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He tells me all the things a man says to his wife when he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again

war, death, life threatening situation This is a very long post. But it’s a day in my life that I…

He tells me all the things a man says to his wife when he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again

This is for my English-speaking friends.

Trigger: war, death, life threatening situation

This is a very long post.

But it’s a day in my life that I just can’t summarize.

Background: my Udi, a lieutenant colonel, has been serving as a military officer in the Gaza Division for over two years. He comes home on weekends.

Every fourth weekend he remains on the army base, meaning he doesn’t come home for two weeks straight, and we drive to the south to spend that weekend with him at the division base.

These are fun weekends, full of family time and good experiences. The Gaza division is our second home, and its soldiers and commanders are a kind of family for us.

After more than two years, this was supposed to be our last weekend at the division base before he finishes his posting there.

Everything written here is my personal experience, which does not necessarily accurately reflect the events of the day.

Whistle.

Another whistle.

I’m not sure which of us wakes up first. But this moment between waking and dreaming fades very quickly.

“Was that a missile” Udi asks and immediately answers to himself “it’s a rocket, get up quickly! Grab the kids.”

On base, you have 10 seconds to enter a protected space, not enough time to run with three sleeping children to one of the scattered shelters around the base.

We wake up the children and lay them on the floor.

Udi on top of Yali (5), I’m on top of Noam (12) and Liri (9.5).

It is unpleasant to wake up to a siren at 6:30 in the morning, but being on base, it’s not completely unexpected.

We stay calm and reassure the children, and in the first few seconds I still truly believe that it would all be over in a second or so.

But the seconds pass and we realize very quickly that this is not a usual situation.

This is the most intense barrage of fire I have ever experienced in my life, but what is much more worrying is that it is the most intense barrage Udi, who is experienced in combat situations, has ever experienced either.

We lie on the floor and wait for a break that doesn’t come.

5 minutes

10 minutes

15 minutes

20 minutes

We are on the cold floor, folded over, the children start crying that their bodies hurt, and they are afraid.

Every impact of Iron Dome seems to explode in our ears and is felt echoing through our bodies. Non-stop explosions without a break, even for a second. 20 minutes that feel like an eternity.

We understand that we cannot continue to wait and will have to run to a protected space now.

Somehow, I get dressed on the floor,grabbing my glasses, a small make-up bag with contact lenses inside, a cell phone, Noam and Liri put on flip-flops, Yali is barefoot in Udi’s arms, and we start running to the shelter next to his office.I think to myself that in a few minutes it will calm down and we’ll go back to our room, organize our stuff, and go home.

But we never did. We never returned to that room again.

We run quickly and reach the shelter outside Udi’s office. We catch our breath and then I say that maybe we should go to headquarters which is all one protected space because Udi has to go there anyway and I don’t want to be left alone with the children in the shelter, which is basically an empty concrete block. We decide not to delay and run straight to the headquarters. This decision saved our lives.

We arrive running panting, all while there is a thunderous announcement throughout the base:

red alert

red alert

red alert

red alert

red alert

On base, there is no rising and falling siren sound like we typically hear in the rest of the country. There is only a loud announcement “Red alert please enter a protected space”.

The second I enter the headquarters I feel an immediate sense of relief and my alertness calms. “We’re protected” I think to myself in great relief, unaware that in less than five minutes I won’t be feeling that way again until the end of this day.

We enter an empty side room and very quickly we are joined by Shirly and her three sons Yotam, Omer and Lavi. Like me, she also came to spend another weekend with her husband. Our weekend schedule is the same and we always spend it together. We have become good friends. The kids like to play together and I’m glad I’m not alone in the room.

Aside from us, there’s also Lieutenant Shaked, the staff officer who I know very well, and a soldier named Avichai, who I am meeting for the first time, and who is assigned to be in the room with us and guard the door.

While exchanging experiences with Shirly about pulling the kids out of bed at 6:30 in the morning, I start to sense that something is happening, Avichai stands by the door and makes sure it’s closed shut. A very worried vibe is in the air. I hear an exchange of words between them and shouting outside the room. I demand to know what is happening and understand that there’s an alert about an intrusion to the base.

I ask for details in English so that the children do not understand and just hope that Noam, my eldest, won’t listen. I am hopeful it’s just an extra precaution in light of the rocket attack, and I say to myself they’ve probably raised the high alert just to be on the safe side.

