Monday, August 5, 2013

Fifteen Seconds

In fifteen seconds I can type, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” twice on my iPhone—with the help of autocorrect. In fifteen seconds I can do about fifteen jumping jacks. In fifteen seconds, I cannot wash my hands for the CDC-recommended amount of time (it’s 20 seconds, in case you were wondering). And had the “Red Color” alarm gone off while I was in Sderot today, we would have seen if I—and the approximately 24,000 others in the city—could have reached the safety of the nearest bomb shelter.

Fifteen seconds. That’s all the time the people of Sderot have from the moment the “Red Color” alarm begins until the Hamas rockets explode, shooting knives, glass, rocks, and other skin-piercing materials through the air in hopes of striking anyone who was not quick enough in those fifteen seconds.

School children know only a reality of hiding from these rockets. They have been trained to run as soon as a woman’s voice announces, “Red Color” over an alarm system. It is not a drill, the alert notifies these children and the rest of the population that a real rocket has been launched and will be exploding in fifteen seconds. That’s quite different from the earthquake drills I grew up with, when a woman’s voice did appear over the intercom, merely saying, “this is a simulation of an earthquake.” My classmates and I responded by rowdily crawling under our desks and tuck our heads under our hands, often while laughing and not taking the situation seriously, until the woman’s voice came back to say, “end of simulation.” In my 15+ years of public schooling I’ve experienced three real earthquakes, and only one large enough for the alarm to go off instructing us to crawl under the desks. And I can tell you that it took us all much longer than fifteen seconds.

For the children and adults of Sderot, of Israel, their most recent reality is a constant repetition of these fifteen. I find it hard to demonize a country that spends millions of dollars on the construction of bomb shelters, including caterpillar-shaped ones for a playground, in order to try to make those fifteen seconds tick just a little bit slower. 

Normal Life in Sderot

Yesterday we said goodbye to the beautiful metropolitan of Tel Aviv and headed south to Sderot. The city of Sderot is incredibly unique for a number of reasons but in order to understand this place, it is important to understand its position. Located just next to the border of the Gaza Strip, Sderot has been under rocket fire for the past thirteen years. Hamas, the extremist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, fires Qassams (rockets) into the civilian population as part of their ongoing mission to destroy Israel.  As an American citizen who has never lived elsewhere, life in Sderot was a complete and utter shock.
When I recall entering Tel Aviv I remember spectacular skyscrapers, twinkling lights, luxury vehicles on the populated highways, the welcoming waves of Mediterranean, and how similar it was to any other city I had been to or imagined. My first visual of Sderot was a bomb shelter with the word “Guest” painted on the wall. 
As we travelled into the city, the shelters became more frequent than bus stops, with 1 shelter per 2 people. We met our guide for the day, Sivan, at the Sderot Media Center. She shed some light on what its like to live in Sderot. Sivan explained that there is currently a ceasefire, which means that less bombs than usual are fired into the city from the strip. She assured us that we were safe-Sderot had not been hit since Shavuot (Jewish holiday) a month ago- and that if an alarm went off we would have 10-15 seconds to find a shelter.  The alarm system, called the Red Alert, was developed in 2005 by the Israeli Defense Force and is used all over Israel for protection again enemy fire. Doing the math I realized this left about five years before an alert- five years without any protection from Qassams that were launched up to fifty times a day. And yet people continued to live here. Sivan explains that leaving Sderot is difficult. She showed us a map of Israel and drew circles showing how far the Qassam rockets can reach – all the way up to Tel Aviv and into the east as far as Beersheba.  Instead, the people of Sderot stay and try to create as normal a life as possible.
Almost every bomb shelter had been reworked to include street art and some of the leftover shrapnel from Qassams were used to make artwork. We visited a children’s playground where the shelters had been built to look like caterpillars.  The schools here are protected as well, with bomb shelters built inside.

I couldn’t help but notice children playing in the schoolyard and knowing that at any moment a ‘Color Red’ alarm could go off and they would know exactly where to run and what to do. Even with as much incredible work as the people here do, they have been robbed off any ‘normal’.