The day that changed me forever

I remember the boots. They were red. There were about 20 pairs of them, lined up in a neat row. But I could hardly distinguish their true colour — the bright burgundy boots of the soldiers were splattered with thick red blood. The boots were all I could see; they poked out from beneath the single white sheet, stained with a splattering of fresh blood, that covered each of the bodies.

Red boots. They must be paratroopers, I thought to myself, seeing the renowned trademark of the elite unit. Who do I know who’s a paratrooper? Well, there’s Eli, a childhood friend; but no, it couldn’t be him, he was still in basic training and I knew for certain that he had been left on base that weekend, so he couldn’t have been at the bus station that Sunday morning. I started to retrace my thoughts. Could I have possibly known one of these guys, one of these dead bodies lying before me?

It was Jan. 22, 1995, exactly ten years ago. Less than an hour had passed since the bombs had gone off at the Beit Lid Junction, at the entrance to the coastal city of Netanya. Two suicide bombers detonated themselves within minutes of each other. The first explosion, miraculously, hit only a few of the soldiers waiting at the station for an early morning ride back to their bases. Several soldiers, medics and bystanders rushed to the scene, delivering emergency aid to the wounded. Then a second blast went off, killing most of the rescue team. In all, 22 people were killed and dozens injured, almost all of them young soldiers like me.

My mind began to wander. The first thought was the grimmest — this could have been me. In fact, I was at that very spot exactly one week earlier, posted for routine security duty at the junction. I was an 18-year-old inductee in the Israeli army, having served for less than three months, assigned to a military police unit. I was miserable. Nothing in life had prepared me for what I had experienced: the constant harassment and humiliation of basic training, the lack of food and sleep, the loneliness and homesickness. Patrolling slowly, my head stooped, a loaded M-16 strapped across my chest, I was a wreck. I had never felt so bad.

A week later, I was there again, only this time looking down at 22 bodies. The world was suddenly a different place to me. My anxieties from the previous week suddenly became irrelevant and I felt guilty for even feeling them. I had never seen a dead body before. If the bombers had decided to carry out their plan a week earlier, I would likely be among those lying on the ground. My boots would be those sticking out from beneath the white sheet.

As my mind pondered these thoughts, the daydreaming was suddenly interrupted.

“Come on,” an officer screamed at me. “Help us out over here.”

I had a job to do. As a military policeman, I had to restore order to the chaos. I was told to start carrying the backpacks away from the scene. The names and personnel numbers of the victims were marked on them. I kept peeking to see if I recognized any names. But I couldn’t look for long. There were charred pieces of flesh stuck to the bags. The stench was horrendous.

The angry mobs arrived within minutes, yelling for revenge. I blocked them from entering the “sterile zone” and disrupting the gruesome work of the body-part collectors. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin arrived shortly after to personally inspect the scene. The protesters greeted him by spewing epithets. “Traitor. Murderer,” they shouted at him.

It was all so surreal. I hardly remember anything that followed. I functioned on automatic, like a robot, just doing what I was told. Several hours later it was over, the bodies and the protesters were gone, and I was driven away as the sun began to set on the horizon.

Back at my base, alone in the darkness, I began to absorb it all. I called home. My mother answered and immediately asked me if I had heard what had happened.

“Heard? I was there,” I said. She didn’t quite comprehend. “I mean did you hear about Ilai?” she said this time.

He was dead, killed in the second blast. He was taken from his base that morning and assigned to guard duty at the junction to provide safety for the gathering soldiers. A trained medic, he ran to assist the wounded after the first explosion.

I went to my commander, saluted and asked for permission to be excused for my friend’s funeral the next day. And then I kind of froze. I was so confused. I tried to remember the last time Ilai and I had met. It was two weeks earlier. We were playing basketball, one-on-one, on the court we had played on together as children. He was the best player in school, the guy I spent years trying to defeat. But he was always too good for me. He was simply quicker, stronger and more talented than anyone else. In that game, though, everything seemed to go my way. I hardly missed a shot, my defence was superb and I beat Ilai for the first time in my life.

It seemed like such a highlight. I had finally conquered my childhood rival. Looking back, I realize how naive I really was. Two weeks later, Ilai was dead and I was left, alive but in pain, trying to understand just how much I had changed.