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Wedding leads to a number of COVID-19 cases

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Buffets of canapés and dessert, the sharing of snacks and dips, and horah dancing – allegedly without masks – were just some features of a Jewish wedding held at the height of the second wave in Cape Town, from which a number of community members contracted COVID-19. And while this was one wedding or social gathering that broke the law and flouted restrictions, there have been others.

The daughter of a Johannesburg rabbi and the son of a prominent Johannesburg Jewish family got married in early January 2021. Our source says that under the chuppah, “a man made a speech where he bragged about how his shul was circumventing COVID-19 laws by having people ‘enter secretly through the back’. The general feeling was that his community was more concerned about flouting health precautions in order to conduct Jewish ceremonies than protecting the community from the virus,” the source says.

He says there were about 60 guests, and at first, things seemed safe. “I wasn’t worried as I was sure that there would be a strict protocol that would keep everyone safe.

“On arrival, the staff sprayed hand sanitiser, a registry was filled out, and everyone was wearing masks.” Then things began to shift. “From what I saw, once the bridal party had their makeup on, they didn’t wear their masks. I wasn’t too worried, as there was still social distancing in place. But in the room where the groom was signing the ketuba, there were snacks and dips which everyone was sharing. I thought this was a bit irresponsible.”

He says that at the chuppah, the guests were seated far from each other to create social distancing, but “by the time the horah dancing started, the whiskey was flowing and by now, hardly anyone was social distancing or wearing masks. What also really worried me was the fact that the caterer served the canapés and dessert as a buffet, where guests shared sushi soy dips, finger-food dips, a self-service ice cream machine, and other foods that were obvious virus-spreaders.”

The venue’s owners insist, however, that “no alcohol was served by the venue in any part of the venue. Neither the staff, nor the independent wedding planner, nor the caterer saw any alcohol consumed.” They say staff enforced mask-wearing, and that only family participated in the dancing.

According to the source, “A few days later, I felt very run down and had an extremely sore throat and sinuses. I tested positive for COVID-19. As a healthy person, I have had no serious complications, luckily, but I still had a rough time. After I got sick, I heard from a secondary source that a lot of people at the wedding had caught COVID-19, including the bride and groom.” Another source says that at least two guests have since been in hospital with COVID-19.

“What I saw at this wedding was a general attitude of laxness when it comes to something so serious,” says the source. “The wedding could have been pulled off safely if they had considered a few obvious fixes: simply postpone the wedding until after the second wave; hold the horah dancing outside or cancel it entirely; and the caterer should have had better COVID-19 protocols such as separate dip containers for each person and plates of food rather than buffets.”

The caterer told the SA Jewish Report that she felt pressured into catering the wedding, but “it should never have taken place”. At first she thought she would drop off the food, but was then told to do “normal” catering in the style that the couple wanted. She emphasised that the main meal was plated. She was also asked to cater for the Shabbat dinner and the sheva brochas, but refused. As far as she knows, both those events went ahead. She says a number of rabbis attended the wedding.

Another source recalls being told that it would be a small wedding of 40 people. “The venue was excellent about sanitising, taking temperatures, and registering – it even gave everyone their own pen to write their details. Everything was legally permitted, but I think the lesson our community needs to learn is that at some stage, guests dropped their guard. Being careful 90% of the time isn’t necessarily enough.”

Yet another source who only attended the chuppah says, “The bottom line is that assurances were made that this wedding would be done in a safe way. I’m not entirely sure those assurances were kept.”

Professor Efraim Kramer, the head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand who has worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of the community during the pandemic, didn’t mince his words. “Those members of our community who continue to ignore and deny the reality of death and destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a critical game of Russian roulette with their lives and the lives of others.

“They are breaking the law of South Africa, and Jewish law, and therefore acting simply like criminals, nothing less, bringing shame and disgrace on the Jewish community as a whole. It’s a pity we don’t excommunicate anymore.”

“If these facts are true, then it’s a great disappointment,” says legal expert Professor Michael Katz, a member of the board of directors of the Solidarity Fund. “It may have breached the law, and it’s a danger to human life and health.”

Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “We are very disappointed to learn that a wedding took place under these circumstances. Super-spreader events such as what this could potentially have become are precisely why the second wave of the pandemic has been so devastating to our community and South Africa as a whole.

“Any event which takes place now must meet level-three regulations – there is no compromise. Each infection and loss to the pandemic is a loss to our community and South Africa. Our principal aim is the preservation of life, and we will do what we can to forward that aim.”

Stuart Diamond, the executive director of the Cape SAJBD, echoed these sentiments. “By following the rules, you’re not only protecting yourself, you’re protecting our community. And by doing that, you’re saving lives and ensuring our communal resources aren’t stretched financially and in terms of manpower.”

“We are a five star, tourism-graded venue, set on four acres of grounds with only a small venue on the grounds,” say the venue owners. “There is ample space outside. We allocated six tables inside in a room certified for 150 people. Although they are 12-seater tables, we allowed only six people to be seated at each. The room has frameless, sliding stacking doors on two sides of the venue and four large opening doors on the smallest side. All doors were open. Families sat together at these tables in their own bubbles.

“All serving staff wore gloves, masks, and some wore additional face shields. There was ample sanitiser at several points. The bar has a Perspex shield across it. The wedding ceremony was in the open air, at least 200m from the venue, and the chairs were placed at the correct social distance. We have heard that someone who was at the wedding tested positive the following day. This person must have been contagious at the wedding and could have spread it, but was in no way caused by the venue.”

One of the owners says she was against the wedding going ahead, and has since closed her venues for the next two months. She emphasised that they had no control over the food, and everyone left by 19:30 because of the curfew. “We have won many tourism awards many years in a row, so we are rigorous about the implementation of safety protocols,” she says.

  • The SA Jewish Report reached out to both families who hosted the wedding, but they chose not to comment. The newspaper chose not to use the names of the parties involved in order for them not to be targeted.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Louise Temkin

    Jan 21, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Absolute Disgrace. Who are these people who think they are above the law and who don’t give a toss about other people’s health and safety.Boadting that the back door was open……..Disgusting. Perhaps if G-d forbid one of their own caught Corona and died – that would give them pause to think. I say, name them AND shame them.

  2. Tony Lachman

    Jan 21, 2021 at 11:26 am

    It appears that the law of the country under level 3 lock down does not apply to white privileged Jews, totally contradiction to the principles of Torah

  3. Maxine Nerwich

    Jan 21, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    Who do these people think they are???
    I am sickened and pissed off by their arrogance.
    Just selfish and stupid.

  4. Jade

    Jan 21, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    Another example of how some wealthy and some religious people think they are above or better than everyone else!! At the core of Judaism is care and concern for your fellow jew!! This is beyond disgusting!!!!

  5. Linda

    Jan 21, 2021 at 2:40 pm

    I agree, being religious, does not make people invincible. However, if they catch the virus, then its their own business, and what happens to them, happens. However, if they pass it on to other innocent people, that is a total disgrace and a farce of being a good Jew.

  6. Steven Silverstone

    Jan 22, 2021 at 10:59 am

    This total arrogant disregard for regulations just besides placing so many at risk gives grist to the mill of antisemitic, antijewish forums.
    The Chief Rabbi should personally reprimand these families and make them understand that they arw not above anybody else.They should be named .

  7. Lisa Fernandes

    Jan 23, 2021 at 9:35 am

    Why is it that we protect the transgressors who flout the rules that compromise the rest of us? At a time when the Chevra Kadisha has never been busier burying the victims of Covid no one, not even the daughter of a rabbi should get special dispensation to hide behind the wall of anonymity I wonder if the parents of the bride and groom even feel a twinge of conscience over the superspreader event they hosted? Chances are they don’t

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Young and old on record-breaking aliyah flight

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Families, yeshiva bochurs (students), lone soldiers, and a nonagenarian will be among the 87 new arrivals at Ben Gurion in Israel this week in the largest group of South African olim on one flight since 1994.

