PASSOVER EVE  

© Gil Mezuman 30 August 2003

Gil Mezuman, Jerusalem 

Passover Eve.
I am at my parentsí home in Tiberias. The new table has just arrived. This is the first time that all my family is assembled together at my parentsí house to celebrate the holiday. My brothers and sisters are arriving with their children. The joy of the festival is felt by all.
Now that there are so many new grandchildren, we need a larger table. My mother is happy. There are so many people in the house! The children are running around, playing games. Mother is involved with all the last-moment preparations. Everybody else is enjoying the excitement.

The Seder Night.
The traditional reading of the Hagadah by all the family, together. Family jokes havenít changed. We all remember how my younger brother got drunk during the Seder when he was 4-years old. Today he is twenty six. We enjoy each otherís company so much, that we stay up half the night.

On Passover morning we all walk together to the synagogue, for the holiday prayers.
Surprisingly, the holiday prayers, which are usually undisturbed, are punctuated by ceaseless whispering. Neighbors and friends speak softly, in worried voices. The holiday prayers pass very slowly. Everybody is worried. Gradually I put together fragments of information: there has been another terrorist attack.. A suicide bomber exploded on the previous eve, and many people were killed. Sorrow has replaced joy in many homes in Israel this Passover.
My family is becoming impatient. As an Orthodox family, we do not use radio or television during the holiday. Passover should be a joyous occasion, and not a sad one.
We wait for the evening to come. When the holiday is over, we all gather in front of the TV screen, and try to keep the younger kids away. We stand close to the screen, trying to hear all the details. It could have been us, we think, sitting there with our family at the Park Hotel in Netanya.
The catastrophe is worse than I imagined. I remember the scene vividly. Pools of blood were sponged from the hotel floor, blood mixed with wine and water. It is sponged again and again, but keeps on spreading and staining the hotel floor, as if the sponge is too small to contain all that blood.
Many people feel that we cannot go on so. We cannot return to routine everyday life. We must do something. But what can we do?

On the next morning, my friend Pini calls me. He sounds agitated.
We were called up for emergency reserve duty. We are heading for our first war. What about you?
I tell him that we werenít called up yet. In my heart I donít know what I would rather do now, sit at home, or go off to fight.
Half an hour later, I receive another phone call. It is Dror, my platoon commander. We have been called up. Pick up anybody that you can on the way, and be here as soon as possible.
Dror just got married. We talk a little about married life, Dror sounds so happy.
He has to call the others now. We end the conversation.
My sisterís husband, who is a rabbi, receives a phone call as well. He has also been called up.

On the Sabbath Eve, we all set out together. The rabbi, my sisterís husband, my friend who just got married and I. Driving on the Sabbath is forbidden, but on this occasion, when lifes are in danger, it is allowed. We are setting out in the hope of saving people, of preventing the next terror attack.
At home the family is beginning to worry. The new table is left waiting alone in the corner.
We have arrived. Itís nice to meet everyone again! We have all been doing reserve duty together for years. People from different jobs, of different ages and backgrounds. Lawyers, computer programmers, college students, discharged soldiers, cab drivers. We all meet once a year for a month of reserve duty.
Oded, the company commander, doesnít let us waste our time in nostalgia. We must prepare the company for war in a short time. Everybody tries to help. Our destination is the refuge camp Jenin, one of the toughest cities in the West Bank. Jenin is nicknamed the capital of the suicide bombers, because so many terrorists live there.

Three days later we all stand together ready for war. Civilians who have suddenly turned soldiers. Oded is giving last instructions. "This time itís not regular reserve duty. Friends can be wounded or killed. First of all finish the fight, then take care of the wounded."
We try to forget Odedís words. Many of my friends have left wives and children at home.
I glance furtively at each of my friends. Who will get hurt? Then I repress all these pessimistic thoughts, and hope they will all return safely to their families. We enter the armed vehicles and drive off. Someone passes some chocolate around.

I am driving the armed vehicle. All the time, I am aware that if we are attacked with any arms or explosives, we are in great danger. We are loaded with explosives. If we are ambushed, our situation is precarious. Somebody in the back of the vehicle is reciting the Kidush, a special blessing of the Sabbath. I almost forgot. It is still Passover, and Sabbath too.

It is raining outside, and I can hardly see the road. Despite the rain, I keep my head inside the vehicle, in case we are shot at, and try to stay close to the vehicle in front.