But right then, the shooting starts.

****

The Invasion

Anyone who’s served in the military like me, and participated in shooting ranges knows what rifle shots sound like. It’s a very distinct sound that’s hard to miss.

Especially bursts of gunfire.

The volleys sound so loud as if they are right outside the door, inside the headquarters. Thank God they are not.

I think “what separates the terrorists from us? Only a few soldiers and a door”. But these are thoughts I don’t allow myself to linger on at that moment. I hear sounds of shouting and commotion outside the door. I think to myself that maybe we should start stacking tables and chairs to block the door somehow because it doesn’t lock, but soon an officer arrives and fixes the door’s automatic lock mechanism so that it can only be opened from the inside by us pressing the button.

From that moment on, the most popular phrase that will be said all day is “Who is it”?

I don’t know why, but I take a pair of scissors from one of the tables, to keep next to me. Just in case. So be it. We move the children to the inner part of the room. We all exchange looks and can’t believe what is happening.

The gunfire is chilling and deafening. This isn’t a bullet here, a bullet there, but continuous and endless exchanges of fire. We do not yet understand that this is only the beginning.

Liri and Yali didn’t really understand just how much danger we really are in because we spoke English amongst us adults, and I took Noam aside to explain more. Luckily, he believed my vague explanation. I focused on the message that there are a lot of missiles, but we are in the most protected place there is, so we have nothing to fear. There is also an alert for intrusion *to the region* and therefore we are extra, extra careful.

The sounds of gunfire “just sound close to us, but they are not” I explain.

Around 10:00 the door suddenly opens and my heart plummets. Maybe even stops beating for a second. Udi enters. He has a vest, a helmet. He is armed with a rifle and he is injured. His face is covered in blood and soot and his clothes are soaked in sweat and blood. I am happily relived most of the blood turns out not to be his. His appearance is burned into my memory. Like an out of body experience. I see him and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

I honestly thought that he was not in any way involved in the fighting that has been going on outside the door for the last hours.

Udi is a senior officer but a staff officer in the command. I honestly believed that he had been in another room, here at the headquarters, safe, like me. It turned out, no. Only hours later I will hear stories of heroism from soldiers who approached me to tell me how Udi was the first one to jump into the fray when they called for help on the comms, and the first one to attack the terrorists, and save them by doing so.

I watch him frozen. As if time has stopped. I try to understand where his injuries are and he reassures me that a large part of the blood is not his and that the injuries are minor, on his face and his left arm. He takes me aside, hugs me tightly and tells me the things a man says to his wife when he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again. He hugs the children, all smiles and reassures them that everything is fine, conveys a sense of security, that he is strong, and they also snap out of their shock.

I’m worried about his diabetes. There is no food at the headquarters, and no access to the kitchen because the base is overrun with Hamas terrorists. What if his sugar levels drop and he goes into hypo? The only thing we found in the headquarters is cereal- (the small colored ones with food coloring). I take as much as possible in my hands and start filling his pockets, so that if his sugar drops he can eat the crumbs.

Throughout the day Udi will come and go for brief moments, giving instructions to other officers, guiding them and us and going back out there. Every time he comes, or I hear his voice shouting outside the door, I am relieved that he is fine. But the next moment, the gunfire renews and my heart drops again.

The reality is from around 07:00 in the morning and until the evening there were persistent exchanges of fire throughout the entire base between our soldiers and the Hamas terrorists.

Around 14:00 (perhaps before) we are informed that a helicopter with a special forces unit has finally landed to help us. I am filled with joy, hoping we will all be saved, and that in a moment it will be over. But no. The fight continues for many more hours.

Around that time, more and more men and women soldiers who were trapped in rooms all over the base start filling the headquarters. Our room fills up at once. 13 cooks and drivers enter, some without a shirt or only with their shirt and boxer shorts on, the same clothes they were still wearing when the rockets began at 6:30 this morning. One of them with only one flip flop, repeatedly muttering why does he have only one flip flop.

They are shaken and frightened. They start telling horror stories. I understand that they have to vent and have just gone through a traumatic experience, but the last thing I want is for the children to understand what is going on outside and become frightened.

“Hey guys, there are small children here” I start telling them in English and beg them to keep the scary details to themselves. “They don’t know English ma’am” one of them tells me with a wink. “Ma’am he called me”???

