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Sirens, rockets, riots and exams: A Canadian med student in Israel describes a frightening week and a harrowing flight out

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Jonah Cooper is a 22-year-old Canadian finishing his second year in medical school at Ben-Gurion University in the south of Israel. After a very difficult few days, which included finishing his exams in a bomb shelter, he was able to get a flight out of the country.

Tuesday night (May 11): We are receiving warnings and seeing videos of rioting in our streets and on our university campus. My roommates and I do not leave our apartment other than to go to the grocery store just outside our building. Nobody goes alone. A siren sounds. We enter the bomb shelter in our building for 50 minutes. We hear over 20 explosions, “pops” outside our shelter window as the Iron Dome does its job.

Wednesday: At 3:16 p.m., the siren blares. Then, silence blankets my adopted city of Beersheba. Hours later, after midnight, we hear that Tel Aviv has been hit. I hear rioters in the streets outside my window.

Thursday: I am scheduled to write my Reproductive System exam today. The exam starts at 2 p.m. By 2:56 p.m., the wailing of sirens has begun. I take my laptop and continue to write the exam, alternating between the bomb shelter and a desk in the kitchen. I finish the exam. All further exams set to take place that day are cancelled. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., sirens wail on four separate occasions. Each time, I run to and from the bomb shelter, trying to maintain a sense of normal in the escalating madness.

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I plan for an early night. I hear rioters walking through the streets and others yelling “Dai” or “enough” in Hebrew at them. I fall asleep, and am woken up by sirens around 11:30 p.m. I hear the pops outside our window. I go back to sleep and wake up at 1 a.m. to the same sounds. All I can hear is the sound of popping rockets in the distance and military helicopters overhead. I notice that airlines are cancelling flights, so I reach out to my parents. We move my upcoming flight home from Wednesday, May 19 to the early morning of Sunday, May 16, bringing me to New York instead of Toronto. I just want to escape the impending war zone.

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Friday: My world is calm until 4 p.m., and then it all begins again. We discover that the IDF had not, in fact, invaded Gaza when they claimed the previous day that they were doing so. I am relieved to learn Israel has not truly entered Gaza, and hope for a quiet night. My hopes are quickly shattered. Sirens blare at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., necessitating trips to the bomb shelter. I head to bed early to get some rest. This quickly proves impossible. Sirens blare at 10:20 p.m., so I run back to the bomb shelter. We get the all-clear 10 minutes later, and I go back to sleep.

Minutes later, sirens scream out, and I run back to the bomb shelter. The cycle continues throughout the night. At 6 a.m., the popping of rockets outside is louder and denser than before. News reports confirm that rockets have hit a nearby building and decimated an evacuated home. There are no reports about injuries. I try to go back to sleep.

Saturday: I wake up anxious and exhausted. A group of friends from my medical school class come up with a plan to leave Beersheba Saturday night for our flights early Sunday morning. The newscasts report on highway closures, rocket attacks and about how the severity of these strikes increases each evening.

One of our friends keeps the Sabbath. We ask if our situation is considered life-threatening enough for her to consider breaking the Sabbath to travel with us. Our friend still refuses to travel on the Sabbath and insists that we leave without her.

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Five of us leave the city at 3 p.m. in a rented vehicle. We are anxious, not knowing how the drive will unfold. Every time a motorcycle revs its engine, every time a car pulls to the side of the road, our hearts sink a little bit deeper. Where would we run to when a siren sounds? We distract each other, talking about the school year, discussing anything but our current situation. We are all scared.

We arrive at the airport safely, and collectively sigh in relief. We have entered a high-security area, protected by the Iron Dome. Within two hours, we begin to receive alerts on our phones of rocket attacks resuming. The highway we had just driven on to get to the airport has been hit by a rocket.

We ease through security four hours before our flight. We reconnect with our friend who has kept the Sabbath. She, too, has safely arrived at the airport.

Sunday: I settle into my seat on the plane, take my wallet and keys from my pocket and stow them in my bag. The flight attendants start calling “Please leave the plane, slowly,” repeating the request over and over. And then we hear it. The sirens start wailing. The airport is under attack.

People are told to leave their bags and exit the aircraft immediately. As soon as I reach the airport, the pace changes. Everybody — every child, every adult, every elderly person — is moving fast, running to the nearest shelter. We hear that same popping above our heads. Separated from my friends, I check in via phone to ensure everyone is safe. Back in the airport, we find each other. I exchange pre-flight texts with my family that feel a little bit like goodbyes.

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Some time passes, and we reboard the plane. It is a scene of chaos, as many people have left their passports and tickets in their seats. The tarmac is inspected for debris; the planes are inspected for damage. Less than an hour later, after the longest 100 hours of my life — minimal sleep, a bittersweet finish to my second year of medical school, many messages of prayers and love from family and friends — our flight finally takes off. I immediately turn on a movie to distract myself from thinking about the plane’s journey out of Israeli airspace.

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I wrote this account while sitting on the flight between Tel Aviv and New York. I’ve been thinking constantly about all the messages I received from family and friends, be they Palestinian, Israeli or otherwise. Mine was an experience I hope never to live through again. I understand how fortunate I am to have had the ability to leave when I decided it was necessary. And I feel a deep sense of guilt that I did not stay behind with so many others who could not leave.

The irony is not lost on me that I went to Israel to study medicine to save human lives, only to experience daily encounters with efforts to destroy them. This is a call to remember the humanity of every civilian whose life is currently at risk because of this conflict.

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