Staying to Play Under Attack

SDEROT, Israel – Last year, Roni Benami-Tarnovski celebrated her 11th birthday in a bomb shelter.

“In the evening we had to escape to another kibbutz. I was really scared,” she said, retelling the story in the bomb-safe room of a children’s center at the Mefalsim kibbutz, a community a few minutes down the road from her home in Sderot.

Sderot native Roni Benami-Tarnovski, 11, loves her home and doesn't want to leave.

Sderot native Roni Benami-Tarnovski, 11, loves her home and doesn’t want to leave.

A large town of 24,000, Sderot sits on the very edge of Israel’s southwestern border. Some 840 meters from its main police station, the Gaza Strip is dimly visible through a cloud of sun-hazy dust.

For children like Roni growing up on this volatile political fault line, air raid sirens, bomb shelters, and missile attacks define normal life.

Since 2001, thousands of missiles, referred to by Sderot residents as Qassam, have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Because of its proximity to the border, Sderot is a prime target for these attacks.

Roni can imitate the sound of the Qassam alarm: a recorded woman’s voice amplified over a loudspeaker repeating the Hebrew words “tzeva adom” They literally translate as “red color,” but Roni knows what they really mean: she has 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter before the Qassam strikes.

In Sderot, which claims the title of the most heavily fortified city in the world, every bus station is a bomb shelter. On one playground, two giant painted caterpillars double as play structures and child-friendly refuges. Roni boasted that her school is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first protective educational institution in the world.

Bomb Shelter in Playground

A bomb shelter in a Sderot playground prepares kids for missile attacks from Gaza that could strike at any time.

For Sderot children like Roni who are under the age of 13, their whole lives have been spent under attack. For some, their earliest memories involve Qassams.

“Seven years ago I was in kindergarten,” said Imri, 12, who spoke through a translator, Roni’s mother, Anat Benami-Tarnovski. “I was in the car and my father went inside to drop my sister off at another kindergarten. When he came back, 20 meters from the car was a missile.”

According to NATAL, the Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War, between 75 and 94 percent of children in Sderot have been diagnosed with PTSD symptoms.

But as Sivan Hanuyakev of the Sderot Media Center, a non-profit committed to raising awareness about conditions in the city, pointed out, the trauma is not yet post.

“Here it is an endless situation,” she said. “It’s ongoing trauma.”

Sderot children, however, are not the only ones affected by the constant threat of missile attacks. Across the border in Gaza, a study by the Canadian-Palestinian support network revealed that 61 percent of Palestinian children, who compose more than half of the population, also suffer from PTSD.

While attacks on Gaza by the IDF are not as frequent as they are in Sderot, they come in more concentrated and destructive doses. For example, in Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day attack on Palestinian militants in Gaza by the IDF in November 2012, 133 Palestinians, 53 of those civilians, were killed.

In comparison, Hanuyakev said, in the past twelve years Sderot has suffered 16 casualties and the Negev region 60.

“The Gaza people are suffering more than me,” she said. “There are no bomb shelters, no alarms, no defense.”

For Roni and her friends, tzeva ado and its effects are a way of life. And when asked whether they want to leave Sderot or not, the five children interviewed all had the same answer: No.

“Growing up, I really want to stay here,” said Roni. “I love this place.”

Noam Uerad of the Sderot Media Center reads a peace-seeking letter from a Sderot child to kids in Gaza.

Noam Uerad of the Sderot Media Center reads a peace-seeking letter from a Sderot child to kids in Gaza.

David Levi, age 12, agreed, although for more ideological reasons. “I will never leave this place because I know that if one person leaves, another will leave, and then no one would be left. If we leave, it’ll be like they’ve won,” he said, translated from Hebrew by Anat Benami-Tarnovski. “Everything that starts has an end. I hope, I believe, that sometime it will finish, and it’ll be nice to live here then.”

The kids in Sderot want to stay in their home and live a normal life in peace, and as their conversations, pictures, and letters reveal, some want this for fellow kids across the border in Gaza too.

Noam Uerad of the Sderot Media Center showed off a book of collected crayon-drawn pictures by the kids of Sderot, flipping through pages of red rockets puncturing house roofs as well as hands clasping in peace below Palestinian and Israeli flags side by side. On one page is a handwritten letter from an unnamed Sderot child to those across the border that Uerad translated from Hebrew.

“For the dear kids of Gaza: I understand how you feel. Also in Sderot, Qassams are falling. I know you think we’re monsters, but we are suffering also,” she read. “I hope that Israel will be in peace. God forbid that there won’t be a war anymore, but if there will be, please be protected.”

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