This beautiful picture was taken minutes before everything started, a beautiful sunrise with the moon in the background, in stark contrast to everything that would happen to our lives in the hours to come. It’s 06:30. Four of us out of our group of nine are dancing group of nine, watching the sunrise and enjoying the music. Then it began; at first, we heard rockets and other muffled sounds, thinking they were fireworks. After a few minutes of confusion, we realized it was a heavy rocket barrage, and people started running everywhere. It’s was a truly apocalyptic scene.
The event organizer announced that there was a heavy barrage, and everyone needed to leave. Some left immediately. Those who did encountered a blockade of terrorists posing as policemen and soldiers and were slaughtered. It was that simple.
We hesitated. As someone who grew up in southern Israel, I wasn’t too stressed about a few rockets. I told my friends that we needed to take a moment, lay on the ground, and wait for it to pass. But the bombing continued and showed no signs of stopping. The event management began announcing that there was heavy bombing in the area, and everyone needed to evacuate the event. There was even more chaos. No one understood what was happening.
We rushed to collect our tents and chairs, but we were still in a daze and didn’t comprehend the severity of the situation. The event’s announcers advised people to use emergency exits. Something started feeling weird, but we were still confused, trying to follow instructions. I gathered my friends who came with me and told them we were rushing to the car, leaving whatever gear was left behind. Two girls who were with me went back to retrieve a forgotten shoe, and we waited. Under pressure, I first started driving when only one of them had gotten in, but I stopped quickly. Everyone was accounted for and we started driving.
I drove towards the entrance from which we entered the event. As I tried to exit from there, one of the event’s security guards told us in a stressed voice, to make a U-turn. I still didn’t understand why. Today, I understand that the event’s security and management prevented a much larger loss of life. Their intention was to save lives. I began to turn around, drove through traffic a couple of minutes and then made it to a road. I was about to turn right when I saw a red car making a U-turn and advancing towards us. That decision to speak to the guy in the red car saved our lives. His face will forever be etched in my mind. There was glass all over, bullet holes all over the car, and blood dripping from his head, presumably from all the glass that had been shattered. I asked him why the policeman told him to turn. “Bro, in that direction, you have no chance; they’re firing at us. Go to the other side.” I still didn’t fully grasp what was happening.
In retrospect, terrorists with guns and RPGs could have been waiting for us down the road, and they could have killed or kidnapped everyone.
I decided to follow the guy in the red car and turn left instead of right. When I decided to still look to my right before turning, I saw people inside their cars being killed, people running and falling, and behind them, people in regular clothing were shooting at them. Part of my group also saw motorcycles; I don’t remember that. We continued driving slowly towards the end of the road, which didn’t seem to be progressing. Meanwhile, the terrorists were advancing and shooting at everyone without discrimination. Me and my friends in the car still didn’t understand fully what was happening, continuing to move forward slowly with the car. Up ahead, someone who didn’t understand what was happening started reversing and drove into us. Chaos.
I looked back, and the terrorists were getting closer. People were falling everywhere, the sound of gunfire from every direction, rockets in the air, and the sounds of screams. I screamed at everyone to get out of the car now. Silence. Hesitation. They didn’t know what to do, and to be honest, I didn’t either. But the one thing I knew was that we needed to get out of the car right now. We had nowhere to go, and I wasn’t going to wait in the car like a sitting duck.
Eventually, they got out. They started leaving the car, and I was shouting at them to run without looking back. I got out as well.
Shit, I forgot my phone in the car. In the peak of foolishness and disrespect for my life, I return to the car to get my phone. Even there, I still didn’t grasp the severity of the situation. I still cannot fully comprehend how wise that decision was. This phone saved my life, my friends’ lives, and the lives of others around me. When I looked back, I saw burnt cars, people on the ground, people running and shouting, terrorists advancing.
We start running. As I step out of the car and begin chasing after my friends, I see police officers, more police officers all around. After a few meters, three dark figures with police hats and guns. The only thought in my mind is that I’m dead. That’s it. We don’t stand a chance. I froze. They continue as if they didn’t see us, moving towards the shooting. I will never know if they were on our side or not, or if they simply didn’t care. I want to believe that they were the heroes who saved our lives.
