'The Gravity of Fear': Indian caregivers in Israel talk to RT about war
Anu Robin was asleep in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border, when Hamas struck Israel on October 7, at 6:30 am. She was lying down but did not rise, thinking it was not a severe strike, but then, realizing it was, she was shaken. Without brushing or bathing she hid in a mamad (acronym for Mekhav Mugan Dirati – a reinforced security room, or bomb shelter, that all apartments in Israel have). The attack gathered strength as the bombing persisted for an hour.
Amid the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, about 6,000 nurses from India’s southern state of Kerala, which is famous for its healthcare professionals who ply their trade around the globe, work as caregivers in Israel.
Anu, 35, is from the Idukki district in Kerala, and has been in Israel for four years and eight months and is the caregiver to an 89-year-old woman. She says she has witnessed several war-like situations over the years.
“There is a minor strike from Hamas every year,” Anu told RT. “There would be bombing without any casualties. Israel would react, but it would soon end in ceasefires and talks.”
"But this year the strike was different,” she says, “the timing, the gravity.” Hamas attacked on a day on which both the Simchat Torah celebration and the Jewish Sabbath fell.
Ashkelon became one of the most war-affected and vulnerable areas. Sirens wailed every ten minutes on the war’s first day. People were immediately alerted to head to the mamad.
“We followed alerts diligently because we had no clue where the bombing was occurring as on Sabbath, believers won't watch television,” Anu says. “What we went through on the first two days was horrible. After every siren we saw fumes in the air and fire on the roads, roofs of houses being destroyed, and gutted vehicles. I saw dark fumes everywhere that scared me awfully. Mobile and internet networks were jammed and made it all scarier.”
The bombing continued until October 12. “We didn't dare to take baths all this time,” she says. “A siren would sound while we were in the bathroom and we had to rush to the mamad just draping a bath towel. We were too scared to cook or even eat as we might have to rush to the shelter at any moment; there is just a 15-second warning.”
“One day I was in the mamad till 1.30 am as we were informed that three terrorists were in the area and we should not open the door. We were updated that they had been killed but the sirens continued. The noise of bombing still lingers in my ears. I was scared to death that night,” she says, adding that life is in shambles after the attack.
October 20 marked the 14th day of the war. “I had only heard about wars,” she says. “But I feel safe here, same as a citizen. But it is tough to pretend all is well when I speak to my family.”
Anu's care-receiver is hospitalized. “Her relative drives me to the hospital,” she says. “There were bombings while we drove. The order is to stop the vehicle and lie down during bombings. I can't even express the fear of those moments.”
Her care-receiver’s condition had deteriorated. “She is bed-ridden and fed through tubes. Oxygen saturation is an issue,” Anu says.
“On October 7 there was no electricity. I had to get an oxygen cylinder for her. We didn't get any help as it was war. By evening I shifted her to hospital by ambulance. What I witnessed at the hospital was more disheartening; like a disaster. There were thousands of wounded people, scores of doctors and nurses, and military personnel. I didn't know what to do,” she says.
She says that the intensity of the war has been reduced since October 16. "But the roads of Ashkelon are deserted, there is bomb shelling twice or thrice a day, buses are deserted, and everyone prefers to be at home. A lot of people with kids shifted to safer regions.”
Caregiver Riji Melvin (name changed on request), who is based in Jerusalem, told RT: “I have seen many war-like situations in these years in Israel. Alas, the gravity of fear that I feel now is something I have never experienced. Life now is counting every minute, in fear of bombing.”
Riji has taken shelter in the mamad at least four times a day since the war broke out. She has hardly slept since. The 50-year old nurse from a southern district in Kerala has worked as a caregiver in Israel for nine years. She currently cares for an 85-year-old woman in Jerusalem.
“People living in border regions like Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beersheba, and on the Lebanon border get only 15 seconds to hide in mamads. But in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv people get 15 minutes to get to safety,” she says.
Though she witnessed fire caused by the bombing, Riji won't step out to check.
“I hadn't slept after the strike, but somehow got some sleep in the last two days,” she says. The fact that Jerusalem is safer than Ashkelon is of small comfort. “I feel worried about the whole of Israel,” she says. “It protects immigrants in the same way as its own nationals.”
Life is no different for Saji Oliver, of Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district. He has been a caregiver for a 93-year-old man in Tel Aviv, in central Israel, for four years.
“It’s terrible. It has been 12 days since me and Appachan [a word of respect for the elderly in Malayalam, language spoked in Kerala - RT] stepped out of the house. Sirens keep sounding and it is not possible to shift him immediately to safety,” the 31-year-old told RT.
During the Hamas-Israel conflict in 2014 Saji was back home and got information only through news reports. Never did he imagine that he would one day himself witness war.
“The war has mostly affected the border,” he says. “Our friends in Ashkelon would send us panicked messages, with the videos of the strikes. The first attack happened at 6.30 am on Saturday. A friend (also a Keralite) went to church with her care-receiver and told me she heard a huge sound of a missile strike 100 meters away from her place. We got scared and communicated through Malayali messaging groups. If a siren is heard in Ashkelon, it will be heard in Tel Aviv too and we would hide in a mamad. There were days when we had to hide five to six times. Not all mamads are spacious and hiding in them is exhausting.”
But not all houses, especially the older ones, have mamads, and people in those houses hid under the staircase or even between walls. “The fact that there is an Iron Dome to protect us from missiles does not make us less scared,” Saji says.
His care-receiver is a retired engineer. A normal day for the duo began at 8 am, an hour after which they left for a club for the elderly, from Sundays to Thursdays. (There is no club on the Sabbath days of Friday and Saturday.) There are around 20 elderly people at the club and their caregivers too. While the care-receivers engaged in club activities, the caregivers socialized. In the afternoon, they returned home and rested, and in the evening, they went for a walk to a nearby park.
That routine has disappeared. “We are really stressed. It is like living in jail,” Saji says. “We can’t tell our family and make them worry. People in Kerala have never witnessed anything like war. Our families are scared by news reports, we try to calm them, telling them that the country is protecting us.”
Saji has not witnessed a strike himself but was told by Malayali friends about the sights they saw, such as stumbling upon dead bodies after opening a house’s front door. He says that mutual support keeps them united during sleepless nights.
People in his area haven’t suffered scarcity of essentials but they fear that stocks won’t last. An alert was sounded on the third day of the war that there would be no electricity or water for 32 to 48 hours, and to stock essentials. It led to panic buying.
“A missile crushed half of the house of a friend of mine in Ashkelon,” Saji says. “She managed to shift her care receiver to the mamad on the ground floor. In Tel Aviv an acquaintance and his care receiver had a narrow escape from a missile attack.”