Motty Bukchin has been identifying bodies from gruesome terrorist attacks for a quarter-century, but nothing prepared him for the scenes he encountered in devastated Gaza-area communities this week.
“In [Kibbutz] Kfar Aza, it was a very difficult experience. Entire families were slaughtered in cold blood there. Some of them were burned, probably alive, because the murderers set fire to houses. Some of the bodies were badly abused,” he said.
From the moment Bukchin says hello, the exhaustion and the weight of what he has seen is evident in his voice. The official death toll stands at 1,200, and it continues to climb.
Bukchin volunteers for ZAKA, an emergency response organization that aids in the identification of victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters. Although many of the organization’s more than 3,500 volunteers are trained medics, ZAKA is better known for gathering body parts and even spilled blood for proper Jewish burial.
“We have been on the assignment throughout the entire southern region, since Saturday at noon until now, every single day,” he said.
Bukchin and his team’s journey took them from the Gaza Bypass Road, where they encountered hundreds of corpses inside vehicles on the roadside, to the kibbutzim where Israelis suffered unimaginable horrors.
“In Kibbutz Be’eri, for the first time, we saw such a high concentration of corpses in such a small place,” Bukchin said. “I have been at ZAKA for 25 years, and there have been many difficult events during these years—intifada, wars, terrorist attacks, but the number of corpses and the brutal manner in which they were murdered I do not remember encountering.”
He declined to elaborate on what he saw. As of midday on Wednesday, 108 corpses had been found at Be’eri.
“Out of respect for the dead,” Bukchin said, his voice cracking.
The work of identifying bodies is physically and emotionally grueling, compounded by the constant threat of rocket fire and the fear of lurking terrorists.
“Inside the kibbutzim, there were loads of explosives, booby traps and grenades everywhere,” Bukchin said.
“The forces cleared the kibbutzim as we entered, going house by house, checking that it is safe to enter the houses. And then we go in to do the work. The scenes we see are really difficult to deal with. They attacked the people in their houses; they had no chance to fight off the attackers.”
Pausing to gather himself, he added, “There were dozens of babies. … That is a situation that is hard to describe.”
Bukchin makes no attempt to hide the pain. “It’s terribly difficult, but we are on a holy mission. It’s important. We try to support each other and mostly wait for the nightmare to end.”