(Starting to write this at about 9.50pm, Tel Aviv time, January 18, 1991).
Yesterday was the start of the military action of the Gulf war. (It is of course only years later when this Gulf War would be referred to as the First).
I am Stephen Pohlmann, aged 46. My wife, Aviva, about the same. Eliana was 12, Shira 9 and MG, the cat, about 2.
I only arrived in Israel yesterday from a trip to Europe. My flight from Amsterdam was the last before the outbreak of military action. I was interviewed at Schipol by Dutch radio. I never discovered whether my words were made public. I certainly didn’t realise then how traumatic a time it would be for so many.
I arrived home just before the first Scuds were launched towards Tel Aviv. We were as ready as could be. We had collected our gas masks. Mine was only obtained a day or two before my trip. I was not yet an official citizen. Non-citizens, tourists, visitors had to make separate arrangements to obtain their masks.
Among the many preparatory instructions, we had been warned of the greatest dangers: direct hit by a missile – or the potential effect of nerve gas.
This presented us with a dilemma.
We live on the 8th floor, the top floor of an apartment building. The safest place to defend against a destructive bomb would be the basement bunker. But we would need considerable time to reach it, whether we risked waiting for and using a lift or not. And a nerve gas moves downwards.
We decided to stay where we were and risk being hit by a bomb. We prepared defences against nerve gas.
We decided on the main bedroom to become the ‘sealed room’. That meant that once we were in, the door would be closed and sealed, using broad tape along all peripheries of the door and the windows. A damp towel was placed against the base of the door for added defence.
Both radio and TV would give clear emergency instructions in Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic – and Yiddish, with sign language added on the TV just for good measure. I also arranged to have BBC World Service on my headphone radio.
We were as ready as could be. We weren’t yet frightened. It was all actually too busy and exciting to leave time for fear.
We did not have to wait long for the first siren to sound. We had to presume that this was the real thing. And it was.
Eliana found and grabbed the cat. During some later attacks, MG made it difficult to be grabbed, and the girls refused 100% to close the sealed room without MG with us.
I then closed all the doors. Lights off and into the main bedroom. Each took their mask out of its box, clearly marked with the name.
Aviva and Eliana put their masks on quite easily. Shira’s was too tight; she started crying. In planes, they recommend putting your own mask first, and then dealing with the children. But the masks did not yet cater for men with beards. Specially designed masks would be available for the many (in Israel!!) with beards. In the meantime, the seal would not function.
So the struggle to make Shira’s mask comfortable was traumatic, as I was unprotected. She was crying; Eliana and Aviva were screaming. The cat was cowering in the corner.
I then moved to the on-suite bathroom to shave off my beard. Those were frightening moments, having to shave off a well-grown beard, whilst the sirens were sounding for the 3rd and 4th times. Bombs could be heard exploding. It took me a while to notice the blades of my hand razor clogging, greatly hindering the operation. Thank Heaven for modern razors; 20 years ago I would have had more nicks than skin).
I started shaking; became nauseous. At first I thought/realised that the nerve gas was taking effect. What did I know; I had had no experience with anything like this. But I was ‘the man of the house’, so at first said nothing and continued shaving.
The shaking continued. I peered through the door to see my 3 ladies on the bed. Aviva and Eliana were calm; Shira was whimpering. The radio and the TV were switched on. They were sat on the bed, the cat sprawled in their arms.
The cat! We had been clearly told that cats and dogs have much more sensitive smell than humans, and would notice a gas much earlier. They would panic, eyes would widen. It would be noticed.
I stopped shaking, once I knew it was self-induced. I finished shaving and donned my mask. I made myself comfortable on the floor next to the bed. We had remembered to add an extra quilt and pillow in the room.
The English-language voice of Israel was Bibi Netanyahu. For many overseas who cared, The Gulf War was their introduction to Bibi. For us in Israel, the voice we listened to was Nachman Shai. On both radio and TV, his was the voice which informed us of the timing and location of incoming missiles, of current status, and of the all-clear by area.
So it was Nachman who said it’s OK to relax. We had survived the first attack.
Today, Jan 18, the first alarm went off at around 6.00. It was a false alarm.
At about 9, the siren sounded again. After yesterday’s drama and trauma, we were better-prepared today. Calmer. Far more efficient. We had forgotten nothing.
As the masks had already been used yesterday, there was less to open. This time, I already had smooth cheeks to ensure the proper sealing of the mask. The seals were already removed from the filters on the masks – 4 Israelis died yesterday from asphyxiation because they forgot to do so.
Shira complained her mask was loose; the straps were adjusted.
