At 23:00, I was sitting with my friends Zehavi and Ofirli in the Drama Club, a nightclub in Tel Aviv, waiting for Digmi to toast my birthday with shots. I thought to myself, okay we’ll have a drink and go to sleep. But by midnight, Digmi and I had gone to a different club to celebrate another friend, Adi’s, birthday. From there, I was sure I would go to sleep. But Adi and Digmi are a dangerous duo, as they say in my neighborhood.
The whole evening, I had been in touch with Lotan about going to the Nova festival. I was feeling really tired and lacked energy, but Lotan was in high spirits and calmly said “Come on, my brother. I want to celebrate your birthday properly. Let’s enjoy ourselves like only we know how”. Well, what can I say? Lotan won me over in a second; I couldn’t refuse his crazy passion for life. At 4:20 on Saturday morning, I arrived at the Nova festival and sent Lotan my location, he was there within five minutes. As soon as I spotted him, we ran towards each other like two madmen, as if we hadn’t seen each other in years. People started staring at us and making faces of, “what’s with those two?”. After we embraced, Lotan said “come on, Atar, let’s go to our tent. I want you to meet all my friends, they’ll love you, let’s sit together.” I ran with him in our infectious excitement and Lotan introduced me to all of his friends, one by one, not leaving anyone out!
(Me and Lotan)
At 5:40, we went back to the main stage together, just the two of us, and danced like crazy, smiling endlessly at each other. At 6:15, we went to a different dance floor, called Dark. I introduced him to all of my friends as if it were our wedding and each one was being introduced to the other’s friends and family.
“From then on, things just kept getting worse.”
At 6:35, Lotan said: “Atar, I’m going to get a drink, meet me in the main stage area. The sunrise is starting, and I want us to go all out and enjoy the moment”. As Lotan walked away, the music stopped. I asked Marco, another friend of mine, “What’s going on? What happened to the sound system?” From then on, things just kept getting worse.
At 6:50, over the loudspeakers, they asked everyone to evacuate, announcing that the event was over. At that moment, I realized there was a massive barrage of missiles coming in our direction, like nothing I had ever seen. Everyone was confused and looking for shelter under the stages and wherever possible.
“I realized there was a massive barrage of missiles coming in our direction, one like nothing I had ever seen.”
Then, I spotted Neumann and Maya passing by our tent, and I asked Rotem if they want a ride back to Tel Aviv. She answered, with a smile, that they don’t need anything as they have a car. I ask again: “Are you sure?” She replied, “Of course, it’s all good.”
We rushed towards the cars. In the meantime, a crazy traffic jam had built up on the exit road to route from Kibbutz Re’im to Kibbutz Be’eri [going north to Tel Aviv]. I drove through the field, managed to circumvent the traffic, and reached the highway. We started driving on the road heading north. 100 meters before the Be’eri Junction sign, I noticed hundreds of cars were turning around hysterically and driving against traffic on the hard shoulders. Some cars had flipped over, and people were yelling at us to flee, screaming that there were terrorists at the entrance to Be’eri.
I turned quickly and carefully. While turning, I noticed that the white van in front of us was filled with tens of armed Hamas terrorists, shooting in all directions. We were driving like madmen as fast as possible south, in the direction we had come. We passed the entrance to the party, and just a few hundred meters later, it started again. Cars were swarming around us, and people were yelling “terrorists” everywhere. I realized that we were blocked in from all directions, surrounded by the cars of people trying to escape. I left my car in a ditch and ran towards the party’s security forces and asked them “What the hell is happening? What should we do?” The poor, helpless police officers told me, “Head towards the sun (to the east).”
This was the last time I saw many of my friends, some of whom were found dead, some missing, and some had been taken captive by Hamas. I shouted to everyone, “Follow me, I know this area well, I was here a lot during my army service”. I started directing cars to exploit every opportunity to escape into the surrounding fields as quickly as possible. That’s where I lost track of my friends Marco and Rami. I began to run as fast as I could towards the fields near the road, and went into a sewer to hide. I originally thought I had spent hours there, but now realize it was just a few minutes, which felt like an eternity.
At some point, I decided to leave the sewer and look for my friends. Luckily, I found Marco and Rami together on the road. Together we ran and got into a car belonging to someone from the party we didn’t know. We squeezed in with another couple who we didn’t know but had also been hiding in the area around the party. We encountered Hamas terrorists, who fired in our direction from all sides, throwing grenades and kidnapping corpses like we were playing cops and robbers.
