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Adele Raemer
Life on the Border with the Gaza Strip

When Hell Invades 95% Heaven

My View from the Border: One Hundred and Fifty Days Into Swords of Iron

Written by Adele Raemer for Higher Grounds

With thanks to Dave Bender and Guy Goldstein for editing help

Imagine not knowing where your loved ones are, after they had been stolen from you 150 days earlier. Imagine terrorists, stealing members of your family, then withholding any and all information of the names of innocent people, or if they were even dead or alive. Imagine sending life-saving medications to your loved ones via the Red Cross, only to be informed that this international body which supposedly exists to rescue people in danger, are impotent in aiding your family.  Imagine being a refugee in your own country, for 150 days, with no end in sight. Such has been our reality for 150 long days and nights, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second. An endless, turbulent sea of dread and loss.

October 7th was the day 9.5 million Israelis’ lives turned upside-down. For my community, my family and me, it was the day we lost our sense of safety in the places that are meant to be the safest in the world for us: our homes. It was the day when our sense of security was ruthlessly stolen from us by the thousands of terrorists and civilians from Gaza who invaded our kibbutz and over 20 other communities simultaneously. It was the morning after a night of celebration, when young adults came to the park at Reim to enjoy the end of the holiday season before the back-to-school and back-to-work grind reconvened. 

“Home” for me, is Kibbutz Nirim, a mile from the border with the Gaza Strip. “Home” smells like freshly cut grass, fertile soil and cow manure spiked with milk. We are an agriculturally based community where we take pride in our self-sufficiency and in the fact that we till the land up to the very last furrow near the border.  Nirim is where my four children were born and raised. So were three of my grandchildren. It’s where my parents and husband are buried.  We affectionately called this area “95% Heaven”. On October 6th, following an afternoon and evening of joyful celebrations for the 77th anniversary of the founding of my kibbutz, I told my soon-to-be 33 year old son, Adam, who had come home to be with me for his birthday weekend: “If you don’t see me when you wake up in the morning, don’t worry, I’ll be driving out early to photograph a nearby field of wild squills at sunrise.”

Photograph by Yizhar Sha’ar used with his permission.

Staying up late probably saved my life. Had I actually gone out as originally planned, I would probably have been murdered or kidnapped, because within just half an hour of the time I set my alarm the entire south-west region of the Western Negev desert ruptured into an inferno of rocket and machine-gun fire. Instead I am here writing this op-ed, 150 days later, one of the lucky ones who has only had to endure the destruction of everything I knew and loved, the uncertainty over the fates of people who are dear to me, and the horror of mourning so many who I have lost. “Lucky” is a funny word to describe it.

On October 7th, the peaceful community of Kibbutz Nirim was thrust into a nightmare that would forever change the trajectory of our lives. Usually, the only sounds you will hear of an early October morning will be the calls of the morning-birds hunting for their breakfast. The silence of that fateful morning, however, was shattered by air raid sirens incessantly and at a furious rate warning of incoming rockets, affording us no more than 10 seconds’ grace to get to someplace safe, before the rockets fired at our homes, exploded.  Soon those sounds were joined by the cacophony of bursts of machine gun fire, RPGs and shouts in Arabic just outside the window. I have often heard the whistle of rockets flying overhead, followed by their subsequent explosions, but voices in Arabic shouting orders sent shockwaves of fear through my heart, and the hearts of all of the 450 residents and holiday guests on Nirim that morning. 

As the chaos unfolded it became apparent that the attackers (who we later found out were both Hamas terrorists and Gazan civilians) had managed to penetrate Israel’s supposedly impenetrable border barrier. Worse still, there had been no troops in the fields to hamper their progress through the mile-long stretch of fields so lovingly tended, enabling them to reach and breach our kibbutz’ electrically-wired fence, infiltrating near the young adults’ housing . Their savage descent upon the community left devastation in their wake. They shot at houses, burned cars, and destroyed anything in their path. 