Yaron London’s Sabbath Eve entertainment programme was on TV, with the assurance that it would be interrupted for any messages. He interviewed an American journalist who had advocated a policy of war against Saddam Hussein, and had now come to Israel with his wife to show solidarity with the country.
He had nothing but admiration for the way the country had accepted its lot. Despite over 40 years of continuous war-footing, the population still appeared capable of solidarity, calm, humour and optimism.
Jan 19 – The 3rd night – and a 5-minute false alarm. A sense of relief – or do I detect frustration? Certainly not disappointment? The news became monotonous At least we were to get used the fact that attacks only came at night-time.
During mid-morning, there was a downpour. But otherwise, the day is sunny, the streets not so deserted. The supermarkets are, however, packed – a sign of the times. Staple goods are in great demand; fresh bread is pounced upon.
I have never seen the Israelis so polite; not the slightest whimper when one lady blatantly jumps the line, and then looks for the exact change among her months of coin-collecting.
Will there be an attack tonight? Perhaps a chance to capture the scene with the camera. Surely I do not have to recreate the urgency in order to get the photo. There is a dangerous tendency to take the matter lightly. But having seen the results of the missiles that hit the country, I had decided to remove the better pieces in my glass collection from the display cabinet. No need to take unnecessary risks.
CNN interviewed someone from the Arab-American Organisation, and a former Arab League ambassador to the U.N. That they were allowed to give their views without balanced views is an indication as to why CNN is the only network that has been allowed to remain in Iraq. According to that country, CNN is the only network that has given a fair view of the situation. For Iraq to have said that means that CNN have been very biased.
So these 2 feel that there should be an immediate ceasefire, in order to give sanctions and diplomacy another chance. “How much more blood must be let”, one asked. I could not believe my ears. How successful were they in separating Iraq from Iran over the 8-year period that saw over 1 million casualties.
They just cannot stand Muslim countries being vanquished by non-Muslim countries, while Israel stands on the sidelines, quite obviously ‘content’ with the situation. This must be breaking their hearts.
The 5th night was the 3rd without an attack. So life begins to go back to normal. The schools are still closed; everyone is advised to carry their gas-masks with them when they go out. But otherwise, the shops, offices, services etc. are all functioning.
Hebrew Numerology – This is a way of finding hidden meanings in or between words by means of giving each letter a certain value. The first 10 letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet are valued 1-10. The next 9 are 20-100 in 10s, and the final 3 (there are only 22) are 200-400 in 100s.
You can have some fun with this. For instance, Egypt and Iraq have the same value; doesn’t seem fair under the present circumstances.
Aviva’s father would spend hours studying the subject, known in Hebrew as ‘Gimetria’. Examples: Saddam Hussein and Hitler are not quite the same, but if you add the Hebrew word ‘Ha’, making it ‘THE Saddam Hussein’, then they do have exactly the same value.
And if you anglicise the Hebrew spelling of Saddam Hussein (by inserting a 2nd ‘d’), he has the same value as ‘the thief of Baghdad.
[If Saddam had bought a car in the UK in 1978, the year when they inserted a ‘T’ at the end, and had paid a little extra to personalise the licence plate, he could have had ‘SH 1 T’. Mine would have been SP 1 T.]
Let’s focus a little on geography. Now that the World has had a few more views of the Middle East map, perhaps they will appreciate the relevant sizes of Israel and the Arab World. Yes, Gaza is smaller than Israel, but to refer to Israel as the Goliath is a little overdoing it.
Many overseas politicians mention ‘Greater Israel’ or even ‘Greater Palestine’. Yet the distance between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is never more than 100km. This is where they expect 2 countries to exist? That would be bad enough, but they don’t even support a strategically straight line.
The line drawn by the international community could have been created by Spike Milligan, as in his book ‘Puckoon’. His border between the 2 Irelands was drawn by one pencil, being held tightly by 6 hands, 3 from the North and 3 from the South. It cut straight through Puckoon, a little village. The border ran through the cemetery and the pub’s toilet. A reminder that the way they have mapped the West Bank, Palestine would be about 10 miles from Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. No thanks, mate.
Israel/Palestine has existed in some form or other for large parts of history. Jordan is a recently-created State. The solution is quite obvious. Add to that the fact that over 65% of Abdallah’s citizens are Palestinian (many of whom are still languishing in refugee camps with the promise of one day returning to the original homes, now in Israel). A Jordanian/ Palestinian state. Those who insist on staying on the West Bank (of the Jordan river) should do so, with guaranteed protection.
The Palestinians…It is ironical that, before the establishment of the State of Israel, during the British Mandate times, it was the Jews who were referred to as Palestinians. It seems incredible that they were screaming for deliverance from the Israelis by their hero, Saddam Hussein. Arafat was in bed with Saddam, and yet he was considered ‘moderate’. At that time, it was Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal who were considered ‘radical’; who were threatening international terrorism.
These are the people who want peace?
Of course they should have a home, but not ‘at any price’. In 1948, they had their chance, when the UN in fact divided the land in such a way that the Arabs would have far more than they – officially – are now requesting – to go back to the pre-1967 borders. It was also not ideal for the Jews, but they accepted the ruling. Instead, the Arab nations attacked Israel – and lost. This action was then repeated in 1973 and so on.
Now the Palestinians have played their hand; they have sided with Saddam (so says a large billboard in Tel Aviv, with the added words, “1945-1991 – This is the real linkage”. Israel is on a propaganda high. Now’s the time to go to the table, to get their land, but on Israel’s terms. No deals.
A day to forget – It started at around 7pm on Thursday evening, January 24th. We had decided to spend a second night in Jerusalem with Aviva’s parents in their rickety old home. It’s cold there, and the awkwardly-shaped room they chose as the safe room cannot be properly sealed, despite several layers of tape. (Although gas had not yet been used by Saddam, we had not yet passed the point of trust). But they needed moral support, they needed company, and we needed a break from the dangers of Tel Aviv. (Jerusalem was less-targeted by Saddam, presumably because of the large proportion Arab residents).
I am watching TV with the girls in one room; Maccabi are playing Yugo-Split in basketball. Aviva comes in, a devastated look on her face. “Mayan”, she stutters. Mayan is our niece’s 2½ year-old son. Our niece, Tali, is one of the twin daughters of Aviva’s sister and her artist-husband, Dani. Tali divorced only recently, a long a messy saga. 2 weeks ago, Mayan was found almost choking to death, having got a marble or something similar stuck in his throat. He had lain like that half the night. He was rushed to hospital and, during the following 2 weeks, was subjected to treatment and several tests to check whether his brain had suffered from the lack of oxygen.
“He’s….”. Aviva couldn’t say it, but also did not deny it. There must have been a relapse, I thought, as the truth tried to get through to us as we rushed into the other room, where Aviva’s second sister was talking to Tali’s mother on the phone.
Details started to come out. Mayan had in fact come out of hospital 2 days before, apparently well, but perhaps still weak. His death was the result of a fall down some stairs. While listening to this devastating news, the sirens started wailing. We turn out all lights, ensure we have what we need, close the door, seal it and, over the hysterical tears of hurt, we don our masks.
It turned out to be a false alarm, lasting just a few minutes. Soon we are able to take our masks off, only to expose again the real tragedy that had befallen the family. It proved to be a sleepless, let alone uncomfortable night in a cold and badly-protected building.
Now it was God’s turn to frighten us. The rains finally came to Israel in a feeble attempt to refurbish the almost dry reservoirs, lakes, etc. They came with relish, electric storms over many parts of the country. Without showing it, the unconscious is walking on a tightrope.
Every and any sound that is remotely related to the wailing sirens puts into motion the rush to take the necessary precautions: a moped, unnecessarily revving too high, CNN’s repeat of an attack on TV, even Eliana and Shira playfully screaming.
This time it is the first of a series of thunder- claps. I don’t wait to question why we did not hear the sirens before what was quite obviously a bomb exploding. But someone has the radio on all the time, and now screams calmly that there is no danger where we are.
The next morning, January 25th, we all prepared to go to Haifa for the funeral. Avraham, Aviva’s father, was not well enough to make the trip. We waited for news as to whether there would be an autopsy, which would obviously delay the ceremony. The service was set for midday.
On the way to Haifa, we stop in Tel Aviv to pick up some things. We arrive at Tali’s parents home in Haifa, where an attack appeared to have occurred. A stun bomb – no damage to property.
Tali, the mother; Dafna, her twin sister; Dani & Ora, the grandparents; Margalit and Mina, the great grandmothers. Surely death is only acceptable when the victim is older…
We know Dani as the ‘King of Haifa’. Through his art and his warm personality, so often dominating a happy party, I have come to love his warmth, and the warmth of his friends. An evening with them is a happening of singing, dancing and artistic fun. Now I was to see them gathered at a funeral of a 2½ year-old child. It hurt.
Tali was as strong as could be..until the stretcher arrived, bearing that tiny package wrapped in a black sheet – a shroud. She was not the only one to break down.
Later we retreated to Ora and Dani’s home where the Shiva, the mourning, would now take place over the next 7 days.
