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Keeping Faith Underground

As Israelis in Kiryat Shemona crowd into a bunker on the Sabbath, one matriarch says the town has seen it all, `but it was never this bad.'

July 29, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — There were spoken blessings and a table heaped with Moroccan-style meatballs and tuna.

But for the 10 people who gathered Friday for the ritual dinner that ushers in the Jewish Sabbath, such trappings of normal life did little to hide the fact that they were spending the holy day in a bomb shelter.

A television, propped on a cot in the shelter's main room, blared news of the latest rocket attack against Israel as Shimon Kabessa served the sweet ceremonial wine and led a prayer at the head of a foldout table that was too small to fit everyone at once.

Around the table, the mood was subdued. Their nation's army was fighting in Lebanon, and they were in Hezbollah's sights. A few hours before dinner, their buried bunker had rocked with the shock of a Katyusha rocket landing not far away.

Kabessa's daughter, Kati Marziano, had already spent two Sabbaths in the shelter. The 30-year-old, with reddish-brown hair pulled back to reveal tired eyes, is eight months pregnant and worries that the strain will induce her to give birth early in the shelter.

She expressed uncertainty and resignation when asked whether she thought she would be in the shelter for the next Sabbath.

"I don't know," Marziano said. She paused. "I think so. We have no other choice."

Marziano and her 6-year-old daughter have spent more than two weeks in the bunker, buried behind a drab apartment block in a working-class neighborhood of Kiryat Shemona. They moved into the bunker right after the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah broke out on Lebanon's border July 12, and they have seldom left -- the frequency and random timing of the rocket attacks make it impossible to know when it is safe to venture out.

Marziano has spent many of those days fretting about her husband, Erez, a police officer who has had little time to take cover in the shelter with his family and their neighbors. Nearby rocket strikes sent her weeping loudly, slapping her face in panic.

Earlier in the day, she spoke longingly of escape and normality: "I want to go to my sweet home."

Too fearful to do so, she and her family have sought to create a semblance of everyday life in the confines of a concrete bunker that has become part communal living room, part crammed dormitory.

The table has been set up in the middle of the main sleeping room, a 20-by-20-foot area with three-tiered steel bunk beds bolted to the walls. On one bunk sits a second television, which, along with a DVD player, was donated by the beach resort of Eilat on Israel's southern tip.

The families have brought bedding and pillows from their homes, adding bright colors and a homey touch to the cramped institutional confines. A corner of the room has been converted into an impromptu pantry, with cases of bottled water and toilet paper and boxed fruit juice. In the same nook, a table holds an electric water kettle and a microwave oven that Marziano's mother, Jacqueline Kabessa, brought downstairs.

The residents have plastered children's artwork on the walls to soften the sense of being in a giant, drab box.

Electric fans whir from four directions in a mostly vain attempt to move the stuffy air. The residents, sweat-flecked in tank tops and shorts, grouse that if they knew the town's mayor better, they'd probably have landed an air conditioner by now. They bathe in a plastic kiddie pool under the stairwell.

As if at a subterranean picnic, they eat with plastic forks and knives, on plastic plates. They talk little and eat hurriedly, as if getting past the meal will somehow speed their release from this place. Spats have broken out from time to time over petty things, they say, but the residents appear to have arrived at the kind of familiarity that allows them to snap at one another without lasting injury.

Jacqueline Kabessa has determinedly kept up the Sabbath rituals, though the family is not especially devout. The meal offers an element of routine for residents whose lives have been upended.

That is not easy. On Friday afternoon, she went upstairs to her apartment long enough to get the evening meal started but then had to race back into the shelter when a fresh hail of rockets started hitting around Kiryat Shemona.

"Life is not normal," Marziano said. "Is it normal to shower in a pail? Not to have a refrigerator to cool the water? And I'm dying from the heat. My body is aching from all the heat."

With the arrival of a new Sabbath, Marziano and other residents in the bunker wonder how much longer they must stay underground. A day earlier, a rocket strike on the next block toppled a 40-foot tree and sprayed the nearby apartment building with shrapnel, shattering windows and leaving residents badly shaken. No one was injured.

At least half of Kiryat Shemona's 22,5000 residents appear to have relocated to the south. Others have fled for a day or two to other parts of Israel to "ventilate," as they say in Hebrew -- to catch a breather.

But Marziano said she would not leave her husband's side. "I don't want to go to somebody. I want to stay here with him," she said.

During dinner, Erez dashed in with a police partner and ate hurriedly before going back out on patrol. Asked whether it had been a busy day -- with reports of 30 or more Katyushas hitting the town -- he answered in the affirmative. "A busy month," he said, smiling wearily.

Seven of the Kabessas' eight children remain in Kiryat Shemona. Jacqueline Kabessa said she had no intention of leaving them, even though she could not recall a more threatening time in the town, long a target for Hezbollah's rockets, since she came from Morocco as a teen in 1963.

"Kiryat Shemona has seen everything. But it was never this bad," she said. "We've never been three weeks in the shelter. We've been two or three days, but then we went home."

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