Israeli Rescue Crews Are Heroes to Bereaved Nation
They honed their skills after earthquakes in Mexico and Armenia, bombs in Argentina and Scud missile attacks at home in Israel. Now world experts at rescuing the living from rubble and recovering the dead, Israeli soldiers are running a round-the-clock effort to dig Kenyans out of the ruins left by a terrorist bomb.
“You are heroes,” a Red Cross volunteer shouted at the Israelis on Sunday.
“We are not heroes. We are only working,” Maj. Ofer Pomeranz answered with a modest shrug.
“Yes, but you know what you are doing,” she said.
Israeli know-how is saving lives--at least three since the team arrived Saturday afternoon. In turn, the operation in Kenya is boosting Israel’s prestige and earning goodwill toward the Jewish state at a time when much of the world is blaming it for the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Israeli rescuers here insist that their intentions are strictly humanitarian, and they refuse to discuss Middle East politics, which hang like a question mark over the near-simultaneous bombings Friday of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While no culprits have been identified, many political analysts suspect that Israel’s enemies in the Arab world are responsible for the explosions and that Israel has an incentive to get close to the scene in Nairobi to gather intelligence.
In fact, military analysts say that while Israeli intelligence officers undoubtedly are on hand, they stand to gain little information from the broken buildings where the crews are working because the actual bomb site and American Embassy have been cordoned off by U.S. officials.
Rather, they say that Israel is repaying a political debt to Kenya, which served as a base for Israel’s raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport in 1976 to rescue the 106 Jewish passengers from an Air France flight hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Of those, 103 were saved.
“Everything was done through Nairobi, including refueling and intelligence,” said Zeev Schiff, military affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
But to average Kenyans, the “why” of the Israeli effort is beside the point. To them, the important fact is that about 200 Israeli soldiers arrived to help before anyone else did.
“ISRAELIS STEP IN,” the Nairobi Times heralded in a huge front-page headline.
“We are very grateful for these guys,” said Elizabeth Njoroge, a Red Cross volunteer who had been wringing her hands over the poor rescue attempt the day before.
“We could not have done anything single-handedly. In our culture, when you lose someone in the family, people come to stay with you. The Israelis have come to stay with us,” she said.
In the hours after the Friday morning blast, the Kenyan army and well-intentioned citizens did their unequipped best to dig people out of the collapsed Ufundi Cooperative building, a five-story office complex, while Americans focused their efforts on the adjacent U.S. Embassy, the target of the attack.
Israeli troops began arriving about 4 p.m. Saturday, having obtained a rabbi’s sanction to work on the Jewish Sabbath in an effort to save lives. They came with years of experience, truckloads of high-tech equipment and eight working dogs, each with a Star of David emblazoned on its leather harness.
They brought drills, saws, compressors and communications equipment and set up a command center on site under Brig. Gen. Ilan Harari. Then they leaped into action--with their own camera crews filming every move.
“It’s an important mission, a dangerous mission. We have a lot of staff and a lot of equipment. That’s why it was decided to send a high-ranking officer,” Harari said.
The rescue team, many of its members from army reserve units, included some who had cleared rubble after an Armenian earthquake in 1988. Some helped on the recovery operation after the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center bombing in 1994, which killed 80 people. And some worked to free three Israelis from a building leveled by an Iraqi Scud missile during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“It’s the same everywhere,” said Pomeranz, a veteran of the operations in Argentina and the Israeli city of Ramat Gan. “There were many people around who didn’t know what to do. Our first mission was to get them out. The situation was delicate. If you touch one beam, you can kill someone 5 meters away.”
There were no floor plans of the Ufundi building, but they studied a hand-drawn map of the top floor that someone had made, then brought in the dogs and heavy equipment. They raised lights that would allow them to work through the night and turned on listening devices so sensitive they could detect a buried finger tapping or the whispered cry of a dying man.
“The Americans stopped working when it got dark,” one Israeli said. “You know what one said to me? ‘What’s the difference? They’re already dead.’ ”
Many of the victims died from the sheer force of the blast. “It tears you up inside,” a soldier said.
Others suffocated. The building was not heavily fortified by steel beams, and the explosion turned the concrete to powder, leaving few air pockets. From the top, the ruins look to be an amalgam of wood, cement, tile and twisted metal. Bodies are lodged into the solid mass along with bits of office furniture and accounting ledgers.
While helmeted Israelis direct 120-ton cranes lifting broken walls from the top, Kenyans in facemasks and rubber gloves dig through the lower reaches like children scooping up sand.
“Most of the work you do by hand,” Lt. Alon Seren said. “You have to dig by hand so you won’t drill into someone underneath. I was digging by that ladder over there. I saw some blood, dug some more and saw some more blood. That’s how you find people.”
The scene “all looks very familiar,” said Pomeranz, a civil engineer by trade. “That building was made of clay and turned to dust. No one can live in that.”
In fact, the Israeli crew labored to save two people who were buried in the Ufundi building. By boring through the top of the heap, they managed to free 45-year-old businessman Francis Nganga fully conscious about 10 p.m. Saturday. They were able to converse with another woman while lifting concrete walls off her by crane but then lost contact with her Sunday morning. They were still hoping to find her alive.
Meanwhile, another crew began to search surrounding buildings that were standing wrecks. About noon Sunday, or roughly 50 hours after the devastating explosion, they discovered a mother and her 13-year-old son in a caretaker’s quarters on the roof of a blown-out, 21-story bank. Scared but unharmed, Grace Akinyi and her son, Gabriel Wasonga, walked out of the wreckage in a daze.
“She told me they were waiting for her husband,” said Ilan Citron, the Israeli soldier who found them. “The boy was in a state of shock. He didn’t want to go down.”
As Sunday wore on, and the likelihood of finding survivors diminished, nerves began to fray. The Israeli and Kenyan flags flew side by side at the excavation site, but tensions rose between tired Israelis and Kenyan soldiers who had been elbowed aside.
“You are not being very helpful,” a Kenyan officer shouted at an Israeli officer talking with reporters in an area he wanted to clear.
The irritated Israeli moved the group and got on with the rescue effort.
“We didn’t come here to be heroes. We came to help people,” Gen. Harari said, adding that they will stay until the job is done.
Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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