Written by Hannah Carrasco
Illustrated by Rose Teplitz
Last year, I embarked on my second intensive Israel education trip, this time with Hasbara Fellowships. My delegation, made up of college students from the U.S. and Canada, traveled all across Israel and the West Bank during our 15 days. We would learn how to become effective campus educators and advocates for Israel through facts and first-hand experiences. Although I cannot recall everything we learned, not everyone we met, and not every place we visited, there is one place that clearly stands out among the rest: Sderot. This was not my first time visiting “The Bomb Shelter Capital of the World”.Sderot did not change during this time, neither did its inhabitants nor its security. But, Sderot changed me.
Sderot is a city less than a mile away from the Gaza Strip. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization. Thousands of rockets fired by Hamas have rained from the sky into schools, homes, playgrounds, and streets. Rockets fall regardless of wars. There is no knowing when, where, or how many. Because of the high volume of rocket attacks, an early-warning radar system was installed. By the time a rocket is spotted, there is only fifteen seconds until it makes contact. That means, that within that time, everyone has to run and seek safety in a bomb shelter. The alarm system that warns the city of incoming rockets is fallible. And because of that, people get injured and people, young and old, die.
There are four things from that visit that I will never forget: our initial conversation with our tour guide, the videos we watched, the displayed collection of rockets, and the fear in the eyes of three young boys.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Noam Bedein, our tour guide for the day. The first place we visited was an underground bomb shelter where, from what I understood, Israel Defense Forces soldiers watched security screens to identify incoming rockets from Gaza and sound the alarm. We all sat down around a large table and listened to the history of Sderot and the challenges its people face.
The most emotional part of this conversation was when we were told that around half of the people living in Sderot suffer from similar symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including the children. But, alas, they are not in a post-traumatic state, Bedein told us. Sderot citizens currently suffer from ongoing trauma. We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did? They had to weigh the pros and cons of all of their actions to determine what they should do, and most decided better safe than sorry. Our barrage of questions included topics like “why don’t they move, get out of this place?” And “why do parents put their children through these horrors?” Bedein told us it was because of Jewish resilience. People did not move away because they didn’t want to give in to Hamas. They would not run away and let Hamas win. They would stay and weather out the storm.
Next were the videos. We watched a handful, but two were seared into my mind. The first one was a video taken during one of the many rocket attacks Sderot continuously faces. It showed a school where the young children were outside playing and having fun when suddenly the warning alarm went off. The teachers hurried them to the safety of the school shelter. Many immediately knew what they were supposed to do: run to the nearest shelter. They are taught this from the time they can walk; it becomes second instinct. Still, a few straggled as some children are bound to do. Teachers quickly ushered them inside or picked them up and hurried inside. And then, the video shows these little children, maybe around six or seven, all singing this song and purposefully moving their arms and legs about. They knew what was happening whether they really grasped the gravity of the situation or not. The song and dance combo is a strategic technique to prevent their little bodies from going into shock. It is to keep their blood moving and to distract them from what was happening outside. But, since they are young, the singing and ‘dancing’ was made fun. The song is in Hebrew and Bedein told us an abbreviated version of the lyrics. They all sing along and smile and follow the instructions the song lays out.
Hurry to the bomb shelter. Shake one’s arms and loosen one’s legs. Breathe in deep and breathe out slow.
They sing about how it’s happening because they are a little different, but that’s ok. They won’t get hurt today. Before the creation of this song, many children would panic and freeze when the alarm went off putting themselves in danger and some faced different types of developmental regression, like bed-wetting, for example.
We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did?
