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Tears on Grey Cement

May 9, 2009 | by Vadim Sirotnikov

An Israeli high school student falls victim to Arab terror. Her schoolmate recounts how.

March 10, 2003

Elizabeth Katzman was born in the USSR 17 years ago. She immigrated to Israel at age 5. Her Hebrew was fluent, her accent untraceable. She had snow white skin, pink cheeks, and coal black hair. Liz, as her friends called her, was affectionately known as Snow White.

I didn't know Liz very well, but there was hardly anyone in our high school in Haifa who didn't know her name or didn't recognize her face. Always well-mannered and hospitable, when passing me by, she would smile, say hi, and call me by my first name even though we were hardly acquainted.

Liz studied theater and media and was known for her talents. She hosted and co-edited the school's show on local television. In three weeks, she was scheduled to star in the school's theatrical production, "Best of Friends." Rehearsals were going well.

Last Wednesday, after school, Liz and her best friend went downtown to do some shopping and check on costumes for the play. After that the girls took a bus to the upper town center, and from there boarded a bus home.

On the same Wednesday, a 21-year-old Palestinian, a student in the Hebron Poly-Technical university, arrived to the upper town center of Haifa. He had been out of touch with his family for three days now. His body carried more than 50 kg of explosives packed with nails, nuts and metal specks. Plus a suicide note proclaiming the victory of Islam over America and Israel on Sept. 11.

At about 2 p.m., he boards an Israeli bus. Previous suicide bombers have been tense and excited, fearing they will be caught, and exploded within seconds of boarding the bus. This time, the terrorist is sure of himself. He wears nice clothes, and blends well, in this upper-middle class neighborhood.

The terrorist stays cool. The bus is half empty, so he waits for several minutes, passing a few stops, so that more people will come on.

Bus #37 heads toward Haifa University, a university with a high number of Arab students, with an active Arab Student Union and representation. Haifa is a "stronghold" of Jewish-Arab co-existence in Israel. It is the third largest city in Israel and has a large Arab population, with Arabs in key positions in the local government.

The terrorist stays cool. The bus is half empty, so he waits for several minutes, passing a few stops, so that more people will come on. He slowly approaches the middle of the bus, toward a group of children and teenagers. He wants them all to die.

A quarter past two

My physics class has just ended and my dad is supposed to pick me up and drive me to a dentist appointment. It was rescheduled several times, and by now I have a rather large cavity.

Many schoolchildren are on their way home. I watch the cars pass by. A police car suddenly speeds up.

Then the school guard (we have armed guards on every entry to school, as required by law, since terrorists have targeted schools) approaches me.

"What are you waiting for?" he asks.

I think I might look suspicious with my heavy coat and large school bag.

"My dad is about to pick me up," I answer.

"There has just been a suicide bomb," he informs me. "Just uptown, here in Haifa."

Haifa is a northern city, relatively far from the “green line.” Yet we have seen many deadly terror attacks, and several others have been prevented by the police. It's been almost a year since the last terror attack in Haifa, in a co-owned Israeli-Arab restaurant near the largest shopping mall in the Mideast. My math teacher lost her entire close family, and was very seriously injured. She never returned to teach.

Since we're a mixed Jewish-Arab city, people think we're safe. We try not to break the fragile co-existence.

Yet people here think we're safe. Especially since we're a mixed city. There have been Arabs among the victims here, and Arabs among the medical staff. People try not to break the already fragile co-existence here.

But now I'm in shock. Most of my school friends either live up-town or take buses there. They should be on their way home just about now.

"I don't know much," the guard says. "I have a small radio, but I'm officially not allowed to listen to it on the job. If you come, I can turn it on for you, and I'll listen in." We go to his small shack, and he turns on the radio.

“This just in: a terror attack in Haifa, on Moriah Street. A bus has exploded… the roof has flown off… it's on fire… Rescue teams are struggling through high-noon traffic…"

I try to call my family to tell them I'm fine. The network is dead. There's a cellular antenna on every street corner, but the networks overload easily.

Also, the cellular networks initiate a cut-off when there is an attack. Several times terrorists have used cell phones as triggers for second-wave blasts. They'd leave a bomb connected to a cell phone, and then five minutes after the first blast, when rescue forces arrived, they'd call the cell phone and detonate another powerful bomb, killing the survivors and rescue teams.

Suddenly, a car pulls up and my classmate's father gets out. "Where's my son?" he demands. "When did he finish school? Does anybody know?"

We don't know. Another classmate passes by. "Eric went home much earlier," she calms down the worried father. "He ought to be home already.”

I decline an offer for a ride. I hope my father will pick me up -- as he does minutes later. "I couldn't reach you, so I just came to take you home," he says.

I think about all the people I know who could be hurt. Eli went home an hour early, since a water pipe in his house burst. He could have somehow ended up on that bus, though it's unlikely. Can't reach him now.

David could have been on that bus. When I call, his mother answers in a frightened voice.

David could be on that bus. Could have had business at the university or uptown. I call him as soon as I get home. His mother answers in a frightened voice.

"Is David there?" I ask.

"No, he isn't home. Who is this?" She hopes I know something about his whereabouts.

"A friend of his. I'll call again,” thinking that it's better to keep the line free for him to call home.

My girl friend calls. She's gone for training by the IDF for the week. It's a mental preparation for boot camp that people can take in school. It's supposed to prepare you for your real service.

"Are you ok?" she asks. "They let us watch TV and use phones since we're from Haifa"

"I'm ok. My family too. How are you?"