 In communities around the border, the monsters kidnapped, tortured and often raped anyone they could, dead or alive, of all ages. They found no mercy for either babies or Holocaust survivors. On Nirim, the lives of five innocent men and women, ranging in ages from 17 to 66, were murderously snuffed out, and five others were brutally kidnapped – abducted into Gaza, their fates uncertain. Not one of those victims were soldiers who could have been considered legitimate targets for attack by another army. Then again, this wasn’t an invading army. Like an army, it was a lethal, well trained and well organized cohort armed with advanced weapons. Yet unlike an army it was burdened with none of the moral or ethical requirements of International Humanitarian Law, or the Laws of Armed Combat, dictated by Geneva Convention rules of engagement in warfare. The vanguard of barbaric murderers were followed by a horde of looters and opportunists – A select sample of Gaza’s so-called “innocent civilians”. Men, women and even children, who we could  hear in our homes through the doors of our safe rooms, pillaging our personal possessions  gleefully playing their role in this “national achievement”.

 While outside the once serene surroundings of Kibbutz Nirim were transformed into a scene of terror and despair, Adam and I hunkered down in my concrete-reinforced safe room, which had been added to my house in 2011, built by the government of Israel on all houses within 4.3 miles from the border. Our government had invested billions of dollars in protecting us (its citizens). This was, of course, Israel’s response to the billions of dollars of international aid money being spent to build rockets and subterranean military networks just over the fence. Implemented in response to rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, our safe rooms were designed to protect us from incoming rockets. They have no lock, no latch, and no barricade. It was so inconceivable that a large-scale invasion such as was taking place right at that moment could ever happen that these simple features were entirely overlooked. As an option of last resort, my heroic son made his body our last line of defense, desperately pulling down the handle of the door which could not remain locked otherwise. For almost 11 hours we sat in that room, sometimes in total darkness and silence so as not to betray our presence, petrified. We waited for the terrorists to burst in at any moment and shoot us. I was certain that none of us on Nirim that day would live to see another sunrise. At one point, the hours of waiting and uncertainty were so excruciating, that in my thoughts,  I summoned the terrorists to barge in already, to put an end to the agony of this unbearable suspense. When we heard the sounds of the terrorists on my front porch, and the slats on my window being broken, I was sure this was it. Then the sounds stopped and inexplicably the terrorists moved on. 

We received precious little information throughout that day. No official updates at all – only the information we could glean by following the kibbutz’s internal messaging system which was overwhelmed with unanswered calls for help, as we collectively followed the progression of the attackers rampaging through our community. I witnessed the terrified messages as they came from homes in the neighborhoods where my daughter and other friends lived, as the terrorists shot and plundered their way closer and closer to  our house. 

“They have entered our house!” 

“Where are the IDF?” 

“Who can come to save us?”

“They have set fire to our home and our 10 day old baby can’t breathe!”

“They are here!”

Meanwhile, my daughter, Lilach, was hiding in her own home. Laying in the dark, under her bed, on her own, scared to death. Whatever fear she had for her own survival was dwarfed by her fear for her 3 daughters (my granddaughters) who were with their dad. She was helpless to protect them, or even comfort them. Throughout the ordeal she was mostly unable to communicate with me. While I checked in with her every hour, and I had to be satisfied with her sending me a thumbs-up emoji in response. It was the best she could do, but at least I was reassured that she was still alive. Who more than us now understands the value of a sign of life. 

As a mother myself, the thought of my son suffering this fate with me was even worse than my fears for myself. While my daughter wished she could comfort her own daughters, my son was my comfort and my protector. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the dread I felt in retrospect, when I learned about the ordeal my three beautiful, young granddaughters went through. Only hours later that day did I discover that I had almost lost Yuval, Raz and Ziv.  My daughter told me nothing, so as not to worry me, but they were a door handle’s turn away from being slaughtered or worse: kidnapped, if it weren’t for their brave dad, a member of the first responders team and thus: armed, but unable to go out to leave his young daughters on their own. He shot dead one of the three terrorists who had invaded their home. As he saw the handle to the safe room door moving, he kicked open the door and neutralized the terrorist who was just three feet away. Three feet away from where my 3 precious granddaughters were helplessly hiding under the covers. He began to go after the other two terrorists who were escaping. When he understood that there were numerous, highly armed terrorists just outside the house, he cut his losses and returned to the safe room to protect my grandchildren. He closed the door, got down on one knee and aimed his gun at the door, ready to shoot anyone who tried to enter.  The thought of what might have happened had he not been there, or not been armed, still haunts me as I hear the stories of other people’s granddaughters who were not so fortunate.

Photos by Alon Anker, used with his permission

Seven excruciatingly long hours after the attack began, the first IDF battalion arrived. They began to search house to house, killing terrorists and extricating terrified residents from our homes under fire, to the kibbutz community center. An incoming rocket alert caught me as I was being escorted by soldiers. All we could do was throw ourselves on the ground and cover our heads with our hands. Getting all of us together in one place, it would be easier for the troops to surround and protect us. For 32 agonizing hours, the community lived in a state of fear and uncertainty, in an active war zone, with rockets still incoming interspersed with blasts of artillery and machine gun fire. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the community was evacuated to Eilat, with burning cars on the side of the road, charred bodies on the ground and tanks driving parallel to us. Eilat was a bittersweet relief after enduring such a harrowing ordeal.

Photo by Adele Raemer

However, October 7th was just the beginning. It triggered a series of challenging events that continue till today. It has led to the indefinite uprooting of residents from our homes, families, places of work, and schools. With no idea of how long we would be hosted in hotels in Eilat, refugees in our own land, uncertainty loomed over when or whether we would ever be able to return home. The sense of displacement and loss is a heavy burden to carry as we grapple with an uncertain future and the daunting task of preserving the fabric of our community and rebuilding our lives from the ground up. Children have lost the framework of their schools.  Communities and entire regions have been dispersed around the country. Years-long friendships scattered thither overnight. Homes lovingly built from scratch over decades, are deserted, vulnerable to damage from of ongoing rocket fire or even burglary; gardens eked out of the desert soil, nurtured for years now lay withering and overrun by weeds in our absence. Communities that always celebrate holidays together are scattered, no longer geographically close enough to do so. The teacher my granddaughter was used to and loved, wasn’t evacuated to the same area where our family was. Medical staff who cared for us have moved elsewhere. Even the simple act I always took for granted, of meeting friends and neighbors by chance while going to our little kibbutz store for staples or our kibbutz community center, can no longer happen.  No more can I hop on my bicycle and be with my granddaughters in under 2 minutes.  All that has been stolen from me by terror. 

One of the bright lights was that, in our darkest times we received amazing hugs from Am Yisrael – the people of Israel – as well as philanthropic bodies such as the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews and different retailers (Fox Home, Azrieli). They provided generous donations to purchase clothing and other basic items at our darkest time of need, after having left everything behind in a warzone. I will never forget the site that greeted us in the hotel that very first night when we arrived in Eilat, traumatized and weary after surviving the attacks, being awake for most of the previous two days and evacuating under fire through an active war zone. There, an entire hall of essential items awaited us in the hotel. It was jam-packed with clothing of all sizes, toothpaste, diapers and other basic supplies that had been donated by individuals and retailers, collected already on the 7th and 8th of October by the citizens of the city to help those of us who escaped with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Our homes had been destroyed, but thanks to the people who welcomed us so warmly, our spirits were being protected.

While the warm and wonderful staff at the King Solomon Hotel in Eilat went out of their way to help us as a community and as individuals, living in a hotel for an extended period of time with your children is a strain on everyone. After 3 months of living in tiny hotel rooms, we were finally able to relocate to our next stop “on our way home”. We are still refugees in our own land, but we have now begun to settle down in comfortable apartments in the southern city of Beersheba. The Capital of the Negev has always been our “go to” city, for shopping, for medical care plus, it is only a 40 minute drive from Beersheva to Nirim. This allows those of us who need to work there, to be able to do the commute daily. Unfortunately, there was not one housing project that was able to absorb all of us, so our kibbutz is spread out over 4 different neighborhoods. The challenge of continuing the traditions and routines of a kibbutz in an urban area is a major challenge. Especially when the community are not near each other. That is an undertaking for which there is no hand book; we now need to write that for ourselves. Community has always been the secret to our resilience, and resilience is the super power that will get us through this and back home in the end. 

