Unbearable Grief Strikes an Unrecognized Village

In a Bedouin community in the Negev, Hussein a-Sariya is mourning the loss of his three sons who drowned in the Mediterranean last week.

Sitting at the edge of the desert, in a place that lacks even a paved access road, in an “unrecognized” village in “the Bedouin dispersion,” is Hussein a-Sariya, a man who all at once has become the bereaved father of three sons: Nahed, Atef and Suleiman, all of whom drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last week.

Hussein, 53, lives off the income supplement he receives from the National Insurance Institute. Until last weekend, he had seven sons and three daughters. Even now, during the mourning period, he is troubled over how he will support his fatherless grandchildren. He ruminates about the situation of his eldest son, Nahed, whose home was demolished by the authorities only days after his wedding , and who drowned in the sea off Ashkelon, leaving behind two young children and a widow in the early months of pregnancy.

The “industrial zone” of the desert village of Kseifa is situated at the entrance to the town, next to where it intersects with the highway. The zone consists of Cafe Nahle, the Kseifa Meeting Place, the al-Assil beauty shop and a tire-repair shop. The cemetery in which the three sons are now buried is adjacent.
The a-Sariya family does not live in Kseifa, rather several kilometers away in a village that is not recognized by the state. It is a cluster of stone and tin shacks, without running water, without a hookup to the electricity grid, without a medical clinic and without a school.

The eastern wind, haze and sandstorms hung over the desert the whole time we were there, wandering around searching for houses − in particular the tin shacks of the a-Sariya clan. There are no street signs to direct visitors, of course. Make a right turn slightly before Arad, in the direction of the Nevatim airbase, and then take another right turn by the bridge over the wadi, onto a rocky road that tosses the car from side to side, and that runs between the fields of grain and the herds of camels.

Long convoys of desert vehicles, nearly all driven by Bedouin men who have streamed in from all over Israel, made their way here this week to comfort the mourners. Thousands attended the funeral, which took place late Sunday afternoon. The bereaved father refused to hold it until all of his sons’ bodies had been found.

Nahed was 26, and the father of a baby girl aged 26 months, and a 3-and-a-half-month-old son. Suleiman was 21 and Atef was 16. Atef recently dropped out of school and began working with two of his brothers at the Of Kor factory in Sderot. He dreamed of building a home for his mother, who separated from his father several years ago and now lives alone in Rahat.

The delegations of condolence-callers arrive in a steady stream at the mourners’ tent: Bedouin men wearing gloomy expressions, some in traditional dress, some in the garb of menial laborers. A date and a cup of coffee are served to each caller. All are received without tears by Hussein. A slender man, he looks drained and burned-out following the three days and nights during which he did not budge from the Delilah Beach in Ashkelon, where his sons met their deaths.

Tragic outing

It was last Thursday afternoon when several members of the family told their father they were going to Ashkelon − together with everyone else in Israel. The factory where they are employed was closed for the duration of Passover. The boys bought meat and then set out in two cars together with their sisters, children and wives for a typical Israeli barbecue on the beach. It had been a long time since they’d had outing like this.

They arrived at Delilah at around 4 P.M. Nahed went to work grilling the meat while Atef entered the water, which at least from the beach appeared to be relatively calm. Suleiman headed in right behind him. All of a sudden, another brother named Salim ran up, shouting: “Waves came and carried off Suleiman and Atef!”

Nahed saw them being hurled to and fro by the waves, until one wave hit hard and flipped them both upside down. The two brothers were each holding the other’s hand tightly, but then Atef slipped out of Suleiman’s grip. By this time, they were about 200 meters from the beach. Their brothers Salim and Salam rushed into the surf in an attempt to rescue them, but they, too, began to go under. A Russian-immigrant swimmer rescued them, and brought them back to shore.

Now the eldest son, Nahed, entered the water, in order to try and save his two drowning brothers. Eyewitnesses say he managed to reach them, and grabbed each with a different hand. But in a matter of seconds, both brothers slipped away and began going under. And before long Nahed disappeared from sight, as well.

All the while, their father was at home. Shortly before the tragedy he telephoned one of his daughters at the beach to find out how the barbecue was going. He asked to speak with Nahed. She told her father that Nahed was busy grilling the meat, and said he would call back. Hussein was certain that Nahed would call him back right away, as he always did.

Only a few minutes later, the daughter called back: The men went into the water and they have not come out, she said. Hussein quickly got into his neighbor’s car and rushed to Ashkelon. On the way there he telephoned his daughter, hoping that maybe she’d been mistaken and that his sons had only gone for a walk on the beach. By the time he arrived, it had started to get dark, and the rescue operation, by air and by sea, was at its height.

The women were sent home, and all of the men of the family remained at the beach. The search was renewed at dawn.

The family says it has no words with which to thank all of the authorities − the police, army and Ashkelon municipality, the divers and the numerous volunteers − for the efforts they expended in attempting to rescue their dear ones. “Everyone there did everything they could do,” says Hussein.

A forward command post was set up on the Ashkelon beach. Locals brought food and came to lend support and encouragement; the owner of a private plane volunteered his services, flying the father over the sea in a search for his sons. The following day, Hussein told the search team: “Look in the area around the breakwater. That’s where they are. If you don’t look, I will go into the water and search for them myself, come what may.”

Not long afterward, the first body, that of Suleiman, was found near the breakwater, in the spot the father had indicated.

The second body, Atef’s, was found that evening. On the third day of the search, Sunday morning, Hussein told the volunteer divers who had come from Haifa: “This will be your last dive, I promise you.” And not long afterward the body of Nahed was located; his foot was snared among the rocks of the breakwater.

Now Hussein is reminiscing about the evening of Nahed’s wedding, two years ago: The Israel Lands Authority was about to demolish the illegal house that Nahed had built with his own two hands, and Hussein barricaded himself inside with propane-gas canisters, threatening to blow up himself and his family.

“He’s just now setting out in life, and you are already destroying it,” Hussein told the ILA officials. He asked them at least to hold off with the demolition until after the wedding, and eventually they acceded.

The young couple’s home was demolished two weeks later. Since then they had been living, like many other residents of this Third World village, in a tin shack, along with their two children.

The large army of condolence-callers removes its shoes and enters a miserable shack that has been converted into a mosque, for the noon prayers. After four sleepless nights, Hussein took a sedative and finally fell asleep, on the night after the funeral.

Now more than anything else he is worried about the future of his grandchildren: where they will live and who will support them. Plus, he is left with four sons, whom he has to marry off, and for whom he must build homes.

“Now I don’t know how I’ll be able to deal with that,” he says, as yet another group of visitors, this time from the Galilee, arrives, pressing his hand, kissing him on the cheeks, trying in vain to offer him comfort.

Alex Levac