Daniel Grushkin

Israel’s disaster team pays grisly price for kamikaze clean-ups (AFP)

JERUSALEM, Feb 4 (AFP) - Every time a Palestinian suicide bomber blows himself and Israeli bystanders to pieces, throwing flesh and body parts across crowded streets, a small group of dedicated ultra-Orthodox volunteers moves in alongside the police and ambulance crews to perform their grim task. 

The men of ZAKA (the Hebrew initials for identification of victims of tragedies) feel they are doing holy work by retrieving the mangled body parts of victims of the gory but all-too-frequent disasters and preparing them for burial.

Judaism insists upon the burial of as much of the body as possible.

“People look at us like angels,” says volunteer Shlomo Wingerton, 31, who runs a grocery store for a living.

But as the spate of suicide attacks proliferate, signs of mental cracks are showing among ZAKA’s ranks, with a drop-out rate of over 30 veterans every couple of months, says the group’s general secretary Shlomo Bloch, who estimates the turn around rate at “about five to 10 percent.”

“The hardest part is looking at your two young children after having spent the entire night searching through garbage bags for a baby’s head after a suicide attack,” says Wingerton, a father of two.

Among volunteers who have recently started with the group, more than half drop out within the first year due the stress of witnessing the nightmarish scenes.

In Jerusalem’s January 27 suicide attack, which left the first-ever female Palestinian suicide bomber and an elderly Israeli man dead, ZAKA volunteers arrived first on the scene to administer first aid to more than 40 victims — 90 percent of the group are certified paramedics.

The Orthodox men in black slacks and button-down white shirts, their prayer tassels prominently swaying as they kneel down, sifted through the debris for bits of flesh and body parts.

Long after reporters left the scene, ZAKA men were climbing ladders to scrape flesh off the sides of buildings.

“Many times I’ll get a phone call from a guy’s wife or family, saying, ‘He’s becoming really quiet or he’s yelling a lot out of nowhere,’ and then we’ll know it’s time to let him go,” says Wingerton.

Members of the close-knit group feel they can only share the horrors they see with their colleagues. But after signs of a crack-up, the volunteer is slowly pushed out of the circle.

“They keep their beeper and their kit, but they’re not called in any more, or we only give them easy cases. They’re usually the last to know that something is wrong,” says Bloch.

“It either becomes too hard or too easy. If it’s too easy it’s also bad; you can’t function in society. After seeing a child in five pieces you lose empathy. Your wife tells you she has a headache and you think at least you’re still alive,” Bloch says.

The reasons for the sharp drop-out rate are twofold.

“The more catastrophes, the more crack-ups. And with the start of the intifada the scenes have been more drastic and horrible,” says Bloch, referring to the string of attacks on Israeli civilians during the 16-month Palestinian uprising.

“The other night, I sat on the phone for two hours with the director explaining the nightmares I was having,” Bloch says.

The program’s director, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, concedes his squads are severely tested.

“Our problem is with the mental strength of the volunteers. We require that our people are married because they tend to be more mature of spirit to deal with difficult things,” he says.

He lists the ways his teams cope with the gruesome sights. “The first way we deal with it is with a black sense of humor. Second is that we need a day away from it all, to sit in the pool. Third is belief,” says Meshi-Zahav.

He also cites the spiritual dimension of the job. “God’s greatest commandment is to treat the dead, because they’re the only people who can’t reciprocate. We even treat the terrorist, even when you want to do I don’t know what to him,” says Meshi-Zahav.

The group has given members psychological treatment, but many are afraid to be considered a breakdown case and embarrassed to confess they have a problem. However, recent group therapy sessions have seen success with members opening up.

“You know I went to France recently,” says Bloch, “and I felt really light and easy and I couldn’t figure out why. I realized when I got back it was because I didn’t have my ZAKA beeper on me — there weren’t going to be any disasters to run to, it was just me and my family.”