We keep running. In my sprint, I see a high commanding IDF commander. As if by reflex, I ask myself why a high ranking officer is here so quickly. I truly have no concept of the time that has passed since the event started. It’s funny where your mind goes in moments like these. It’s about 8 in the morning, and we still have no idea what’s happening.
I’m at the point where I’m able to gather my thoughts, and I begin to understand the details of the event. Some time ago, I opened Google Maps and realized that if it’s a terrorist infiltration event (based on information we received from people during the escape), we need to move east, away from the border. I shout to anyone around me that we must move east. Some listen, some choose other paths. I will never know what went through the minds of the people I saw and talked to or calmed down based on their own judgment. Many of the faces I saw, the people I spoke to or pacified, I later saw in news reports as casualties or in the widely circulated hostage videos. They all seem familiar, and I recognize them.
We kept running. I was trying to get as many people as possible to join me, even though I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the right decision.
As we continued running towards the fields north of Kibbutz Re’im, many people hesitated there. I insisted that we have to keep moving east. Some stop to talk to their parents, trying to understand what they should do. Many decided to stay right there, also after talking to their parents. We’ll never know what went through each and every one of the people’s minds around me and the decisions they made, based on their set of considerations. I’ll never really know what happened to everyone.
We got to a cliff before a valley, and open fields lay before us as far as the eye can see. At first we hesitated, maybe the army and police will be able to control the situation, so we waited. I kept hearing the gunfire, grenades and machine guns closing in on us. The screams are much closer. I made the decision that it’s better to keep running east, and tell the girls to descend. I reached the bottom of the valley and started running again. The girls aren’t with me. I looked back, and they’re at the top of the valley, hesitating. I shout at them to come down, but they keep sitting there. They’re in total shock and disbelief. I understand that they won’t come down while I hearing all the noises closing in on us from behind, so I decided to climb up, bypassing all the people sitting there, and tell them to run downwards immediately.
We started descending again. Noam loses her shoe shortly before that. I tell her to keep going despite the pain. Mai, Alma and Einav also run down. We start running through the fields. Hour after hour. No water, no food, we haven’t slept in a day, even before these events, and the morale is low. The whole time I’m navigating using Google Maps, guiding and yelling at people to move east, away from the border. People were relying on me, and they moved forward.
I think about it today, and my heart aches. I, Gal Ben Ami, with no survival or counter-terrorism skills, am leading a group of 200 people eastward, solely based on in logic. In retrospect, terrorists with guns and RPGs could have been waiting for us down the road, and they could have killed or kidnapped everyone. It’s an unimaginable number.
Indifference took over the situation. From the beginning of the events, I completely disconnected from the situation. The shooting around me feels surreal, but I don’t give it the mind space so I won’t drown in thoughts. We have to run. No matter what was happening around us. A phone call was made to Noam’s sister, Nitzan. Noam didn’t know what to say so I took over, “Nitzan, trust me, I’m handling it, bye.” I have no idea on what basis I said that. As I said, I was in indifference mode.
We ran non-stop for about three hours. But for some optimism to our story – There no people like our people. I always said and I always will. People calming people they didn’t know, people giving others the last drops of water they managed to scrounge from the vehicles when no one knew how much longer we would need to run and people doing everything to save as many other people as possible. Strangers. There’s no other country for me.
While running, every time we stop or slow down, the sound of battle approaches. I shout to the girls to keep running no matter what, and every time they slow down, I push them verbally to pick up the pace. Every time I look back, I see people falling. Looking back is forbidden. We continued to run east and told people to stay away from the roads. Along the way, someone said they came with tanks, trucks and motorcycles, making it dangerous to approach the roads. We don’t know who will come. The internet and Google Maps saved us all.
We kept running and reached a place where they started shooting at us from the right (north) as we advanced south and moved away from the noise toward the trees. There were battles everywhere. Nowhere was safe I still kept turning back to see if the girls are behind me. For an instance, I see a tall guy and a girl who look somewhat Asian. I don’t focus much on them. Later, I see them in a video that circulated on the internet of the captives. They became the symbols of the horrors of this abduction. My heart breaks.
