Apocalypse Then

When I was environmental protection minister in Yitzhak Rabin's government, I would observe a certain rule - no matter how close my relations with the prime minister, I would never telephone him at my own initiative over Shabbat unless it was a matter of extreme urgency.

But there was one time when I broke the rule. One Friday evening I was sitting at home and watching television when I saw and heard the scenes and voices emanating from Rwanda. A genocide was taking place there beyond the mountains of darkness, and, to its shame, the international community was tarrying.

No one knew both my virtues and my faults as well as Rabin, so when I telephoned him that very evening, he did not sound surprised. He immediately guessed what I wanted from him - to organize a delegation that would rescue and help those being murdered.

I did not have to add explanations. "I agree," he said, "Call the chief of staff and tell him I've approved."

In that way, I had at my disposal the whole of the Israel Defense Forces with its excellent rescue and medical services. We were organized and arrived there within 48 hours, the first representatives of the international community.

Many of the things that happen to us in life are supposed, on the face of it, to change us, to make us adapt to "context" but in fact this does not really happen and we generally do not change. We remain the same good and bad people that we were.

The journey to Rwanda, however, did change me; ever since then I am a different person. From my point of view, it was a seminal and formative experience. It is simply impossible to see thousands of dead people piling up everywhere and on all sides, tens of thousands of bodies spread out before you, without looking at the reality of life and death with completely different eyes.

If one wants to get an idea of what the end of the world looks like, there is no choice but to make the long journey to Rwanda circa 1994, or to Haiti today. It is only when one walks in the valley of death that one becomes aware of the human jungle. Man is a beast of prey to man; and God, for His part, contributes transgressions and fury, if there is still someone who insists on believing in Him. Disasters of nature and disasters of man appear to be the exact same thing and it is no coincidence that nature first and foremost destroys the weak. Their home is not a real house, it hangs on the edge of an abyss.

I am the man who saw the end of the world.

And how much can be saved, after all? I have always believed in "saving one soul" even when the world is being filled with the dead, and it is never too early or too late for saving someone. And there is also no need to arrange those crying out for help in a line - to give priority to the poor of your own city - as if what one spares from a child in Haiti would help a child in Israel. Illusions, illusions.

Heart of darkness

We lost our way in the African jungle, a group of soldiers, doctors and nurses of both sexes. A rumor reached me that in the depths of the forest there was an orphanage made from poles and wicker, where all the young and abandoned inhabitants were wracked by cholera and dying. We finally found them and started to put all the children in the command car. They were all unconscious but it seemed as if, from the depths of their stupor, they were crying out to us, reaching out to us with a last human touch.

We carried them in our arms, child after child, choking on the stench of their feces and vomit until I choked on my tears and I burst out crying over these lost children who had been sentenced to this filth.

All the sorrow of the world stood there in the clearing in the forest, and tested our tired eyes to see if we could meet the challenge. Most of the children survived after receiving clean fluids intravenously. That was all they needed to turn back from the point of no return.

How simple it is to kill and how simple to revive and to be brought back to life. Sometimes.

The Israeli camp was set up in the town of Goma; a cursed and anguished little border town between small Rwanda and huge Congo. In only one month, Goma collected in its bosom more than two million refugees.

The conflict started with heads being chopped off and throats slit with machetes, and then the epidemics attacked and completed the massacre. First the Hutu killed the Tutsi and then the Tutsi killed the Hutu. The bloodbath continued to increase and we were in its midst. Are there any islands in this world? Are there any peoples that are not tribes?

One morning, before it was time to rise, I was awakened.

"You have an urgent telephone call from Washington," I was told. "The prime minister is on the line."

Rabin wanted to know how we were faring and, as was his habit, wanted to hear details, and then he added a sentence I will never, ever forget.

He opened up his innermost feelings for a moment, that introverted man, and allowed me to peek inside. "You know, Yossi," he said, "there is nevertheless something symbolic here. You are there in Africa, saving far-off lives, and we are here in America, signing an agreement with our neighbors whom we are trying to bring closer."

We were like dreamers. The rescue delegation to Rwanda suddenly seemed to me like a continuation of Rabin's policy with different means, in a different place.

Suddenly everything seemed more open, and not only in our hearts. The horizon opened, the skies opened, great hopes perfumed the air, and even the Gaza Strip was open then.

When we flew to Rwanda, we did not have to fly over a closed and besieged Gaza, to see it the ruins of its life. And a child from Haiti or from Rwanda did not have to banish a Palestinian child from his share and from his land. They were all our sons, all of them were the children of God.

Memory follows memory. Some time later, when in Bosnia a river of blood overflowed its banks, I reported to Rabin about a plan I had prepared to bring a group of Muslim refugees to Israel. He agreed immediately, he thought it was a good idea.

The Bosnians came and those who did not return to their homeland are among us to this day. Their absorption was exemplary. Even now there is an idea to bring 50 Haitian orphans to Israel. One can only hope that Interior Minister Eli Yishai will approve and not chase them out at the first opportunity.