Town spared tragedy -- until now Survivors of shooting rush to parents' arms

March 14, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BET SHEMESH, Israel -- Seven flickering candles stood on a black-draped table in the Feirst School last night, a student's simple memorial to the teen-age classmates slain hours before on a pastoral overlook at the Jordanian border, known as "The Island of Peace."

The dead, all girls from the eighth-grade class here, were shot by a Jordanian soldier yesterday while on a three-day school outing to the north of Israel.

The teen-agers were supposed to return home last night. Instead, their families were burying them in the cemetery of this town about a half-hour's drive from Jerusalem.

"When you see your friend killed at age 13," said Esther Yona, whose daughter, Moran, survived attack, "I don't know how [you] return to normal life."

Like dozens of parents, Yona raced to the junior and senior high school for observant Jews yesterday afternoon to await the return of survivors after news came of the attack in which seven of their children had died. Anxious parents -- some embraced by relatives -- and teary-eyed students, locked arm-in-arm, lined the main school hallway.

Social workers who had been dispatched to the school were prepared for a long evening.

Bet Shemesh, a town developed 40 years ago for new immigrants of that time, is removed from the daily fears of terrorism and conflict.

"I feel very confused," said Odelia Saar, 15, in a hushed voice. "These things don't happen in Bet Shemesh. We're far away from everything that goes on."

The school bulletin boards seemed to reflect Odelia's point. Posters drawn by students displayed scenes of grisly car accidents. Traffic safety was their concern.

In a country terrorized last year by suicide bombers, in a state where families await the safe return of their children from the army, the 26,000 people of Bet Shemesh had been spared

tragedy. Until yesterday.

"Nothing like this has ever happened," said Bet Shemesh's mayor, Daniel Vakneen. "We lose seven young girls in a day."

Unlike most parents, who learned of the shooting in a radio broadcast, Yona received a phone call from her daughter Moran shortly after the shooting. The 13-year-old called home from her cellular phone. Yona said she could hardly hear her daughter's voice over the screams and crying in the background.

"My friends were killed," the sobbing daughter told her mother. "Mom, I saw a lot of blood. My friends were crying for help."

Yona relayed the story as she sat in a teacher's lounge yesterday afternoon. She could do nothing but wait for the buses to arrive. On one such bus she would find her daughter. But when?

About 4: 30 p.m., word spread through the school corridors that the buses would be there any minute. People spilled into the street.

The first bus pulled in about 5 p.m., carrying seventh-graders who had not been taken to the tourist spot on the Jordanian border that day. The stricken faces of the girls peered out from the big front windows of the bus. Some girls pounded on the glass.

Parents rushed the bus as the driver tried to bring the vehicle to a stop.

One girl, her face contorted in fear, opened a window and cried out, "Father. Father."

As the girls climbed off the bus, they fell into the crowd. Arms reached for them. Television cameras and photographers strained to capture the reunions. Parents called out when they found a daughter. Some teen-agers yelled for their mothers.

One student, exhausted and crying, tried to silence the howl of questions hurled at her. "Stop asking me who died," she screamed out.

Half an hour later, a second bus, also with seventh-graders, pulled in. Like the students in the previous bus, they had not been taken to the tourist spot on the border that day. As did their parents, they learned from the news or teachers that their classmates had been killed at the spot some had been to only a day before.

Nehama Cohen waited while the other parents pushed forward. She stepped back, her neck craning for a glimpse of her 12-year-old daughter, Shimrit.

Suddenly, a friend called to her to come. Shimrit, a petite brunette with long hair, stepped off the bus. Cohen, composed until that moment, burst into tears and grabbed her daughter. The 12-year-old verbalized the reality she and others faced.

"We were supposed to be in their place," she said, referring to the students who had visited the Jordanian tourist spot that day.

Finally, the last bus pulled up the road. It carried the eighth-graders who survived the actual attack. They were already standing in the aisle of the bus. Television lights illuminated their distraught faces behind the glass.

Moran Sissa, 14, found her father first. They collapsed in each other's arms. Tears stained their faces.

"Where's Mom? Where's Mom?" she cried. From the crowd, a short woman pushed through. Parents and daughter embraced in the crush of people.

As they walked into the school, Moran tearfully blurted out what she had seen:

"He shot at them. Some of them fell. No one understood what was going on. Everyone jumped into the bushes to hide."

Then, she whimpered, "I just want to go home."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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