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In an assaulted Israeli town, here's what was left behind

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israel has completed the evacuation of its civilians living near the Gaza border. An NPR team visited one empty town that was hit by both rocket fire and by Hamas fighters in the streets. Our team went to see the aftermath, talk to first responders and gather new details about the atrocities that occurred there. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin. And a warning - this report contains graphic descriptions of violence.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The police station in the city of Sderot is gone. This is the scene of a 24-hour firefight between Palestinian militants who came in from Gaza, took over this police station, killed the police officers inside. Israeli police then came, surrounded it, and there was a 24-hour firefight here.

DOLEV DERI: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: A tank rolled through, says Dolev Deri, who lives next door. And it decimated the rocket-proof police station, killing the militants inside. A symbol of Israeli security in the city razed to the ground, cleared away by bulldozers. We stop at an apartment building hit by Gaza rocket fire just yesterday.

(Non-English language spoken).

There are some people living there who didn't evacuate...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: ...A Ukrainian immigrant who's a caregiver for an ill Holocaust survivor. So one woman from a country at war taking care of a survivor of another war in a country fighting a new war. And a few floors above, there are eight guest workers from China. They're construction workers.

JIANG HUA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: They're in a room with beds and cooking pots. We call NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Asia to translate Jiang Hua, who says their boss told them there weren't any vehicles to get them out.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: He says that, basically, they've been hearing rocket and gunfire since Saturday night, and therefore they've been very afraid. But they've been reassured by the presence of Israeli soldiers and police.

ESTRIN: This city of about 35,000 is about half a mile from the Gaza border. You can hear the booms of the fighting. At the entrance of the city, there's a reinforced outdoor shelter, a rest stop for medics and soldiers.

EFI MENAHEM: My role is I'm a sergeant - meaning, in the field, I lead a team. We were here from Sabbath.

ESTRIN: Efi Menahem, an immigrant from the U.K., is the sergeant of a special forces unit of the paramilitary border police. He tells us what he saw on the first day of the attack.

MENAHEM: The first thing I encountered was, on one side of the road, I've got - we've got a hostage situation going on where they've got complete control of a house with the hostages inside. On the left, we've got a few terrorists who entered a home and massacred the family that were inside. And we knew that there were around two terrorists left alive over there. I climbed onto a roof with the head of my unit. I identified the terrorists right under me, probably, like, five meters. I shot down at him 15 times, got rid of him. Then we joined up, we drove over to different villages which we knew were under attack. One was Mivtahim, where we found lots of dead bodies everywhere. There were bodies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere - children slaughtered, heads chopped off, bodies burnt.

ESTRIN: I'm sorry - heads chopped off? Did you see that yourself?

MENAHEM: I saw everything. I saw things which you wouldn't want to see - burnt bodies everywhere, brutalized body.

ESTRIN: Do you think they were chopped off, or they were burned off? Or...

MENAHEM: I don't know exactly what they did. A bit of both, maybe.

ESTRIN: Have you had a chance to breathe, maybe cry?

MENAHEM: No. Any emotions, you lock away. You keep it away. You stay tight-knit with your team. You stay together. You sit together. You talk together - mainly a lot of jokes, dark humor, and keeping morale high. And we're here to fight.

ESTRIN: Do you think about what's happening on the other side in Gaza right now?

MENAHEM: No, no. I hear, every now and again, news or whatever. I tell my team, don't open the news, don't look at the news. It's not relevant. The only thing that's relevant is here, the mission we have. You can't look at the larger picture. What we see is what we see, and we move on. We keep fighting.

ESTRIN: At this makeshift rest area is medic Naomi Galeano, who also responded that day.

NAOMI GALEANO: They throw the keys at us and just say, go, go. So it was me and the driver in one ambulance. We started to go through the road, and you see the bodies all over. In the first kilometer, you see families butchered next to their cars or in their cars. There is no army yet. It's 2 o'clock, like 2:30. The army only got there at, like, 4. You just, like - in your head, you're like, I want to take as many live people as I can.

ESTRIN: How many live people did you take?

GALEANO: I don't know. Not enough. There were more dead than alive. The world doesn't even know yet the amount of butchered bodies. And we were with a command of forces, and they went in. You hear gunshots, and then they open the gate. And they lined us up, all the medics in a line. And they start throwing injured bodies out. And then the doctor is like, start checking. If there is any pulse, to the ambulance. No pulse, side. We didn't even stop to do CPR because, you know, you're under fire. You don't even stop to do that. And at some point, you know, a soldier stopped me and was just like, please, take my friend's body. Please, take my friend's body. Please, don't leave him. And you're like - you look at him and you're like, no, I can't. I'm sorry, we only take the live ones.

ESTRIN: You have a necklace on with two kids. Are those - do you have two kids?

GALEANO: Yeah, I have two boys. Yeah, two amazing boys, 2 1/2 and 6.

ESTRIN: Do you think about your kids in these last couple of days?

GALEANO: All the time. I speak with them all the time in video chat and everything. And they know I'm out here.

ESTRIN: What do you tell them?

GALEANO: So my big kid is, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECTILE FLYING)

GALEANO: ...Is pretty smart.

ESTRIN: That's a - I'm Sorry.

GALEANO: Yeah, it's really...

ESTRIN: We just see a boom there. What is that? That's a rocket? And...

GALEANO: Yeah, that's a rocket towards us. One minute.

ESTRIN: Now, is it a rocket or is it a...

GALEANO: (Shouting in Non-English language).

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: She just called everyone to come inside the safe room.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: We are squeezed in here with the medics, with the soldiers.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: Get in, get in, get in. Wow, you can feel these booms on the walls of this concrete safe house. We step outside and...

GALEANO: OK, I got to go. Sorry.

ESTRIN: She's running. She's running to the ambulance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECTILE FLYING)

ESTRIN: More rockets.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: They speed away in their ambulance as the war rages on on its fifth day.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Sderot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.