August 8, 2001. A 23-year-old Palestinian man walks into a crowded pizza shop in the heart of Jerusalem, detonates a bomb, and snuffs out 15 Jewish lives.
Headlines around the civilized world decry the loss of 15 innocent lives. But those headlines are gone by tomorrow, leaving behind another, forgotten story: the 130 injured victims who survived.
18-year-old Polena Vallis was at the Dolphinarium Disco in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2001, when an Arab suicide bomber took the lives of 21 young Jews. Following is a free translation, from the original Hebrew, of Polena's account:
I took a quick glance in the mirror to make sure that I looked fabulous, another spray of perfume, another glance in the mirror, another small smear of eye shadow, and mission accomplished! I was 100 percent ready to go out.
For months I had not gone out because of the pressure of high school finals. I had just passed the civics exam and the math exam was yet far off. So I deserved to go out and have a good time, didn't I? Apparently God thought otherwise. I had always known that the ways of God are strange. But this night, I understood that the ways of God could also be dangerous and fatal.
As usual, we went to the Dolphinarium Disco. On the way, my friend Emma and I joked about the catastrophes that had befallen Israel lately. Jokingly I said that perhaps the stage in the disco would collapse, as had the floor in the Versailles wedding hall disaster. With a giggle, Emma retorted that it wasn't funny.
As we approached the disco, we saw that the line was big. Everyone was gathered together, excited and impatient, wanting to enter and dance. I looked around in hopes of seeing familiar faces. The chattering and giggling continued. Suddenly a loud and deafening noise shook our eardrums. The boom was followed by the sharp smell of blood and burning. Human flesh flew in all directions. Quickly the floor was covered by blood and bodies.
I felt like I was inside an oven. I have always complained about Israel's hot weather, but even that could not be compared to the heat that surrounded me. From the force of the mighty wave, I fell hard on the ground. When I was able to stand up and flee, I felt that the ground was burning around me. In the midst of it, boys and girls were on fire.
I began to run like a crazy person. Together with my friends, we ran and collapsed together behind a car. I looked at my legs, completely covered with blood. "Oh, it's just blood," I said to myself. "I'll go home and wash it off. It will be okay. Toma's here with me. Now we'll go find Emma, and we'll go home. We'll just find her and we'll go."
"Your legs! Your legs! Oh my God!" My friend Toma's screams roused me from my thoughts.
Suddenly I saw a gaping hole in my right thigh and I started to shriek like a maniac.
"What's she screaming about?" I said to myself. "It's just blood."
But suddenly I saw a gaping hole in my right thigh. I started to shriek like a maniac, until a fellow came and took me to an ambulance.
All the way to the hospital, I prayed that I would faint and lose consciousness, so I would not have to hear the groans of the girl dying beside me.
I passed the first night in the hospital screaming, worrying, and praying for Emma. They transferred me to the department of plastic surgery where I underwent two operations.
Three days after the bombing, I was shocked to find out that Emma was in critical condition. Two nails which the terrorist had packed into the bomb had lodged in her brain. The doctors removed one nail, but the other they dared not touch. I constantly prayed for Emma's recovery.
Finally God heard my prayers. Emma is here with me now in the rehabilitation department. Another eight kids are here with us, too. We have all made friends and support each other, all of us joined in the deepest bond of our shared trauma. Often we remember that night, and we speak and cry about the friends who are no longer with us.
I will never forget that night, the night which brought with it deep disappointment in Arabs, who are supposed to be our brothers, but who killed 21 innocent young people. A human being does not do such a thing. We Jews must support each other, because terrorism does not distinguish between persons.
Tanya is a petite 17-year-old who looks like a girl I went to Hebrew school with. She was also at the disco that night. Born in South Africa, she and her parents made aliyah from Canada three years ago. I try to focus on her face, but my gaze is repeatedly drawn to three hideous scars on her neck.
"A bullet, a huge bullet," she curls her index finger onto her thumb making a circle almost one inch in diameter, "went in one side of my neck and out the other side."
"And it missed your carotid artery?" I ask, appalled.
The doctor said it was like being shot three times in the neck and still being alive.