The next video was not actual footage of events happening in Sderot; it was a representation of the short amount of time a person has to get to a bomb shelter. The video itself is about a minute long, but it feels like an epic journey. The first shot shows a three or four-year-old girl playing with her toys in the backyard. The screen changes then to her mother laying her baby boy in his crib. She walks out and stands near the back door watching her daughter. Then, the mother walks to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Suddenly, the alarm sounds. Fifteen seconds on the clock. Her coffee cup immediately falls to the ground and shatters. The countdown begins on the screen. She runs to the backdoor and bangs on it trying to get her daughter’s attention. The little girl just sits there with her hands over her ears. Eight seconds to go. She has to make a decision. Continue trying to get her attention or run and get the baby from his crib and pray her daughter realizes to run to the shelter. She decides. Get the baby and pray. The mother grabs him. They rush to the shelter. She looks out of the little window at her daughter. Five seconds. The girl hasn’t moved. Four. Panic fills the mother’s eyes. Three. The camera pans back to the daughter. Two. One. The screen goes black. This video shows that decisions have to be made in a split second and those decisions can alter everything. One wrong decision, and someone can get injured or die. This is a reality that the people of Sderot live with every day.
We left the safety of the underground shelter to make our way to a playground. But on our way there, we took a detour to the Sderot Police Station. But it wasn’t the police station that we stopped to talk about. Rather, it was the collection of hundreds of exploded rockets displayed outside of it. Shelves full of metal rockets ranging in size. The ends blown off and the metal shredded near each end of the cylinder. Hundreds of rockets sitting right before us. The most shocking thing was not the rusted rockets sitting on top of each other in piles. Rather, the most shocking thing was a giant menorah, the symbol of the Jewish people, of Jewish resilience, of light and hope, constructed by the police department and made out of the scraps of rockets meant to kill them.
Lastly, our final destination was the aforementioned playground. Why was this on the agenda? It wasn’t to give us a break. When we got there, we all sat down on the picnic benches. Bedein pointed out two or three bomb shelters on the playground, but the one worth mentioning was the main ‘attraction’. It was a huge concrete capitellar snaking its way through the middle of the playground, brightly painted with yellow and green, with a silly face and big happy eyes. While we were there, there were three boys sitting on top of it, talking and playing. For them, it was a normal toy. Bedein told us that all parks and playgrounds have multiple bomb shelters because of the volume of children playing there during certain times. He pointed to the three young boys and told us that they have witnessed two wars. Bedein did not know them, but still his words are true for any child around their age in Israel, and especially in Sderot where the damage of the war is exacerbated.
I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.
Now it was our turn. Not to experience a war, but to experience how fast fifteen seconds passes. He told us to go play around, walk around, do whatever we wanted to do, but as soon as he yelled “Tzeva Adom” to run to the bomb shelter. Tzeva Adom, or “Color Red” in English, is what the warning alarm system says as the siren blares. The female voice repeats “Color Red, Color Red” until the threat passes. We followed his instructions for a minute and then he yelled out “Tzeva Adom” and we ran towards the caterpillar. Fifteen seconds is very little time. As we were running for shelter I looked up at the boys. I saw their fear, their confusion. Why did that man just yell “Tzeva Adom” out of nowhere? Why were these 25 some-odd college students running for shelter? These are some questions that probably went through their heads. They knew it was not the real alarm, since Bedein was the one to yell it, but the words themselves invoke fear for it is those words that links the people to their survival.
“Just remember, at the end of the day you get to leave. They don’t.”
The words above were told to us by our tour guide for the day. He presented this statement to us at the beginning of our visit to preface what we would learn and see and at the end to remind us of Jewish resilience and of our privilege. The reason Sderot changed me lies in those words. The first time I went, I left. It did not occur to me that I would be back. It was another emotional stop on our trip, but one that I would soon forget. Returning to Sderot reminded me that I have the privilege to live a (not bomb) sheltered life where I can pick and choose when and when not to worry about others facing catastrophes on a daily basis. I can walk around my neighborhood without seeing bomb shelters looming at every bus stop or playground. The only thing that falls from the sky that I have to concern myself with is rain, not rockets. I just go about my business, as well as countless others, without having to worry about my life being on the line. I forgot what those that live in Sderot, and other war-torn and dangerous areas, face every day.
Visiting Sderot a second time was when those words stuck. This time, I made sure to recognize the privileges I have, especially when it comes to not having to worry if each day is my last. I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.
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