I have lived on Kibbutz Nirim on the border with Gaza since 1975 when I was 21 years old. In those days it was a tranquil region. Our relations with our neighbors in Gaza were peaceful and reciprocal. Hamas did not exist. There were no suicide bombings or rockets.
After our founders struggled for years to build the kibbutz in the 1940s and 50s, by the time I got here in the 70s the norm was to hop in a car and drive to a Gazan beach, a coffee house in Gaza City or to go shopping in the open-air market on a Saturday. Gazans were allowed to work in Israel. Khaled, a Gazan, was the much-loved custodian in our local school for years. We had even begun collaborations with teachers from Gaza, including reciprocal visits for building cooperative educational programs. Furthermore, a maternity hospital, destined to serve women from Gaza and Israel’s western Negev, was designated to be built at nearby Kibbutz Kissufim. There weren’t just plans, funding was in place: it was more tangible than simply someone’s inspiration.
We were neighbors. We were planning for peace.
Today, what I have written until now seems like a fairy tale.
Throughout the summer of 2014, my paradise was a war zone. Exactly a year ago today, on August 26th, the heart of my community turned into a bloody battlefield. For days, we had been plagued by Hamas barrages, because Hamas realized that by virtue of Iron Dome, their goals of pulverizing towers in Tel Aviv would not come to fruition. Therefore, the communities such as ours along the Gaza border became Israel’s Achilles Heel.
Minutes before the final ceasefire was due to commence, a mortar exploded in the midst of community members who were trying to restore the electricity to the kibbutz. One of the men lost both legs. Two more were not as lucky: they lost their lives. I had known all three since 1975.
Gadi Yarkoni: The fight for his life
Gadi was closest to the mortar that exploded, ripping off both his legs. He was a child when I came to the kibbutz. I watched him grow into a father of three and the managing director of the financial side of the communal cooperatives of Nirim and the neighboring Kibbutz Kissufim. He amazingly overcame an extreme visual impairment and graduated college, going on to become a successful professional and raise a family.
Gadi lost a lot of blood due to the deadly shrapnel from the mortar. Once his life was out of danger, he had the new challenge of learning to use artificial legs. A week after the attack, his wife hugged me and said how lucky they were, because they still had Gadi. She assured me that he would be strong enough to overcome those fresh obstacles, as well. And she was right.
At some point during the long months of his rehabilitation, far from home in Tel Hashomer hospital, Gadi decided that he needed to do something even more significant to help this region rehabilitate, and even grow. He decided to run for mayor of the Eshkol Regional Council, to replace the outgoing mayor who had just become a Knesset Member in the Israeli elections. Yes — you read correctly. HE needed to do something MORE SIGNIFICANT for US.
Today, a year after that terrible trauma, and long, arduous road to recovery (which is still, to an extent, ongoing) he is our mayor.
Shahar Melamed: Kind-hearted, always ready to lend a hand
I watched Shahar grow from a child and develop his professionalism, becoming the only mechanic I trusted. I wouldn’t buy a car without him. He finished his army service, wooed his sweetheart and built an unbelievably tight family. As the assistant head of security, he remained with his family throughout almost all 50 days. His wife refused to be separated from him.
When the Hamas rocket from Gaza knocked out the electricity that morning, Shahar took his wife and three children to the specially reinforced day care building near their home. The large, completely rocket-proof, well-insulated rooms of the structure afforded a more bearable venue to ride out the oppressive heat without electricity.
The damaged electricity tower was only yards away.When repairs started, Shahar went to pitch in. His wife and children, who were merely seconds away, were to become witnesses to the fatal attacks. In horror, they searched for their father, peering through the window and bushes outside, dividing them, in their oasis of safety, from the lawn outside that had become soaked with their father’s blood.
Zeevik: My friend and “go-to” guy
Zeevik was a strapping teen, just a few years younger than me. I watched him mature and grow, get married and bring five lovely towheaded children into this world. In addition to being in charge of security, Zeevik was a volunteer ambulance driver, plumber, and had worked in almost every agricultural job on the kibbutz. He was the guy in charge of the microphones and sound controls at all kibbutz celebrations. He was a central beloved figure with an easy laugh and an ever-growing beer-belly.
Zeevik was my “go to” guy when I needed help. As a widow, when my sons were not around to help, I turned to Zeevik, and he never said “no”. He was always ready to lend a hand, always with a big smile. When he was near, I was not afraid.
