I drove from Jerusalem to the southern Israeli town of Sderot on November 22nd, in the first hours of a ceasefire following eight days of escalated conflict around “Operation Pillar of Defense.” Located less than a mile from the border to Gaza, the town is often the target of rocket and mortar attacks, so much so that a large network of community bomb shelters and bunkers have been built to protect local residents.
With kind support from the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) and psychologist Dr. Benjamin Epstein, I visited two of these underground bunkers and conducted art-based interviews with children who had been sheltering inside for the week before. During that time, over 1400 rockets and mortars had been fired into Israel, many hitting in and around Sderot.
Despite some severe cabin fever and frayed nerves, the girls and boys were eager to create drawings and share their perspectives. As one would imagine, the artwork they created focused largely on Qassam rockets and their associated fears, but there were some remarkable surprises and imaginative results. For example, one boy wished he had arms long enough to catch the missiles falling on the town.
With the ceasefire continuing to hold, area schools reopened a few days later and children returned to classes. With further support from the ITC and Dr. Epstein, I was able to visit the AMIT Torani Mada'i School to conduct an interview with a group of 3rd and 4th grade students. I recognized a few from the community bomb shelters, but most had been evacuated or remained in bomb-proof rooms built into their homes.
For the most part, both the boys’ and girls’ drawings focused on the near-constant threat of attack. When “Tzeva Adom” (Color Red) warnings are broadcast over loudspeakers, residents have just 15 seconds on average to reach cover. Many of the children’s accounts showed the terror they feel when playing too far from shelter and the alarm sounds. I recreated these moments using toys purchased in town and from nearby shops in Ashkelon.
Other children made drawings about the Iron Dome defense system, successfully deployed to shoot down incoming rockets that targeted populated areas. One boy decided to show how unsafe he felt despite the protection from above. In his drawing, he included rockets from Gaza, interceptor missiles from Iron Dome, and people being blown up on a bus. The week before, a bomb was remotely detonated on a public bus in Tel Aviv. It left a big impact on the boy.
To show his fear, I traveled to the actual intersection and recreated the scene using a Playmobil bus. Glass from the explosion was still on the ground.
Thanks goes to the Israel Trauma Coalition, Talia Levanon, Dr. Benjamin Epstein, Potato Productions, Shelter #28 directors Almog and Yehuda, Shelter #36 director Nitsan, the Sderot Center for Young Adults and its staffers Igal and Chen, Ornit Rozenblat, Sderot Media Center and guides David and Idan, Noam Bedein, Dina Khoury, the staff and administrators of the AMIT Torani Mada'i School, Bill Colitre, Miruna Garabet, Slien Joia, Dafna Moriya, Cynthia Raskin, Iafi Shpirer, Judith Rubin, Julia Byers, Anne Stewart, Simone Tabib, and the individual contributors that generously gave their support.