There's a Reason I'm Alive - I Just Don't Know What It Is

Hayk Panoyan - a Christian, Armenian, Israeli citizen, and Arabic speaker, who worked as a waiter at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa - cannot forgive himself for only being wounded in last year's bombing there, while his friends were killed. And he doesn't understand why the Palestinians insisted on declaring his friends martyrs.

Uri Ash
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Uri Ash

Several days after the bombing of the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, Hayk Panoyan's mother sat by his bed at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. "A woman came up to my mother and said to her `See, now you have a taste of what we're experiencing,'" he says, the pain and insult still discernible in his voice. "And that same day, at the hospital, there was a guy from some village who sang joyful Palestinian songs celebrating the bombing and my mother jumped up at him and gave him a beating."

Panoyan, who worked as a waiter at the restaurant, was hit by three pieces of shrapnel from the deadly bomb set off by the terrorist Hanadi Jaradat on October 4, 2003. The image of his friends sprawled lifeless on the floor does not leave his mind. Panoyan's mother is a Christian Arab from Nazareth and his father is Armenian, the son of refugees from the Turkish massacre of Armenians. Hayk grew up on Zionism Avenue in Haifa. "I'm a Christian, Armenian, Israeli citizen, Arabic speaker," he explains, listing the parts of his identity in order of their importance to him. He says that he is often labeled as an Arab, though he sees himself as Armenian. "In this country, anyone who is not a Jew is considered an Arab. People don't know what an Armenian is and whatever they don't know they call an Arab. It never bothered me to be `Arab.' Why should it bother me if I'm very proud of my religion and nationality?"

There have been 16 "Arab citizens killed in terror attacks" during the three and a half years of intifada, according to a list compiled by the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel. These casualties include Druze soldiers from the Galilee and Carmel Mountains; Christian Arabs from the Galilee, Haifa and Jerusalem; and Muslim Arabs from Taibeh, Turan and Jisr al-Zarqa. Many dozens, like Panoyan, have been injured. In at least one instance, the bombing at the Meron Junction in August 2002, there were Arab citizens of Israel involved on both sides: Maysoon Amin Hassan, a Druze student from Sajour, and Roni Kamal Ghanem, a Druze soldier from Maghar, were killed in an attack planned and executed by Ibrahim and Yassin Bakri, two Muslim Arabs from Ba'ana, a village in the Galilee.

Serving food to the terrorist

Hayk Panoyan is 37, married to Sausan and the father of Armen, 13, Paul, 9, and Lara, 3. He is an accountant by profession and since July has been working for the Tiran shipping company. After many years of frequenting the Maxim restaurant, he also began to work there as a waiter on Saturdays during the summer. "You need a lot of money to make ends meet with a mortgage and three children," he explains.

On the morning of the bombing, his wife asked him to stay at home. He had gone to sleep late and she suggested that he rest in bed. But he insisted on going to the restaurant, where he met his friends and fellow waiters Hanna Francis, Sharbal Matar and George Matar. Hanna talked about his upcoming trip to Australia to bring his fiancee from there; Sharbal, who was planning to travel to a wedding in the United States, promised to bring a DVD player; George recalled that he had forgotten to bring invitations for his friends to the wedding of his daughter, scheduled to take place four days later. "What a day it was, with all these beautiful tidings," Panoyan says sadly. All three were killed in the attack.

The restaurant was still half empty and Panoyan sat with Osama Najar, a childhood friend who worked as a cook at Maxim and helped arrange this additional job for him. Najar was also killed.

"Suddenly I hear a voice penetrating my head, a strong voice that you cannot ignore. Like it takes control over you. It says to me, `Get up and go to the kitchen and bring dishes.' But I'm sitting there, without any work to do. My section at the restaurant is empty, so why get up to bring plates? It was maybe three or four meters from where we were sitting to the place where the plates were piled. I got up. You can't resist a voice like that. I walk over and bring plates. I stand by the entrance to the kitchen and am about to walk back and look at my friends who were standing there, a meter or two away from me. And then there was an enormous boom. I don't know what supreme power told me to get up. I told this to my wife and our priest. Everyone says, `It's a signal from God, who didn't want you to die.'

