Last week, on the first morning of the ceasefire, I traveled to the southern Israeli city of Sderot. Located within sight of the Gaza Strip, it has been in the cross-hairs of Palestinian militants who have fired thousands of Qassam rockets and mortars at the town since the Second Intifada.
During the eight days of conflict around the Israeli Operation Pillar of Defense, there were few moments when the automatic warning system wasn't shouting “Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom" (Color Red, Color Red) across a network of loudspeakers around the city. When the warning comes, residents have just 15 seconds on average to reach cover.
Fortunately, there is a well-designed series of bunkers and shelters throughout the city, and many people have reinforced, bomb resistant rooms built into their homes. Physically safe as residents may be, the emotional toll is high, especially for the children. Upwards of 70% exhibit symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but since it takes six months of calm before a "post trauma" assessment can be made, the terminology doesn't really fit. The city hasn't seen more than a few weeks without rockets for most of these children's lives.
Twelve hours into the ceasefire, many parents didn't feel secure enough to bring their children home. Community shelters, such as the one seen above, were still full of boys and girls. With kind support from the Sderot Center for Young Adults and its selfless volunteers, I visited two shelters and interviewed the children inside.
Local residents have done what they can to modify each shelter to suit their needs. While one felt fairly institutional, another was almost homelike with sofas and other furnishings. It's left up to each community.
Many of the children had been living in the shelter day-and-night since the beginning of the most recent operation, eight days before. A few were too scared to even consider going outside, and any loud noise was enough to cause visible distress. A popped balloon, thanks to boys being boys, nearly sent one little girl into hysterics.
Despite some severe cabin fever and frayed nerves, the children were eager to create drawings and share their perspectives. As you might imagine, the artwork they created focused largely on the Qassam rockets and the fears they had.
My sincere thanks to Ben, Shelter #28 directors Almog and Yehuda, Shelter #36 director Nitsan, Sderot Center for Young Adult staffers Igal and Chen, Ornit, the Israel Trauma Coalition, Talia Levanon, and the amazing children who participated.
In the coming days, now that classes have resumed at the schools, I hope to interview more children in Sderot and other local communities.