“I feel incredibly proud to be a part of this record-breaking aliyah flight. It’s comforting to make aliyah surrounded by so many South African olim who have different expectations and aspirations, but who all share the dream of beginning a new life in Israel,” Eliana Lewus told the SA Jewish Report ahead of the flight on Tuesday, 27 July.

When Jared Glass was three years old, he almost drowned. Thirty-six years later, he will be among this group of new olim. “I feel like I’m being dragged out of the deep and taken to safety again,” says Glass from Johannesburg.

Aliyah is also for the young-at-heart, as Dr Hymie Ehrlich proves. At 91, he’s ready for more adventure (he celebrated his 90th birthday by hang-gliding in his home city of Cape Town). He will join his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law were among the last to land in Israel in January 2021, when the Israeli government closed the airport due to COVID-19.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Ehrlich says, “Everything in life is a step, and this is another step onwards.” He’s sad to be leaving a “beautiful community. I wish everyone b’hatzlacha [good luck] and lehitraot [until we meet again]. See you in Israel!”

His son-in-law, Philip Stodel, says that when planning his own aliyah, “we asked him whether he would consider coming with us, but he was happy to stay. But following the onset of COVID-19, Hymie, who was still active as a medical doctor, was advised to stop working. He also found himself alone at his Shabbat table every week. He started his aliyah process in October 2020. At 91, Hymie’s mind is sharp, but he lacks technical skills. I’ve always been his ‘IT support system’, so I continued to do this remotely [to help him make aliyah].

“One of his biggest tasks was clearing his apartment of just about everything. We know this was very emotional at times. I feel like I’ve done aliyah twice, and I can honestly say that it was far easier the first time! As I sit here on a Friday afternoon, approaching what will be Hymie’s last Shabbat in South Africa, my immediate concern is for the last-minute pressure that I know await us. I will heave a huge sigh of relief once he is on the plane, and a bigger sigh when we see him on Wednesday!”

“The significance of Israel, aliyah, and a home for the Jewish people remains as relevant today as ever,” says recently-appointed Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel) Chairperson Robby Hilkowitz.

“Telfed plays a vital role in facilitating the absorption of new olim,” says Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “Our role is to help new olim prepare for life in Israel. Our services centre on this and include guidance in dealing with the first bureaucratic steps; employment counselling; an in-house social worker; rental apartments in Tel Aviv/Ra’anana [depending on availability] at below-market rates; and a volunteer-based scholarship programme. Our regional volunteers welcome new olim to their communities, and are an important source of information for those considering aliyah as they decide where to settle.”

Hilkowitz says all new olim are required to go into quarantine. “For the first time, we will invite new olim to join our daily virtual Tea at Ten with Telfed, which details the important steps for the early stages of their aliyah journey. These webinars don’t just provide practical guidance, they make sure our new arrivals feel connected. We see the positive influence that a strong, connected community plays in a successful absorption. Our ultimate objective is for olim to integrate fully, to contribute to the country, but not forget their roots because being a part of a connected and dynamic community is empowering.”

They will also provide virtual activities for children and welcome packs. And, olim are invited to participate in a virtual musical Kabbalat Shabbat.

Liat Amar Arran, the director of Israel Centre South Africa, says many of the olim are making aliyah ahead of the new school year in Israel. “Like all flights during the pandemic, there have been challenges. For example, we needed to get agreement from Israel that there is enough space in its quarantine hotels to accommodate them. There has been a lot of work in the past two weeks, and our team has worked around the clock. Olim have to fill in many forms just before they leave.” Even with all of this extra administration related to COVID-19, she’s excited that the flight is able to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Lewus, who is 20 years old, is making aliyah from Johannesburg by herself. “I will be doing a year of national service in Israel [as an alternative to the army] before starting to study,” she says.

While it may seem like this group of olim are fleeing the current civil unrest, making aliyah takes time, and they started the process some time ago. “My aliyah process was gradual. I began the process about nine months ago,” Lewus says.