Ben, who was driving, saved our lives. He drove until we reached the road parallel to the one we had fled, which led us towards an open area near the party. From there, we sped north and, after a few minutes of driving, we encountered Israeli forces who raised their hands and shouted at us to turn around. They informed us that there had just been an incident at the intersection, and we immediately grasped the extent and severity of the situation.
“This was the last time I saw many of my friends, some of whom were lying lifeless on the road, some were missing, and some had been taken captive by Hamas.”
Ben made a quick U-turn in the middle of the road to Netivot, and there we descended into the heart of the residential neighborhoods of Netivot. Someone thought we were terrorists and pointed a gun at us. At the last moment, we shouted that we were Jews, and he stopped. Once again, we came to terms with the seriousness of the situation.
We walked through the streets of Netivot, where everyone wore a kippah and seemed unaware of the situation, thinking there was only a rocket attack. We ran hysterically, dragging people out of synagogues, shouting to the entire neighborhood that there are terrorists attacking in every corner of the South.
“We spent three never-ending hours in total darkness, barely whispering to each other.”
We tried to go into local houses, but no one opened their doors as they all thought we were terrorists. We noticed an abandoned community center building, tried to break in but couldn’t do it. Suddenly we found an opening and, without thinking twice, we entered a small room. It was not a safe room, but it had a metal door, which we thought would protect us from gunfire or a terrorist break-in.
We spent three never-ending hours in total darkness, barely whispering to each other. Fear enveloped us as rockets continued to fall in the yard outside. I called my father, who was already at a police station in the north. I explained the situation and where we were hiding.
During this time, we heard, and saw through a crack in the door, Hamas squads shooting bursts of gunfire up and down on the streets, bombarding houses mere meters away from us. This continued for several hours without any let up. After some time, when we assessed that there were no more terrorists nearby, only sirens, we went outside to breathe fresh air. I noticed a religious man praying outside, unaware of the situation. We mustered all our courage and ran to him, approached him and explained what was happening. In a state of panic, we ran with him to a shelter about 200 meters away, and waited there for an hour until reinforcements from Netivot came to rescue us.
From then, at around 18:30, we were under the care of the IDF forces. We arrived at a local operations center and began to understand what had happened. We started falling apart realizing that our friends were longer with us. We weren’t sure if they had been kidnapped, murdered, or had run away like I had. When it started getting dark and I had lost all sense of time, I heard of a friend who had been at a different house in Netivot. Her dad was on his way from the north to rescue her, and I went with another guy from the operations center to go get her. On the way, I saw the apocalypse around us. Horrendous sights, terrified we would encounter more terrorists and our story would be over.
I finally arrived back at my parents’ home at around 1:30 am and fell apart, still unable to process the extent of the tragedy I had just experienced. Throughout the day, while running from one hiding place to another, I kept trying to reach Lotan, furious at myself that he was with me back there on the road, and now his phone can’t be reached.
I’m telling my story to try and make the world understand the severity of what happened that day. It’s important to me that the families who lost loved ones know that their children, who are gone, had fought to the bitter end, never giving up despite the unbearable helplessness of the situation we were caught into.
Last night I drove to the cemetery in Tel Mond, and I couldn’t get the image of all of us, our friends, out of my head. Standing on the road at the exit to the festival, and then those accursed minutes of running every which way when we saw the terrorists’ vans racing towards us, massacring whoever they can reach.
“Thank you for making me smile, laugh, dance like there’s no tomorrow. Literally. Isn’t that insane?”
I entered the cemetery to pay my final respects to Rotem Neumann, may she rest in peace. I saw her at the exit to the festival, smiling at me and saying, it’s all good, it’ll probably be over soon…
At that moment, I received the message that my friend, whom I’d so wished would come back alive, is gone.
Lotan, my friend, my brother, I met you too late in life. How did I miss you? How did we know each other for so little time and grow so close? My brother, do you remember how we jumped and hugged when we met at the party? How you took my hand and pulled me to the fence right up to the artist who was playing and said, “Atar, now we JUMP, like psychos!” My brother, how we put our heads together brow to brow a few hours earlier at the festival and said, “What is this? We’re the same! How awesome that we have each other! I love you my friend.” I just can’t process it, I can’t contain this sadness.
Thank you for making me smile, laugh, dance like there’s no tomorrow. Literally. Isn’t that insane?
I love you my brother, you’ll be in my heart forever, and with me wherever I go.
In memory of Lotan Abir, may he rest in peace.