The Shitrit family came to Sderot from Morocco over 50 years ago.
Shlomo,a father and husband, found a job on a kibbutz. He would harness a donkey and go to work in a tiny cart. His excuse for keeping a donkey was that it was too far to walk, but several horses and rams grazed on his large backyard because this peasant simply could not live without animals. Goats, chicken and geese rambled freely on other people’s properties too; in the 1950s and 1960s Sderot was no more than a large village.
Over 40 years, the town developed an industrial zone, three-story buildings and villas replaced barracks, and residents no longer felt like the country folk. Shlomo ignored his neighbors’ pleas that a residential neighborhood was no place for livestock, and they filed complaint letters. The police would come to remove the animals from town grounds, but each time the Shitrit children clutched at the horses, screaming as if their very lives were being taken away. The authorities capitulated and gave Shlomo a land spot on the outskirts of Sderot to open an animal farm.
It took a decade to build a beautiful ranch. Shlomo was now too old to handle the work, and David, the eldest of his nine children, took over the huge enterprise with hundreds of domestic animals. His two brothers, Avram and Nathan, helped him. They raised sheep and goats for meat, famous for its quality in Sderot and the surrounding communities. There were also countless chicken, geese, and pigeons. But the farms’ main attraction were the horses — about sixty — that belonged to the owners, who rode since they had barely known how to walk, plus scores of others, boarded and trained on the property.
The Shitrits invited Sderot residents to come for riding lessons, and dozens of parents and kids swarmed the ranch on evenings and days-off, enjoying rides, playing with and feeding the baby-animals. New émigrés arrived from the former USSR, and some children, left on their own because adults typically worked two jobs, hung out and helped at the farm. The Shitrits enjoyed everyone’s respect. They did very well financially when in 2001 Hamas-manufactured kassam rockets began to fall on Sderot and the Negev kibbutzim.
One kassam exploding every couple of months, usually hitting the isolated Mem-Shalosh neighborhood and causing moderate damage, did not in the beginning qualify as a tragedy. Then, multiplying victims of shrapnel and flying glass stirred the residents from their “it-will-pass” confidence. With few fatalities, Sderot cries for help mostly fell on deaf ears, despite sympathetic press coverage of special cases, like two Ethiopian children killed outside their home on Rehov HaGai or another boy, whose legs were blown off.
At least 6,913 kassams exploded in the residential Sderot; some sources say nearly 10,000, to include rockets that were never found. Since the 2005 Israel evacuation from the Gaza Strip, kassams fell almost daily, dozens on some days. The authorities introduced the “Red Alert”, official public warning of every launched missile. A recorded voice would cut into the racket of the day or the stillness of the night abruptly to announce that everyone has fifteen seconds to get to a shelter. I’ve never heard a more repulsive female voice; it is very upsetting, especially when the message repeats itself, interrupted each time by a falling rocket.
After one kassam landed on the Shitrit farm, several visiting children had to be treated for hysteria. Another blast sent David’s deaf-mute son to the hospital for shock-treatment. A nine-year old girl named Michele was riding when her horse flew into a wild cantor triggered by the “Red Alert”; this was the last time the child’s father brought her to the ranch. Soon there were no more visitors: the Sderot residents have been keeping away from open areas, where most casualties have occurred; they feel safer inside. So, the Shitrits sold their horses.
Several farm animals died in the explosions, and the goats and sheep began to have miscarriages. In their fleece the Shitrits found shrapnel pieces. The sheep did not complain; they stopped having babies. “It is anxiety,” confirmed a local veterinarian, “Nothing to be done. You’ve seen our animals”.
If you suddenly see a flock of pigeons flying in the same direction in Sderot, it’s a safe bet that in a few seconds there will be a kassam blast: the birds hear the “Red Alert” and, knowing what this means, dash to safety.
The “Red Alert” sets off “the insane barking of the dogs throughout the town”, reports Sderot Media Center director Noam Bedein. “Sometimes you would hear these barks a few seconds before the siren itself”. Not many people are on the town streets these days, but, says Noam, there are “packs of dogs moving freely. Big ones, small once, new dogs” joining the pack when yet another family among some 3,000 evacuees leaves, their house destroyed by a missile and their pets abandoned. Noam refers to veterinarian Rami Levin from kibbutz Mefalsim: dogs that arrive at his clinic suffer from skin disease caused by depression. Some have died from heart attacks. Rami remembers a dog that would run to the clinic when he heard the siren go off, hide under the table and refuse to get out from underneath for days. How to reassure “man’s best friend”, who hides and cries, once he hears the “Red Alert”?, Noam asks: “How do you comfort an old lady who has just witnessed her only ‘Friend’ jump out of the window on the fourth floor” after hearing that recorded female voice?
The Shitrits sold for meat hundreds of anxiety-stricken, self-aborting sheep and goats. There was no longer anything to do on the farm; so, David and Avram took jobs in town. But not their younger brother, who, like their late father, cannot live without animals. Once, Nathan found his lost goat among another farmer’s flock. When asked why he decided it was his, he said: “What do you mean? I recognized her face!” He “knew personally” every single sheep on the farm and wept over each one that died in an explosion. The man who worked sixteen-hours a day and woke up in the middle of the night to give his animals their shots now stays in bed most of the time. He tries to sleep, but he cannot. He complains of pains in different parts of the body, even though tests show nothing physically wrong with him. He says that he cannot find a job, but he is not looking. He wants his sheep back. His young family-with a sixteen-month old baby-is falling apart because his intelligent and empathetic wife understands but “can’t suffer his depression”.
“One time I was at the farm during a kassam attack,” recounts Nathan’s mother-in-law Oshrat, a Sderot social worker. “Fifteen seconds of waiting and then an explosion. Not very near, actually. The place was almost empty; only three or four remaining horses grouped close to the fence after they’d heard the “Red Alert”. Maybe they felt it was better to stick it out together. They looked like people I have seen many times in rocket shelters: paralyzed with aftershock, immobile. I started to move slowly towards them, and one horse stirred: she recognized me. She began to walk towards me, looking down. When I reached to pat her on the neck, the horse raised her low-bent head and looked me straight in the face. Her eyes were filled with tears-exactly like human’s. The two of us stood there, looking each other in the eye and crying. I was sobbing now not because I was hysterical; the fear was already gone: I just felt so sorry for that poor horse! After a while she no longer seemed dazed either, but tears trickled from her eyes, and I knew that she felt sorry for me”.