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Thursday, February 05, 2004

What happened to the wounded?

Suicide Bomb Survivors Face Worlds Blown Apart
Washington Post, by Keith B. Richburg: JERUSALEM -- Alona Shaportova immigrated here from Ukraine with her parents when she was 10. Soon she was speaking Hebrew, English and some Arabic, as well as Russian.

Ask Alona how old she is today and she hesitates, and begins to count out loud, "One, two, three, four" until she gets to 17. She looks to her mother for verification and gets a nod of approval.

Counting is a chore for Alona, reading is impossible, and she can manage only slowly to write her name. Two years ago, Alona and a friend were at Tel Aviv's popular seaside Dolphinarium discotheque when a Palestinian wearing explosives and copper ball bearings blew himself up outside, killing 21 people, mostly teenagers, and wounding 100 others.

Alona was among the most critically injured. When five ball bearings smashed into her head and face, her left eye was shattered, the teeth on the left side of her mouth were knocked out and the left side of her brain was torn away, leaving her paralyzed on the right side and mentally impaired for good.

The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, who once thought of becoming a model, now has a plastic prosthetic and a mop of curls that artfully cover the missing part of her head.

For thousands of Israeli families like the Shaportovas, the suicide bombings of the last three years have been a life-shattering, life-altering experience. The attacks make headlines with the numbers killed -- about 500 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in suicide attacks on civilians since the beginning of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000. But for all those killed, there are many, many more left alive but burned, maimed, scarred, blinded, paralyzed, hearing-impaired, missing limbs and often requiring long-term care.

A case-by-case review of Israeli government records indicates more than 3,000 people have been injured in suicide bombings, not counting other types of attacks.

Their suffering is often intensified by the rudimentary and ruthless technology of the bombmakers; the explosives are wrapped with screws and ball bearings, causing multiple lacerations and punctures for those in the blast vicinity.

Some Israelis are still hospitalized from wounds sustained in suicide attacks months, even years ago; many more require repeated hospital visits and follow-up operations. Dozens are unable to work. And families have been forced to alter their lives to care for a wounded family member.

Alona's mother, Irina, says caring for her daughter has become her full-time job. She needs to help her daughter get dressed, takes her to a special school and shuttles her constantly to the hospital for care and rehabilitation therapy. "I'm really stressed by all of this," said Irina, who quit working after her daughter was injured. "I have no choice. I have only one daughter."

The Israeli government's national insurance institute has a mandate to provide financial assistance to anyone deemed a victim of a hostile act, meaning either war or terrorism. Medical care is free, including transportation to and from the hospitals, and the injured person receives a monthly stipend based on salary, or, in the case of the unemployed, the average government bureaucrat's salary.

Those found by an independent panel to be severely and permanently disabled continue to get a monthly payment for life, while those less disabled lose their stipends and receive a one-time grant.

The financial support is supplemented by private groups such as the One Family Fund, created three years ago to support and provide psychological counseling to victims. The fund provides cash to affected families until government compensation arrives, and it sponsors workshops and "healing retreats."

Yet victims and their family members say they sometimes feel their suffering is forgotten after the initial horror of a suicide attack has faded.

"As time goes by, the support and help gets less and less," said Mally Nissim, whose 16-year-old daughter, Adi Huja, was badly injured in the suicide bombing of Jerusalem's Cafe Rimon on Dec. 1, 2001. "The whole situation has been going on for two years. My heart is ripped up. I can hardly take it. The atmosphere at home is bad. Everybody is irritable and yelling. Tempers are raised."

She added: "When I hear about an attack, I feel sorry for the injured. It tears families apart."

Adi is a beautiful girl with light hair and olive skin. The only evidence of the severity of her wounds is that she walks with a crutch.

Seated on the living room couch, she pulls off her thick-soled sneakers and rolls up the legs of her khaki trousers to show what is left of her mangled legs. Both are riddled with wounds from ankle to hip -- huge craters, small holes, discolored black.

Her right foot stays in one position; the ankle was filled with screws. In all, 100 pieces of metal sliced through her body, mostly screws and bolts. Some of her wounds became infected by rat poison packed in the bomb, doctors told her.

Adi has endured 26 operations, and she will have more. She was hospitalized for half a year and in a wheelchair for one year. There are still seven or eight bolts in her body.

"The doctors said I'll be able to walk and run," she said, "but it will take time."

Adi and her mother are full of praise for the doctors who saved Adi's legs. For the bombers, there is only hate.

"I hate them and their entire families," Adi said bitterly, "and I wish them to go through exactly what I went through. They have no heart."

The Weapons Instructor

In a bed at a rehabilitation center outside Tel Aviv, American-born Steve Averbach, 37, counts the sum total of his progress since a suicide bomber on Jerusalem's No. 6 bus shattered his world eight months ago.

He can wiggle his toes a little, and he can flex his left foot. He can move his left thumb and index finger. There is a little movement in his left elbow, and there's some sensation in the hand. That is all, but that is progress for a man who was told he would likely never move his limbs again, after a ball bearing from the bomber's explosive vest hit his spinal cord and lodged in the back of his neck.

Before the bombing, Averbach, who moved to Israel from New Jersey at age 18, was a healthy, high-powered, active man, the father of four children. He was known as "Steve Guns" to many Israelis because of his role as the premier weapons instructor in the country.

All of Averbach's training kicked in on May 18, 2003, when he boarded the bus in the French Hill neighborhood and the driver stopped to pick up one last passenger: a man dressed in the garb of a religious Jew. "He wasn't Jewish," Averbach recalled. "He was Arabic."

Averbach immediately grabbed for his gun and spun around to fire. "I was known to be able to draw my gun in .85 of a second," he said. But the bomber already had his hand on the triggering device. "I was in mid-spin when the bomb went off," Averbach said. "It doesn't matter how fast you are -- the guy with his finger on the trigger is going to win." Averbach's gun never cleared his holster.

Averbach retains his good humor, even as he lies on his back and his mother, Maida, gives him water from a small plastic container with a straw. "I had been involved in four or five bus bombings," Averbach said. "This time I just showed up 10 minutes early."

"The thing I say to myself is, next time I will be faster," he said. "I can't lay back and say to myself, 'I'm sorry about what happened.' "

His mother, a nurse, said that since her son's injury she has viewed the horrific scenes of bus bombings differently.

"When I hear the phrase 'non-life-threatening injury,' I always wonder what's the implication of that," she said. "The people who die die. But the survivors, and how they have to cope, and their families -- you never hear about that. The psychological implications, the emotional implications, the financial implications -- it goes on and on."
The article continues with the story of an Israeli Arab bus driver, injured in a bus bombing, who is angry because he has yet to receive financial compensation from the government. "The reason, he believes, is because he is an Arab, not Jew."

The author may be trying to achieve "balance" - profiling a Jew who "hates them," a Jew with "good humor," and an angry Arab. It doesn't seem accurate to me; I don't think Israeli Arabs have suffered one third of the casualties. Maybe I'm wrong, but this seems to be getting digs in at Israel under the guise of sympathy and compassion. Have I become too cynical? Perhaps.