But, of course they understand. They play with the children and they are sweet. And their stories terrify me. Tales about terrorists going from room to room in the residences, shooting indiscriminately, throwing grenades.

At the same time, a group of about 25 civilians arrive who fled to the base in search of shelter and protection. Some escaped from the nature party nearby, some from terrorists who chased them on the road. The corridor of the headquarters is starting to feel like a refugee camp. People are sitting on either side. Some sleep on the floor. Every time I peek out of our room, they share stories and what they’ve been through. Such hair-raising and chilling experiences.

One of the times I go out into the corridor, I ask one of the fighters if he has seen Udi.

“Udi the commander, Udi”? one of the civilians who fled the party asks me. “What, are you his wife?” “Yes” I smile. “Wow, what a warrior your husband is!” He begins to praise in a loud voice. “There is no-one like our warriors in the whole world!!!! Your Udi is the hardcore fighter here in the division! Your husband is number 1! I’ve been sitting here for over two hours, every second I here on the comms Udi’s here, Udi’s there, Udi giving orders.

He’s coming, he’s going, may God protect him and all our soldiers. What a commander! What a warrior! Be proud and don’t worry!”

I smile at him and thank him sincerely, a little amused even. I don’t have the heart to tell him that Udi is not a combat officer at all, he is a human resources officer of the Gaza Division. He was not supposed to be having the craziest day of his job (and maybe the craziest day in the history of the entire division before it in the history of the IDF, just my guess), not to chase and engage with terrorists all over the base, but that’s exactly what he did.

“Udi is a lion in his nature and in the moment of truth, that is exactly what came out of him” a dear friend told me on the phone the day after. He’s right.

From the early afternoon hours onwards, there are more and more pauses in the shooting.

Every time I think it’s over and there is silence, the shooting resumes again and each time my heart sinks again.

****

The Hunger

Children are adaptable and amazing. The experience for them quickly turned from a situation of danger to a tedious, tiring, and discouraging reality. We found ourselves two mothers with six children, and from noon there is also another girl, 4-year-old Mika, whose father is also fighting. We were exhausted, frightened, worried, trying to keep them busy and distract them from hunger, thirst, boredom and the lack of toilets.

Every few hours, depending on the situation, we were allowed to leave the room to go to the bathroom down the hall. Each time I ran with a different child. Armed soldiers escorted us back and forth for protection. Every time I run to the bathroom, I exchange words with the soldiers guarding the entrances. They are sweet, they smile at the children, at me. I ask if they are okay and they answer “Of course! We are watching over you” with the confidence reserved for 20-year-olds. One of them with a bullet proof vest, a weapon and a helmet over shorts and a burgundy shirt, evidently this is how he jumped out of bed.

We got relatively little water. We filled water from the tap with the same 7 plastic cups that I found in one of the cabinets in the morning, over and over again. Later, bottles of water also arrived. I remember the joy.

There was no food. As mentioned, the only food we found was the cereal box, which was a third full, which I had also shoved into Udi’s pockets. Later young female officers surprise the children with a small package of crackers that they had found. “The golden cracker! This is the tastiest cracker! Hooray!” Noam is more enthusiastic than he has ever been about a cracker before. At 17:30 the miracle of the canned goods. A can of corn was found and divided equally among seven children.

Lavi, the smallest, only 1.4 years old, was yanked out of his bed when the rockets were launched. Under pressure and from the clear knowledge that we’d all return to the rooms soon, his pacifier, his bottle, everything remained in the residence unit. He is wearing the same diaper from last night, no pacifier, no food. No bed to rest or games to occupy him. Impossible conditions for any baby. The older ones actually manage to amuse themselves.

Yali and Mika drew for hours in Word on one of the computers, they played hangman, drew with markers on the whiteboard hanging on the wall, Noam was on the cell phone, we allowed them as much YouTube as we could and overall they were amazing and played nicely together.

Throughout, I get a torrent of messages and calls, I have never been so overwhelmed. The day before, on the way to the division base, I uploaded a story to my Instagram. Again and again I think about this story where I say that we are on our way to our last weekend at the division base, how much I love this division for all its soldiers… I don’t know why but I feel guilty. Like I gave us the evil eye or something. Why did I have to proclaim all these words of love?

As scared as I was, I believe with all my heart that our family and friends who watched from afar what was happening were much more afraid. When my cell phone ran out of battery, and until I found a charger many hours later, many people lost a few years of their lives.

