US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Bombs in Israel

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Violence hits very close to home for our guest blogger in Israel.

Guest blog post by Cathleen Chopra-McGowan

“1-0-0. Come in, 1-0-0. 1-0-0, do you read me? Please, can you hear me?” The voice, speaking in Hebrew, became increasingly urgent. A jumble of shouting voices permeated my sleep. I thought it was a continuation of the Purim celebrations from the weekend—a major holiday in Israel and turned over in my sleep, peeved that people were celebrating so late into the night. But then I smelled smoke. I sat bolt upright, and looked around. “1-0-0, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

Wide-awake now, fear gripped me. 100 is the emergency police number in Israel. I looked out the window, and saw a police jeep, flames already licking their way around the vehicle, smoke rising up quickly. I couldn’t tell where the person who was calling into his radio was standing. Was he stuck in the jeep? Did he get out? I grabbed my phone and called 100, 101, 102—fire and ambulance services. As I listened to the ringing at the other end, the jeep suddenly exploded.

And the ringing at the other end of the phone line continued. Shards of glass shattered on the street that divided upper Abu Tor, a posh neighborhood of diplomats, embassy officials, and prominent members of the local community, and the Silwan valley, one of the poorest Palestinian villages in Jerusalem.

The emergency numbers never responded. I didn’t try them many more times. I called my friends Brian and Amy. Brian is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, and served twice in Iraq, as well as in numerous other crisis-ridden countries. He had seen car bombings, rockets, and gunfire. He and his wife, Amy, now live in Israel, where Brian is pursuing a degree in biblical studies. They have five wonderful children, and every weekend, Brian and I study Akkadian together, and Amy and I cook Indian food.

Amy answered her phone first. The smoke was now billowing through my neighbor’s vines, and the flames on the jeep were leaping higher and higher. I quickly described the scene outside my window. “Brian will come get you,” she said. 

As I waited anxiously for Brian’s arrival, smoke continued to fill my apartment and a few ping! sounds on my windows made me think perhaps there was shooting on the street below. Brian’s stories of Iraq began playing in my head. “Take cover, take cover, take cover,” ran the refrain. I lay on the floor, partly because of the smoke, and partly because I didn’t know if there were bullets outside. Then the sirens began wailing, and I could hear lots of men shouting orders to one another. Brian called me a few minutes later to say that he was waiting for me at the corner of my street. The police had finally arrived and the street was shut down, so he couldn’t drive right up to my house.

Shaking, I walked out of my apartment (with my “emergency” tote containing a sweater, water, passport, wallet, and computer) to find the exit blocked by two border control police, each wielding a machine gun. A little surprised to see a young, slightly sleepy woman, they gently asked why I was leaving; the street was not safe. Now sobbing, I showed them my passport and told them I just wanted to leave, my apartment was smoky and I was afraid of being in there. I told them that Brian was waiting for me at the end of the block. One of the men called to his supervisor, to ask if I could be escorted out. There must have been at least a dozen police right around my house. Two supervisors came over, and kindly led me to Brian’s car, right past the still-smoking shell of the jeep.

Amy was waiting up for us when we returned. The three of us sat and talked for a little while, but we were all exhausted. Brian suggested that we say a prayer together, and then try to get some sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. If I closed my eyes, I saw the jeep burning and exploding.

I emailed my good friend Eric, and he called me immediately. I told him what happened, the words tumbling out in between sobs. I still didn’t know what happened to the man who called for help. I was petrified that he had died. I had asked the police outside my house but they didn’t answer me. When I hung up the call, I said my prayers over and over again, and sleep eventually came. But I woke up only a few hours later, unable to sleep any longer. The acrid smell of the smoke on my clothes was a haunting reminder of the events of the night before.

In the morning, at Brian’s suggestion, I called the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Officer to notify him of the incident. He asked if I could vacate my apartment, immediately if possible. The area had grown increasingly volatile, and they were concerned about the security of that part of the neighborhood. Brian and Amy graciously offered to let me stay with them until I figured out where to go. So I returned to the apartment, packed a small suitcase and moved into Brian and Amy’s house.

A day later, I decided to go to the Central Bus Station to pick up my monthly pass. I called Amy to ask her what her plan for the afternoon was, and she said she needed to run an errand. Would I mind watching the kids for a little while? I didn’t mind at all and decided I could go to the bus station later. Not five minutes after Amy headed out, my friend Daphna called.

“Where are you?” she asked urgently, “You aren’t at the bus station, are you? There’s been a bomb blast.” A sickening feeling gripped my stomach. Both Brian and Amy were out of the house, and I was home alone with their five children. I tried calling them, but the networks were jammed. Eventually I got through to Amy, and texted Brian. Both were fine and would be home soon.

The enormity of the week’s events settled in slowly. When I arrived in Israel in October, I reassured friends and family that this area was safe and calm. Nothing seemed further from the truth this week. Police are everywhere, and security is tighter than ever. My parents and other family members encouraged me to come home early.

The entire Middle East has been in more turmoil in the last few months than in the last many years. Revolutions are spreading from country to country like wildfire. And yet, amidst all this upheaval, Israel remained a little oasis of relative calm. My friends and I had wondered when this might end: How long could Israel remain untouched by the storm around it? How long will it be before the revolutions that are sweeping across the region reach Israel?

For people who lived in Israel for the last few decades, the bomb at the bus station brought back memories of the intifadas, where buses, popular shops, and restaurants were frequently targeted. We’re praying that this is not the start of another intifada, that perhaps the events of the last week were isolated incidents of violence but the fear of a greater problem is not far from most people’s minds. 

In the meantime, I am avoiding buses and crowded places, and taking every precaution I can. My guardian angels have been working overtime these last two weeks, and I’m doing my best to give them a little rest. 

Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan is a Fulbright fellow in biblical studies and a recent graduate of Boston College. She will be blogging about her experience as a young adult Catholic studying in Israel for the My Generation blog. Her posts can be found at "A year in Israel."

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.