Israel’s citizens living along the Northern stretch of country have been ordered into bomb shelters. There, they will be safe from katushya attacks, but it is not a comfortable place to be.
There are shelters for every apartment house block. On kibbutzim and moshavim, there are shelters for each neighborhood. Some private homes have a fortified room but most people use public shelters. There are shelters at the grocery store in case the siren sounds while you are shopping. In Israel, there are shelters everywhere.
In a country where housing units are small and space is at a premium, empty shelters sitting vacant in times of peace are just asking to be used. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, residents descended to shelters to find them full of long-forgotten items stashed there “temporarily”. For a long time after that, security authorities were determined to keep shelters in a state of preparedness. But shelters in areas far from the borders get converted to all kinds of uses. In Beit Shemesh, for example, one shelter houses the neighborhood after-school computer club; it is full of pint-size desks and chairs. It seems like a good use of space–Beit Shemesh hasn’t been under attack for a long time. But, neither has Tsfat and the residents there have been ordered into the shelters.
When everyone descends into the shelters, it’s crowded. There is supposed to be enough shelter space for everyone in the northern part of the country, but “enough” is a very small space per person.
Everyone means everyone: Old people who can hardly make it down the steps, babies, toddlers, teenagers, the neighbor you can’t stand, that lecherous guy down the block, young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, the couple on the verge of divorce, lots and lots and lots of children. Suddenly, there you are with everyone in your neighborhood, all together. And you are going to be together for a long time. You may be coming back nightly for weeks or months. And no one is in charge. Well, the security authority is in charge but there isn’t anyone in charge in this shelter. No one to set the ground rules, like when to turn down the lights or turn off the music. Lots of people crowded together with nothing in common but the neighborhood they live in and only rules of common decency for governance.
The best shelters have bunk beds and cribs lining every wall. If the shelters have been well maintained, there are mattresses for the beds and more to put on the floor. If the shelters have been used as teen “discos” or after-school club houses or (worst) a sort of communal basement storage facility, the mattresses, beds and cribs won’t be there.
People come down with possessions to get through the night. Possessions take up room. You hope that young mother brought enough formula and a motzetz to stick in the baby’s mouth and enough diapers too. Some people bring plenty of food and snacks and others bring hardly anything. Some kids come with electronic games and i-pods; others don’t have anything like that to bring. A young man brings a guitar, which may turn into a blessing or a curse.
Without any windows, it is claustrophobic. The light is glaring. You can’t tell when day ends and night begins. It’s noisy–sound bounces off the concrete walls. Everyone tries to be considerate and kind but adults are stressed, children are out of their routines. Israelis love children, but in a shelter some children become very difficult to love very quickly.
There is no privacy. Everything you do is on display. Everything.
Some workers just got home and came down before they had a shower. People sweat—it’s July and they’re nervous. The diapers pile up. It doesn’t smell very nice.
No one knows how long you are going to need to be there. Radios don’t work very well in a shelter but on the hour every hour you hear the faint beeps that signal the newscast and everyone is suddenly silent, straining to hear someone’s radio. The news doesn’t tell you what you need to know anyway—it doesn’t tell you what is happening above ground in your own neighborhood. Even when a security official comes by, there isn’t much he can tell you. Cell phones probably don’t work too well either. Everyone is worried about the relatives they can’t reach. Everyone is worried about Gilad, Ehud and Eldad. Can this end before they come home? Should it end before they come home?
Although I’ve heard that some shelters have some sort of “facilities”, none of the ones I’ve been in had toilets. On top of all the other stress, people wonder “Should I go out now or can I wait?” “Where is the closest bathroom?” “If I can go out to the toilet, why do I need to be here anyway?”
And it’s boring. It’s hard to sleep. Nerves are raw. You’ve looked at your magazine so many time, you know the order of the pictures and ads and every word of the articles by heart. Everyone is worried. Will your son’s reserve unit be called up? Is this a minor conflict that will be over in a couple of days, or the start of a real war? Who is going to move to this area and buy your apartment now, now that the North is a war zone again? Where is your sister? Everyone is worried.
Children, overtired but unable to fall sleep, whine. The air doesn’t move. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Will you be back here again tomorrow night?