She is motivated by “pull factor” rather than “push factor”. “When I was in Israel on the Ohrsom gap year, I fell in love with the people, landscape, and feeling of unity. I knew I wanted to go back,” says Lewus. “I wanted to be a part of it, to be able to contribute.

“The recent unrest hasn’t influenced my feelings about aliyah,” she says. “I’m under no illusion that the perfect country exists. However, I do hope for a better future for South Africa. I feel so grateful and privileged to have been brought up as a South African Jew. Our community, culture, and upbringing are unique, and have paved the way for me to embark on my journey. I feel supported by family and friends in my decision to make aliyah, and my biggest hope is that they will be able to visit me soon.”

Tammy Wainer is 34, and making aliyah from Johannesburg with family. “The aliyah department has worked really hard to get everyone on this flight,” she says. “As much as I love South Africa and the comfortable life it offers, as a strong Zionist, my soul has always been drawn to Israel and the better life it can offer me socially and economically.”

Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro says “growing up in a very Zionistic home” is one reason she’s making aliyah. “My late father, Jack Shapiro, was the director of the Selwyn Segal home for 35 years. Although he never made aliyah, it was always his dream,” she says.

Their family is slowly starting to make that dream come true. “My son made aliyah in February, and had the privilege of being part of a historic flight with 300 Ethiopian Jews,” Shapiro says.

She’s motivated by push and pull factors. “I have been to Israel many times, and it has always been a lifelong dream to make it my ‘forever home’. After a horrible experience in October last year, I decided that the timing was right, and started my aliyah process. There were quite a few challenges with our government services, and it took a few months to get all my documentation together. The war in Israel also delayed the process – frustrating but understandable.

“If one is deciding to make aliyah, my advice is to have lots of patience and trust the process,” she says. “Eventually, at the end of June this year, I got approval. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks – I was finally going home. I’m filled with pride and so humbled to be a part of another historic flight. Being a part of such a large group is breathtaking. It’s absolutely amazing that so many of us are returning home.”

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Humanity’s best rises after violent unrest

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The KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community has begun emerging from the shock of last week’s chaos, remaining vigilant and expressing gratitude for assistance provided by the wider community. Moreover, they are paying it forward wherever they can to others in need.

Those working in relief operations in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng describe a spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) among ordinary South Africans that has sparked practical, powerful change.

”We not only helped ourselves, we helped others, and they in turn helped us. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, there was aid,” said Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council.

The Jewish community in the coastal city was hardest hit by last week’s violence and looting, in which businesses were destroyed, food and fuel supplies were disrupted, and communities felt under threat. Now, they say they are humbled by the chain of support that has encircled them.

Lieberthal said the community continued to “adopt an attitude of constant vigilance”, noting that threatening “fake news” still circulated and patrols in residential areas continued throughout the night.

Government security efforts simply haven’t been sufficient, she said. “In spite of the announcements from the government, the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] isn’t here to protect residential areas or citizens, it’s here to protect national key points. The national and metro police are under-resourced and outnumbered.” As such, while “the community certainly appreciates the efforts of the SAPS [South African Police Service] and Metro Police, the community has taken care of itself”.

Lieberthal said the community was still trying to come to terms with the reality of what had hit it. “It’s very difficult for those who weren’t directly impacted by this crisis to understand what it was like to be in the thick of it. Children and adults alike were terrified. We hope that this nightmare is over. It’s now time to pick up the pieces and try and start again.”

The national leadership of the SAJBD, as well as a number of other communal organisations, corporations, non-profits, small businesses, and private individuals has been fundamental to ensuring the delivery of essential items to the community through protected convoys.

“To date, we have received medication, non-perishable items such as flour, tinned foods, oil, pasta, toiletries and personal hygiene items including adult nappies, sanitary towels, formula, meal replacements, medication, and kosher meat – all of which has been delivered or handed out,” said Lieberthal.