We left just before 6pm. Saddam usually waits till later. I had BBC on the car radio, so the first we knew that there was a bomb alert was from the sight of cars stopping, emergency lights flashing and occupants donning their masks. We followed suit – but continued driving, with or masks on. There seemed no point in staying still, and it’s best to get under cover of a building. Also, we found out from the radio that we were better-placed on the open motorway.
The army spokesman eventually announced the all-clear in all areas except the Tel Aviv and Haifa regions (as usual). We were in between. By the time we reached the Tel Aviv suburbs, all was OK. Except there had been some extensive damage again: 1 dead, over 60 injured).
[Saddam’s strategy was to get Israel to react in order to get more Arab countries on his side. George Bush Snr, US President at the time, continuously begged Itzhak Shamir, Israel’s PM, to stay out of the conflict, knowing that any such action could spark the situation into something far worse. So Israel ‘sat on its hands’ and swallowed the damage, injuries and deaths in order to preserve some kind of restraint. One bomb on a school, old peoples’ home, hospital etc., with numerous casualties, would have changed the whole atmosphere. God knows what would have been the result…]
That night, just to put salt on the wound, the storms were back, and again we were shocked by the explosions of thunder. They came at about 2am; I was still working in my office. This time, I did see the lightning, so I was able to tiptoe to the bedrooms, ready to calm my ladies in case they were woken. But all was quiet.
There were more new experiences to come. January 26th, we decided at the last moment not to go to Jerusalem. The traffic is becoming horrendous, with so many Tel Avivians escaping to safer pastures for the nights.
In the evening, we visited our ex-neighbours; the building is only across the road. Each floor has a shelter, with access to the other floors if necessary.
Of course, while we are there, the sirens sound, and we rush into that shelter: we 4, they and their 3 daughters aged 6, 2 and 2 weeks and, luckily for us, just one other family. They were the occupants of our previous home, and numbered 4 plus a dog. So 13 of us is a relatively small area. No telephone. The next day I lent them our spare cordless unit.
No toilet; happily we could hold out for that hour. And we did hear the explosions, 20 minutes apart, which turned out to be 2 salvos of Scuds, all caught by the anti-missile Patriot system, a battery of which is located on the seafront nearby.
Unfortunately, we had forgotten to leave a message on our answering machine. It is common for families to call each other., initially to ensure that the sirens were heard, and then to ensure that all was well, and to comfort each other. Some of the family went nuts, not having heard from us…
So what else unusual can happen? Today I played tennis – without a mask.
It is February 2nd, Sabbath. We had a peaceful night, no alarm signalling a missile on target, a missile off target, a missile intercepted, a Russian satellite, a false alarm…Nothing.
Six pages should be enough to describe our part in this war. For, like G-d (His name in Jewish circles) we also deserve a rest on the 7th.
Why does the war appear to be dragging on in the eyes of the Allies? The subject came up recently about Israel’s apparent weakness in putting over its story – particularly concerning the Temple Mount killings.
Of course, the media is partly to blame, and the propaganda machine (Hasbara) can always do better. But I felt – and still do – that a lot of the problem is the way people listen: their attention span; their interest.
Yesterday, a US military officer referred to the early ground attack as a ‘disaster’ for the Iraqis. So often do the observers, the advisors, the planners – and Bush himself – show surprise at the way Saddam is conducting this war. How naïve. Have they already forgotten ‘the other Gulf war’? Have they forgotten the Iraqi’s treatment of the Kurds, or, for that matter, the many other cases of how the Arabs behave under extreme conditions? Suicidal? That’s what many Muslims dream of – the short cut to Paradise. I often wonder whether fanatical suicide killers still get to Heaven, even if they fail to blow anyone else up. Surely that’s a dismal failure? No, I’m assured. They died for their faith; part of their ‘Jihad’. The holy war. A martyr.
The Iraqi people, if one be allowed to generalise, and their many supporters among the Palestinians, Moroccans, Algerians, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Indonesians etc. are similarly-minded. They are people used to accepting simple facts – without question.
The battle for a ghost town at the cost of many lives and hundreds of men being taken prisoners is not a disaster or a suicide attack. It is a daring incursion into enemy territory. A brilliant campaign lasting days (i.e. more than one day) against the might of the allied forces. Great individual feats, many new martyrs, many families having suffered a loss, now to receive the kind of financial support they could never have received otherwise.
This is the war we face. Not the classic ‘good against evil’, but the one which plays by the rules against the other which has never read the rules. How can he? He has never learned to read.
When the value of life has such a pathetic meaning, beware.