****

Where is Shahar?

Shahar Makhlouf is the IT Chief of the division. Since the morning Shirly, his wife, asks everyone who comes to our room if they have seen Sahar? Where is he? The answer is always that they have not seen or spoken to him. The hours pass and her anxiety grows. Only when it gets dark, Udi takes Shirly to an empty room and tells her with love and compassion that Sahar was killed in the encounter with the terrorists. I’m standing outside the door.

This is the worst moment of that day. The concern for him and then the terrible news that he has fallen, are intertwined in every moment of this day.

But that is not my story to tell.

****

The Rescue

Shirley and I are sitting alone in a tiny alcove inside the room where we have been hiding since the morning, in silence. Staff officer Shaked enters and informs us that we will soon be evacuating with the children in the helicopter that is coming for us. 15 minutes later we are leaving the headquarters with all the children, there’s a quick briefing and we head out. Omer in Shirley’s hands. little Lavi in my arms, sleeping (finally). Noam holds Yali’s hand, and Liri holds Mika’s.

A squad was sent to guard us all around. We are surrounded from all sides, weapons drawn. After a day in which we had been locked in for more than 12 hours, and ongoing fighting outside the headquarters, the thought of going out scares me a lot.

Waiting for approval and running quickly from the headquarter to the jeep they brought to the entrance, there is a soldier in the front seat and one in the back seat. Yali sits on Noam, Mika sits on Liri, next to the soldier, Shirly and I are in the trunk with Yotam, Omer, and Lavi. Udi is driving in his car behind us with additional soldiers.

We tell the children to keep their heads down, we are driving fast inside the base that I know so well.

It looks like a scene from a war movie. I notice several bodies of terrorists lying on the floor. God will repay them I think to myself. We leave through the gate towards the helipad.

Outside the gate: scattered cars, smashed in positions like bumper cars at an amusement park. A testament to the haste and chaos when people fled into the base from terrorists who were pursuing them.

In a minute and a half, we are near the helicopter. Udi and other fighters open the door for the children and start running with them to the helicopter. They forget to open the back for us. Udi comes running back and shouts to the driver in the most panicked voice I’ve ever heard “Where’s my wife??? Where’s my wife???” I yell for him, and they open the door for us.

We’re running.

The noise of the helicopter blades is deafening. I hug Udi and kiss him just before I go up.

Within seconds we are already in the air. The flight is an experience for the children. Thrown a little from side to side and Noam is filled with excitement. The team is sensitive and so attentive to the children, they bring them glow sticks and also smile encouraging smiles at us.

20 minutes later we land in Palmahim army base. The pilots let the children sit for a while in the cockpit, put their helmets on their heads and encourage them to take pictures. So humane and sensitive to the situation.

As soon as we enter the base there is a red alert and we run to a protected area with at least 50 pilots. This is the moment to say thank you to all the Air Force personnel we met there in Palmachim: Major Noa, a blonde pregnant woman who greeted us, the pilots who flew with us and functioned a bit like trauma therapists in the moments after. Everyone was sensitive and helpful.

They drive us to the gate and there our families are waiting to take us home.

****

Last Words

On this terrible day there were also many moments of light. Mostly human. Also moments of laughter and humor that helped to survive and function.

Thanks to Shaked the staff officer, to Avihai the soldier who was with us, to Gil, to the beautiful blonde education officer whose name I’ve forgotten, and many other good people who tried so hard for us and helped with the children. And functioned in an impossible situation.

And of course to the soldiers and officers who risked and even lost their lives defending us.

To Shirly, we survived this day hand in hand. I wouldn’t have made it through this without you. My entire heart is with you.

Udi, I knew all these years that I was married to an outstanding, dedicated and hardcore officer. But until that day, I didn’t know I was married to a hero. There are no words to describe what you were to everyone that day. I’m so proud of you

Lastly, to the late Shahar Makhlouf, may he rest in peace, such an amazing and loving man and father. An officer, professional, loved and appreciated by his soldiers and the entire staff. He was a brave hero that day. I have no words to describe the magnitude of this loss. May he be remembered.

I share the pain and grief of all the families of the fallen, the murdered, wounded and the missing.

This is our story.

It is one of tens of thousands of stories, many of them much more difficult than ours. The world needs to hear them.

Ella M.