Message after message, the brief WhatsApps tell a poignant and chilling story of encroaching terror as people make increasingly desperate pleas for help, some of them with only minutes to live.
“People documented their last moments, they sent selfies before they were murdered,” said Yaniv Hegyi, a former secretary general of Kibbutz Be’eri.
Be’eri was the worst-hit community in the Hamas attacks of October 7 on southern Israel, second only to the Supernova music festival for the number of victims. Out of a population of 1,100, more than 80 were killed.
Now Hegyi is leading a project called “Memorial 710,” collating the WhatsApp messages, images and videos sent that day to create a second-by-second archive of the bloody attack as terrorists overran the rural community.
For the terrified residents hiding in their safe rooms in the dark, their cellphones were their only source of information and communication.
“Where’s the army? They’re breaking into our home!” read one message Hegyi showed AFP.
“There’s shouting in Arabic… there’s a lot of shooting,” said another. “Please come, it’s urgent.”
“They’re shooting at the door.”
In one instance, Hegyi — who was in dozens of WhatsApp groups as a result of his position, and received thousands of messages that day — wrote back: “Stay inside, don’t go out.
“Everyone who goes outside the house gets killed.”
‘Mom’s been killed’
The October 7 attacks saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The majority of those killed were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 360 people were slaughtered at the Supernova festival at Kibbutz Re’im, many amid horrific acts of brutality.
Soon after, global attention quickly switched to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which has claimed nearly 16,000 lives, according to the latest toll from the Hamas-run health ministry. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both noncombatants and Hamas fighters, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.
“Within days the narrative changed and it’s almost like we have to fight for the truth of what happened,” Hegyi said.
By “a miracle,” the 50-year-old and all his family survived. Along with many Be’eri survivors, he has been housed temporarily at Kibbutz Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea.
He visualizes an interactive map of the entire area invaded by terrorists where future researchers could select a kibbutz, neighborhood or home, and pull up related WhatsApp messages, photos and videos from the attack.
“So if a 13-year-old girl sent me a voice note saying: ‘Please help, mom’s been killed, my brother’s dead and dad’s very badly hurt,’ they could jump to her safe room and see what happened with them on that day and about her dad — who is still alive,” Hegyi said.
“They will be able to move from place to place through the WhatsApp network and see what really happened on that day,” he added.
“This is our story.”
Be’eri resident and former historian Hana Brin, 76, said she agreed to share her messages because of the importance of the historical record.
The collection of WhatsApps “is completely different from any other documentation which happens after a week or two or even a year later,” she said.
“It’s the most authentic documentation because it’s in real time, in the place where it happened and under great distress,” she said. “That’s the most direct you can get about what happened.”
Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which is creating a huge archive and database of material linked to October 7, said such messages were “extraordinarily valuable for researchers.”
They assist with recounting and analyzing the events, and also “defend the historical accuracy against denial and outrageous claims of ‘fake,'” she told AFP.
“But it’s intensely, excruciatingly personal.”
So far, 100 Be’eri survivors have agreed to participate in “Memorial 710” and volunteers are asking other communities to join in before the messages get lost in the ether.
There are technological challenges in effectively storing messages, images and videos while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.
Even harder is persuading survivors to share deeply personal and painful messages — often the last words between loved ones.
“It’s not easy to convince them to join the project,” Hegyi said. “But when they do, some sort of magic happens.
“When they give up their WhatsApps, they are doing something proactive, they’re freeing themselves from that sense of powerlessness we all felt inside the safe rooms.”