Aharona Sadan. (Dafna Talmon)
Aharona Sadan. (Dafna Talmon)

'I decided to go back to Dafna despite protests from my children, and I feel great. I've decided that this is where I'll stay'

Retired mother of four who evacuated to Givatayim and Tiberias before returning to Dafna ● This is her story

This is part of a series, “Uprooted.” Each column is a curated monologue from an individual among the tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis during the war with Hamas who were evacuated from the country’s northern border and the Gaza envelope.

Saturday, October 7

I woke up at around 8 a.m. It was completely quiet around us. I turned on my phone and read about what was happening in the south. I turned on the TV and from that moment, I was glued to it all the time for a whole month. I followed the incidents and stories from the people who were there.

I have two sons who live in Dafna. One lives next door to me, and the second is farther away. Sarel (48) was called up for reserve duty with the Hermon Alpinists. Zohar (50) was also called up and has been in an intelligence control room by the border ever since.

When there were protests against the judicial reform, we would go to them together, and I remember telling them one day that if a war broke out they weren’t to serve in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s army. The day the war began, they both enlisted even though they no longer had to.

At the beginning of their reserve duty, I was mainly worried for Sarel, who was on the border with Syria. He did his military service in Golani when the IDF was in Lebanon. One day, while I was working as a nurse in the kibbutz clinic, a friend came in and showed me an article in the newspaper about the IDF killing a Lebanese official with a photo of the group that handled the operation. One of them was my son and I hadn’t known anything.

People enjoy the water in Kibbutz Dafna, in the Upper Galilee, northern Israel, on November 11, 2022. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The evacuation

Zohar’s and Sarel’s wives and children evacuated from the kibbutz on October 7. I didn’t want to evacuate. I eventually went to my daughter Hila (50) in Givatayim after a few days of pressure from the children. There were actually more sirens there than in Dafna at that time.

At every siren, we ran to the bomb shelter with the neighbors — a wonderful gay couple who had a baby through a surrogate three weeks before the war began. Hila’s family fell in love with the baby and a warm and close connection was formed between them — so much so that the family sometimes takes the baby for a few hours to give the fathers a chance to rest.

I was there for a few days and saw how massive the evacuation operation had become. I spoke to the woman in charge of the evacuation from Dafna, and she arranged for a hotel room for me in Tiberias where people from Manara, Malkia, Yir’on and Kfar Giladi also evacuated. Sometimes I helped drive older evacuees to the doctor or pharmacy, but I didn’t feel like I belonged. Most of the time, I sat alone in my room, watching TV and embroidering.

Carpet of war

Last year, I decided to spend my retirement doing things I hadn’t done before. Among other things, I learned how to embroider. When I reached the hotel, the first person I met was my teacher Aviva Yisor, an impressive 80-year-old woman from Kibbutz Malkia.

Before the class ended for the summer, I asked her for some canvas and didn’t do anything with it. As soon as the war began, I got it out and began embroidering. I sat in front of the TV and embroidered like crazy. I was alone for hours on end, and the embroidering helped me feel less alone.

The carpet has two orange hearts, an Israeli flag, a yellow ribbon for the hostages, red poppies, and birds that symbolize freedom and peace.

Aharona Sadan’s Carpet of War embroidery. (Aharona Sadan)

In the bottom left corner, I embroidered a rectangle with the word “hostages” surrounded by 136 dots — the number of hostages in Gaza when I made the embroidery. There were 134 yellow dots and two orange ones for Ariel and Kfir Bibas. It’s so heartbreaking to think of those babies. What did they do? Who did they harm?

I called this work “Carpet of War.” It was the first embroidery I made without instruction and I hoped that by the time I finished it, the war would end and the hostages would be back. I left an empty square to embroider with the date the war ends.

As far as I’m concerned, the war will end when all the hostages come back and not when Hamas is obliterated and all that nonsense. I cried a lot in the first few weeks. Every story brought me to tears for what these people went through. This was my way of expressing that I identify with them.

After 10 days in the hotel, I’d had enough. I went back to Givatayim where there were a lot of sirens and rockets. I wasn’t scared, but I began to feel like I needed my own corner. I decided to go back to Dafna despite protests from my children, and I feel great for going back. I’ve decided that this is where I’ll stay.

Aren’t you scared?

No. The fact that I’m here proves that of all the choices, it’s best for me here.

