She has a vivid memory of the quiet after the big bang. Galina Vishbin was at work at the Park Hotel in Netanya when the suicide bomber attacked last Passover eve. The bomb claimed 29 lives. Vishbin recalls long minutes in which she seemed to be floating in another dimension, a place of sheer fear.
"I covered my head with my hands, I don't know for how long," she says, evoking the horror. "I told myself, `Don't lose consciousness, don't lose consciousness.' I was so afraid."
When her sense of reality returned, she realized that there had been a terrorist attack and that she was alive: frightened, but in one piece.
An eternity seemed to have passed from the moment she left the main hall until the bomber blew himself up a few minutes later. She had gone to wash her hands, which were greasy from serving the first course. The sink was outside, and that was what saved her.
In the many sleepless nights she has had since then, everything comes rushing back.
Shafts of fluorescent light that thrust into the hall from the kitchen and lit up parts of the dark room, revealed the utter chaos: destruction, puddles of water from burst pipes in the ceiling, objects and people - dying and wounded - strewn on the floor in mangled heaps.
Vishbin noticed a strange lump of something; appalled, she realized it was a head without a body, its lifeless eyes looking at the light. She kept going. "I usually faint at the sight of blood, but I stayed on my feet. I didn't want to take the place of someone who was hurt and needed to be taken away from there."
In the days ahead she would discover that the head she saw was that of the terrorist, which only deepened her distress. Vishbin kept going, looking desperately for the two waitresses who had worked with her - a good friend and her sister-in-law.
`I ruined their lives'
All three are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Vishbin, 34, came to Israel two-and-a-half years ago and met Anna Ivragimov, 27, who has been in the country for eight years, at the Cosmos food chain in Ra'anana, where they both work - Vishbin as a graphic artist and Ivragimov as a keyboard operator. Their background, including the fact that they are both mothers of young children, drew them together. The two families saw each other almost every Saturday and frequently went on picnics. Vishbin, who came to Israel without a family, found a warm home with the Ivragimovs. The third waitress, Anna Vishbin, is the wife of her husband's brother and also a good friend.
That morning, March 27, Vishbin got a call from the head waiter at the Park, who knew that she occasionally waitressed to supplement her income. She called Ivragimov and asked if she wanted to join her, and then she persuaded her sister-in-law to come along, too. Anna Vishbin had hardly gone out since giving birth to a son a year-and-a-half earlier, and Vishbin thought this would be a good opportunity for her to get out of the house and earn some money at the same time.
In her recurring nightmare, Vishbin sees over and over the way from her house to her friends' places and then to the hotel. She conjures up scenarios that might have changed the course of events, as though she has a tape that she can edit. As Galina Vishbin left to wash her hands, Anna Ivragimov drewAnna Vishbin's attention to a suspicious figure wearing a long black coat.
"Maybe it's a terrorist," she said.
"What are you so worried about?" Anna Vishbin replied.
The anxious Ivragimov looked at the person, who gave her a look back.
The bewigged terrorist blew himself up four meters from the two young women. Ivragimov lost an eye. Vishbin, who had been an athlete in Ukraine, suffered damage to her lungs and spinal cord; she is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Galina Vishbin escaped without injury, but has assumed an intolerable mental burden: "It is my fault because I persuaded them to come with me to work," she says. Her pale features reflect nights without sleep. "I ruined their lives," she says.
In the first days, she left her husband and son and rushed back and forth between her two friends, Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. "When I heard that they removed Anna's eye, I became hysterical. I cried and screamed," she recalls. "I went to the hospital and sat next to her for a while. I talked to myself, not to her. She was unconscious and I was wiped out."
She felt that she was being blamed by the Ivragimov family. "Her mother cried when she saw me, at how I was in one piece," she says. "Her relatives didn't look at me."
Ivragimov, too, continues to suffer. She is afraid to sleep in the dark and afraid to be in the house alone. "I was young, a girl. I looked like a doll. I don't know whether I will ever return to myself," she says. "Even with all my will power, it is impossible to go back to being the same person instantly, but I am thankful to be alive and on my feet." Of Galina Vishbin she says, "Anna is in a wheelchair and I lost an eye. What can my friend feel? Her luck was that she came out of it the way she did."
