In Haifa, mourning and memories

Israel: In the wake of a suicide bombing, a grieving father and a school principal try to make sense of the deaths of children.

March 07, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAIFA, Israel - The files were blue and pink, one for a boy, the other for a girl, with the photos of each child stapled to the front. They were strewn on a principal's desk, nearly lost amid the clutter that included a eulogy.

The binders were for eighth-grade classmates Yuval Mendelevich, 13, and Abigail Litle, 14, who attended the Reali School in this seaside city in northern Israel. They were among 15 passengers killed Wednesday when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus, shattering Haifa's sense of relative security.

Principal Miriam Chaim knew both students well, but had to refer to their files to recall the most basic information as she prepared remarks for Yuval's funeral, held yesterday afternoon.

"He was very polite, always with a smile on his lips, like an angel," she said. "Maybe that is why he got to go to the heavens so early."

Chaim recalled Abigail, an American citizen who came to Israel as an infant and grew up here, as "a warm child with a hint of innocence about her. Like all teen-agers, she wanted to be pretty and blonde."

Chaim assembled letters written by classmates for the victims' parents while juggling phone calls from reporters. Yuval had blue eyes, she told one. Abigail always helped her friends, she told another.

"We've been through a very tough day. And it's not over yet," she said after hanging up. "You know, I need some help, too."

She glanced down at the two folders on her desk, and suddenly her mind shifted into a distant, clinical mode.

"Our school had 315 students," she said, as if taking inventory. "As of today, there are 313."

Classes were canceled for the day and routines interrupted everywhere in the city. Mourners and the curious snarled traffic as they visited the site of the attack while others planned funerals. The list of the dead reflected the city's reputation as a place of diversity, a home for Jews and Arabs, whose relationship has been strained by the unrelenting conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Among those killed were an Arab-Israeli, a member of the Druze sect and Abigail, a Baptist who was 7 months old when her parents moved to Israel from Lebanon, N.H., in 1989. Eight of the victims were middle or high school students; two were soldiers.

Abigail had been headed to her weekly lesson with a special education teacher for help with a learning disability that hindered her reading. Since she wasn't due at her class until 3 p.m., her father wasn't too worried when he heard of the bombing at 2:17 p.m.

But that changed quickly when Abigail failed to arrive. There was a frantic search of hospitals until Philip Litle, 43, finally received news. He would have to go to the morgue to identify his daughter's body.

Yesterday, he met with reporters in the cramped hallway of his apartment, which overflowed with visitors.

In a calm voice, Litle offered his view of the situation in which he, his wife, Heidi, and their four remaining children find themselves.

"It's certainly sad that there are conflicts in the world," he said. "I think that there is only one solution to these conflicts and that is to have a heart of love. That's not what you find sometimes on either side here."

Litle said Israelis "have a lot of difficulties dealing with the Arabs," but he makes a distinction between a military operation in which civilians are killed and the intentional destruction of a bus full of children by a suicide bomber.

"That shows the bankruptcy of a culture and its leadership," he said. "Any culture that seeks to advance its political cause with destructive violence against innocent civilians is a culture that needs to correct itself. What is the point of destroying innocent people? It certainly makes a loud bang and gets a lot of attention, but does it really create change?"

Litle seemed resigned to his daughter's fate, saying he had no intention of moving back to the United States or living in fear.

"I happen to be the unlucky one," he said. "I happen to be the father of a girl who died. It hurts. But I could go back to the States and something equally dreadful could happen, though it probably wouldn't be from a Palestinian suicide bomber."

Litle and his family moved to Israel 14 years ago. He came to study the country's economic system, learned Hebrew, earned a business degree and stayed for ideological reasons. He and his wife had three more children, and he now works for a Baptist mission group here.

Family members described Abigail as a typical teen, with posters of Harry Potter and a British soccer star adorning a wall in her bedroom. On a table are small replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

She participated in an outreach program called Children Teaching Children that sponsored field trips to an Arab-Israeli school.

In the first meeting last month at the Arab school, the students learned one another's names, and Abigail befriended a young Arab girl. Another meeting was planned for Monday; the bombing has postponed that indefinitely.

Chaim said the sessions were difficult to organize, because many parents object to the mingling of the groups.

"It was tough before," she said. "It will be tougher now. But we have got to do it. If we don't learn how to live together, there will be no life for anyone."

Out in the hall, a notice listing funeral times shared space on a wall with posters advertising parties and nature walks.

Abigail is to buried in a Christian cemetery in Haifa on Sunday.

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