ISTANBUL, Turkey — “The Tel Aviv airport has been bombed.”
When the Turkish Airlines representative came up to me in the Lagos Airport in Nigeria and asked if I was heading to Tel Aviv, I thought he wanted to do an additional security check or something similar. I wasn’t ready for what he said next.
“All flights to Tel Aviv around the world have been canceled because the airport was bombed,” he said, again.
I was still reeling from my first week in Africa, an overwhelming sensory attack of colors and smells and crushing poverty and the notorious traffic of Lagos, so at first I thought, I can’t possibly be hearing that right.
“What do you mean, bombed? Were people hurt? What happened?”
“I don’t have any information,” he told me. “Just that you have to stay in Lagos. You cannot continue on to Tel Aviv and there is no accommodation for you in Istanbul.”
My mind started racing, trying to figure out what had happened. Was it a rocket? A terror attack? There was no internet in the Lagos airport and I’d given back the Nigerian phone I borrowed.
But in times of crisis, I did what any Israeli would do: I started to argue.
“It can’t be bombed,” I told him. “There are ridiculous levels of security. And if you think I’m staying one more night in Lagos, you’re crazy. I’ve had it with this place. I’m getting on that plane to Istanbul because I want to be as close as possible to Israel.”
Just then another Israeli wandered up. “Was Ben Gurion Airport bombed?” I asked him in Hebrew.
“No, no, a rocket fell in Yehud,” he told me, referring to a suburb just a few kilometers from the airport.
“See, I told you that Ben Gurion wasn’t bombed,” I insisted to the poor clueless Turkish Airlines attendant, feeling victorious that I had a small measure of control over the situation.
“They’re scared because of what happened to MH17,” said the Israeli, named Haim, referring to the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down over Ukraine last week.
After the adrenaline rush of a possible tragedy abated, the reality sank in. “I’m not going home?” I thought to myself. I thought back to the hellish two hour journey to Lagos airport (a drive that took 15 minutes without traffic, when I arrived in the country at 1 am), the 17 different stages of security I had gone through at the worst-organized airport in the world, including government officials accusing me of smuggling antiquities out of the country because I had a carved wooden figurine given to me by a group of nuns.
Then I thought of the past week that I’d spent glued to Israeli news sites and Facebook whenever I could get an internet connection, and Al Jazeera when I could find a TV. I thought of friends in Israel, the heartbreak of hearing of the deaths of the Israeli soldiers, the rising casualties on both sides — each time I checked the tolls were higher — of being so far away and imagining the funerals and the pain and the tears.
Though I was thrilled to be in Nigeria to report on the work of African nuns and their struggle against the fanatical terrorist group Boko Haram for the new website Global Sisters Report, being away from Israel during a tense situation is very difficult. The thought of not returning to Israel on Wednesday afternoon made my heart drop.
I convinced myself that it couldn’t be true, that by the time I got to Istanbul they would have changed their minds — better to get as close as possible to Israel, I reasoned. But when I finally got off the plane in Turkey, there it was in red letters: every other flight boarding was in green, but Tel Aviv was red: canceled.
The Istanbul airport wasn’t much better organized than Lagos, and I had to wander between different security checkpoints for over two hours trying to find the hotel desk, bumping into other hassled and angry Israelis along the way and getting more and more frustrated that I couldn’t just get on a plane and go home like everyone else, heading everywhere else, seemed to be doing.
While my experience so far certainly wasn’t as bad as the Pegasus flight that got turned back to Istanbul Airport just moments before landing in Israel, 23,000 passengers on incoming or outgoing flights are being affected during the first 24 hours of the freeze. Photos of Ben Gurion Airport show nearly empty security lines.
Israeli airline El Al has been adamant that it will not stop flights to Israel. American carriers Delta and United were the first to cancel on Tuesday, hours ahead of a 24-hour Federal Aviation Administration ban on American flights to Israel. In addition to Turkish Airlines, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss, and Austrian Airlines have also canceled flights. It is the first time since the 1991 Gulf War that airlines have canceled flights en masse due to the security situation.
On Wednesday, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew into Israel on a solidarity mission. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz slammed the airlines that decided to cancel, led by the American companies. “There is no reason that American carriers in particular should stop flights and give a reward to terrorism,” he said in a press statement on Tuesday. Later the government announced it would send four planes to Istanbul to pick up Israelis stranded there.
In Istanbul on Wednesday, a handful of Israelis still trying to figure out what to do dashed from counter to counter with trolleys full of luggage.
“OK, there’s a little tiny bit of risk,” said Haim, the businessman who was on my plane from Lagos. “But really, we’re probably safe. I think [canceling the flight] is an exaggeration. It cuts off the country, it completely cuts off Israel,” he said.
“For two weeks there have been rockets towards Israel and just today they close? I just want to get to my family.”
Haim, who has worked in Lagos for 10 years, has three daughters he hasn’t seen for almost three months. His oldest daughter is a commander already out of the army who was called up to serve in Operation Protective Edge, and his middle daughter is currently enlisted and also involved in the operation. His youngest daughter is only 13. “She hasn’t left the bomb shelter for two weeks,” said Haim, who is from Rishon Lezion. “She says she’s fine, but complains all the time that her stomach hurts, she can’t even sleep at night because her stomach hurts, and it’s all from fear and stress.”
I don’t have a family in Israel, but I’m still anxious to get back. I was supposed to have landed in Israel by now, hop on the train and have the sabich sandwich and carrot/orange juice that I had been looking forward to all week, see my friends and hug them, get news updates in real time and feel like I am a part of the country during a time of need.
Instead, I’m in a nondescript hotel room somewhere near the Istanbul airport, miles from downtown, feeling adrift and helpless. I love travel, and I love layovers in interesting cities like Istanbul when I have time to take the train downtown and poke around and eat some local food. But I did that on the way to Lagos. And there’s a time for the exciting newness of travel and there’s a time to be back with the people who know you and love you.
I know it won’t help Israel or the situation or the funerals or the heartbreak at all if I’m back in the country. But it would help me.