We keep running eastward and arrived at a large tree with a group of about 200 people. Someone came running from the opposite direction shouting “They’re shooting at us from the front, there are terrorists in front of us too!” Panic kicks in. For the first time in this absurd reality, where if we stop running we die, or worse, I give up. This is it, we’re going to die. They’re shooting at us from all directions, no chance of escaping. Some people decided to stay and take their chances under the tree. Others said there is no choice but to move east, so we continued east and took our chances. I decided to continue moving east as well. We can’t just sit there waiting to be killed or worse.
We moved on and finally reached an area that seems more developed. I tell everyone that we shouldn’t cross the roads, because, as I stated before, we were told the terrorists were using vehicles. On the other hand, we understood that we needed to find a secure place and wait there for help. We communicated with a police dispatcher along the way, trying to get directions or find a nearby Kibbutz that is considered safe. He asked for our location and tried to send assistance. At this point, I no longer believe it. The reinforcements aren’t coming.
We continued to find a secure place and reached an area with small cabins. We entered the first warehouse, drank water from the faucets and the fridge outside, and finally, found some relief. We found some beer. In this situation, beer is the least exciting thing in the world, to say the least. We would have preferred to find more water. After about half an hour in the warehouse, a group from a nearby cabin told us to come over. They have a water dispenser, air conditioning, and a somewhat more organized cabin. Each of them shared their personal experiences, and we got to know the people we escaped with a bit. Some are in a state of panic, some have lost friends, and others are still on the phone with their parents trying to reassure them.
After about two hours there, another group of about 100 people arrives. The place becomes crowded, noisy, and a generally easy target for terrorists. Someone thought it was funny to play with the alarm. The alarm is accidentally activated. Post-trauma, people are in chaos and don’t understand what’s happening. We heard a hard knock on the cabin from outside and everyone is sure we’re about to die, the terrorists got there. The alarm stops. Someone hit the alarm from the other side and disarmed it.
People started stressing and screaming about every vehicle that came towards us, and every minute that passed made people believed more strongly that we are, in fact, going to die. People started moving towards the fence of this farm. Something is happening. I told the girls that we’re leaving too, and we all jump over the fence. We start walking on a dirt path, and someone says that there are people that will arrive on trucks to save us. We see a truck coming from behind and a truck from in front of us. Chaos, once again. People start screaming that we’re going to die.
After a few seconds, we realized that these are our rescuers after a long journey. They load as many people as possible into their vehicles, but there was no room for us. After the vehicle starts moving, I see Noam can’t walk anymore and I stop them. “Let these two girls in; they can’t walk,” I tell the guys at the back. They manage to get in, and they drove to a small village in the area that was considered safe.
I continued to walk by foot. After about an hour, I finally started to calm down and managed to talk about normal things with the people I was walking with (great guys, by the way). More vehicles arrived with our rescuers. The last one collects us and drives us to the same village my friends were taken to. We were met there by Noam’s father, who came all the way from northern Israel with a personal weapon and passed through police checkpoints to pick up his daughter. I still cannot believe that I have been in this situation, but we get on the vehicle and head towards Tel Aviv, back home.
We started at the party a group of nine, and returned a group of nine, all safe. But we all left a big part of our souls there. Who knows how long it will take for the sound of trash cans closing not to feel like we are being attacked, for the vision of birds flying in the sky not to feel like para-gliders coming to kill us or for the sound of a motorcycle, to just be a motorcycle. Among most of the other groups we heard about some were killed, some were kidnapped and some still missing to this day.
But we survived, no doubt a miracle, so who are we to complain. We arrived safely to our homes, one huge miracle.
I see a lot of false propaganda. I see the numbers twisted, people saying the pictures are fake, people talking about the other side. To all of you, I say stop. Stop the dehumanization of lives, just because they’re Israeli or Jewish. Stop lying, stop circulating false information for the masses. I have people I know that died. People I tried saving kidnapped or dead. Friends are still missing. So many videos, photos and testimonies of people from these massacres, and people still choose to close their eyes.
To our enemies, there was only one song that was stuck in my head when I got back home. “אין לי ארץ אחרת, גם אם אדמתי בוערת”. “I have no other country, even if my land is burning”.