Feeling unwanted by Ivagrimov's family, Galina Vishbin shifted her focus to Tel Hashomer, where her sister-in-law was fighting for her life. It was only then, a week after the event, that she allowed herself to collapse. She spent most of the week at the hotel where Anna's husband was staying. "Actually, I didn't go to the hospital. I spent the whole day locked in my room, staring at the walls and crying the whole time. I couldn't stop, I felt like I was drowning. Over and over I kept thinking that I came out of it without a scratch, that I can go on with my life the way it was, but that she - the mother of a baby - would not be able to."
During one of her few visits to Tel Hashomer, she caught a glimpse of a young man who left a wallet on the counter of the reception area and disappeared. All the tension and pressure that had built up inside her, erupted. "I screamed `Bomb!' and ran," she relates. "I said good-bye to life." A few nurses caught Vishbin, who was crying uncontrollably. One of them referred her to psychological help and she is now in therapy.
`I would give my legs'
It was five full weeks before Vishbin returned to work. Ivragimov, whose eye underwent a lengthy rehabilitation, also went back to work five weeks after the event. Five months later, Vishbin has still not recovered. She asked to work half-time, though this seriously affects the family's income.
She functions out of habit. And she has new limitations: buses are out of the question; she leaves the house only to go to work; sleeplessness has become the norm; by day every noise rattles her. A month ago, her feeling of helplessness induced her to send her only son, Vladimir, to her parents in Ukraine. "I am very irritable these days," she explains. "I didn't have the strength for him, and I felt that they could look after him better than I could. I was also afraid for him because of the security situation." In the meantime, her father became ill and now she has to go to Ukraine to be with her son. In any event, they won't miss him at school, she says sardonically: "After the terrorist attack he was at home for a week, but no one called him. When we decided to send him to Ukraine, the principal called and asked why I hadn't told her I had been in an attack. `Do you have any idea that my son doesn't like it in Israel?' I answered her."
Until the attack, she had done well in Israel, earning a good salary and speaking fluent Hebrew as though she had been in the country for decades. Unlike her husband, who works in a factory and is afraid to speak a word of Hebrew, she was proud of her work. After that Passover eve, without the support of an extended family - the only family close to her was itself busy recovering - Vishbin and her husband found themselves alone and hard-pressed economically. They had to move to a far smaller apartment in a rundown section of Netanya. Vishbin doesn't know where she will find the money for a trip to Ukraine.
When she sought compensation from the National Insurance Institute, she was told that because she had not been taken to the emergency ward, she would have to prove that she was at the site of the attack and was suffering mentally. She is assailed by disappointments: from the official institutions, from her friends, from her husband. Today she is lonely and depressed. She doesn't talk about the event with anyone, not even with her friend Ivragimov. "We just remind each other of what happened. Our relations will never be the same. I am alone. I lost my friends."
She thinks she would have been better off if she had been injured in the attack: "I look normal. No one knows what is happening to me inside. If I had been wounded, everything would be different."
One day, she says, "my husband also said it was too bad I hadn't been injured. At least that would have wiped out our overdraft. He is right. It would have been better. I would give my legs, I would give an arm to feel that something at least happened to me there. One night I dreamed that my sister-in-law and I were in the hospital. She was discharged and I stayed. It was so beautiful. The time that passes doesn't help. If I had been injured, it would have been easier for my two girlfriends. And it would have helped my family. Everyone would have known how to relate to me."
Anna Vishbin, handsome and aristocratic, sits in her wheelchair at Tel Hashomer, where she is still hospitalized. Astonishingly, she seems to have recovered, though she has no illusions: "I know it is for always," she says. "But I have a child who needs me. I will keep going."
She received tremendous support from her husband and her mother, she says.
No, she is not envious of Galina, nor is she angry with her, she insists. Can she understand what Galina is going through?
Anna stares out the window and reflects a bit before she says - hands resting on the arms of the wheelchair, on her way to another round of punishing treatments:
"You have to understand that Galina suffered the most serious wounds."
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