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Suicide bombing took his parents, three siblings

Meir Schijveschuurder walks down the hallway of the Intermountain Jewish News. He's sleepy after the flight from Israel to Denver, which arrived just yesterday.

Meir's hair is long; his dark brown eyes tired -- actually beyond tired.

When someone offers coffee, his expression lifts.

"Coffee? Yes. Two sugars and milk."

Meir, 21, goes back outside for a cigarette. David Douek, director of media relations for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, sits at the conference table. He is Meir's coordinator, and comforter.

Meir returns. He's ready. "OK," he says, his voice low and strong.

On. Aug. 9, 2001, his parents, Mordechai, 43, and Tzira, 41, sister Ra'aya, 14, brother Avraham, 4, and sister Chemda were killed with 10 other Israelis at Sbarro's Pizzeria in Jerusalem.

Two of the Schijveschuurders' daughters, Leah, 11, and Chaya, 8, were hospitalized with severe injuries.

His service in the Israeli navy completed, Meir is currently studying law in Ramat Gan.

"I'm Orthodox," he prefaces. "Well, light Orthodox."

David Douek smiles.

"I think he means modern Orthodox," Douek suggests, then reconsiders. "Perhaps not."

Meir explains.

"I believe. It's hard to wake up every morning and pray. I do the best I can."

But he's not here to talk about religion or the law or Mideast politics. For five days, he will meet with the Denver-Boulder public and Colorado legislators to discuss how a single afternoon forever changed his life.

Meir was on the IDF base on Aug. 9. He had spoken to his parents about 30 minutes before the bombing. They told him they were going shopping but didn't mention stopping at Sbarro's first for lunch.

The suicide bomber entered the packed downtown Jerusalem restaurant at 2 p.m. and set off a five to 10 kilogram bomb packed with nails. At least 130 were wounded in the attack, one of the most vicious in the long intifada.

Two older brothers, Shvuel and Ben Zion, were also absent from that fatal meal.

The Schijveschuurder family is Dutch. During the Holocaust, Meir's grandparents on his mother's side were in Bergen Belsen and Theresienstadt. His paternal grandparents successfully hid from the Nazis.

In 1984, when Meir was three, the family immigrated to Israel from Holland. For the last few years they lived in Tel Mond, a religious settlement south of Netanya.

Mordechai and Tzira Schijveschuurder were devoted parents. "They liked the life in Israel," Meir says.

Ra'aya "was a quiet girl. She liked to learn. She worried about me, always fed me when I was home from the army. She was the second mother."

Four-year-old Avraham "was a friend. He was the general of the other kids, always building a fort in the garden."

And Chemda?

"She was just a baby."

The observant family survived the Nazis, but was ripped asunder in the heart of the Jewish state.

"How do I get through this?" Meir asks of the air, and of himself. "I can't answer because I'm in the middle of it. I'm trying to revive my life. If you ask me later, maybe I can answer."

That hot Jerusalem afternoon, Meir happened to call his girlfriend, who works in a Jerusalem hospital. She was extremely busy and said she'd call him later.

"There's been another suicide bombing," she explained before hanging up.

Meir studies the table.

"I don't know why but I went down to Jerusalem and began looking for my family in the emergency rooms. I was feeling bad, in here" -- he touches his stomach. "And I've never had that feeling after a suicide bombing."

A few minutes after he started driving to Jerusalem, a friend in the Magen David Adom, Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross, called Meir's cell phone. "He told me they found my little sister Chaya, that she was alive but needed surgery. They couldn't find my parents and they needed someone to sign a consent form."

Meir called his brother Ben Zion and told him about Chaya. When Ben Zion got to the hospital, Meir took off to search the other hospitals. In one he found Leah. She was critically wounded.

Five family members were still missing.

"Hospitals won't let you look at the dead," Meir says. "They think if those bodies on the beds are not your family, it will be too hard. So it takes a long time to find out anything."

He received a call from another hospital. "They found a 14-year-old girl, in a very bad way. They were operating right then. They thought she might be my sister because of a card or something."