I don’t walk around a lot in the kibbutz other than sometimes when I go to pick pomellas from the loaded trees in evacuated friends’ gardens. My house used to be the kibbutz children’s house. One of the doors leads to a staircase to a shelter that was built during the War of Independence, so you could say I have a bomb shelter in the house even though I was told it wasn’t up to code after the Second Lebanon War.

Aharona Sadan (Dafna Talmon)

During the first few weeks, no one came. Now people come back for a day or two sometimes to clean their houses or weed their gardens. A few members came back, mainly singles who live alone and a few senior citizens like me with no commitments to work or children.

Still, you won’t meet people on the paths, and they stay empty. At night, all the houses and some of the neighborhoods are dark. It’s probably for security reasons and to save electricity. I’ve never seen the kibbutz like this even though this isn’t the first evacuation.

1948: The first evacuation

When the War of Independence began, the children of Dafna were evacuated to the German Colony in Haifa. For a few months, we lived in one big building. My brother was four-and-a-half, and I was a one-year-old baby.

We were lucky that my grandmother, who my father brought over from Germany before World War II began, was with us. Most of the mothers stayed behind to keep the agriculture going. I don’t remember all this, of course, but I know from stories and a few photos we have left with my father’s handwriting on them.

Until we gained control of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, we used to get a lot of rocket fire from Tel Azaziat. As children, we spent a lot of time in bomb shelters. The border with Lebanon was actually quiet then. We would joke that even an IDF choir could keep us safe. The problem was the border with Syria. We lived in a fortified kibbutz where they dug trenches so that if there was an explosion, we could jump into the trenches.

Aharona Sadan with her grandmother and brother during the evacuation of Kibbutz Dafna to Haifa during the War of Independence, 1948. (Courtesy Aharona Sadan)

The Yom Kippur War

Zvika and I got married following the Yom Kippur War. In general, wartime leads to many insights into personal life.

A little before that Yom Kippur, we decided to break up because Zvika, who grew up in Krayot, didn’t want to move to Dafna, and I didn’t want to leave. But something in the relationship was apparently important to both of us because we decided to meet up on Yom Kippur.

I drove to him in Kiryat Haim and we went to the beach. At around 5 p.m., when we decided to go back, we saw people walking around with transistor radios, and someone said to us, “Don’t you know that we’re at war?”

Four hours later, Zvika was called up, and I knew that if he came home alive from the war, I would marry him and it didn’t matter to me where we would live. I didn’t hear from him for more than a month, and I was in a terrible state. Our first meeting when he had a break was when we conceived Zohar and Hila. They were born in the winter of 1973.

Back to the kibbutz

There are currently no community services in the kibbutz. There are no children, no community center, nothing. Fortunately, I’m mobile, I drive, and I get around. In the first two months, I went one day to the dining room at the Goshrim Hotel in the north of Emek HaHula and helped pack up warm food for soldiers. Other than that, I like hiking and I’ve joined a few hiking groups.

I managed to convince a friend to come back to Dafna and sometimes we go to the cinema together in Rosh Pina. I have friends in nearby kibbutzim that weren’t evacuated, so sometimes we organize a group meal, but not in my house because people aren’t thrilled to come over.

Photos of evacuated Kibbutz Dafna, northern Israel. (Aharona Sadan)

Some workers are tending to the cows and the agriculture (avocados, orchards, and carobs). Some of them are kibbutz members, but most of them are foreign workers. I buy my food in Kibbutz Shamir. The emergency response team has some 20 members, and they alternate. At the beginning of the war there were loads of soldiers around but not anymore.

There’s also someone who cuts the grass by the houses, but it spreads fast and in some places, it’s already as high as a person.

In the spring, the riverbank is full of people, but now everything is empty. In Dafna, there’s a care home for the elderly of the kibbutz and nearby towns, but it’s also empty now. Everyone was evacuated from it immediately, and I understand that many have passed away in the last few months. Funerals are only held here at night. They don’t want big gatherings in daylight.

The future

I don’t know what will happen when this whole story ends. I don’t know what the kibbutz will be like, and it’s a question that worries me. What will happen when they begin to come back? Will everyone come back? Will there be any more youth here? There are families with small children who are debating whether they should come back. Couples have built beautiful homes here and are now considering selling them and looking for somewhere else.

