'I Moved My Suffering Aside'

When 15-year-old Sonya Shistik awoke from a week-long coma, she saw before her the figure of a physician. She was very frightened. After a while, she recomposed her thoughts, trying to decipher what had happened. Sonya understood that she and her friend, Karen Dorfman, were in hospital because they were about to give birth. The whole idea of giving birth to a baby terrified Sonya for a moment, but that feeling quickly passed and was replaced by a strong desire to see her infant daughter, as well as the infant daughter of Karen who had given birth at the same time.

"What did my girlfriends give birth to? A boy or a girl?" she asked her mother, who was standing at her bedside. "Show me a photo of my daughter." Sonya's mother rummaged around in her purse, producing the photograph of an infant girl. Sonya was angry: "No, that's a picture of Karin [her infant sister]. I want to see the photo of the infant girl I gave birth to."

Nine months after being seriously injured in the terrorist attack at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium, Sonya says that it was only later, through conversations with a psychologist, that she understood the trick her mind had played on her when she awoke from the coma. "Childbirth is the opposite of death," she recalls in her bedroom in Holon. "I transformed everything into something that symbolized life, because I didn't want to understand death. Even after people began to explain to me that there had been a terrorist attack, I told everyone I would be going home in five days.

"Although I understood that I was forbidden to sit up, I was certain that walking was permissible. This was when I was strictly forbidden to move for three whole months, because any move could render me paralyzed for the rest of my life. I and another girl, who had suffered a head injury, were the most seriously wounded in that terrorist incident - except, of course, for those who died." Karen Dorfman, Sonya's best friend, died 19 days after the attack. Sonya was sent home after five months in hospital, but her story does not end here.

"In addition, some persons were seriously injured ..." This is how the journalistic chronicle generally sums up the results of major terrorist attacks in which lives have been lost. The wounded are always anonymous, and are erased from the collective memory, where they never occupied any fixed position. But it is the wounded who are left with the grave scars on their bodies and souls, and with the struggle to control the rest of their lives.

Sonya depicts the injuries she sustained at the entrance to the Dolphinarium discotheque on June 1, 2001 in a matter-of-fact manner: "Bones were broken in my back and leg, the nerves of one hand were torn, I suffered burns to my face and many blood vessels in my abdomen were ripped apart." The injury to her stomach placed her on the critical list for days. The doctors were unable to stop her internal bleeding until they decided to try a new medication, which proved effective. Only after the bleeding had stopped were they able to replenish her seriously depleted blood supply and to begin treating the rest of her body.

During those long months she underwent three operations: On her abdomen, her back and her lungs, which had been punctured by metal fragments. Even today, Sonya does not know the precise details of her injury. The details, she remarks, do not really interest her, just as she is not particularly interested in knowing the identity of the suicide-bomber who was standing near her when he blew himself up. She knows nothing about him, not even his name.

The only survivorThe evening began in a happy atmosphere. Sonya left her home in Holon, heading for the home of her friend Karen in Bat Yam, where they met two other friends, Ilya and Roma, and the four set off for the Dolphinarium disco. Sonya was thrilled. Every opportunity to go dancing was a joy for Sonya, who studied dance at Holon's Kiryat Sharett High School. Sonya's boyfriend, Immanuel, was waiting for them at the Dolphinarium. The group bought their admission tickets and began walking to the disco's entrance. Suddenly, there was an explosion, followed by a heavy silence. Sonya recalls that she felt no pain at the time; she only had the sensation of foreign bodies entering her body. It was only later that 20-year-old Immanuel told her how he pulled her out from a pile of dead bodies, and how he kept on talking to her so that she would not lose consciousness.

"All I could see was my left hand, which was full of holes," she remembers. "I think I screamed at the time, but I can't be sure. In general, I was sure that I was the only one who had suffered an injury, because a lot of people were milling about me and shouting. The only thing I could not figure out was where my girlfriends were." Out of the foursome who had set off from Bat Yam for the Dolphinarium, Sonya is the only survivor.

On a bureau in Sonya's bedroom stands a picture frame, decorated with pink ballet shoes. The photograph is of two young girls who are laughing as they hug each other: Sonya and Karen during their school's annual excursion. They were the best of friends, as only young girls at that age know how to be.

Karen died of her injuries on June 19, the same day Sonya celebrated her birthday in hospital. That very morning, she asked to see her best friend. Up until then, she had thought that Karen's condition was identical to hers. It was only on the morning of her birthday that her mother, who has a doctorate in biology, informed her that Karen was dead. When the friends who had come to celebrate Sonya's birthday left the hospital, they immediately proceeded to Karen's funeral. Afterward, they gradually told her about the deaths of Ilya and Roma, as well as about the others. Sonya says that, beyond the physical pain and her numbed sensations, she did not fully comprehend what they were telling her.

Sonya's recognition of the full extent of her loss came only much later. A few months passed and she was watching a movie on television. She had already been released from hospital. In the film, the heroine dies, the victim of an illness. It was only at that particular moment, which had nothing directly to do with the Dolphinarium attack, that she had a flash of understanding. "Suddenly, I understood that Karen would never reappear," says Sonya. "I moved my suffering aside, making room for what had happened."

That kind of psychological jargon, so foreign to the routine of this teenage girl, is one of the indicators of the dramatic change that has occurred in Sonya's life. It is a flash of lightning that suddenly invades the slang of youth, which is all "k'ilu" (as if) and "kazeh" (sort of like). In Sonya's case, however, the prevalent term "as if" has a special significance. Some of the things she relates, perforating the narrative here and there with "as if," have occurred only in her mind, feverish with suffering and distress, and in the daydreams and mental images that accompanied the initial months of her slow convalescence.

