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Commentary and Analysis

Terror's Aftermath

The mother of a bombing victim talks about her daughter and her pain.

July 07, 2002|ALAN KAUFMAN | Alan Kaufman is the author of the memoir "Jew Boy."

JERUSALEM — Among the dead at the Sbarro restaurant here last summer were two best friends, Malki Roth, 15, and Michal Raziel, 16. Their story is not all that different from those of hundreds of other victims of suicide bombers. They stopped one evening for a slice of pizza. It turned out they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Suicide bombings of Israel's shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, discotheques and buses often target women and children and have turned this nation's once lively cities into ghost towns, its brave people into anxious wrecks. Yet rarely in the extensive media coverage of these horrors do we learn about the price in human terms for the average person. What lies behind the front page images of twisted steel and mangled limbs? What happens to those left behind?

Meet Malki's mother, Frimet Roth.

Roth lives in Ramot, a stark housing development baking on the hills that swell Jerusalem's northern approaches. Despite its nearness to the city's heart, the nondescript suburb is, by Palestinian definition, "over the Green Line," a West Bank settlement. It is ostensibly because of places like this that suicide bombers like Izzedine Masri, the Hamas operative from Jenin who blew himself up at the Sbarro restaurant, feel justified in taking innocent lives.

In her flat, Roth knows exactly how to begin our conversation. She goes into another room and brings back a picture of her daughter, Malki, and her friend Michal, then studies it before handing it to me. "This is them," she says.

They appear, like so many girlfriends of that age, complementary (Malki the fair-haired dreamer, dark-haired Michal more down to earth). Each smiles brightly, as if dazzled by all the promise they embodied.

We look at the photograph, discuss how beautiful the girls were. Roth begins speaking of her daughter. "She was a very unusual child in that she had high ideals which she strove always to live up to. Three weeks before her murder she had volunteered in a camp up north for handicapped kids."

Always musical, Malki had lately played a guitar on loan from her school. "Her friends told me afterward that she would take it out on the bus to school and play. Michal also played guitar. They would all sing. She was a dream of a child. The worst thing she did was mess up her room."

During the final year of her life, Malki, like all Israelis, had to cope with a rising tide of violence. "[There was] death all around her. She thought about it a lot," her mother says. "Every day were new terrorist attacks. In her diary she marked them down, with the names of the victims, their ages, details of what happened. As if she knew them. Some of her friends traveled each day on a road where there was constant shooting. Sometimes they stayed here overnight because it was unsafe to return home. One of them told me: 'I kiss my parents each morning before school because I'm not sure I'll see them at night.' "

Still, her mother says, Malki "never imagined that she was going to an unsafe place when she went to Sbarro."

On the day of the bombing, Malki and Michal went to see a friend who'd just returned home from overseas. Then they headed for a meeting of summer camp youth leaders. On the way, apparently, the girls decided to stop off for pizza. "When I saw the news of the bombing on television," her mother recalls, "I didn't worry about her because I thought she had already gone to the meeting."

Reflexively, she placed a call to her daughter's cell phone. Knowing how the volume of cell phone calls after a bombing can overwhelm the system, Roth didn't think much about not being able to reach her daughter. But by late afternoon she had grown anxious. It was unlike Malki not to check in to reassure her mother that everything was OK. "I called up the summer camp office to see if she'd arrived for the meeting. They said she hadn't. Now I truly worried," Roth recalls. "I went to the hospital with my neighbor, Aviva, Michal's mother, and on the way Aviva got a call from her other children who said a friend had told them that Malki had called earlier to say: 'Meet us at Sbarro. Michal and I are going there for a bite before the meeting.' When I heard this I began screaming and crying.... I knew, I knew."

In the months since the bombing, Roth has grown increasingly bothered by world reaction to the Palestinian bombings. "I read a lot of newspapers, I watch the news. And I see my pain being ignored, discarded. [I see] the reality of what we are going through totally distorted, so that our pain does not exist.... I only wish that Israel had our soldiers into the territories, to get the terrorists before Malki was murdered. She'd be alive today.... But, unfortunately, our government held back, restrained itself, as instructed, time and time again, 'Just hold back, don't react.' And, we didn't. So she and another 151 died after. Finally, we did something sane and reasonable and the world is jumping on our backs, pointing fingers. It's preposterous.

"When America went into Afghanistan and just bombed away from the sky, we have no idea how many civilians were killed in those raids. When did we ever hear a total tally? No one cares. Here, we didn't bomb from the sky. We moved in and fought house to house, so that we lost soldiers, we did it the most dangerous way to ourselves, facing an enemy that hides among their own women and children, booby-trapping their own houses, yet in the eyes of the world we're the villains!"

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