Before and After the Attack, They Were Marked as 'Russians'

Hundreds of people stood on the Tel Aviv shore two weeks ago on Tuesday, looking skyward in anticipation of the fireworks show. Not far away, a young boy sat next to the monument to the 21 lost in the Dolphinarium suicide bombing. The fireworks lit up the monument, but Victor Komozdrezhnikov did not even bat an eyelash. With his back to the fireworks display, he stared at the monument, tears dropped down his face.

The boy's gaze focused on one of the engraved names, Diez Normanov, his good friend. Actually, more than a friend. They had studied together in a yeshiva in Tashkent, together they applied for a permit to immigrate to Israel without their parents, together they boarded the plane and in Israel, they were also together.

On June 1, 2001, they went together to the disco at the Dolphinarium, during the first leave of Normanov, who had just been drafted and was about to start a course in the Border Police. Komozdrezhnikov managed to get a glimpse of the man wearing the long coat who drew his attention and then the explosion happened. In the midst of the horror, Komozdrezhnikov found his friend sprawled on the ground, dead. He himself was injured and was taken to a hospital, but he ran away from there. He wanted to do only one thing then: to take the rifle of his dead friend and go to Jaffa and "spray bullets at Arabs."

He says that only the fact that the army took Normanov's M-16 saved him from doing something crazy. Five years later, after he himself completed his army service as a "lone soldier" (one without family here) and married, Komozdrezhnikov says that the desire for revenge subsided over time. Only the pain remains. On that Tuesday, he celebrated his 25th birthday. He started the celebrations with a visit to the monument.

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the bombing at the Dolphinarium. Twenty-one young men and women, most of them immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, lost their lives on June 1, which is International Children's Day. In the CIS it was a big holiday. To this day, members of the community are convinced that the bomber chose that day specifically to make the horror worse. Many are convinced that he intentionally chose the "Russians' disco," that the choice was aimed at damaging the flow of immigration, which strengthens Israel. This statement was repeated in the hundreds of articles that appeared in the Russian-language press after the bombing.

"This is the first attack aimed against the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Those who dispatched the terrorist did not choose this target by chance. The objective was crystal-clear: to make Russians afraid to immigrate," wrote business magnate Mikhail Chernoi, in the introduction to a book he financed through the special fund he set up for the families of those killed the Dolphinarium bombing. In Russia, the book is called "Jihad Against Children." In Hebrew and English the name was changed to "Dolphinarium: This is Where We Dance." Dimitri Radishevsky, the director of the Chernoi Fund and the book's editor, says he feared Israelis would see the book's original title as a form of propaganda. However, even today, he has no doubt that the bombing was meant to strike at immigration to Israel. This week he related that one Islamic site wrote after the bombing that immigrants must realize that they came to occupied territories, and that they should go back to Russia.

It did not happen. Perhaps to the contrary. "The bombing created blood ties between the immigrants and the course of the history of the people in Israel," says Radishevsky. "The Russians sometimes feel inferior here because they don't have the military past and blood ties that provides access to positions of power in the state. The Dolphinarium was our Alamo, the Sultan Yakcoub of our community."

At the ceremony marking the first anniversary of the attack, the father of Mariana Medvedenko (she was killed in the attack) said: "I will defend the state because it is now soaked in my daughter's blood."

Medvedenko is not buried alongside her friends. Because she was not halakhically Jewish, she was buried on a kibbutz. The same is true of Liana Sakin. At the time, the bereaved parents were too new in the country and too grief-stricken to take note of this separation. Today some of them say they are angry, that the children who were murdered together should have been buried together.

But there is nothing that the angers the families of the Dolphinarium attack more than remarks about "the entrance ticket into Israeliness" that the bombing supposedly acquired for them.

"My daughter was totally Israeli," says Irena Sakalianik, the mother of Yael who was killed three weeks after 15th birthday, in response to those headlines. "Once she even came home from school and said 'Oof, those Russians,' and I laughed at her. She also decided on her own to change her name from 'Julia' to 'Yael,' and was waiting to get her own identity card so she could use the name she had chosen in it. She didn't get the chance." Instead, her tombstone is engraved "Yalush," the name the family called her. Now, Sakalianik is busy preparing the special memorial evening to mark the fifth anniversary of the bombing that will be held this evening. She is working on behalf of the Dolphinarium Terrorist Victims' Fund, which is headed by her husband. In order to produce the large event at Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv several organizations joined together, among them the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Ministry of Absorption and the Israel Center for Supporting Children's Art, which is bringing in child artists from around the world, including the United States, Bulgaria, Russia and a young singer from Macedonia who participated in the Eurovision 2005 song contest. Municipalities all over the country will be providing transportation to the event. However, most of the audience are expected to be Russian speakers. Despite the collective shock over the slaughter of children, the Dolphinarium remains primarily this community's trauma ? a Russian attack.

