Tuesday, August 31, 2004

What I Saw

Sederot Yitzhak Rager is a four lane main thoroughfare which runs half the length of Beersheva, from the Tel Aviv highway to the fork at the Negev Mall and the highway to Ashkelon. Two thirds of the way down its length, it meets Derech HaShichrorim and forms a crossroads, where sits the Beersheva city hall, a mangled-looking concrete structure built out of the worst trends of '70s architecture. Across from the city hall, across four lanes of two way traffic and a low fence along the median, is a stretch of narrow green parkland which continues down to the Negev Mall. On the north side of HaShichrorim is a large empty lot which has been the site of major construction for two years; as a result, the road is bordered by great hummocks of dirt and stone, piled up from the work. Across from this is a half-constructed building which will one day be a cultural center. It is grey concrete, its edges jutting out at bizarre angles. My girlfriend once remarked that it looked like the Titanic after the iceberg hit.

When I arrive here at four o'clock or so in the afternoon, this area is cordoned off, yellow and white crime scene ribbons stretching across the length of the road. Silence. A stunning, absolute silence. In front of the hummocks of dirt and stone stands the shell of what was once a number 12 bus. One of the new models, painted a bright blue, with tinted windows and bright yellow interior. The tinted windows are blasted out and lie in shattered heaps on the black asphalt. The front windshield is not destroyed, but a spiderweb of lines form a collage across its face. The ticket dispenser is still intact, visible just above the steering wheel. A steel beam hangs down from the ceiling of the bus, lying where it half collapsed into the belly of the vehicle. A pile of belongings, hurled out of the bus by the explosion or the rescue workers, are strewn across the street. A black backpack and what looks like, but cannot be, a green scarf are all I can recognize. The actuality of murder begins to seem ominously close.

There is an acrid smell in the air, like the remnants of a bonfire. It is the only physical indication, besides the exanguinated bodies of the buses themselves, of the horrendous violence that has just occurred. The bodies of the dead and wounded are gone, rushed to Soroka Hospital just a few moments down the street. I clamber up a short hill next to the half-built cultural center, joining a group of onlookers standing just above the scene; one ought to feel ghoulish, but one feels nothing at all.

The soundlessness is horrifying. At least a hundred people, reporters, police, rescue workers, soldiers, officials, are swirling about just below me; but one hears nothing. Only the low moan of a muted police siren and the occasional clang of falling metal. The air itself feels cavernous. Hollow. Blasted out. The ZAKA men flit like moths across the bones of a dessicated animal, their yellow and orange vests glowing in the angular sunlight.

A beautiful girl with long, brown legs spilling out of her short shorts walks by, and for a single, blasphemous moment, heads turn in her direction, until she disappears into the onlookers and a low heaviness settles back over the scene. A group of religious men stand in a circle, pointing and whispering together. A truck filled with soldiers pulls into the crowd of rescue vehicles, its siren breaking the mortal serenity for a brief moment. A photographer jumps the low fence surrounding the construction sight, and a tall man smoking a cigarette through a hole where his two front teeth should be gestures at him violently and murmurs something. A bald man stands near me, hands on his hips, his face set and furrowed; he walks in half semi-circles, as if unsure of where to plant his feet. A crowd of television trucks with their satellite dishes pointed skyward sit just a yard from us; channel 3, channel 10, no CNN, no international news. Perhaps they simply tap into the local feed. Two television helicopters circle overhead, white and bulgous. Further out, a tan military copter thuds out a wide perimeter.

Further down, in front of the city hall, in the far lane where one takes the left turn on to HaShichrorim, is the second bus, an older model, dirty and with its blue paint faded to gray. Its windows are blasted out as well, but I cannot get close enough to see anything more.

I walk the length of the construction site. A crowd of people stand along the tin wall of the site and on top of a jury-rigged platform with a crumbling roof providing a measure of shade. They whisper amongst themselves, barely audible in the crystalline air.

There is nothing left to see, so I walk the five minutes north to Soroka Hospital, to see if they need blood donations. The emergency room is cordoned off and a large crowd, probably relatives, mills about talking on their cell phones. A young girl sits on a bench and cries hysterically. An older woman tries to comfort her. I cannot find anyone to ask. An army officer shrugs and tells me to find the blood bank. I head into the main building, but can find nobody. The halls are almost totally empty. A woman working at a coffee stand fiddles with the bottles of orange juice in her refrigerator but has no idea where the blood bank is. I begin to feel in the way. I walk out across the grass promenade where a few patients are sunning themselves. I turn left and, in the middle of an enclosed field, is a massive military helicopter, sitting silently like a hornet poised on the edge of a window sill. A soldier in full battle uniform leans against a wire fence, looking restless.

I exit through the main gate of Soroka. Looking south down Rager I can see nothing but the blinking red beacon of a fire engine. The silence is the only reminder that this is not a normal late afternoon. I hear a ferocious roar above me and look up into the gauzy azure sky. Four F15 fighter planes, flying in formation, hurtle over my head in the direction of Gaza. I watch them, the setting sun stinging my eyes, until they disappear.