The Scuds and I (2 of 2)
"How to protect yourself against chemical warfare."
Jerusalem was quiet. Everyone either was already at home or going there, but I found a municipal bus and reached my friends’ house easily.
We ate dinner quietly with the three children (ages 9 to 17) – each perhaps lost in his or her thoughts. Sleeping in the basement, I barely heard the movement on the top floor at 2 a.m. or so. I switched on the small TV near the bed, to hear George Bush announcing the first attack on Baghdad. Well, the war had begun.
That night, I fell sound asleep under a few blankets in the cold Jerusalem night, only to be awakened at 3 a.m. Jan. 17 with the words "Gerry, yesh azakah"! ("There’s an alarm!") I reluctantly grabbed a sweatshirt and my gas mask kit by the bed and trudged up in a bit of a stupor to the "sealed room."
The TV was on, and a calm voice was repeating instructions in about 10 languages, starting with Hebrew and including Amharic (Ethiopia). We had some bottled water and snacks, along with a radio and phone in the room. The children were calm and appeared prepared, though apprehensive, as anyone should have been. When the "all-clear" came to remove the masks some three-plus hours later, I felt drained (not to mention headachy from the mask’s tight straps). Scuds had hit Tel-Aviv, but there had been no chemical warheads that first night. In the back of my mind loomed the unpredictable escalation of the war.
The next day dawned bright and clear, with all essential services operating. There was little panic hoarding of items at the supermarkets. Traffic was minimal; many people stayed close to home. The next seven days brought more air-raid sirens and a rush to the sealed rooms, usually in the middle of the night or at suppertime. Though scuds only fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa, the whole country was indeed on high-alert.
Locally, CNN was restricted to late-night viewing, while day and evening special programming consisted of morale building, talks by psychologists, and family-style films as all children were home from school. Cafés and restaurants stayed open during the daylight hours, but all entertainment places were closed at nightfall. After a while, I felt two sensations: like a rat in a hole, and like I had run into a brick wall.
The first I solved by going downtown with my kit over my shoulder and chatting up the locals and even doing normal stuff, like café-sitting and window-shopping. I was still planning to go to Kenya as the departure day approached. It’s amazing how one adapts to stress.
The evening before the Nairobi departure, El-Al called to announce the cancellation of the flight (I guess nobody was thinking safari during the Gulf War!), but offered to reroute me via Cairo and Addis-Ababa with no guaranteed return. I thought about it for a moment. Discretion won out over valour and I declined. What to do next? Hotels were full in Jerusalem and Eilat, seen rightly as safer than the coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Go back to Europe to get to Africa? Not really. El Al was the only airline flying to main world-cities. Within a few days, my travel agent in Jerusalem (with whom I had booked to Kenya) phoned saying she had found me the last seat on an El-Al flight to Paris on Jan. 27 She had given me a two-day stopover there to "decompress" and an onward Air France flight to Montreal, so I could visit my parents before taking the train back to Toronto.
The scene at Ben-Gurion Airport was controlled chaos, but the packed flight hurriedly left between Scud attacks and arrived on-time at Orly Airport. A small bag forgotten by the airline in Tel Aviv was even delivered to my hotel the next day. I spent the time wandering my favourite area of Paris. When people remarked on my tan and heard where I had come from, I got some pretty good service and attention.
The wide-body jet to Montreal was virtually empty, and I was moved up to business class without even asking. I checked into a good downtown hotel and phoned friends and family. Again – super service at the hotel when they found out that my tan was not from Florida. The whole experience had seemed surreal, and indeed this war was dubbed the "Star Wars War" for its Scud Missile-Patriot Missile encounters in mid-air.
In retrospect, this experience changed my life as it made me less fearful of calculated risks and cemented already strong emotional ties with my friends in Jerusalem. Every Jan. 17 since then, I observe my own "Scud Day," by thinking about the fragility of life and trying to enjoy each and every day that I’m alive and kicking.