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Couple Believed Bedroom Could Be Their Grave

April 15, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NABLUS, West Bank — On their seventh day entombed in a home that had been crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, Abdullah Shobi's wife turned to him and said: "I think today is our last day. We are going to die." Shobi, 68, a retired baker, nodded in agreement.

He called out again for help.

"I am Abdullah Mohammed Ahmed Shobi. Save us!"

The words bounced off the rubble that had turned their bedroom into a dark, sealed cave. No reply came back. Dehydrated, dazed, their food and water gone, Shobi and his wife, Shamsa, said a prayer. They had no words left.

The Shobis lived in a three-story home near the old quarter of Nablus, the largest West Bank city. The house was a family compound, filled with uncles and aunts, nephews and a niece who was seven months pregnant. There were 10 of them in all--three generations of one family--and from their roof they could see the minarets that stretched across the skyline and many of the soap factories that had made Nablus a bustling commercial center.

But Nablus also has been a hotbed of anti-Israeli activism and, Israel says, a haven for terrorists. On March 29, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent his tanks into the West Bank in response to a spate of suicide bombings that were claiming the lives of Israeli civilians by the dozens. The mission was designed to cut off the terrorist network at its neck.

Of the hundreds of targets that military planners listed, one was the Shobis' home. According to Israel, it was used to make explosives for suicide attacks. There is no way for independent observers to know whether Israel's intelligence was correct. The Shobis say that it was not, that they were an ordinary family uninvolved with political or military matters.

Fighting marked the Israelis' entry into Nablus, and the destruction wrought by Israeli tanks around the old quarter was stunning. An Israeli bulldozer equipped with a backhoe rumbled down the Shobis' street. It stopped at their compound, raised its blade and began to bash in the third floor.

Palestinian witnesses said the top floor fell into the second floor, killing eight occupants--including the Shobis' pregnant niece--in an avalanche of brick and mortar and ceiling beams. Then the second floor fell into the ground floor, where Shobi and his wife had their bedroom.

The roar of the bulldozer's engine drowned out Shobi's call for help--"We are people here!"--as it pushed rubble 6 feet high against the front door, sealing off the home with no rear exit and no side windows. So that is where, cowering on their bed, the couple were trapped April 5, in utter darkness, with one bottle of water and two pieces of bread, the air so thick with dust and debris that each breath ripped at the lungs.

Severe thirst set in. Hunger pains came and went. Bruises darkened. Seven days passed. Then something miraculous happened. Moments after the old man and his wife had raised their right forefingers toward heaven and said together, "I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of God," they heard the faint crunching of shovels above them.

There were 14 men there, led by the Nablus fire chief, Yusef Jabi, who had heard rumors that someone might still be alive in the house but didn't quite believe them. He had negotiated with the Israelis for two days over the phone asking permission to look for survivors. The Israelis, he said Sunday, had refused.

"We decided to take on the job at our own risk," Jabi said.

At first, when the fire brigade broke curfew and started digging at the Shobis' home Friday afternoon, Israeli soldiers fired into the air to discourage the rescuers. Then they relented and let the group proceed. Soon the rescuers heard a weak voice: "I am Abdullah Mohammed Ahmed Shobi!"

Jabi shook his head in disbelief.

Jabi's men chiseled a hole in the collapsed roof. They lowered ropes. Shobi tied them around his waist and was pulled to freedom. Ninety minutes later, after the firemen cut a bigger hole, his 250-pound wife emerged.

Seeing the clear light and tasting the fresh air of a spring dusk, Shobi said, "This is like being dead and getting reborn."

Shobi and his wife recounted their ordeal Sunday in Watani Hospital, where doctors said it was a miracle that they had survived. The Shobis agreed. They were being treated for dehydration and bruises and were expected to be released in a few days.

Outside the hospital, with the Israeli-enforced curfew still in effect, Nablus appeared as lifeless as a graveyard. Laundry flapped on balconies, but not a soul was in sight, not a shop was open, not a dog lounged on the sidewalks. It was as though the city's 125,000 residents had all disappeared.

Shobi said no, he really didn't know what he would do or where he would live next.

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