Sirens, rockets, riots and exams: Canadian medical student in Israel describes frightening week and heartbreaking leak
Jonah Cooper is a A 22-year-old Canadian is completing his second year in medical school at Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel. After a very difficult a few days, which included completing his exams in a bomb shelter, he was able to get a flight out of the country.
Tuesday evening (May 11): We receive warnings and see videos of riots on our streets and on our college campus. My roommates and I don’t leave our apartment except to go to the grocery store just outside our building. No one goes there alone. A siren sounds. We enter the bomb shelter of our building for 50 minutes. We hear over 20 explosions, “pops” outside our shelter window as the Iron Dome does its job.
Wednesday: At 3:16 p.m., the siren sounded. Then, silence covers my adopted town of Beersheba. A few hours later, after midnight, we learn that Tel Aviv has been hit. I hear rioters in the streets outside my window.
Thursday: I am scheduled to take my reproductive system exam today. The exam begins at 2 p.m. At 2:56 p.m. the sirens began to sound. I grab my laptop and continue taking the exam, alternating the bomb shelter and a desk in the kitchen. I finish the exam. All other exams that will take place on that day are canceled. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the sirens howl four times. Each time, I run to and from the bomb shelter, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the escalating madness.
I plan an early night. I hear rioters marching in the streets and others shouting “Dai” or “enough” in Hebrew. I fall asleep and am woken up by sirens around 11:30 p.m. I hear the pops outside our window. I go back to sleep and wake up at 1am to the same sounds. All I can hear is the sound of rockets bursting in the distance and military helicopters above my head. I notice the airlines are canceling flights, so I contact my parents. We are moving my next flight home from Wednesday May 19 to the early morning hours of Sunday May 16, taking me to New York instead of Toronto. I just want to escape the looming war zone.
Friday: My world is calm until 4 p.m. and then it all starts all over again. We find out that the IDF had not, in fact, invaded Gaza when they claimed the day before that they were doing so. I am relieved to learn that Israel has not really entered Gaza and I hope for a quiet night. My hopes are quickly dashed. The sirens sound at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., requiring travel to the bomb shelter. I go to bed early to rest. This quickly turns out to be impossible. The sirens go off at 10:20 p.m., so I go back to the bomb shelter. We get the green light 10 minutes later, and I go back to sleep.
A few minutes later, the sirens are blaring and I return to the bomb shelter. The cycle continues through the night. At 6 a.m., the sound of rockets outside is louder and denser than before. Reports confirm that rockets hit a nearby building and decimated an evacuated house. There are no reports of injuries. I’m trying to go back to sleep.
Saturday: I wake up anxious and exhausted. A group of friends from my medical class came up with a plan to leave Beersheba on Saturday night for our early Sunday morning flights. News reports report highway closures, rocket attacks and how the severity of those strikes is increasing every night.
A friend of ours keeps the Sabbath. We ask her if our situation is considered threatening enough to her life that she will consider breaking the Sabbath to travel with us. Our friend still refuses to travel on the Sabbath and insists that we leave without her.
Five of us leave town at 3pm in a rented vehicle. We are anxious, not knowing how the drive will unfold. Every time a motorcycle gets its engine running, every time a car pulls over the side of the road, our hearts sink a little deeper. Where could we run when a siren sounds? We have fun, talk about the school year, talk about anything but our current situation. We are all scared.
We arrive at the airport safe and sound and collectively sigh in relief. We entered a high security area, protected by the Iron Dome. Within two hours, we start to receive alerts on our phones of the resumption of rocket attacks. The highway on which we had just driven to get to the airport was hit by a rocket.
We facilitate security four hours before our flight. We reconnect with our friend who kept the Sabbath. She also arrived safely at the airport.
Sunday: I settle into my seat on the plane, take my wallet and keys from my pocket and put them in my bag. The flight attendants begin to call “Please exit the plane, slowly,” repeating the request over and over. And then we hear it. The sirens start to moan. The airport is under attack.
People are told to leave their luggage and get off the plane immediately. As soon as I arrive at the airport, the pace changes. Everyone – every child, every adult, every elderly person – runs quickly and runs to the nearest shelter. We hear the same thing erupt above our heads. Separated from my friends, I check in over the phone to make sure everyone is safe. Back at the airport, we meet. I exchange pre-flight texts with my family that say goodbye to me a bit.
A little time passes and we get back on the plane. It is a scene of chaos, as many people have left their passports and tickets in their seats. The tarmac is inspected for debris; planes are inspected for damage. Less than an hour later, after the longest 100 hours of my life – minimal sleep, a bittersweet end to my second year of medical school, many messages of prayer and love from my family and friends – our flight is finally taking off. I immediately turn on a movie to distract myself from thinking about the plane’s journey out of Israeli airspace.
I wrote this account as I sat on the flight from Tel Aviv to New York. I constantly think about all the messages I have received from my family and friends, whether Palestinian, Israeli or otherwise. Mine was an experience that I hope I will never have again. I understand how lucky I am to have been able to leave when I decided it was necessary. And I feel a deep sense of guilt that I didn’t stay behind with so many others who couldn’t leave.
The irony is not lost on me that I went to Israel to study medicine to save human lives, only to experience daily encounters with efforts to destroy them. It is a call to remember the humanity of every civilian whose life is currently in danger because of this conflict.