Robi Damelin (Israel)

“The first words that came out of my mouth were 'do not take revenge in the name of my son'”

Photography by Brian Moody

In March 2002 Robi Damelin’s son, David, was shot by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army. He was 28 years old. Robi now works for The Parents Circle, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families supporting reconciliation and peace.

When I was told that David had been killed, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “do not take revenge in the name of my son”. It was totally instinctive.

David had phoned me just the day before. “I want you to know that I’ve done everything in my power to protect this road block, but I’m like a sitting duck” he said. Afterwards I had a strange feeling and set about cleaning the house. I’m terrible at housework but that day I worked like a maniac.

David was the most humanistic person you could meet. At the time he was working with the Peace Corps and doing a masters in the Philosophy of Education. He was killed because he was a symbol of an occupying army.

He’d already done National Service, which had been deeply problematic for him. He would rather have gone to jail than serve, but he knew that as soon as he was released they’d only post him somewhere else. So in the end we both agreed it would be better to serve as an officer and set an example by behaving like a human being. When in 2002 he was called up to the reserves we had the same conversation, and once again David decided to go in order to set an example.

After he was killed I was beside myself with grief; friends from all over Israel arrived with food and drink and other little expressions of love. One of the soldiers who had survived the attack also came. He was afraid I’d judge him for not running out to help David. I told him, ‘who do you think I am to judge a man for not going out and getting himself killed?’ Because I ran a PR office in Tel Aviv at the time, journalists wanted to interview me. In retrospect, I can’t believe I spoke out so strongly so early on – telling the Israelis to get out of the occupied territories.

The Parents’ Circle noticed what I was doing and its founder, Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994, called me. The organisation soon became my lifeline. I now spend my time travelling the world, spreading the message of reconciliation, tolerance and peace. The pain of David’s death never goes away, but what do you do with this pain? Do you invest it in revenge or do you think creatively?

Ten months after David died I met Nadjwa Saada, a Palestinian woman who had recently lost her daughter. A soldier had mistaken their car for the car of a terrorist and shot the 12-year-old girl dead. As I walked into the crowded room I recognised Nadjwa because bereaved mothers know each other instinctively. Shared pain creates an intimacy.

I think of David all the time. We were such great friends and had so much in common. Every week I visit the place where he’s buried with my other son, Eran. The parents there make beautiful gardens around the graves. I see it as a continuation of motherhood; the enduring need to tend to your child.