We are currently a socially broken-up community. One member around my age told me he and his wife rented an apartment in Tel Aviv, and now they live close to their grandchildren and are enjoying it. They help their kids and often go to cultural activities. When I asked him if he thinks they’ll come back, he said, “Listen, you’re asking a very sensitive question.” That was an unambiguous response.

They rented an apartment, saw that everything was good, and they have everything in the palm of their hand, which they wouldn’t have in Dafna. That’s just one example of what’s going on with people now.

Aharona Sadan (Dafna Talmon)

We don’t even know what will happen on the northern front, and I’m praying that it doesn’t escalate because if it does, it won’t be only the towns on the northern border who will suffer. The main danger is anti-tank missiles. That’s what happened in Kfar Yovel where a mother and her son, Mira and Barak Ayalon (my daughter-in-law’s aunt and cousin), were killed.

What do you miss?

The routine I had and loved. Until the war broke out, I worked once a week at the clinic in Kibbutz Dan, hiked once a week, sang in a choir once a week, and went to my embroidery classes. There are still some interesting things now, but my routine was good for me.

Our evacuation is a luxury evacuation. In hotels, you get three meals a day, a comfortable bed to sleep in, towels, sheets, and air conditioning. The suffering is more social. But what happens to people who were uprooted from northern Gaza and live in tents and starve? It’s awful!

I think a lot about the hostages, but also about the Gazans’ suffering. They’re not all Hamas.

Israel managed to arrange all sorts of educational routines for our children and create a learning environment. Our school, Har VaGai, was evacuated to all sorts of places, and a solution needs to be found for the children of kibbutzim who weren’t evacuated as well. But what happens to the children in Gaza? Who can even dream about school there? Their most basic needs aren’t met.

Teva-Naot shoe factory workers manufacture a new batch of the iconic Israeli vintage slippers to supply the demand for the Kipi soft house shoes for the winter, in Kibbutz Dafna, upper Galilee, December 21, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

There’s suffering in the world, but I still see beauty. I see beauty in the enlistment of civilians and volunteer organizations in the face of the weakness of the government which was supposed to provide these things. Our government isn’t functioning, and Netanyahu is glued to his chair.

Volunteering in Kfar Aza

This week, I was in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. I went there to help, and it was an empowering and emotional experience. I was working with an initiative of some of the members of Kibbutz Beit HaShita that they called The Wheat Grows Again. One of them, an exemplary man, has been in contact with the residents of Kfar Aza since Protective Edge in 2014 when the kibbutz evacuated to near Afula.

These people from Beit HaShita decided to raise the evacuees’ spirits and organized an evening of singing in which 200 members of Beit HaShita and all Kfar Aza participated. They say it was an outstanding night.

Since then, once a year, the same people go to Kfar Aza and organize a big meal. The last meeting was on September 22, less than three weeks before the war broke out.

A few weeks later, the Beit HaShita group decided to arrange for groups of 10-15 volunteers to work for a week in Kfar Aza, which suffered a lot of damage and loss on October 7. The main work is tending to the public gardens and the private ones whose owners want and consent to the help. We don’t want to do anything without consent.

In the background, you can always hear the echoes of gunfire, but there’s no siren, and I’m used to it. At night we sleep in the children’s house, which was set up for us, and wonderful people have come to help. We work six hours a day, weeding and cleaning the gardens, and the satisfaction is massive.

A demolished home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Home Front Command)

One family has returned, a husband and wife, and they invite everyone in the kibbutz — soldiers and volunteers — for lunch at their house every Monday. These are people who experienced awful things. I walk around the kibbutz and see the shot-up and burned-out homes and I feel like I’m doing something, taking part. I’m happy I came to lend a hand.

Does it fill you with hope?

Not necessarily. There are a lot of members of Kfar Aza who won’t go back to live in the kibbutz, and I think that as long as the hostages aren’t back and as long as this government leads the country, there’s nothing to celebrate and we cannot talk about hope.

We toured the area today. We went to the location of the Supernova festival and to the car cemetery, and I thought that we weren’t only working and giving, we were also taking.

The group of people who are here with me are wonderful. The meal preparation, the common work, the mutual help, and the goodwill. There are other values this fills me with, and I think that’s important to those who came to help and mainly for the members of Kfar Aza who visit sometimes for a few hours.

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