The dreams cameAbout half a year after the terrorist attack, when she could already walk, Sonya asked to be taken to the site of the attack. The little monument at the Dolphinarium's entrance made no impression on her. Giving the site a second look, she could discern bloodstains forming the shape of a human body. "I was shocked," she remembers, "I couldn't understand that all that remained of my friends was that bloodstain on the sidewalk."

Then the dreams came. Crazy, painful, nightmarish dreams. In one of them, Karen and Sonya visit a shopping mall. Both of them are in wheelchairs, looking at the clothes in the shop windows. Suddenly, a large fire breaks out and all the shoppers begin to run for their lives. Sonya is unable to budge her wheelchair with only one hand (her other hand, in both the dream and reality, is seriously disabled). She screams for help, but no one stops to assist her. Suddenly, there is an awful silence, like the one she experienced after the Dolphinarium explosion. Now she feels as if she is waking up in a hospital room. Karen, who looks as if nothing has happened to her, has come to visit Sonya and tells her about the people who were killed. As if.

Nine months after the terrorist incident, there is something misleading about Sonya's outward appearance. Her beautiful face, the skin completely rejoined, gives no hint of her injury's seriousness. It is only when she changes from her jogging suit to a revealing dance costume that you notice her pock-marked back, her shattered left hand covered by a pressure bandage, and her leg whose nerves have not yet recovered their full level of functioning. Four months have passed since her return home after a long period of hospitalization, and her life is still a far cry from even the appearance of being normal. Three times a week she is a day patient at Sheba Medical Center. Her father, a computer programmer, drives her there on his way to work, and she spends her day there having physiotherapy, occupational therapy, guided swimming exercises, and psychological counseling. New pains have emerged in her lungs and she has not yet discovered the reason for these pains.

On the days that Sonya does not visit the hospital, she attends school. Since she is unable to sit up, she has been outfitted with a special armchair in the classroom. She spends her hours at school reclining on the armchair. She makes up for the rest of her studies through her school's teaching staff, who come to her home, and through private tutors. Her studies, which had previously not meant much to her, have now assumed major importance. She is even planning to take two matriculation examinations this year - in Hebrew language and history. "I have matured very quickly," Sonya observes. "Even my relationship with my parents has changed completely. I have learned how important family is."

Sober-minded realismNew dreams have replaced the old ones. A short time before the terrorist attack, Sonya had planned to compete in the "Teenage Girl of the Year" pageant. However, because of the Dolphinarium incident, she missed the deadline for sending in her photograph. She had a secret ambition: She wanted to try modeling, not as a career but merely because it could be an interesting experience for a beautiful young girl. She watched the beauty contest on television while she was still in hospital. She has permanently buried that dream. "Who wants to see a model whose body is full of scars and holes?" she rhetorically asks, expressing a sober-minded realism rather than bitterness.

That same tone of voice can be noted when she talks about the halter tops that she used to love to wear but which are now out of the question because of the surgical scars on her abdomen. And that same tone of voice emerges when she talks about bare-backed blouses and dresses, which she can no longer wear because of her back, which is pock-marked with metal fragments.

Eleven metal fragments remain lodged in her body, and the doctors have no intention of ever removing them. "They left them inside as a memento," she says with a smile. However, Sonya's biggest fear, except for death, is not being able to dance. A month ago, she and a few friends went to a discotheque and she danced there. Her dance style was a little different because her legs are still not strong enough; nonetheless, she danced adequately. In fact, someone went over to her and complimented her: "You dance nicely." That was the happiest moment in her life since the June 1 terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium. However, even that happiness is blended with pain and guilt feelings.

Sonya is trying to put her life back together again in the shadow of Karen's death. She says that every time she goes out for an evening's entertainment, she again experiences not only the fear of another terrorist attack, but also guilt feelings toward Fiana Dorfman, Karen's mother, who single-handedly raised an only daughter and is now all alone.

There is also the anxiety involved in meeting new people, who may not display sufficient understanding. Sonya says that she prefers to stick with her old friends and she refuses to make new ones "who will probably think that I am one of those who has black moods and acts crazy because of the terror attack and the scars."

However, even with her old friends, Sonya does not like to talk about the Dolphinarium incident. Only on one occasion, after she had already been released from hospital, did she go over newspaper clippings related to the attack. Since that time, she has avoided such clippings. Only with her psychologist does she talk about what has happened in her life and about her life today. She is deeply grateful to the staff at Sela (Hebrew acronym for the Israel Crisis Management Center, an immigrant aid association), who supported her for many months. Sonya also constantly examines her new relationship with the world.

She is particularly sensitive to the term that is continually repeated these days: "seriously wounded." Once those words were just a phrase. Today, when she hears "was disconnected from the artificial respirator," she knows precisely how long a journey awaits that patient. After all, she has been there herself.

There are also the haunting thoughts related to the question: Why did we ever come to Israel? Although she has spent most of her life here, having arrived with her parents 11 years ago from Tomsk, Siberia, Sonya does not want to live here. She is afraid for her personal safety and for that of her infant sister. Sometimes, she and her family talk about this issue at home. However, most of the time, she lives in her own private world with a scenario about life somewhere else. Where? Perhaps Spain. She has never been there, but they dance the flamenco, and you can learn a lot about a nation from its dance culture.