Reverend Gilad Friedman of the Umhlanga Jewish Centre described the individual heroism that underpinned collective efforts. There were those who organised private flights to deliver goods; and a local doctor and a pharmacist, who opening up his pharmacy “mid riot”, worked together to help provide chronic medication. Volunteers brought bakkies and vans to take goods to distribution centres at shuls, and some acted as personal shoppers, moving from store to store to try and get the products needed by the elderly. Some are manning the phones, trying to make contact with every community member on record to check up on their welfare.

More than just providing for basic needs, there is also a sense of spiritual unity, according to Friedman. “Last week, people didn’t know if they were going to have food for Shabbat, and one of the rabbinical families at the shul got flour from all the people that they could find, and made challot for all the families.”

Last Thursday, the centre established a helpline with the tagline, “Do you need help, or do you want to help?”

“Since the message went out until today, I’ve had to charge my phone four times a day,” said Friedman. “There is just an endless stream [of calls], and credit goes to the people on the ground making a difference.”

Rabbi Shlomo Wainer of Chabad in Umhlanga echoes Friedman’s appreciation of support. Along with other Jewish community organisations, he is now helping to co-ordinate assistance to impoverished areas in Inanda and Phoenix, having been in long-term contact with a bishop and pastor in those vicinities.

“We have launched what we called ‘Operation Beyond Relief’ because I don’t believe that relationships are only for now because of the difficulties. This is for the continued relationship of goodness and kindness at all times.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the SAJBD, said it was involved in this project as well as numerous other operations to provide food aid across affected areas. “The past weeks have been devastating for our country, and the SAJBD, in addition to assisting and supporting our Jewish community in KwaZulu-Natal, has prioritised the alleviation of hunger that the past unrest has unleashed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”

In collaboration with other foundations in Gauteng, “in the past week, we have supported the distribution of hundreds of food parcels to areas in distress”. These include Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Kliptown, Vanderbijlpark, as well as Alexandra, and more help is being planned for the East Rand.

On the ground, the Board took part in clean-up operations in Daveyton. “Although it was heart wrenching to see the destruction, it was also incredibly uplifting to be part of the solution. We were so moved by the community in Daveyton, that we intend to return with other ways of supporting the community,” said Kahn.

The SAJBD is also working with The Angel Network in KwaZulu-Natal as it organises truck and air deliveries of essential goods. Glynne Wolman, the founder of The Angel Network, said that within four days, they had managed to collect more than R500 000 in funding, and had already dispatched trucks loaded with 1 800 food parcels, 200kg of nutritionally fortified e’Pap, 14 000kg of mielie meal, and one ton of soya meal to help those left in the direst conditions after the unrest.

“We have seen the worst of people, and now we have the chance to see people at their best. More than anything [in the aftermath], it has been ubuntu in its truest form,” said Wolman.

Jewish humanitarian group Cadena’s director of international alliances, Miriam Kajomovitz, echoed Wolman’s observations. The organisation has been helping in Gauteng in various capacities, be it clean-up operations, organising psychological support, and now planning small-business relief for those whose livelihoods were destroyed: “We are all working together. Everyone is giving of their expertise and what they can for the good of all.

“Crisis is always an opportunity for change,” Kajomovitz observed.

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Days of wreckage and reckoning

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As South Africans face the largest outbreak of unrest and violence in the post-apartheid era, the community of KwaZulu-Natal reels from safety concerns, lost businesses, and looming food and fuel shortages.

In Gauteng, while central community areas haven’t been directly affected, the province remains on tenterhooks as it looks at the longer-term effects on the country as a whole.

“It’s like a war zone. I haven’t slept for two days,” said Michael Ditz, shortly before he began another patrol in his Durban North neighbourhood this week.

Ditz, the co-owner of retail chain Jam Clothing, said that last week, they owned 115 stores with a national footprint. This week, “we are now down to 99, we have lost 16 stores. Some have been burnt to the ground, others just had their goods looted.”

“We still have to assess the full damage, but the tragic irony is the long-term job losses – it will take years to rebuild.”

Ditz said it was too early to process fully the shock of the past few days. “I just feel gutted,” he said.

