ISRAEL: A month in bomb shelters takes its toll
Natalie and her children in a Kiryat Shmona bomb shelter
KIRYAT SHMONA, 12 August 2006 (IRIN) - After a month of living in a bomb shelter around the clock, Natalie says she and the rest of her young family are teetering on the brink of madness.
“It’s hell in this bunker. All day it is boom boom boom outside from the Katyusha rockets. We have become like crazy people and my kids will be mentally scarred,” the 34-year-old mother of three said.
Natalie and her children are among the 8,000 residents left in Kiryat Shmona, a poor town of 23,000 people located so close to the Lebanese border that Hezbollah rockets routinely land before the warning siren has had a chance to sound.
The armed wing of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah has fired more than 3,000 rockets into northern Israel since the beginning of a military confrontation sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers on 12 July, according to the Israeli military. Many have landed on Kiryat Shmona.
It’s a situation that leaves families little choice but to leave town or live permanently in the town’s public bomb shelters.
And as the war drags on, life in the crowded, stuffy concrete bunkers is beginning to take its toll. “During the day we have seven families in here – that’s 30 people in this single bunker. We all stay here together. We eat, we shout, we fight and we talk about the war, and that’s our existence,” said Natalie, whose husband is in prison.
“The kids are fighting and shouting. They have started playing at being Hezbollah terrorists and Israeli soldiers. The old people don’t like the kids’ noise. I won’t let my children go outside because I am scared for them. In some shelters there are dogs and animals too.
“At night it’s less dangerous… So many people go to sleep in their houses but we stay here,” she said.
Of the 30 people who spend the day in the shelter on Eilat Street, Natalie and her children are the only ones who live there 24 hours a day.
“It’s hard to spend even two hours inside a shelter – a month is impossible,” said Yariv Amiad, a spokesman for the mayor of Kiryat Shmona. “They should stay in the shelters, but it isn’t human to do that, so some are going back to their homes.”
Mirit, a 56-year-old mother of two,chooses to sleep outside the bunker – but the days are spent inside.
“We don’t have toilets here or decent sanitation,” she said. “The telephone is broken. We don’t have anything so we have to go to our houses for it. When we hear the rockets we drop everything and sprint back to the bunker.
“We are like dead people here.”
Mimon Ben Shimol, 41, is unemployed and doesn’t have a car. He registered his name at his local school and receives food and drink donated by other Israelis and Jewish people around the world.
But while he is grateful for their generosity, he thinks the Israeli government should simply have evacuated the entire town at the beginning of the war.
“They should have given the money to get the people out because we have bombs here all day. I don’t want fresh fruit – I want to live,” he said.
“I like Kiryat Shmona – it’s the most beautiful place in Israel. But not at this moment and I am not here out of choice,” he added.
Sitting on a chair outside a bomb shelter catering to the residents of a dilapidated block of flats pockmarked with rocket shrapnel, 17-year-old Almog Mor-Youssef acts as a lookout guarding for thieves.
Knowing that about two-thirds of Kiryat Shmona’s residents have left, some unscrupulous Israelis have sensed easy pickings and there have been incidents of burglary in the town, he said.
“The houses are empty and there are thieves, mostly from outside Kiryat Shmona. If I see anyone suspicious I will shout to my neighbour and he’ll call the police,” Mor-Youssef said.
Many men who have the money to flee have sent their families south but have themselves remained to protect their homes and belongings, he added.
Yet despite their hardship, almost everyone in Kiryat Shmona supports the Israeli military action in Lebanon.
Shukrun Moses, 52, has lived in the town since early childhood and now has one of its finest houses.
He has equipped it with its own safe room, as is required in every Israeli home built since the first Gulf War in 1991, when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fired Scud rockets at Israel.
Moses says periodic rocket attacks have sent residents scurrying underground since 1969. He wants the Israeli military to put an end to the attacks once and for all.
“The Lebanese people are suffering because the Lebanese government is too weak to stop other countries arming Hezbollah. But is that the fault of the Israeli people? We are suffering too,” said Moses, a former tank mechanic.
“Hezbollah didn’t think Israel would hit them with such a punch. But this will send a clear message to everyone that we are not to be messed with.”
He said Hezbollah’s recently acquired longer-range missiles were giving the rest of Israel a taste of what Kiryat Shmona has been suffering for years.
“We’ve had the Katyushas since 1969 when this city was new and we didn’t have any shelter. Life was difficult – as children we just hid under our beds.
“I’m happy the rockets are now hitting southern cities such as Haifa and Tiberias because now the people in their comfortable homes there wake up and begin to understand just what we have been living with here,” he said.