"Because of all the smoke and fire there, I couldn't see a thing. After a moment or two there was quiet, and then you start to hear screams and people crying and shouting. I'm standing with my hand on my belly and see George, Hanna, Sharbal on the floor. And I scream `Tony [Matar, the owner of the restaurant], Tony, help me!' And then I realized that my hands were full of blood and my stomach hurt and blood was flowing from it. Tony quickly pulled me out via the kitchen. He says I lost consciousness on the stairs. I only remember that after I was operated on and woke up, I called for my wife and immediately asked her about Hanna, because he was the closest and Osama, who was a friend since we were children. And she told me, `I don't know, but I heard that they're at Rothschild hospital.' The next day, there was a male nurse who came to take care of me and said, `Did you know that Hanna was my friend?' I asked him, `What do you mean that he was your friend?' and he replied: `What? You don't know that he was killed?' That was a very difficult moment. Why was he the one to have to tell me?"

The police investigation found that Panoyan served a meat dish to the table of the terrorist and Mohammed Mahajneh, the one who drove her. "When I approached the table, she was sitting facing the sea and I didn't get a good look at her," he recalls. "Usually, when a couple like this comes in, especially when you see that they are from a village, we don't look at them much and we give them quick service because they are very touchy if someone looks at their woman. They looked like a couple, a man and a woman. She was looking at him and they were talking. There was nothing to arouse suspicion, but if I had looked into her face, I'm sure I would have noticed that something was amiss and would have done something. Yes, I definitely would have risked my life to do so."

The fact that he was so close to the terrorist contributes to his feelings of guilt that he survived while all of his friends died. "I'm very angry at myself for not being able to do anything," he says. "Because if I had seen her [the terrorist] I would have identified her. And I feel a little guilty about this, seeing your friends killed this way and doing nothing about it."

The brother of Osama Najar, Husam, is also a childhood friend of Panoyan and lives in the same building. At first, Panoyan says, "it was very difficult. Until Husam told me, `Stop it. Every time you see me in the elevator or on the stairs you'll start to cry?' It's very hard for me to look them in the eyes and very hard to see the mothers of Osama, Hanna and Mtanes [Karkabi, also killed in the bombing], who was in our school and whose parent's home is about 15 meters away from my parents' home. How can I look them in the eyes when I know exactly what they are thinking - `Why is he alive and my son isn't?' I feel ashamed that I wasn't able to help them, because if I had looked her in the eyes, I'm sure I would have identified her. Maybe I would have died or maybe not. Perhaps I would have had courage or wisdom and done something."

The nightmare never ends

In Fassouta in the upper Galilee, the village where the murdered Hanna Francis and Sharbal Matar lived, many of the residents define themselves as Christian Palestinian Arabs and find it hard to comprehend how Muslim Palestinians could hurt Christian Palestinians. In the case of Hayk Panoyan, who never felt Palestinian, the anger over the attack by Hanadi Jaradat also makes him feel less of an "Israeli Arab" (a label he has become accustomed to) and more Armenian. "She simply came to kill and didn't care about anything," he says. "She heard Arabic being spoken in the restaurant and saw that there were children. If they claim that this is war and they are resisting the Israeli occupation, then why don't they fight against soldiers instead of coming to kill children? Let's see one of these `heroes' enter an army base and start shooting. Why doesn't this group of `heroes' shoot at soldiers? Why do they need to send a girl to blow herself up next to children?

"I don't know if I can say that we are part of their nation, but I'm sure that they claim we are the same nation because they put the names of Hanna and Osama and Sharbal on their list of martyrs [shaheeds]. So how can you come and kill your own people? I'm not part of their nation, but they say that the Arabs in Israel and the Palestinians are one nation. So how can you compel someone to become a shaheed? You murder me and then tell me that I'm a shaheed? I've never seen myself as one of them. I live in the state here and am a citizen of the country. I don't do army service, but I've always been loyal to this country and this is what I'll teach my children. I'm not a Palestinian. I'm also not an Arab."

After he was operated on and the shrapnel removed, Hayk Panoyan remained hospitalized for another two weeks before being sent home. But friends and acquaintances, at home and in the street, continue to ask him about the event, making it hard for him to distance himself from the moments of horror. The nightmare does not end. "I still suffer from pains and problems in my stomach and I can sleep at night only by taking a sleeping pill," he says. "I'm not able to fall asleep because my mind keeps going over what happened. It's like wallpaper in my head. My wife says that I get up and shout and speak all the time during the night with Hanna and with Osama. I ask them how they are and if they have something to tell me. Even as I sit here speaking with you, I see them. It keeps me from moving on in life with my family, with my children and wife. And it affects my work. It's very difficult for me to concentrate and I'm always forgetting things. I want to erase these images, but it's very difficult."

The physical and emotional difficulties have adversely affected his relations with his children in particular. "I don't play with them," he says. "I don't take them to McDonald's because I'm afraid and I don't even ride buses. I don't play soccer or basketball with them because I can't jump and it's very hard for me to pick up my daughter. The children always are asking to see the wound - they're very curious about this. I always listen and explain to them. They would often come and put their hands on the wound to calm me, `It'll be okay, father. Don't worry, we'll help you.'

"On one hand, this gave me enormous energy and strength. On the other hand, a child of 9 or 12 identifies with his father and makes a great effort not to ask for the things he used to request? I would sell everything to change this situation. I want to get past this. I pray everyday that I'll get past this. I'm being treated by a psychiatrist, who helps me and gives me pills. I want to only think about and remember their beautiful images and don't want to remember all of that murder. What, will this continue to haunt me for the rest of my life? After all, I have a small daughter and a wife. But this is like superglue and I don't have any acetone to detach it."

The main decorations in the Panoyan's home, which has a view of all of Haifa from Stella Maris, are several icons of Jesus hung on the walls, including one of Mary with the baby Jesus. "Our strong faith certainly helps us, without our being aware of this." He sees evidence of this "in the fact that I recovered, that the family helps us, that God gave my wife the strength to sleep in the hospital for 15 days, that He gave the children patience to understand us and to absorb this terrible thing, that all of our friends call and inquire, that they support us and don't abandon us.

"God put me to a test. When He spoke to me in the restaurant, He wanted something from me. He didn't keep me alive without any reason. There's a reason that I'm alive and I don't know what it is - until He speaks with me again. I don't think that I'm any better than Hanna or Mtanes or Osama. Why did He ask me to get up and for them to stay?"

His wife suggests an answer: "He surely didn't want your children to be left without a father." But Hayk responds, "He also didn't want George's children to be left without a father."

Arab citizens of Israel killed in terror attacks since 2000

Suhil Adawi, Turan, March 2002, Matza restaurant in Haifa

Nuha Hinawi, 15, Jaffa, May 2002, Rishon Letzion

Ayman Kabaha, 23, Barta'a, June 2002, bus bombing in Jerusalem

Roni Ghanem, 28, Maghar, August 2002, bus bombing at Meron Junction

Maysoon Hassan, 19, Sajour, August 2002, bus bombing at Meron Junction

Ayman Sharouf, 20, Usfiya, October 2002, Karkur junction

Suad Jaber, 23, Taibeh, October 2002, Karkur junction

Mariam Atar, 26, Haifa, March 2003, Bus No. 37, Haifa

Kamar Abu Hamad, 13, Daliat al-Carmel, March 2003, Bus No. 37, Haifa

Hasan Tawatha, 41, Jisr a-Zarqa, May 2003, Afula mall bombing

Mtanes Karkabi, Haifa, October 2003, Maxim restaurant, Haifa

Osama Najar, Haifa, October 2003, Maxim restaurant, Haifa

Sharbal Matar, Fassouta, October 2003, Maxim restaurant, Haifa

Hanna Naim Francis, 40, Fassouta, October 2003, Maxim restaurant, Haifa

George Matar, Haifa, October 2003, Maxim restaurant, Haifa

George Khoury, 20, Jerusalem, March 2004, shooting in French Hill, Jerusalem

Source: Mossawa Center

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