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Beyond Nightmares: Israel's Body Collectors Confront Unimaginable Horrors in Their Grueling Duty


Editor's Graphic Content Warning

In the aftermath of Hamas' terror attack in southern Israel on October 7, the dedicated volunteers of ZAKA, a religious search and rescue organization, are grappling with unimaginable horrors as they work to recover the remains of the victims. Yanir Ishay, one of the 120 male volunteers, shared the psychological toll of his duties, revealing how the scent of death seemed to cling to everyday objects, only to realize it was a haunting presence in his mind.

The toll on ZAKA volunteers is profound, as they navigate the aftermath of an attack that claimed over 1,400 lives, according to Israeli authorities. In response, Israel declared war on Hamas, resulting in ongoing airstrikes on Gaza. The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports more than 6,850 casualties in Gaza due to these airstrikes.

Weeks into the conflict, ZAKA volunteers continue their grim task, confronting scenes beyond their worst nightmares. Snir Elmalih, a longstanding ZAKA member, expressed the collective shock of the team, recounting the discovery of mutilated and burnt bodies, including entire families, young children, babies, and pregnant women.

ZAKA, known for its response to terror attacks and disasters worldwide, consists mainly of deeply religious orthodox Jewish men. Their mission is rooted in ensuring a proper Jewish burial for all, irrespective of the circumstances of their death. Elmalih emphasized the profound significance they place on respecting the deceased, echoing the belief that the burial of the dead is as crucial, if not more so, than the respect given to the living. This conviction, he noted, draws inspiration from the involvement of God in the burial of Moses, underscoring the deep cultural and spiritual underpinnings of their humanitarian efforts.

In Ashdod's cemetery, just north of the Gaza Strip, the heartbreaking task of burying the victims of the recent terror attack unfolds daily. Freshly dug graves multiply as more victims are identified and laid to rest, pushing the limits of the burial grounds. The surge in bodies necessitates additional refrigerated storage, highlighting the magnitude of the tragedy.

Amid this grim reality, Yossi Landau, a founding member of ZAKA, visited the cemetery to offer support. As chief of the group's southern command, Landau acknowledges the profound trauma his team endures, attempting to provide emotional solace. The aftermath is so harrowing that only the most seasoned ZAKA volunteers partake in body collection, and even for them, the toll is immense.

Eli Landau, Yossi's son and a fellow volunteer, spoke candidly about the emotional weight they carry. In Be'eri, a community near the perimeter fence breached by Hamas militants, they revisit homes for a second time, uncovering more victims and collecting remains overlooked during their initial visit. The toll is evident, with Eli Landau acknowledging the shared understanding among the team, where tears are a natural expression of the pain they collectively bear.

Jewish tradition dictates the burial of the entire body, compelling ZAKA volunteers to meticulously search for even the smallest fragments and traces of blood. The work is far from over, emphasizing the commitment to returning to each affected community to cleanse it thoroughly, ensuring that every part of the victims can be laid to rest with the dignity prescribed by tradition.

As time unfolds, the task for ZAKA volunteers becomes increasingly arduous. Exposed to the grimmest aspects of the war, they confront scenes that challenge the human spirit—smelling the odors, witnessing the unimaginable. Snir Elmalih emphasized the toll on these volunteers, who not only endure the physical danger of their work but also the profound mental strain.

In Be'eri, as ZAKA volunteers worked tirelessly, foreign journalists, escorted by the IDF, bore witness to the devastation. Yossi Landau, driven by a mission to share the reality he witnessed, recounted the scenes repeatedly. His son, Eli, observed from a distance, expressing concern for his father's well-being, questioning the repetitive nature of reliving such trauma.

The dangers these volunteers face are starkly evident, with Aharon Ben-Shibrit highlighting the perilous moments near the Gaza border fence, where even under military protection, they found themselves under fire. The mental toll is acknowledged by Yanir Ishay, who, while recognizing the finality of death, emphasizes the enduring impact on the mind.

The mental strain extends beyond the battlefield, with volunteers admitting they have yet to fully process the trauma. Disconnecting from the world during their work, they find solace in the mission at hand. Yitzhak Ben-Shibrit encapsulates the emotional paradox: "You come to the field, you start working, and nothing else matters. You get home and then start crying." The psychological weight of their duty is profound, and many volunteers are grappling with the long-term effects of their harrowing experiences.

In conclusion, the harrowing experiences of ZAKA volunteers paint a poignant picture of the profound toll exacted by their humanitarian mission in the wake of Hamas' terror attack. Exposed to the grimmest realities of war, these dedicated individuals face not only the physical dangers of their work but also grapple with the deep-seated mental trauma that accompanies it.

As they tirelessly recover the remains of victims near the Gaza border, ZAKA volunteers find themselves in a relentless cycle of pain, both physically and emotionally. Yossi Landau's mission to share the stark realities with the world underscores the gravity of their task, while his son Eli, watching from a distance, expresses concern for the toll on his father's mental well-being.

The dangerous nature of their work is exemplified by the perilous moments captured by Aharon Ben-Shibrit, where even under military protection, they face the imminent threat of enemy fire. Yet, amidst the chaos, there is a shared camaraderie among the volunteers, a mutual understanding that transcends words.

The profound disconnect from the world during their duty serves as a coping mechanism, allowing them to focus on the mission at hand. However, as they return home, the weight of the trauma becomes evident, manifesting in tears and a struggle to process the indescribable horrors witnessed.

The conclusion is a poignant reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by these volunteers in the pursuit of providing dignity in death. Their experiences echo beyond the immediate battleground, raising awareness about the enduring mental and emotional challenges that humanitarian workers confront as they navigate the aftermath of unspeakable tragedies.