Political radicalization

Even if the Russian speakers' disgust with the community-focused perspective of the tragedy, the Dolphinarium attack for many Israelis opened a window onto the Russian community's lifestyle. They heard for the first time about the Shevach Mofet School, many of whose students were among the casualties and became aware of the subculture of Russian discos. The bereaved families were a microcosm of the complexities of the immigrants' community: seven were single-parent families, seven had only one child. Two victims were not halakhically Jewish. All were thrown into the tragedy from a position of weakness of those who come from nearby, but were still unfamiliar with the customs and practices of this country.

Though they became part of the family of Israel's bereaved, they formed their own association. If the Israeli associations for bereaved families were built on the basis of political identity such as the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families on the left and the victims of Arab terror on the right the association of bereaved families from the Dolphinarium bombing was built on a community-oriented basis.

"From the beginning we decided we would have no political orientation," says Sakalianik. "Only after the fact did we realize that this was perhaps a mistake. We would send invitations to all the politicians and in the end, none of them would come. They explained to us that if you invite one, the other won't come. That's how it is with us.

"But even today, we don't talk among ourselves about politics, only about the loss. We understand each other. It's the others who don't always understand us. It upset me very much, for example, that veteran Israelis would ask me after the tragedy if we are planning to leave Israel. Only now do I understand that they wouldn't ask a veteran Israeli that question, but they ask us.

"This thought never occurred to us. How could we possibly leave Yaelka?"

All of this is related by Sakalianik, a strong and charming woman, in fine Hebrew that she learned mostly from her daughters. Before the tragedy, she worked as a caretaker for the elderly at Mishan; after the tragedy she couldn't carry on. She was angry at the whole world, and was not capable of caring for people. Her eldest daughter, Leora, who was then in the army, is now studying accounting. To this day, she suffers from the impact of the trauma of the death of her younger sister, who was also a close friend.

At the suggestion of a psychologist, the family redid Yael's room, which had been a memorial site. During the renovations, the took off the cabinet doors where the girl had written down the names of boys she liked and sealed with the imprint of her lips.

In retrospect, Sakalianik says she was angry then at the state for not reacting militarily to the attack. The prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, declared that restraint is power. The Russian press hinted here and there that if the victims had been "Israelis," the government might have reacted differently.

Good things

On a personal level, some good things have nevertheless happened since. Olga Tagilachev, 39, had in been Israel just two years when she lost her only daughter, Maria, in the bombing. Her ex-husband remained in Russia and "he calls only when he wants something from the National Insurance Institute," says his ex-wife. Since the tragedy, Tagilachev and her partner have had two children: Arthur, four and Katrina, three.

They bring comfort but not relief. Tagilachev says that she sometimes makes a mistake and calls Katrina, Maria. They have a similar smile. For herself, she has decided that if anything happens to these children, she will commit suicide. Recently she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital after she lost sensation in her arms and legs. At the emergency room, they told her these were symptoms of depression that intensifies as the anniversary of the bombing approaches.

Tagilachev is angry at the state for not having succeeded in providing security for its citizens and is also a little angry with her father. She says in Russia she was a successful businesswoman and never intended to immigrate to Israel. Her father is the one who decide that the family must live in Israel and commanded her "you go first." Since then, she has been here, with the tragedy, and he stayed in Russia and comes to visit as a tourist. That is also part of the story of this complex wave of immigration. But then Tagilachev quotes a proverb that says that you don't get angry with those who gave you bad advice and anyway whatever anger there is pales in comparison to the pain.

On Tuesday, on the way to the fireworks display, large crowds stopped next to the monument. They muttered a few words about the pain, cursed occasionally and kissed the monument as if it were a mezuzah. There were Russian speakers, veteran Israelis and lots of frightened children. The organizers of the memorial evening at the Mann Auditorium hope that this time the hall will not fill up with Russian speakers only.