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Six months in hell: Notes from Hostage Square

I tell heartbreaking stories every day but I don’t cry. Suddenly I hear soothing flute music out in the Square and my eyes tear up
Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip outside Kirya Base in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
The author at a recent protest as seen in The Times of Israel. Photo: Avshalom Sasson/Flash 90

I come to Hostage Square almost every day. I mostly stand inside the Nova tent. The tent is papered with the faces of the hostages from the Nova Festival. Day after day, I look into the eyes of the beautiful young people who came to dance. They were dancing when the terrorists came to attack them. These beautiful faces are inside Gaza now. They were dragged away and shoved into tunnels.

At Hostage Square I speak to visitors: Israelis, people from abroad, schoolchildren, the press. I tell the stories of the hostages. I translate for hostage family members when they speak to the media. I speak to individuals. I speak to large groups. I’m a speaker. It’s what I do. It’s all I can do. When I’m not speaking, I march. I march around with my signs: “Red Cross, Do Your Job!” / “Get them out of hell!” / “Leave no one behind” / ”Look into my eyes”.

We are a small group of volunteers who take turns in the Nova Tent. The tent was erected by Menashe, cousin of Nova DJ Elkana Bohbot, who was taken hostage. Menashe lives in a town just 45 minutes away by train. But he never goes home. He lives at Hostage Square, sleeping in a tent where he and other family members stay. By day they are busy speaking, meeting, protesting, advocating for their hostages – our hostages. By night they are here, at Hostage Square, trying to sleep. They have been here since October. They don’t go home. They have been in these tents through storms and winds and rain and now sweltering heat.

Nova Tent at Hostage Square. Photo: Nili Bresler

The rest of us, volunteers who are not family, have the luxury of going home at night. We arrive for our ‘shifts’ at the Square. We wait inside the tent for visitors – and they come, one by one or in groups. They come to hear the stories of Nova. And we tell them. Sometimes a young person comes in and we know: We know immediately that they were there. We can see it in the way they look at the posters, at the Nova festival bracelets displayed in the tent. They were there. They survived, but at what cost? Family members, parents of hostages come, too. They talk about their hostage. They show us photos. They share memories and hopes. We sit together in the tent.

In the evening we close up the tent. Some go home, others go out to the streets to join the protests. Whichever way we go, we take the Nova Tribe with us. Their stories are in us now, inside our hearts. The beautiful people are with us wherever we go.

It has been a long time since I’ve tried to write. My heart is broken and it seems my brain is broken, too. Since Oct. 7th I have been broken. I function, sometimes on auto-pilot, sometimes not. Always distracted. I sleep but I’m not rested. At night I am inside a tunnel, or on a desert path strewn with debris, or standing near a burnt-out house on a kibbutz. Nightmares upon nightmares.  Even more menacing are the dreams that start out calmly, as if things are normal. I am walking along a road peacefully. Things around me are quiet. As I walk, I realize it’s too quiet. I start to understand that I am once again parading around the city in a silent vigil. Walking single file with hundreds of other silent people, all of us holding posters of our missing loved ones. I wake up and realize the nightmare is not over. It is April and we are still missing our loved ones. Six months in hell.

Get them out of hell! The author at a recent protest. Photo: Nili Bresler

The nightmare of this long war is beyond anything we imagined. We are still stuck in the trauma of Oct 7th and the killing and dying goes on. So many lives destroyed. And just when we think this nightmare might end, something new and even more horrible happens:  Seven humanitarian aid workers are killed by our army. The strike is beyond tragic: These are the people we should be protecting. These people are the only shred of hope for hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The fog of war cannot begin to cover up this disastrous act.

And then this happened:

Monday morning, 11 am. I am sitting inside the Nova tent after hosting another group of high school students. About 20 kids crammed into the tent, looking up at me. It’s a hot day – about 30 degrees outside, probably over 35 degrees inside the little tent. The students are evacuees from the north, they are not used to this heat. They sit quietly fanning themselves, some of them crying, as I tell the stories of a few of the hostages: the heroic DJs; the security guards, and others. Crying and hugging, the high schoolers leave. It is quiet in Hostage Square. Suddenly I hear soothing music: ‘The Sounds of Silence’, coming from a flute, coming from somewhere in the square. I start to tear up. What’s happening?

Tonia Barolsky of Melbourne, Australia soothing souls at Hostage Square. Photo: Nili Bresler. Used with permission.

My brother plays the flute. The sound of flute music is the first layer in the soundtrack of my childhood.  This is a sound that pierces my heart. It bores through every wall I have built to protect myself as I live through this year of trauma. Now I’m listening and crying in the tent, surrounded by the faces of the beautiful people who were dragged into Gaza. The Sounds of Silence surround us.

Every day at Hostage Square I tell their stories. I talk about the beautiful people and how they were attacked, how they fought and how they were taken. I tell heartbreaking stories every day, but I don’t cry.  Six months in hell and I have not cried. But now I am crying. I am crying because of the strains of flute music that have found their way into my broken heart. I step outside the tent and see a woman with a flute. She is walking slowly through the square, playing music. I sign to her: Thank you. She walks toward me, and now she is playing ‘Imagine’.  This is Tonia Barolsky. She has come all the way from Melbourne, Australia. She has come here to play her flute, to help us heal. She brings the one gift she can give: music to soothe us. She is here with a message: You are not alone. We are with you. There is music in the world, and there is peace somewhere in the world as well. The music helps me believe that someday things might be right again; someday we will have peace again. Imagine.

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. Nili volunteers with the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives in Ramat Gan.
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