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Rockets Drive Israelis into Bomb Shelters

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Most residents have fled the northern Israeli border town of Qiryat Shemona for safety farther south as Hezbollah rockets continue to fall daily. Most of those who remain spend their days hunkered down in bomb shelters.

NPR's Eric Westervelt visited one shelter where a group of older Russian émigrés are living.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Sixty-five-year-old Samuel Rottstein(ph) was just an infant during World War II when his family had to flee the advancing German army. His father remained behind and fought the Nazis while the Rottsteins lived as refugees in Uzbekistan for nearly four years.

Now, ten years after emigrating from Ukraine to Israel, Rottstein is again hiding from war, living deep underground in bomb shelter 215 in the Eshkol neighborhood of Qiryat Shemona.

Mr. SAMUEL ROTTSTEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: We lived through World War II. We were evacuated under fire and we survived, he says. And this, too, we will survive.

Shelf-like metal beds, three-high, topped with a thin mattress are bolted to the thick walls. The exhaust system hums as Rottstein's wife, Vatalana(ph) sits on a metal bed looking exhausted and clutching a wooden cane. She's had two strokes and suffers from diabetes, he says, and his wife can't get around easily. They have no car. My legs are my car, Samuel says with a smile. So, he adds, we have to stay. We have no choice.

Mr. ROTTSTEIN: (Through translator) What can we do. We are sick and old.

WESTERVELT: The daily Katyusha fire has left farm fields and lawns around here burnt and blackened. Buildings and homes have been hit, including a factory yesterday. Rockets have also struck the main road through town. Several cars there lie abandoned and trashed, their frames looking like they were riddled with .50 caliber machine gun fire from the nickel-sized ball bearings Hezbollah is packing into the rockets' warheads.

Rottstein says he's confident the Israeli army will prevail, but he wonders what will happen when the shooting stops.

Mr. ROTTSTEIN: (Through translator) We and they are shooting each other, beating each other, Israel and the Hezbollah. What's going on? To get out of it, what are going to be the consequences and the results? We don't know. We can't say.

WESTERVELT: The Rottstein's neighbors, the Kuperstachs(ph), are also living the subterranean shelter life, trying to adjust as the war enters its third week.

The sound of the rockets can drive you to the edge, says 67-year-old Ludmilla(ph) Kuperstach, wearing plastic sandals and a floral housedress.

I don't want anyone to have to get to know the sound of the rockets, she says. It's awful.

Ms. LUDMILLA KUPERSTACH: (Through translator) Can you adjust to hell? It's not comfortable, but it's a war. I didn't choose the war.

WESTERVELT: Ludmilla Kuperstach has brought a few items from her apartment upstairs to her makeshift life below: a bedcover and pillow, plastic water heater for tea and coffee and a jar of sugar. On a folding wooden chair next to her cot sits a can of sunflower seeds and a stack of crossword puzzles from a local Russian-language newspaper.

We have nothing to do, she says. We watch a little TV and we worry a lot. We have bad thoughts, she says, because of our relatives serving in the army. She says she doesn't leave because she's not in great health and her son who works in a nearby kibbutz is sick.

Ms. KUPERSTACH: (Through translator) I thought it would last a week. Like always, it takes just a week. But it goes on and on. But, still, Israel will win. Israel will win.

WESTERVELT: Most days, the city delivers a hot lunch to the shelter. A few times a day, when authorities tell them it's okay, they quickly venture outside the bomb shelter to one of the few stores that's still open or to their apartments above.

We wash up, Kuperstach says, and make a little dinner, usually sandwiches and coffee. Then they quickly bring the food down below to eat. Kuperstach wipes her brow. I'm tired, she says, a little tired.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Qiryat Shemona on Israel's northern border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.