Reporter's notebook

‘They burn our souls’: Mother of two hostages returns to Nir Oz for first time

Hadas Calderon begs the government to bring back her two children and ex-husband, who were kidnapped on October 7, when Hamas terrorists also murdered her mother and niece

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

FILE - Hadas Calderon holds pictures of her children, two of whom were held captive by Hamas, at Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)
FILE - Hadas Calderon holds pictures of her children, two of whom were held captive by Hamas, at Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

NIR OZ — For the first time since Hamas took two of her children hostage, Hadas Calderon returned to Kibbutz Nir Oz on Monday, in order to see firsthand the last known locations of her family members in Israel.

“The last message I got from them was at 8:30 in the morning” on October 7, and “they told me they jumped from the window and ran from the house. I don’t know if they’re alive or murdered,” Calderon said of Erez, 12, and Sahar, 16. They were with her ex-husband, Ofer, who was also kidnapped into the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

“These children are never away from me for more than two or three days, but now it’s been three weeks,” Calderon said, standing outside of Ofer and their children’s destroyed residence.

“They [Hamas] burn our souls, it’s hell,” she cried, turning to move into the charred shell of their home.

Erez and Sahar Calderon, missing, along with their father Ofer Calderon, from Kibbutz Nir Oz, presumed taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Calderon and another of her sons survived the ordeal by barricading themselves in their saferooms until the army came to release them some eight hours later. Her mother and niece, Carmela, 80, and Noya Dan, 12, were killed by terrorists and their bodies were found just over the Gaza border, after they were abducted from the kibbutz.

Nir Oz, a community of about 400 people situated a mere three kilometers from the Gaza border, lost almost half of its population during Hamas’s shock attack. Over 100 residents and some 15 foreign agricultural workers were killed during the onslaught, and about 80 more were taken captive, said a military spokesperson.

These statistics give Nir Oz the devastating distinction of being home to about a third of the estimated 243 hostages currently confirmed to be in Gaza.

A destroyed home, Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Walking into her ex-husband and children’s home, Calderon paused in the living room, looking at Arabic-language graffiti tagging the wall for the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

Like in many homes in more than 30 southern Israeli communities hit by Hamas on October 7, the television set was missing.

“They took the TVs, they took everything they could, and burned the rest,” she said. “They burned the house, they burned our lives.”

The bedroom of Erez, her preteen son, doubled as the home’s saferoom. We had to step over destroyed model airplanes to enter, and the room was filled with toys, medals and family pictures. There Erez, his father and sister tried to hold off the terrorists who broke into their home, before making the decision to try to flee.

Hadas Calderon stands in front of the saferoom window through which her children and ex-husband tried to outrun Hamas, before being kidnapped to Gaza, Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Calderon broke down as she looked through the window that her family had hoped would be their escape.

“Bring my children home, and their father. That’s all I want, I don’t care how,” she cried, her face streaked with ash from the torched home.

Nir Oz, like many of the towns Hamas targeted, is a left-leaning agricultural community, where many residents volunteer their time to drive Gazans from the border to Israeli hospitals for prearranged medical care.

Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, who was held hostage in Gaza after being abducted during Hamas’s bloody Oct. 7 attack on Israel, waves to the media a day after being released, at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Next door to Ofer and her children lived Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz. Yocheved, 85, was released by Hamas last week, while Oded, 83, remains a hostage.

Their home was also burned, with a metal door sign reading “God is alive” coated with a thick layer of ash.

Kibbutz Nir Oz founding member Ran Pauker, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Across the way lived Ran Pauker, who said he was among the founders of Nir Oz.

Pauker, who was 9 when Israel declared its independence in 1948, said he lived through each of the country’s wars, but this was the first time he is a “refugee.” The Israel Defense Forces has evacuated Nir Oz’s remaining residents, along with other Gaza border community towns and those close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

He returned to Nir Oz under military escort on Monday, also for the first time since Hamas’s attack. On October 7, he was in the nearby town of Sderot, which was also targeted by terrorists.

“We’re in a very stupid situation,” he said, straining to be heard over the sound of the Israeli shelling of Gaza in the close distance.

The destroyed Lifschitz family home, Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Having lived in the Gaza border region for over 50 years, since long before Israel pulled out of the territory, Pauker said, “I have very good friends over the border, and I can’t meet them and they can’t meet me.”

He said he had continued to speak with his Gazan friends. “Why not? They are people. They have dead people and we have dead people,” he said.

Arabic language graffiti reads “Al-Qassam Brigages,” spraypainted on the wall of the Calderon family home, Kibbutz Nir Oz, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Pauker said he does not think endless wars with Gaza terror groups are the solution, but was firm in his condemnation of the Hamas assault that destroyed the community he helped build.

“The soldiers that came here, you can’t call them animals because animals don’t do what they did. You can’t call them people because they aren’t people…but 2.5 million people [in Gaza]? Most of them are not my enemy,” he said.

Ron Bahat, who was born in Nir Oz, trailed through the kibbutz’s bullet-pocked, burnt out communal dining hall.

“They came here to destroy,” he said.

Recalling his own eight-and-a-half-hour ordeal, Bahat said his family fought back “waves” of terrorist attempts to breach their home’s saferoom until the army arrived to rescue them.

Kibbutz Nir Oz member Ron Bahat describes his 8.5-hour ordeal sheltering from Hamas terrorists, October 30, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Messages were flooding internal kibbutz WhatsApp groups, and “parents begged for someone to help their kids, [writing] ‘They’re burning my house, help,'” but no one was able to offer any assistance.

“When the army freed us, we saw what was left of this beautiful place,” he said, noting that members of his extended family had been kidnapped.

“I hope that Hamas infrastructure will be destroyed,” he said, but was unsure if that would be enough to reassure residents of the kibbutz they could return.

“I think it’s too early to discuss [returning],” he said. “This,” he said sweeping his arm, “is a terrible experience.”

Most Popular
read more: