The first request from the soldier who welcomed the new arrivals was that they refrain from smoking. Had it not been so sad, it would have been humorous. For more than a month, the people now evacuated from the North to Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds, had braved the Katyushas and the suffocating smoke of cigarettes in the shelters. Now they were finally able to breathe, and they were being warned of the dangers of smoking.
But the first 250 arrivals from the north - out of a total of 3,000 who are expected to leave - were grateful nevertheless. It had taken the Prime Minister's Office three days to decide to put up the tent city and three days for the Defense Ministry to set it up. For three long hours, the poor, the sick and the weary who had not been able to leave on their own steam, were driven to the safety of Tel Aviv. But they were happy and it was not the time to ask why it had taken the government so long to do this.
The arrivals jumped off the bus and some of them simply let the tears that had been stored up for so many weeks now flow freely. Those requiring the help of doctors and psychologists were referred immediately for treatment at the clinics set up by the HMOs at the site. The children, after getting used to the shock of the sudden silence after weeks of shelling, made for the lawns and the balls they had not been able to play with while the older people took off time to simply rest and breathe the air. In the reception hall, the TV continued to broadcast warnings of sirens in the places from where they had come: Nahariya, Safed, Ma'alot Tarshiha, Kiryat Shmona. A soldier dressed up as a clown meanwhile cheered up the children. Refugees, but de luxe.
Avi Cohen who arrived with his wife and three children was very grateful. He had been asking for evacuation for weeks. His wife went into a deep depression, his employer didn't pay him his usual wages and he was left without an agora in his pocket. A short while later, his entire family sat yesterday around a table on the grass and female soldiers were on hand to entertain the children.
The scenes of the soldiers and families were somewhat reminiscent of last year's disengagement from Gaza. But this time, the soldiers are welcome. "It's wonderful but it's a shame we had to wait so long," says Efrat Shaked, a teacher from Nahariya. "We couldn't handle the children's difficulties any longer. My husband was called up for a few days and our four-year-old dreamed he died. The kids keep asking if they'll ever see their friends again. I objected to the war from the word go and I hope it will be over now. Anyway, by coming here we are enjoying something of the summer vacation."
The families have been given tents with mattresses inside the rooms of the fair grounds. The ministry officials say they learned from the mistakes of the tent city put up by philanthropist Arcadi Gaydamak for evacuees - where the biggest problem was a lack of privacy.
Many Muslim families arrived with yesterday's group, happy to leave behind them all talk of politics. Mohammed Zarif, 64, of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, had open-heart surgery just before the war and spent the past month trying to recuperate. "The Christians left for their holy places," he says. "Who says Arabs don't want to leave. The missiles fall on us too."
There was plenty of work for the doctors on duty, said Dr. Orit Yaakobson, head of Clalit's Tel Aviv branch, and among others, they gave immediate treatment to cases of asthma and diabetes. In the evening, all the evacuees were invited to a lecture on ways of coping with stress.
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