"I'm fine. Lucky my brother is in the IDF and my mother is on a vacation in Eilat".

My grandma returns home. She is shocked to hear the news. "I took that bus route an hour before it blew up! And your 7-year-old twin cousins took it half an hour before that, from school.”

I watch the news. The explosive charge was huge this time. The bus is in ruins. I keep posting news to online forums, keeping in touch with my friends. Managed to reach Eli and David, they're safe.

I connect to the internet. The ICQ messaging system is filled with people demanding information. Chain letters pass with the speed of light. "Amit has not been seen or heard since the terror act. If anyone has seen him, please contact his home. His parents are worried sick.”

After a while, a message comes through: "Amit is safe. Pass on." Wheew.

But alas, this is the only good message.

Several friends from other schools inform me that their friends are missing. I never knew well how to comfort people, but now I'm needed.

"My best friend Liz has not come home," my friend Roni writes.

"Liz?" I ask. I have a bad memory for names.

"You know, the pale girl with long black hair."

"Couldn't she just be injured?" I suggest, knowing it's a false hope.

"No. Her parents called all the hospitals. She's either missing, or dead. I don't know what to do. My best friend is gone.”

How can I reply to that?

Black Bold Print

Our school walls are gray cement. It was popular for some reason when the school was built, but now it's considered ugly, and rightfully so, but paint won't catch on the naked cement walls.

Today the walls are grayer than ever.

When I arrive at school, only half our class is there. The 17-year-olds are sitting in absolute silence. It's very dark and gloomy, while outside the sun is shining. I see the shock in people's eyes, even when they're closed.

A TV breaks the silence. Someone hands out the morning paper. People begin telling their experiences. Someone knows several people who were killed. Someone was near the blast. Someone ran and began rescuing people. The unspeakable horrors make him burst into tears… again.

The principal announces that he has spoken to Liz's parents. She is confirmed among the dead. Soon we will convene for a ceremony. Those who knew Liz well stay outside and cry. Those who didn't, try to avoid talking about it directly and return to their classrooms.

The ceremony starts with texts being read by teachers and her friends. Liz's picture is hanging on the wall. A picture taken three years ago when she was admitted to school. Alongside is her name in black bold square print -- the kind used in obituary notices. And candles. (One gets used to memorial candles in Israel.)

The speakers talk about Liz. Say goodbye. Say prayers for her soul. Say prayers for peace. Someone sings a song he has just written and composed for her. It's difficult to see students cry. It's even more difficult to see your teachers and school board weep.

I manage to avoid breaking out into tears. I'm not sure why. I feel perhaps that I have no right to cry, since I didn't know Liz that well.

The perfect weather outside quickly becomes a perfect raging storm. I want to go to the place of the suicide bombing, but I can't get a ride. And it rains terribly. I catch a ride home and sleep for most of the day.

I watch the late night news to see Liz's picture among the victims. They misspelled her name, got her age wrong, and chose a really bad picture, for such a pretty girl. I go back to sleep.

And the skies wept

The next day, we try to resume our studies. No teacher dares to demand discipline or keep records of students coming and going. How can you make a person torn up inside sit down in a classroom? In a classroom with Liz's chair, now forever empty... We board the buses to Liz's funeral. I still can't believe she is dead. The whole school attends. And students from other schools. Former pupils leave their army posts. Representatives of the government arrive. Why don't they ever come to share joy? Only anguish.

Then Liz's family arrives. I can't face watching their pain. I turn around, then walk away. They remind me of my own relatives too much. It's awful to see parents mourn over a child.

Liz's sister reads a eulogy. Then her drama teacher. Then her best friend. Their words tear one's heart like sharp razors, and you feel you're about to cry blood onto your shirt. Out of all people, the most lively, innocent and talented girl, was taken from this world by a cruel murderer.

Her body, hardly recognizable, with no more human-like contours, is not in a condition to be wrapped in shrouds.

As the rabbi chants songs of mourning, Liz's casket is moved to a special area of the cemetery dedicated to terror victims. Usually, a dead body is wrapped in a shroud, and buried that way. Not Liz. Her body, hardly recognizable, with no more human-like contours, is not in a condition to be wrapped this way. This time, they use a casket.

A crowd of several hundred, trembling from grief, stand in absolute silence. The prayers are said and then, orderly, one by one, people pass by her grave, and place a flower, a picture, or a rock where her body was lowered just minutes ago. The Israelis stand quietly under a burning sun, wearing black, in silence, and wait patiently for their turn. The only place an Israeli won't cut in line is a cemetery, as cynical as it may be.

As I near her grave, it still feels like I'm dreaming. I look at her picture and it seems like a weird parade. I just knew her name and image. I came because I wish I'd gotten to know her better. I came to return a favor, for the time she smiled at me and called my name, and made me feel great for that split second.

I place a rock on her grave, and it falls somewhere behind the flowers. As I begin to walk away, I stumble onto a grave with a familiar name. It is the daughter of my math teacher, killed one year ago. I sigh and put another stone on her grave.

So many victims. So many freshly dug holes. Covered with freshly picked flowers.

As I exit, I suddenly feel a wet drop. It rains, but not aggressively like the day before. The sun hid its tearing eyes behind a cloud. The rain caresses our heads, gently, lovingly, in sympathy.

As I step in the wet mud, with the skies crying over my head, I think of the girl we left behind, all alone in the cold earth, in a casket and a body bag. I think I left more than a stone with her. I still expect this whole event to end, and then she will appear again. She's so real and so alive. And her smile is so wide and so healing.

But I hardly knew Liz Katzman. And alas, I never will.


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