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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Bomb aftermath: Grim task of recovery volunteers
Religious medics help a victim of a Jerusalem suicide bombing
Volunteers regard their task as a sacred duty
With Palestinian militants continuing to carry out suicide attacks in Israel, BBC News Online's Raffi Berg talks to the Orthodox Jews who attend the scenes of such deadly attacks and recover the human remains.

Zelig Finer was sitting down to lunch in a Jerusalem cafe when the alert came through on his pager.

The message was simple and chilling: 'Attack at Sbarro'.

The first time you deal with bodies is very hard. You feel quite scared to touch them but you get used to it

Zelig Finer
Zelig, who was little more than a block away from the explosion, ran to the scene and was one of the first to arrive.

The attack at the popular pizza restaurant, on 9 August 2001, was not the first bomb aftermath Zelig had attended, but it was certainly one of the worst.

"There were literally tens of people lying around on the street, on the road, on the zebra crossing, outside by the windows - the windows were smashed and people were half lying on the broken glass," he said.

"There were kids with blood on them lying on the side of the road with their mothers, teenagers with friends, lying there on the floor just crying for help."

Volunteer removes body parts in a box from a bombing at Rishon Letzion
Body parts that cannot be identified are buried

Moments earlier a Palestinian with explosives strapped to his waist had entered the packed restaurant and blown himself up.

In all, 16 people, including the bomber, were killed and about 130 others were injured.

Zelig belongs to an Orthodox Jewish volunteer organisation called Zaka (a Hebrew acronym for Identification of Disaster Victims).

Its members can be seen at the scene of every terrorist attack in their luminous orange and yellow vests, meticulously collecting human remains, from body parts to spatters of blood.

"When you arrive on a scene you don't have time to start thinking. The worst is when you get home that night and you think through what you saw that day," said Zelig.

"The first time you deal with bodies is very hard. You feel quite scared to touch them but you get used to it. In a way it's a bad thing, but you get toughened up."

Psychological trauma

Zaka was formed in 1995 to help police deal with the trauma of large-scale attacks.

Religious volunteers mop up blood after an attack in Azur
Rescuers are meticulous in retrieving body parts and blood
"The police found it very difficult to cope with the victims and the conditions the bodies were in, very hard emotionally, physically and psychologically," said Zelig.

"One of the things our organisation brings along is the faith they have, the faith helps them face those hard situations that they see in front of them."

That faith is based on the central Jewish tenet of chesed shel emet, or true mercy - the belief that no effort must be spared in saving human life, that the human body is sacred, even after death.

"Although they are dead, we still honour every part of the body, every piece of flesh has to be brought to burial.

"Flesh we can't identify we bury together. Pieces of flesh are put in bags and the bags are buried in a special grave in the local cemetery," he said.

Bodies reassembled

When volunteers arrive at the scene of an attack, their priority is to try to save the wounded and dying, but it is not long before they are dealing with the dead.

After a bomb has been strapped to a stomach, the head is normally left intact but the rest of the body disintegrates

Zelig Finer

"Normally the people who were nearest the bomb, which is usually packed with nails and metal, will die, and a person who loses a hand or a leg 99% of the time will also die," said Zelig.

Workers move the bodies inside a tent at the scene of the blast and try to piece the cadavers back together - matching, for example, a hand or a leg to a particular body.

I asked Zelig how they could know they were not honouring the bomber.

"We do have a problem with it sometimes," he conceded, "but we don't have a choice.

"After a bomb has been strapped to a stomach, the head is normally left intact but the rest of the body disintegrates.

"We give the head to the police, who pass it on to the army and they negotiate with the Palestinians on handing it over."

Dangerous duty

The organisation which began with 40 volunteers is now more than 600 strong and operates as a full-time emergency body.

Zaka members clear up after a suicide attack
Zaka's members risk their lives

Its members are equipped with pagers and walkie-talkies and are prepared to go into action at a moment's notice, day or night.

Their system is so efficient they often arrive on the scene before the police, sometimes with tragic consequences.

On 9 March 2002, 27-year-old Zaka volunteer Yisrael Yichya was alerted to an attack in the northern Israeli city of Netanya.

In his desperation to help save lives, Yisrael got there quickly but he was snatched by a Palestinian gunman and killed in a shoot-out with Israeli police.

See also:

08 May 02 | Middle East
Witnesses speak of bomb horror
07 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel bomb blast
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Jerusalem attack
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jerusalem's deserted streets
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Suicide bomb fears haunt Israelis
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Haifa bus bomb
09 Aug 01 | Middle East
Israel stunned by Jerusalem blast
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
18 Jul 01 | Middle East
School trains suicide bombers
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