We stop.
My friends get off and disappear into the darkness. I close the vehicle, and turn it around.
It is wet and cold. The vehicle is sunk deep in the mud. Sounds of far-away guns are ringing through the dark. I hope everybody is all right. I try to get some sleep inside. Stacks of ammunition and personal equipment are strewn around the floor of the vehicle, and there is hardly any room to lie down, but somehow I fall asleep for a few hours.
My friends continue fighting inside Jenin. We are waiting with the armed vehicles close by. Every day we pass supplies and ammunition back and forth, we try to send in as much food as possible. And the sound of the guns never lets off. There is serious fighting inside Jenin, and helicopters circle overhead.
How quickly we have entered the routine of war. Itís amazing! A moment ago I was celebrating Passover with my family, in my best clothes, and suddenly I wear the costume of a soldier. The sudden separation from my celebrating family was a shock, and I hoped it would all soon be over.

The fighting is difficult and slow. The refuge camp is densely populated, we are slowly making progress from house to house. Most of the houses are empty. The inhabitants have fled before the Israeli army entered Jenin. The first house I entered was full of heavy furniture. There were a lot of arms and supplies inside. I thought about the people who lived there as I went through the house. Who are they, and where are they now?

Short conversations are held with our families and the rest of the outside world by cell phones. A friend of mine says: Why arenít you filming? You are supposed to be making a film, arenít you? I try to phone producers, in order to get a camera. One producer is interested. How can I get a camera into Jenin? Right now, I havenít got a clue.
Every once in a while, a helicopter descends beside us and evacuates the wounded.
In our company, two soldiers have been mildly wounded. I hope this is the worse damage we sustain.
We are continuously in touch with those inside Jenin. Dror, our commander, distributed some food to the residents of the house in which our company stayed. Then he walked around hungry and irritable the whole day. It is very dangerous to send food and water into Jenin. We organize the food and water in bags, we bring it all inside, and then they have to run with all that load on their backs in the narrow alleys, between the walls. And the shooting goes on and on.

Night.
Today is the memorial day of the Holocaust.
I finish another conversation with my worried mother, and go to sleep, They will soon wake me up to guard. My sisterís husband is still on duty as well. His unit is in Ramallah. He is the father of five kids, and our familyís worry is twofold.

I wake up in panic.
They are waking everybody up. There was a clash with armed terrorists. Many soldiers have been killed, and a lot are wounded. Everybody tries to listen to the radio transmiter and find out what happened. Odedís voice used to be very calm when heard on the radio, but we cannot hear his voice now. He is probably among the wounded. Drorís voice sounds stressed. Something terrible is happening.

Some soldiers call a helicopter down. They are evacuating the wounded. We cannot hear Drorís voice any more. It seems that my unit has been badly hurt. Nobody knows how many. I phone my mother and tell her I am all right. She is happy to hear that, although news of the terrible fight have not yet reached the civilian news agencies.
The helicopters disappear. A tense silence hangs over Jenin.
Why arenít they taking any more wounded away, I ask myself. I try to listen to the radio- and understand whatís going on. Zeev, another officer is in command. The enormity of the catastrophe is gradually becoming clear: Thirteen have been killed. Four are wounded. Some of the dead were fathers of small children. Each one is a tragedy. Everybody is depressed. People are walking around, they donít know what to do.

They are asking for volunteers.
I go with a few others to identify our dead friends.
Drorís face is gazing up at me. Not so long ago I heard his voice on the radio. His eyes are closed.
Are you sure, the rabbi asks me.
Yes, I am sure.
I know that in a short while the woman he loved and his family will receive the bitter news.

Funerals.

Thirteen funerals. We have to decide to which funerals we shall go. Some of the funerals are conducted at the same time, each in a different city. We cannot go to them all.
I went to four funerals. On my way, I met Meir, the producer. He gave me the camera and tapes, and I started filming my friends. I am afraid. Will people want to be filmed in those difficult hours?

We return to Jenin.
It seems that the fighting has ceased. Gunshots are heard only sporadically.
This time I enter the refuge camp. There arenít enough soldiers. Others will stay with the armed vehicles now.

To my surprise, the camera becomes our therapist. My comrades pour their hearts out to the camera in the streets of Jenin. I film obsessively. This is probably my way to deal with all that has happened.
We gather the details, story after story. There were many acts of heroism. People entered the scene under heavy fire, in order to save the wounded. Some paid for it with their lives. What would I do in their place? Would I have passed the test?
I donít know. It is difficult to place oneself in that situation.

Two weeks have passed.
Usually we are very happy to return to our homes after the reserve duty, but this time it is different. It wonít be easy to return to normal life now, to go back to work, to face other people.

An army truck arrives with guns inside. All the guns must be cleaned and returned. While cleaning the guns, we find that some of them are stained with blood. We have to clean our friendsí guns. Thoughts race through my head. Who did this gun belong to?
Is this war truly over, or are we just heading for the next one?
I truly hope that we are not, for the price is so heavy.

 
 

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