"By microns. The doctor said it was a miracle," Tanya answers. Two other large bullets, which the terrorists pack their bombs with to maximize the fatalities, hit her thin neck. "The doctor said it was like being shot three times in the neck and still being alive. It was a big miracle.
"When the bombing happened, I was praying to God the whole time. I stopped breathing. From the force of the bomb, I literally flew through the air. I landed on my feet. Then I saw blood and body parts everywhere. I fell down and starting screaming. I didn't lose consciousness. I knew that if I closed my eyes, I would never open them again. I just kept praying."
Eerily, several months before the Dolphinarium bombing, Tanya had her right arm tattooed with a leaping dolphin. She wears an eyebrow ring on her pierced right eyebrow.
How has the bombing changed her attitude toward life? Tanya reflects for a few minutes, then replies, "I have a new life now. New things to think about. Life is more precious to me now. I've stopped drinking. I was never a heavy drinker, but now I don't want to lose even one minute to being drunk.
"My parents and I used to fight a lot. Now we don't. Since the bombing, we're a lot closer. We talk more. Of course, my mother still has rules. We used to fight over the smallest thing, like whenever my room was dirty, which it always was. Since the bombing, she doesn't yell anymore. She just says nicely, ‘Please clean up your room.'"
As a mother who has yelled at her daughter over a messy room, I wonder what it must be like, every time Tanya's mother looks at her daughter, to see her grotesquely scarred neck, reminding her how close she came to not having a daughter to reprimand.
THE LONG SAGA
In 1997, 17-year-old Noam Rozenman was walking down Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall when a terrorist bomb went off. The force of the bomb propelled him toward a second bomber. The blast perforated both his eardrums, and burned his face, arms, legs, and back. When he looked down at his left foot, he saw it facing the opposite direction, hanging by a thread.
Doctors at Hadassah Hospital managed to sew his foot back on. After two months in the hospital, five operations, and many months of crutches and cane, Noam today can walk and run. One eardrum is still perforated and his body is still full of shrapnel splinters, too numerous to be removed surgically. The doctors told him the shrapnel would work its way to the surface, but today, four years after the bombing, he still feels metal under his skin. "It hurts only when it pinches a nerve," remarks Noam offhandedly.
"The injuries are just the beginning," says Noam. "Then it's a whole long saga." The son of a computer scientist, Noam never went back to high school. "For an entire year after the bombing, my life was shadowed by the bomb. I was constantly at the hospital for treatments. I became lazy, got into bad stuff, bummed around. Then there was the guilt factor -- the guilt that I survived when five people right next to me were killed."
Noam chose not to enter the army, feeling that he had paid his dues. The decision left him isolated, since all his friends were inducted at the age of 18. "I was a complete outsider. There was a wall between me and my friends in the army."
Overcome by a sense of his own mortality, it took Noam a long time to become motivated toward any long-range goals. Finally, three years after the bombing, Noam earned a high school equivalency diploma. After drifting through several different jobs, Noam has returned to his old love, photography. He is working regularly now as an apprentice to a professional photographer.
As a friend of Noam's mother for 10 years, I cannot help but remember my impression of young Noam before the bombing: an ordinary nice kid, a handsome jock. Now, sitting across from him on the verandah of his parents' Jerusalem home, I am struck by the profundity and extraordinary sensitivity of this young man.
"I am blessed," he claims. "Every morning when I look in the mirror and see my scars, I realize what could have been. I could have been permanently crippled, or dead."
Looking back on how the bombing changed his life, Noam reflects, "I'm a more spiritual person because of it. The bombing brought me closer to God. It made me realize how precious life is. It also made me more sensitive, more aware of other people's suffering."
As we converse, it becomes clear that Noam made a conscious choice to use the bombing to propel himself forward as a human being: "I realized that I could look at the bombing in two ways: 1) I was a healthy, strong kid, and I got screwed by God, or 2) I went through all that horror, and I'm alive thanks to God.
"I chose the second way."
I am visiting Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, one month after the Dolphinarium bombing. I am standing beside the bed of 16-year-old Victoria, a pretty brunette with large brown eyes and metal fixtures protruding from her left arm and left leg.
