doesn't help in these situations, it makes it tougher. Today, before the sirens went bonkers, I washed a tub of clothes. Now I'm ready to go hang them to dry on the clothesline in my yard - but as I put my hand on the doorknob, I stop and think.
Just last week, 58-year-old Beber Vaknin of Netivot was killed when he stepped outside his house. The first rocket hit and Vaknin went outside to see if there'd been damage. At that moment a second rocket hit, and the shrapnel pierced Vaknin's heart, killing him. Do I really want to go outside and hang clothes? That's what terror is. It's making the 800,000 of us - Jews and Arabs alike, by the way - who live within the terrorists' newly-expanded missile range in Israel's South be fearful every day, every hour, every minute.
It's making us change our lives, it forces us to keep our children inside, to worry about family members who do nothing more dangerous than go to work. I finally go through an "Oh, for crying out loud" moment, grit my teeth, open the door and hang the laundry on the line. Nothing happens, of course. My next challenge is to get out to a grocery store, but it's not easy to find out what's open, or even if the buses are running.
At this precise moment, all the much-ballyhooed Internet hotline information sites aren't working, nor are emergency telephone numbers being answered. Finally I post a message on the community e-mail list, and several people answer, telling me that yes, most of the bigger stores are open and yes, the buses are running. It's bitterly cold, too, so I have to dig for my mittens, which haven't been seen since last winter. I find them, steel myself and head out to the patio to get my agala, my shopping cart. At exactly that moment, the sirens start wailing again.
That's it! I don't need groceries that badly. I'll wait until tomorrow. Overnight I plot a complicated strategy for grocery shopping. Instead of going to the closest store, I plan to head to another that's quite far away, but which has a bus stop just across the street.
By shopping there, I'll minimize my time outside, which is by far the most dangerous place to be. From my education in Sderot, I know it's the shrapnel that'll get ya - it doesn't have to be the bomb itself. But by the time I actually leave, it's a lovely sunny day and I feel reckless. I decide I can walk to my normal grocery by the Beersheba shuk, slightly more than a kilometer away. As good as it feels to be outside, it's a little eerie, too. The streets are nearly empty and when I reach the store - completely without incident - it's nearly empty, too, even though this would normally be the most chaotic shopping day of the week.
The store is almost quiet, and then I notice something else that's odd. Virtually only men are shopping - the women and children stayed home. As I quickly gather the few things I need, I notice we're all doing the same thing - shopping very quickly. Although I'm usually pretty picky about fruit and vegetables, I grab at random, filling plastic bags with what I need, pay and get out.
By the time I'm home again, I'm absolutely exhausted. It has nothing to do with physical exertion - it's the result of being completely and entirely tense. So far, all is well. But no matter what happens next, we know one thing: The terrorists are very good at what they do. They've packed every day with dread, fear and anxiety. Terror works. It surely does.