When Meir arrived at the hospital, he was informed that Ra'aya had died.

"They showed me a picture. But still I couldn't be sure it was Ra'aya; her face was so cut and bloody from the bomb. So they took me in that room, and I saw it was her.

"That is the moment you lose hope."

Meir returned to the hospital treating Chaya and Leah. Shvuel, his other brother, had just arrived.

"Our little brother Avraham was there. He was dead."

Ben Zion decided to go to the morgue.

"He found our parents. That was the evening."

Meir eyes are tearless.

"It was harder with my baby sister. There was nothing left of her except some fingers. The bomb crushed her. They did DNA testing, and then they told us."

Leah and Chaya now live in Zurich with Meir's brother Ben Zion, who was recently married.

Leah is doing well. "And Chaya, slowly, slowly she will be better. But her left hand" -- he grabs his own -- "may not grow anymore."

In 1994, the Schijveschuurders lived in a settlement about 10 minutes away from Ramallah on the West Bank. Meir had several Palestinian friends.

"When they heard what happened to my family, they came to see us and say they were sorry," Meir says.

"They know my family. My father would bring his car to their garage. One night a Palestinian child got very sick and my father drove him to a hospital in Israel."

But when Yasir Arafat came to Ramallah, Meir says he closed the discos. "You couldn't walk outside at night. He took away the Palestinians' freedom.

"They hate him," he says, perhaps referring to his old friends. "But they're afraid."

The suicide bomber who killed five members of Meir's family at Sbarro's "came from Jenin. He worked in a pizzeria there. I can't understand how he could do this in a pizzeria in Israel."

Despite the damage and death inflicted upon his own family, Meir possesses an extraordinary sense of compassion for some Palestinians.

"The Palestinians come to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where everyone has two cars and a nice home -- not like my family -- but they see that we live better than they do. We have a strong democracy and economy. Arafat can't build anything."

But suicide bombing is the antithesis of Israel's efforts to defend herself.

"We have no choice," Meir says. "We have to survive. We did not wait a month after the intifada before the army went into Jenin and Ramallah. We waited two years. We waited and waited, and people were dying and dying."

By 9:30 a.m., Meir's subdued demeanor is waking up. He even declines another cup of strong coffee before leaving for an interview with a Boulder newspaper.

He'd like to have his own family some day.

And he wants to remain in Israel.

"Yes, yes, of course. I'm not afraid to go to the cafes or shopping. I'm worried for my brother Shvuel, who is still in Israel, but not for me.

"You know the Cafe Moment?" he asks.

Eleven people died in a suicide bombing at the popular cafe on March 9.

"That was my place," Meir says. "Every time I had the chance to go out, I'd go to Cafe Moment. The night of the bombing I was late. The bomb went off 20 minutes before I got there."

But how can he not be afraid?

"I have -- how do you call it? -- black humor." He tries translating some Hebrew slang that Israeli kids have adopted, then turns to David Douek for assistance.

After the June, 2001, Tel Aviv disco suicide bombing that took 21 young lives, Douek says kids began using certain slang expressions to cope with the situation. For example, the Hebrew idiom for "going out" is the same as "take apart."

"So now it's very common for in Israel for kids to say, 'Have a good time,' which also means, 'be taken apart,'" Douek says. "They also say if something's the best, it's 'the bomb.' It's their way of dealing with things."

Meir laughs quietly.

"When I go to restaurants, we look at people come in and say, 'That's the suicide bomber. No, that's the suicide bomber.' Or we count, '1, 2, 3, bomb!'"

But softness and sorrow whisper, and the smile fades.

"Sometimes it gets scary when I'm driving alone or going to sleep. I think about my family and the life that was."

Meir says he believes his mother, father, two sisters and brother are in heaven. "Or if not in heaven, they're not in this world anymore.

"I think maybe they're guarding me, that they will save me a good place in heaven. I hope."

When things become unbearable, Meir visits the cemetery in Jerusalem where his family is buried.

"I'll tell them what's new with me and my brothers.

"But I'm not waiting for an answer. I'm just trying to continue the life from when it stopped."