"They are holding my arm and my leg together," she explains to us.
"Are you in pain?" I ask.
"All the time," Victoria smiles weakly, "except when I have visitors."
Suddenly the atmosphere is shattered by blood-curdling screams. Seventeen-year-old Katya, from the bed across the room, is taking her first steps since the bombing. I turn to see a petite blonde figure bowed over a walker, flanked by her mother and a nurse.
"Just ten steps to the door and ten more steps back to your bed," the nurse is saying.
Katya takes a second step and shrieks in pain. I feel like crying, but that would do Victoria no good. With panicked eyes, she watches Katya. I paste a smile on my face and try to distract Victoria. "Have you been up on your legs yet?"
Her large brown eyes riveted on Katya, she shakes her head. "My turn is next."
Two months after the Dolphinarium bombing, three victims remain hospitalized: Victoria, 15-year-old Ziva, who was severely burned, and Alona, who suffered brain damage which wiped out her memory. She does not recognize her parents and cannot speak.
Of those who have been discharged from the hospital, most return regularly for additional operations. Three weeks after being discharged, Polena is back for surgery to remove shrapnel from the sole of her foot, which leaves her in excruciating pain. At the same time, Oksana, who has lost feeling in one hand, is back for an operation to remove nerves from her foot and transfer them to her hand.
In Bat Yam, 10 minutes down the beach from the site of the bombing, I speak with another victim, 18-year-old Faik.
"How nice," I remark, gazing at the magnificent Mediterranean view. "You can go to the beach every day."
Faik, who was severely burned on his arm and stomach, looks at me as if I'm crazy. "We can't go into the ocean at all!" he exclaims. "The salt water would kill us."
For Faik, whose family came to Israel from Khavkaz, while his body is healing, his psyche is not. He is plagued by nightmares and fears -- afraid of places with crowds, afraid of every Arab he passes on the street.
Yet the worst part for the "Dolphinarium kids" is the death of their friends. Max went to the disco that night with two buddies. Only he survived. Tanya shows me a photograph of her and her best friend, 16-year-old Liana. "We were going to open a hairdressing salon together." Liana was killed in the bombing.
THE PRECIOUSNESS OF LIFE
In the midst of their agonizing recuperation, all of the Dolphinarium victims report a new sense of the preciousness of life.
"There is nothing more important than life."
"There is nothing more important than life," Faik asserts. "I always wanted to be a musician, to go study music in Italy. But it was too expensive, too difficult to make happen. Now I feel that I have only one life, so I must use it to fulfill my dreams. I feel an urgency to fulfill my dreams because you do not know what will be tomorrow."
Polena avers: "I take life more seriously now. I am planning for the future more carefully. I want to go on to University and become a writer."
Although all of the Dolphinarium kids made aliyah, most of them from Russia, not one of them regrets coming to Israel. Nor do any of them consider moving to "a safer country."
Faik, four years in Israel, declares, "I feel more like I belong to the Jewish nation than before the bombing. I feel like we are one people, and together we will overcome this crisis."
Noam, whose family made aliya from Los Angeles six years before the Ben Yehuda bombing abruptly ended his youth, says: "My suffering is the suffering of the Jewish people. I was chosen to be the body."
The Dolphinarium headlines have come and gone. And so too will the tragic headlines of the Jerusalem pizza parlor. But for Noam and Faik and Max and Tanya and Polena and Emma and Victoria and Katya and Alona and the hundreds of other victims of Arab terrorist bombs, the boom will continue to echo, endlessly, in their bodies and souls.
Let us not forget them.
Yes, there is something you can do. See 7 Ways You Can Help Israel. Also, the children victims of terrorist bombings love to receive letters. Write to them! Most of them can read English (be sure to print clearly or type), and for those who can't, we'll be happy to translate the letters. Do not send Emails. A real letter that they can hold in their hands, perhaps on nice stationary, will mean so much to them.
Please address your letters to a specific kid, and send them to that child c/o of:
PO Box 14149
Here are most of their names: