Israeli Backpackers' Deaths Fan Parents' Fears

Foreign Ministry inundated with calls from parents; officials trying to quell fears over young Israelis' safety abroad.

As news broke last week of the tragic deaths of five Israeli backpackers in a car crash in Bolivia and another Israeli later killed in a mugging in Peru, the Foreign Ministry's emergency room was inundated with calls from parents whose children were traveling in South America's Andes mountain range.

"We try to listen to the worried parents and help track their kids through all the means at our disposal," a Foreign Ministry official explained. He said they had handled hundreds of calls.

No data exists as to how many Israeli backpackers are currently traveling in remote parts of Latin American and Asia, a trip that has become a rite of passage for young Israelis recently discharged from the army. However, estimates place the number at a few thousand.

Meanwhile, the parents of the Israelis killed when two SUVs collided on the dry lake bed of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni were in deep mourning yesterday.

Ilana Dukas, the mother of Ortal Dukas, who was killed in the accident, said she had encouraged her daughter to travel.

"She completed her army service and I really wanted her to take a post-army trip like most young people do," she said. "We were worried about terrorist attacks, kidnappings and muggings, but we never imagined that she would be killed in an accident at Uyuni."

Ilana Dukas had warned her daughter not to go to Colombia because she was scared of the fighting between the government and FARC rebels. A few years ago, one of Dukas' neighbors in Haifa was kidnapped by the Marxist-inspired insurgency when he was in Colombia.

"I warned her not to go to Colombia or go down Death Road," she said, referring to a notoriously dangerous road next to the Bolivian capital of La Paz. "Ortal was very responsible, she was in touch with us by phone daily through Skype. Just before she left on her trip, she said she wouldn't be in touch with us for a few days."

The parents of Daniella Atzmon, who also died in the crash, tried to dissuade her from going to South America. They wanted her to stay in Israel and remain in the Israel Defense Forces.

"But she really wanted to travel," said Yossi Atzmon, Daniella's father.

"All she wanted was to travel with her friends," Hagit Cohen, a family member, repeated. She said the family's main fears were that Daniella would be robbed or kidnapped. "Yossi and the family were calm because she contacted them daily by phone and e-mail. She was very responsible and no one expected this damned accident," Cohen said.

Officials at the Foreign Ministry say that while fatalities among Israelis traveling in the Andes do occur, they are infrequent. Still, parents are understandably prone to worry about their children backpacking in less developed countries.

Yonathan Zuckerman of Kibbutz Hulata led out a sigh of relief when his daughter, Nirit, arrived in the United States en route to Israel after several months of traveling through South and Central America.

"We trust her, but still, fear gnawed at us," Zuckerman said. "She promised to do everything she could to stay safe, but still, no one knows what could happen. My Nirit, for instance, went skydiving in Mexico, and I wasn't sure her guide was good enough and could be trusted."

Nirit's two older brothers also backpacked through remote areas. "Beyond the fears, there are many positive things the kids get from traveling," Nirit's mother admitted. "They deal with new situations and have to trust themselves."

The parents of Yaakov Florentine, 23, from the northern village of Yuvalim, were particularly worried last week because the last they had heard from him, he was in the same area of Bolivia where the fatal crash had occurred.

"When my parents first heard of the accident they panicked, but luckily my brother had a mobile phone and answered their call immediately," said Eyal, Yaakov's brother. Eyal is planning on going on similar trip in the near future, too. "Parents always worry, not just when you're traveling but also when you're driving. That doesn't mean we should stop driving because of their fears."

Meanwhile, news of the Israelis' deaths in South America pushed aside news of a deadly cyclone plowing through Myanmar. When media began to report that the number of deaths in the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma may reach 10,000 people, parents of Israeli travelers in the area began calling the Ministry.

Malka Eldan was the first parent who contacted the Foreign Ministry asking for help contacting her son, 23-year-old Tzach, who is traveling in Myanmar.

"Little was reported; information was scarce," Eldan recalls. "It was very stressful. It was barely reported by the media in Israel and I'm just happy my son contacted us and told us he was fine."