During the ground war, when most families had temporarily moved to safer locations, those of us who remained on Nirim ate dinner together, each of us bringing something. When Zeevik was too busy with security issues, we always saved him dinner. When performers came to our shelter to try to bring some brightness to our lives, whenever possible we made sure Zeevik was there. When volunteers came to give massages (good hearted professionals who braved the treacherous roads twice to give us some comfort), his friends saw to it that Zeevik didn’t miss out on a session.
One evening, I had him to myself for dinner at my house. Our friends had all gone to different places for the evening . I called him up to ask where he would be eating. He said he had no plans. I ordered him to appear at 19:30 at my house. Easy-peasy: he lived in the house just behind.
Every time a rocket fell, he was on its trail. He hunted them down. When my house got hit, on what was to turn out to be the last morning of his life, he and a helper were first on the scene to check on me. I had been in my safe room during the barrage and had had no idea my bedroom had been penetrated by deadly shards of shrapnel.
This region is torrid in summer and it’s torturous to be closed inside a three meter by three meter reinforced saferoom with its heavy metal doors and no A.C. So with my house damaged, my personal safety violently violated and no electricity, I decided to leave the kibbutz and give myself a break for a few days, a fateful random decision that spared me, personally, of experiencing the hell that was to ensue just a few hours later.
Towards evening a line crew arrived to repair the damaged electricity lines, because the most terrifying part of being here without electricity, though, is after nightfall, with the knowledge that there were tunnels and infiltration was a very real threat.
It is well known that Hamas fires a huge rocket barrage in the last few minutes before any ceasefire to try and get in a last kill. They aim for civilians, not Israeli army bases, since we’re an easy target. They hope to hit groups of people outside before they can make it to safety. But the hard working repairmen hadn’t been notified of the impending ceasefire. Otherwise, none of them would have been there. They would have waited for the time to pass, put up with the sweltering heat, and then a bit more, before going to fix what needed to be fixed.
But they had no idea.
As the electricians were on the tower, suspended between heaven and earth, a new barrage began. The men in the air remained there. You have only 10 seconds (or less) to take cover. That is not enough time to get down from a high-voltage tower.
One “Code Red” alert, warning of incoming rockets was sounded. The men on the ground ran. A few minutes later, believing it was over, they went back out again.
And another “Code Red”. Another scramble for safety.
The third “Code Red” was deadly. There was simply not enough time between the alarms for them to reach the relative safety of a concrete wall. Gadi, Shahar and Zeevik were hit badly. A few others were injured, as well. Within minutes the emergency response teams were there, intently working to try to save the downed men.
Zeevik was killed on the spot, although the paramedics tried their best to resuscitate him. They treated Shahar and Gadi, applying tourniquets to stanch the bleeding. As the rescuers were adeptly working to save their lives, the alarms blared three more times, warning of three additional incoming rockets. Each time, with only seconds to react, it was impossible for the first aid workers to transfer the wounded to safety quickly enough without further endangering their chances of survival. So they threw flack-jackets over them to protect them as much as possible and ran. Despite valiant efforts, Shahar died in hospital later that night.
All this time, as I understood from reports by all the people to whom I spoke who were there, there was no IDF return fire. It was less than an hour before the ceasefire was supposed to begin and there were no Israeli planes, or helicopters in the air shooting back. Silence from the guns on our side. The only sounds were more Code Red alerts, the whistles of the incoming rockets from Gaza, the deafening explosions.
Today, I look back on the year that has passed. It has been a year of hurting, a year of healing for this community. They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s a pretty fair description of what happened here: the families, supported by the community, and the community supporting each other.
One needs to learn to live with personal tragedies. Especially those sudden, violent ones: the kind that pop up from out of the blue, taking our collective communal breath away as efficiently as if we’d been been punched in our stomachs. Nothing in the world can replace the loving sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, colleagues, comrades and neighbors, both of whom grew up in these fields; both of whom were murdered by the same mortar while serving their families and their community.
We will be commemorating their losses, and then we will celebrate their lives, as they each loved to live them.
Today at 17:00, our community will pay our respects to Shahar at a memorial service in our cemetery. Following that, there will be a parent-child community soccer game in his honor. Just as he would have loved.
Tomorrow, Thursday, Aug. 27th at 18:00, our community will pay our respects to Zeevik at a memorial service in our cemetery. Following that, at 19:30, there will be dinner, songs and a celebration of his life. Just as he would have loved.
(Note: Segments of this were published previously on CNN iReport.)