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Israelis Stream Back Home From Egypt

October 09, 2004|Tami Zer and Laura King | Special to The Times

EILAT, Israel — Israelis fleeing the bomb-devastated Egyptian vacation complex of Taba formed a long line at the border Friday, with sleepy, bewildered children piggybacked on their shoulders.

More than 10,000 Israelis were thought to have been on vacation in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula when it was hit Thursday night by synchronized bomb attacks that left at least three dozen dead. Israeli officials quickly advised citizens to come home.

Few needed any urging.

Sarah Varshaviyak and her husband, Elimelich, both in their 60s, had been staying for the last several days at the Taba Hilton. They were out to dinner at a nearby restaurant when a car bomb shattered the Red Sea resort complex about 10 p.m. Thursday night.

"We saw that the hotel had just disappeared, up to the 10th floor," Sarah Varshaviyak said. "Then we realized our room, 901, was gone. Probably our car is gone as well, because it was parked just under the hotel" -- a wing of which collapsed in the massive blast.

The Varshaviyaks crossed the border back into the Israeli resort town of Eilat.

"The main thing is, we are OK," she said. "And here in Eilat, people took care of us in the most kind and lovely way."

Hotels in Eilat opened their doors to those fleeing the attacks, setting up rows of mattresses in their banquet rooms and meeting halls, where exhausted children slept cheek-to-cheek in the early hours of Friday.

The refugees were a mix of middle-class families who had been vacationing at the child-friendly Taba Hilton, with its Red Sea beach and water park, and the free-spirited, long-haired hikers and backpackers who had been staying in the more remote reaches of the desert peninsula.

"I was so scared -- when you've got little children, you're scared for them," said Tovi Avnon, cradling her 4-year-old son, Ido, in the temporary shelter of an Eilat hotel banquet hall that was still festooned from a wedding days earlier.

Her son Roi, 11, described the scene in the lobby of the Taba Hilton when the powerful car bomb exploded.

"Everything was full of glass, and everyone wanted out," he whispered. "And now we are here."

Israel sent dozens of green-and-white buses from the national Egged carrier to pick up citizens trying to return from the Sinai. But Taba is only a few hundred yards into Egypt, and many opted to simply walk across the frontier -- some with baggage, some without; some with passports, some without.

Some were still in shock. At Eilat's small hospital, two men in their 20s, each clutching a guitar, awaited treatment for minor wounds.

They had been staying at the beach-hut community of Ras Shaitan, south of Taba, when an explosion rocked the encampment.

"Suddenly there was a huge light -- I think we were 20 or 30 yards from the car that blew up," Yair Ovadiah said. "In the end an ambulance picked us up, and that's how we got out."

His companion, his head swathed in bandages, was silent.

Eilat, a bustling resort town, was almost completely booked when the Sinai bombings struck. But virtually all establishments in the town offered some form of hospitality to those fleeing from Egypt. Hotels served free coffee and cake to dazed survivors waiting to find a ride to homes elsewhere in Israel.

"I guess this time we should have listened to our government," said Ran Levy, 23, referring to the warnings against travel to the Sinai during the Jewish holidays.

"But all the time they warn us!" his friend Ophir Tal, 29, shot back. "Everywhere there are warnings about where not to go."

Anat Zarafati, a 25-year-old from Jerusalem, spotted a friend at Eilat's tiny Josephtal Hospital. They shrieked and hugged -- and then both winced from their shrapnel wounds.

"Even after this, I hope we can come back to the Sinai someday -- it was the only place we could get away to," said Avnon, the young mother of Roi and Ido. "But maybe not any time soon."

Times special correspondent Zer reported from Eilat and staff writer King from Jerusalem.

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