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The painful silence: terrorism’s forgotten victims

It is the survivors -- the wounded and the relatives -- who are left to live true lives of terror

In September, US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed by terrorists who stormed the US Embassy. Just a few weeks later, a car bomb killed Lebanese security chief Wissam al-Hassan. And last month, a serious Hamas offensive sent rockets into Israeli cities previously thought invulnerable, killing five and wounding 70 private citizens. Now, our brothers and sisters in the United States are reeling from a mass execution at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, an act of extreme violence that left 26 dead, including 20 young children.

Unfortunately, this latest surge of violence circumventing the globe is nothing new.Over the last year, I have heard stories about many other attacks, bombings and grisly murders around the world – premeditated acts of terror as well as impulsive and senseless acts of violence.

When terror acts occur in Israel, we pray that there are no fatalities. When one man is killed, it is as though the whole country has a lost a father, brother, husband or friend. When one young girl dies, all of Israel mourns the death of their little girl. In the hours after an attack, we focus on the death toll. And if there are no fatalities, we breathe a deep sigh of relief and go about our day.

But there is a real danger to this way of thinking. It is based on flawed reasoning that causes hundreds of Israelis (and thousands of people around the world) untold amounts of physical and emotional anguish. We cannot just focus on the dead. We must not forget those who have survived terror attacks. These include those who were targeted in an attack but escaped with serious or minor injuries. We don’t often hear about their suffering because their stories are rarely picked up by the media. However, it is the survivors of terror attacks who are left to live a true life of terror. In addition to physical injuries (many of which only develop days after an attack), survivors often suffer from shock, anxiety and, of course, the guilt of knowing that they survived while others did not. These “symptoms of terror” are debilitating and cause otherwise promising lives to veer off course.

We also tend to forget that, in many cases, it is the family of survivors who suffer the most from acts of terror. While they have no physical scars and don’t require medical attention immediately following an attack, these men, women and children are instantly plunged into a new reality where loved ones are no longer the same and often the family’s primary breadwinners become physical and financial burdens.

Mourning a victim of a terror attack on Israelis in Bulgaria, July 2012 (photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/Flash90)
Mourning a victim of a terror attack on Israelis in Bulgaria, July 2012 (photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/Flash90)

Here in Israel, there are important state-provided services designated for family members of survivors of terror. There is tutoring for students who have lost siblings in acts of terror and college grants for children of injured survivors. These services are vital to the success of families coping with the trauma that follows a terrorist attack.

But there are gaps. Organizations like ATZUM step in to assist where government funding is limited and where families’ needs are so extensive that they require an extra hand to move on with their lives. For example, the distribution of extra funds and the provision of educational resources, counseling and even dental care to survivors of terror and their families are key to filling the void left by government funding.

And yet even these programs do not serve all those who need help.

Many Israeli survivors of terror are not recognized by the State, neither as physically or emotionally injured, but suffer from severe trauma nonetheless. Unfortunately, organizations that work together with the government are bound by strict rules and cannot do anything for this population. I would venture a guess that half of the residents in southern Israel are members of this miserable club. They suffer in silence with no hope of respite.

So, when a bomb explodes, a rocket falls or a gunman has his way and there are no deaths to report, we must not breathe a sigh of relief. Rather, we must realize that while violent attacks may not always result in the loss of life, they almost always destroy lives. These incidents alter or eliminate physical abilities and leave serious emotional scars. Indeed, violence can leave families and entire communities changed for life, even if their stories aren’t reported on the news.

It may be quiet in Israel now, but that silence, while heartening for many, is so very painful for forgotten survivors of terror and their families, those for whom recognition and relief are at once vital and unattainable.

It is up to us to make some serious noise on their behalf.

About the Author
Gila Berdichev is the Coordinator of ATZUM's Survivors of Terror Project, an initiative that assists individuals and families in Israel to rebuild their lives and secure their futures following acts of terror