As a community, we are strong but we are grappling with ways to preserve that strength.  For example, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim, when we usually celebrate with costumes, music and liquor. Lots of liquor, to fulfill the custom from the Talmud telling us to drink until we cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. But how can we celebrate when two members of our community, Yagev Buchshtav and Nadav Poppellwell (both of whom I watched growing up) are still wasting away in the terror tunnels of the Hamas? Also, 134 other innocent hostages? For 150 days and counting! How can we celebrate anything when their families – our friends – are trapped in purgatory, not knowing what their fates are? How can a community still reeling from displacement and mourning loss, find the strength and fortitude to support, and be there for the families of the hostages?

Many tragedies occurred on October 7th: tragedies from which our community, our region, the country and Jews around the world are reeling till today, and will, no doubt, for years to come. But there were a number of little miracles that day, as well.  The appearance of the southern brigade commander with two of his soldiers who were on Nirim before 7 am, who were actually the first soldiers to engage with the terrorists. They fought valiantly to protect my community, killing a number of the terrorist leaders, but tragically losing their own lives in the process. There was a helicopter fighter pilot who was in touch with our security head and asked “How can I help?” and then proceeded to mow down many terrorists just along the perimeter of the kibbutz. A lone tank drove by and killed even more terrorists on their way to Nirim. The miracle of my granddaughters, whose lives were almost lost. Even the fact that something caused the terrorists to stop breaking into my house, was nothing less than a little miracle. Honestly, it’s a miracle that so many of us on Nirim survived, considering that the plan for attacking us was identical to that of Kibbutz Nir Oz, our neighboring kibbutz just a mile away, where one out of every four people present on the kibbutz that day were either slaughtered or kidnapped. 

It’s hard to believe that this nightmare from which I am still hoping to wake up began 5 months ago, during the swan-song of summer and here we are: fields of  red anemones are already making way for the yellow and white chrysanthemums of spring. We haven’t yet taken down our traditional Sukkot holiday huts, but Passover is already just around the corner. In the same way that the mantra of the Nova festival survivors is: “We will dance again”, my mantra and that of many from my kibbutz and my region is: “We will build again.” Bigger. Better. Safer. Stronger. We will again be pioneers, as we were 77 years ago when our veteran members founded our kibbutz in the barren desert, leading the way and inspiring other communities to return and rebuild, as well. For ourselves, and for the young families whom we hope will return, and the new ones we hope will want to join us in the future. Not all of our families will return, I realize that. I can’t even say if my daughter will return with my grandchildren. But I will return, because if you allow terror to chase you away, you had better get used to running.  We have our work cut out for us before that can happen. We all do. The IDF need to ensure that another “October 7th” can never, ever happen again. They will need to destroy the Hamas’ military capabilities to such an extent that the government will be able to procure a diplomatic solution of one sort or another. No less importantly, before our community and our entire country can have any chance of starting to heal, we must bring all of our hostages home. 

 And me? 

I will be working hard fund-raising for my community to rebuild and make those dreams come true, so that someday in the not-too-distant future, I will once again feel safe enough to be at home and to drive into the fields to photograph the squills at dawn.

Self portrait by Adele Raemer
About the Author
Born in the USA, Adele has lived in a Kibbutz on the border with the Gaza Strip since 1975. She is a mother and a grandmother living and raising her family on the usually paradisaical, sometimes hellishly volatile border. She moderates a FB group named "Life on the Border". https://goo.gl/xcwZT1 Adele recently retired after 38 years as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, as well as a teacher trainer and counselor for the Israeli MoE for EFL and a Tech Integration Coach. She blogs here about both Life on the Border, as well as about digital pedagogy, in "Digitally yours, @dele". She is a YouTuber, mostly on the topic of digital stuff. (https://goo.gl/iBVMEG) Her personal channel covers other issues close to her heart (medical clowning, Life on the Border, etc.) (https://goo.gl/uLP6D3) In addition, she is a trained medical clown and, although on COVID hiatus, until allowed back into hospitals, she clowns as often as she can in the pediatric ward in the hospital in Ashkelon. As a result of her activity as an advocate for her region, she was included among the Ha'aretz "Ten Jewish Faces who made Waves in 2018" https://goo.gl/UrjCNB. In November 2018 she was invited to Geneva by an independent investigative committee for the UN to bear witness to the border situation, and in December 2019 addressed the UN Security Council at the request of the US ambassador to the UN.
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