Sderot Israel: Life Under Code Red

Residents in Sderot, Israel say a new cease-fire will not bring comfort.

SDEROT, Israel, June 20, 2008 — -- Out of the thousands of homemade Qassam rockets that have been launched from Palestinian positions in the Gaza Strip, 13-year-old Raziel Sason, of Sderot, Israel, says he can remember one in particular.

Two years ago, Raziel and a friend followed the smoke to find a house struck by a Qassam, a crude bomb that became prevalent after the Palestinian uprising in 2000.

"We walked downstairs," Raziel said, "and we saw two legs … two legs lying there on the ground with sandals still on."

The two victims in this attack were young cousins, 2 and 4 years old. "There was nothing we could do," Raziel said. "We left, terrified and shaking, with prickles all up our arms."

That night, Raziel and the entire Sason family all slept together in their living room on mattresses on the floor.

And they have slept there every single night since.

Despite the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel that began Thursday, and the promise that residents might enjoy a respite from the attacks, the Sason family says they will still sleep in their living room.

"It will never stop," Raziel said. "I know it won't."

Raziel's older brother Rafi even built a closet inside the living room to serve as a makeshift bomb shelter. Raziel started sleeping inside the closet, a few feet from his family.

Every morning, they all stack up their sleeping pads behind the couch.

"Living in the shelter is like living in a jail," his mother, Shula, said. "I hate seeing my son in there. It's hot, the heat is choking. He's a boy. He doesn't need to feel like he's in jail."

After eight months, Raziel has finally left the living room shelter. "Now he sleeps out here," his mother said, pointing to an area on the living room floor just outside the shelter.

Raziel is not the only traumatized member of his family. Another brother, Aviran, says he was on the second floor of his school building when there was a code-red three years ago. "A rocket fell right inside the classroom," he said. "There was nowhere to hide."

The Qassam was headed right towards Aviran, who was standing in the doorway. At the last second, the rocket veered towards the chalkboard, away from him. "It was a miracle," he said, even though he spent the night in the hospital.

A therapist came to the Sason house once a week, teaching the children breathing exercises and how to cope with severe stress.

Shula said that for her children, the therapy helped. "But it would have helped more if the rockets had stopped," she said.

Nearly all the children of Sderot suffer from stress symptoms, according to Dalia Yosef, the manager of a resilience center in Sderot.

"There are many types of symptoms," Yosef told ABC News. "They have sleeping problems, nightmares. They can't function, go to school, go to the bathroom alone or sleep alone. Their hair is falling out."

"Children who used to play outside don't want to anymore," Yosef said. "All their lives, they are shrinking."

Yosef said that Sderot residents' are always in survival mode. "They are always waiting for the next Qassams," she said. "They never have any opportunity to relax."

Eleven-year-old Liz Sason said that life in Sderot is very hard, but has difficulty explaining why, because life under the code red alerts is all she has ever known. "You go to school every day but you can't learn," she said.

Liz said that she and her classmates can hear the code red alert 10 times in one school day.

"We are less scared than the teachers, who are not always from Sderot," she said. "We try to make the teachers more calm. We bring them a glass of water and tell them, 'You already heard the rocket fall, you don't need to be upset.'"

In Sderot, people drive with the windows open in order to hear the alarm system. They do not play music or radio, or even wear seatbelts so they can get out of their cars quickly.

Atara Orenbouch, a mother of six, was in her car with her 2-year-old child when she heard a code red. She stopped and ran away from the car.

"I crouched over my baby to protect her," she said. "A few seconds later I heard the boom."

"I wasn't even scared this time," Orenbouch said. "Because I couldn't stop thinking about stories from the Holocaust, of mothers protecting their babies just like I was doing," she said. "And then I asked myself, 'Is this normal?'"

A city of only 20,000 people, everyone in Sderot knows someone with a tragic story.

One day Raziel's friends, Ella Abukasis and her brother, Tamir, had been on their way back from the youth group gathering when a Qassam fell four meters away from them.

"Ella grabbed her brother and protected him," Raziel said. "Pieces of the rockets lodged into Ella's head."

Her brother survived, although a piece of the Qassam was still stuck in his head.

"The doctors said it would fall out on its own," Raziel said. "We were in class one day and we heard a noise. The piece of the missile had fallen out of his head."

Faith plays a large role in many Sderot residents' lives.

"When we heard a code red we ran to hide under a tree," Liz said. "We lied on the ground and said the Shema Yisrael [a Jewish prayer] as we heard the booms. They were very close."

For some, having faith is the only way to get through the daily struggles. Orenbouch said that she will not stop her children if they want to go somewhere alone. "We have taught them all how to be prepared," she said. "The rest is up to God."

She acknowledged that people might expect them to move away from Sderot. "But terrorists don't have a right to tell us to leave," she said.

"It's our home and we won't leave because they scare us."