He said they also faced personal danger. “Our families and our houses are under threat. We are literally guarding our own neighbourhood.”

Yet, he said, unity had been forged in this regard. “We have been working with the Muslim community.” A similar collective effort is also happening in Jewish community member Darren Katzer’s neighbourhood in central Musgrave.

“With the Muslim community, it has been unbelievable. We are working closely together, just protecting each other and doing whatever we can.”

Especially as food shortages become a real possibility, “our neighbourhood block is literally having meals with all of us together, so that we can pool our food, because we don’t know if we are going to run out. That’s the reality.”

The looting has decimated businesses, shops, and factories in the area, and the violence is “on their doorstep”. The equivalent of their proximity to the unrest would be something like the looting of Norwood or Sandton in Johannesburg.

Shops are now shut in the vicinity, and where one might be found open, mass queues are forming. Janyce Bear, who along with her husband, Rod, are shop owners in a mall that was looted in Glenwood, said people were trying to source items like baby formula.

She said her family had looters strolling in their neighbourhood, “coming up our road with their trolleys filled with stolen goods. You feel like you are in another world.”

Both she and her husband were recovering at home from COVID-19 when their mall was attacked, and while they are grateful their store was spared, they are devasted for the other tenants.

It’s a sentiment that Jenny Kahn, who owns a store with her husband in the same mall, shares. She described their fellow tenants as “family”, who have even helped with donations to the Union of Jewish Women outreach activities in which she is involved.

“By the grace of G-d and my prayers to Hashem, for some unknown reason, our shop was spared,” she said. The sole reason they can think of for the sparing of their shop is that while they are a jewellery store, they also sell “fancy goods”. These include menorahs, which were on prominent display in their window.

“The majority of the people that buy the menorahs are Christian church goers.” Perhaps, she muses, this acted as some kind of deterrent.

Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council, said that while they were “aware that there has been loss of business and livelihoods within the community”, exact numbers couldn’t be given at this time.

“At present, there are extremely long queues for petrol and food. Supermarkets that are able to open are limiting the items being bought. The SAJBD KwaZulu-Natal and Community Security Organisation (CSO) are hard at work to resolve these two matters.”

“Although tension is running high here, we have an incredible community that has always come together and once again, this is no exception,” Lieberthal said.

The Johannesburg CSO’s director of operations, Jevon Greenblatt, said that while the picture in that province was different to that on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal, people should be careful while also curbing panic and hysteria. Inaccurate posts on social media, for example, could lead to police and security companies being called out unnecessarily, preventing them from attending scenes where they are truly needed.

“Remain cautious and close to home,” he urged.

Amidst the turmoil and horror of the past week, stories also began to emerge of communities fighting back against looters. Property developer Steven Herring, under whose company Tembisa’s Birch Acres was built, witnessed this when his mall was threatened and people from the neighbourhood stood up to the looters.

“It’s amazing to see. When we’re on the edge, it’s unique that people are standing up, stepping up, and showing support. It’s heartwarming to see that at the end of the day, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Yet, he said, this kind of community support was forged right from the start. “When we built the mall 10 years ago, we were hands on with the community every step of the way. On the property, not only is there the mall, there’s a taxi rank, a vicinity for hawkers, a centre-managers office, a car wash, and even shops that are especially allocated to elevate people from being hawkers to shop owners. It’s an all-inclusive process that has been going on for a very long time, and we keep those relationships going.”

On the flipside, Jewish community member Reuben (whose name has been changed), who was involved in security operations on the frontline in Johannesburg, witnessed some truly dark moments.

“We went to a store in Jeppe that had been looted, and where the owners had asked for help to access their store – a small corner spaza shop. As the owners were driving up, you could already see in their faces that their lives were shattered. They started to cry. They were shaking and as they walked into the store, there was nothing. They just broke down.

“I have seen enough carnage and damage, [but I was moved by this]. That was the worst part, you saw the real cost of the violence wasn’t destruction of roads, it was lives.”

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