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The World

Lives Forever Scarred After Suicide Bombings

Israel: Survivors labor to recover physically and mentally. Some still have shrapnel in their bodies.

July 21, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Motti Mizrahi groans and clenches his teeth. "Wait, wait!" he hisses to the therapist, whose expert form of torture is to push, lift and stretch Mizrahi's mangled arm.

He lowers his lifeless limb, encased in a spiked contraption meant to hold the slowly re-fusing bones in place. He sighs, inhales and tries again.

Four months have gone by since Mizrahi was critically wounded in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Jerusalem cafe where he was chatting with a friend. Steel nuts and bolts packed inside the bomb pierced his chest and the back of his skull. They smashed all the bones in his left forearm and upper arm. His hand was nearly sheared off, held on by pieces of flesh and ligament.

Today, three surgeries later, a nut still rests about a third of an inch from his heart. Nine nickel-size holes are gouged in his arm. Mizrahi's recovery, if there is to be one, takes five hours of body-bending physical therapy four days a week, and X-rays every two weeks to monitor his progress.

Mizrahi is one of an estimated 2,500 Israelis--40 last week alone--who have been wounded in suicide bombings since Palestinians rose up against Israeli occupation nearly 22 months ago after the collapse of peace talks. Headlines have focused on the fatalities: About 270 people, most of them Israeli Jews, have been killed in more than 70 bombings.

But the lasting impact may best be measured in an emerging population that is permanently scathed and scarred, living reminders of the horror of the bombings. They will require years of costly and complicated physical and mental rehabilitation. In addition to paying for most of the medical care, the state must also absorb the losses to its work force.

Israeli doctors calculate that 40% of the injured will have significant permanent disability.

Israel has a long experience with suicide bombings and car bombs. What has made the current campaign more lethal--and more debilitating in the long term--is the increased use of hardware loaded into the explosive packages.

Earlier generations of bombs were packed with small ball bearings; today, heavier, deadlier metal is used. From screws and nails to scrap metal from construction sites and, in one case, blood-thinning rat poison, the additives boost the devastating nature of each explosion.

"It's much more insidious," said Dr. Ricardo Segal, chief neurosurgeon at the sprawling and busy Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem, just west of Jerusalem.

"You don't have the same energy that you have with high-velocity injuries, so many more pieces of metal go through the body and are stuck there. It may not be damage that will kill, but it creates a major dilemma: how to correct the damage without causing more damage."

Digging into a brain to retrieve a bolt lodged there can easily harm the patient more than the original injury, Segal said. Such are the questions that the Argentine-born surgeon weighs on a regular basis. He said his earlier wartime experience of caring for bullet and regular explosive wounds only partially prepared him for what he has seen in the last months.

A year has gone by since Paulina Valis and Emma Skuleshevsky, two Israeli high school students, put on their dancing shoes, touched up their eye shadow and headed out on a Friday night for their favorite disco, the Dolphinarium on Tel Aviv's bustling seafront boardwalk.

They were waiting outside the club in a thick queue of friends, classmates and others when a 22-year-old Palestinian, Said Hotary, detonated the nail-studded bomb strapped to his body. An impossibly bright flash of light, a rushing roar of noise, the acrid smell of blood and burning flesh, and Valis and Skuleshevsky flew through the air before crashing to the ground and blacking out. Twenty-two people were killed, more than 100 wounded.

Skuleshevsky walks around today with a nail in her head and two more in her abdomen. She and Valis have so much shrapnel in their bodies that every now and again, small pieces rise to the surface of their skin and fleck off like metallic dandruff.

"They told me to expect such surprises in my life," Valis said.

Once a runner, dancer and aerobics enthusiast, Valis, 19, has had to learn how to walk again. A crinkly ribbon of a gash marks her right shin and calf where several inches of flesh were ripped away. She moves gingerly, taking a flight of stairs in a mall slowly. Her weak hand frequently touches her face, in hesitation.

"I had lots of plans," said the native of Uzbekistan with curly red hair, who immigrated to Israel 12 years ago. "I wanted to go into the army, and I wanted to go to university and travel. Now I can study, but it's going to be very hard. It's hard for me to concentrate. I can't travel. I can't go into the army because the army won't accept me. Now I depend on hospitals."

Valis spent two months in the hospital after the blast and has had many surgeries. It took a good eight months, she said, before she could go to a sidewalk cafe or ride a public bus. She was so terrified.

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