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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Besieged Residents Hunker Down

July 26, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — Ludwilla Kuperstock, a 67-year-old grandmother, spends her days and nights underground.

For the last two weeks, she and her husband have shared a three-room bomb shelter with other residents from the same working-class neighborhood in this town in northern Galilee.

As more families have left the shelter for safer territory farther south, all that remains is a hardy group of Russian emigres bent on outlasting the barrages of Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets that have picked up in recent days.

Kiryat Shemona already looked like a ghost town before the fresh salvo of rockets accelerated the exodus. Peeking from the forlorn landscape is the stairwell of Public Shelter B-215, behind the weather-worn apartment complex where Kuperstock lives with her husband, Mikhail Anchipolovsky, also 67.

On Tuesday, Kuperstock and two neighbors watched television, as they have been doing almost without break since taking refuge in the concrete bunker after fighting broke out July 12.

"It's a very bad situation," said Kuperstock, who was wearing a floral housedress and sandals. "All day we're in the shelter and we have nothing to do. We read books and watch TV. We're worried a lot and have bad thoughts because we have relatives in the army and we think about them."

But Kuperstock, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1991, grew fiery about Israel's conflict with Hezbollah. "Israel will win," she said. "I promise you Israel will win."

She moved into the adjoining room and lowered herself onto the lowest tier of a three-level steel bunk bed bolted to the concrete wall.

She said she remained in Kiryat Shemona to be near her son, who has a liver ailment and works in a nearby kibbutz. His wife and children have fled for the Tel Aviv area.

For Kuperstock and her elderly neighbors, the conflict has imposed a new and disorienting routine. In the daytime, they emerge to shower, cook a fast meal or dash to a convenience store. At night, their world contracts to quarters the size of a suburban living room and, eventually, to a 3-foot-wide cot.

City officials broadcast announcements telling residents when it is safe for those dwelling in 400 shelters to go outside for limited forays. The people living in B-215 sometimes wait anxiously at the top of the stairs until word comes.

The city delivers lunches -- chicken and salad on Tuesday. The elderly residents are on their own for other meals. Kuperstock said she cooked eggs for breakfast, then slapped together sandwiches to bring to the shelter for dinner.

At night, the shelter dwellers sleep close together, said Samuel Rotstein, 65, also an emigrant from Ukraine.

Rotstein's wife, Vasilina, 64, has suffered two strokes and has diabetes. She gets around by cane and has trouble moving. The Rotsteins don't have a car, so they have stayed in Kiryat Shemona.

"What can we do? We are sick and old," Samuel Rotstein said.

The shelter dwellers have tried to bring small touches from their homes. Kuperstock dressed her cot in a flowery cover and pillow. A chair from her apartment serves as a bedside table. Sitting on top are a canister of sunflower seeds and sugar for coffee. An electric kettle for heating water sits in the corner of the shelter.

For Vasilina Rotstein, a bedside chair holds a stock of bread, milk and instant coffee.

"War is war," Kuperstock said. "There can't be talk about comfort."

Kiryat Shemona, a town of 22,500, was settled mainly by Moroccan Jews but later grew with the arrival of emigres from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Rotstein, who arrived in 1996, said he had weathered plenty of difficult times. He said that when he was a baby during World War II, his mother fled with him to Uzbekistan, where they remained for four years while his father fought the Germans.

"We were under fire and we survived. This we will survive," he said. "The war will last a month, not four years."

Still, Rotstein acknowledged uncertainty over how Israel's conflict with Hezbollah would turn out.

"What we are going to get out of it, and what are going to be the consequences and results -- we don't know," he said.

"We will suffer," Rotstein said, and then he stopped. "No," he continued, "we will be patient."

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