ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 255

Nitzan Mano. (Dafna Talmon)
Nitzan Mano. (Dafna Talmon)

'Life can end in a single moment. It happened to some people. I can meet death any day, and it's there, waiting. I chose to make an effort to distance myself from it'

Athlete and prospective paratrooper from Kibbutz Re’im who was evacuated to Eilat and then Tel Aviv ● This is his 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

On Friday, we had a memorial for my grandfather. The whole family came, including my adopted uncle, Carmel Idan, a founding member of Re’im whom my grandparents adopted into our family. Carmel is the father of Roee Idan, who was murdered in Kfar Aza with his wife Smadar, and the grandfather of little Avigail who was kidnapped to Gaza and released.

In the evening, we all ate together at my grandmother’s house, and in the distance, we could hear the music from the big Supernova music festival. My mom asked, “What’s that noise?” and I replied, “What do you care? Let them be happy.” I even thought about going to see what was going on there. I have a regular running route in the area, and every run passes through where the festival was held. After the meal, we went home and went to sleep.

When I began my volunteer gap year, I decided to leave the house I was given in the kibbutz youth neighborhood and go back to living with my parents. I was supposed to enlist in the military in November of 2023, and I thought it would be better to go back to their house when I was home for weekends. I also needed their support because I was going through a difficult time.

On Saturday morning, at about 6:30, we started to hear loud bangs without sirens. I sleep on the top floor and in order to get to the bomb shelter in eight seconds, I have to sprint. I felt like this wasn’t normal because the number of rockets fired was serious.

I went into the bedrooms of my brother Yogev, who is 22, and my sister Bar, who is 16, to make sure they were awake. We went down to the bomb shelter, closed the door, and locked it with a lock that my parents installed of their own accord a few years ago. We knew that in the event of terrorist infiltration, every small obstacle helps.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Re’im on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, November 26, 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

And then we heard a rocket fall nearby.

It was 6:40. I went out and peeked through the window to see the interceptions, which were lighting up the sky. A few minutes later, my dad showed me a photo that some friends had sent him of a Toyota truck driving through Sderot. I said to him, “Dad, there are terrorists in Sderot, this cannot be real.”

Within a few minutes, we heard a volley of gunfire outside the house and received a message on the kibbutz WhatsApp group saying that someone in one of the houses had been wounded. Slowly, people who escaped from the music festival started to arrive in the kibbutz and someone wrote, “Four guys came to me.”

I volunteered with Magen David Adom for three years and have completed training as a medic. I wanted to go out and help, but my mom told me I wasn’t leaving the house. I told her I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t help, and she told me she couldn’t forgive herself if she let me go.

We heard gunfire the whole time, there wasn’t a single second of quiet, and the question that was constantly asked was where the army was. We felt helpless.

I started following the news. For the first time in my life, I downloaded Telegram. I wanted to know what was happening at every moment. At some point, I saw a photo of Liam Or in a Hamas tunnel together with our Thai workers. We were good friends with them. They would host us in their houses where we sat, ate, and drank with them, and they would come to the kibbutz’s events.

A motorcycle and RPG (right) and bicycles (top left) left in Re’im by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, and the Manos’ dog, Dolly (bottom left). (Nitzan Mano)

The hours elapsed. We sat in our bomb shelter with Dolly, our dog, for 17 hours without food and without going to the bathroom. We did everything in the bomb shelter. We joked that the terrorists would run away from the smell. It was hot, humid, and disgusting.

In the evening, there was an announcement that the kibbutz was cleared and we could come out. I went to patrol the house with a knife and scissors in my hands. I went upstairs and checked under the cupboards, and then I went downstairs and tried to go with my mom and Dolly for a walk.

As we were leaving the house, Dolly stood still and refused to move. No amount of pulling or convincing helped, she was insistent. We went back inside with her, and a few minutes later, a volley of gunfire hit our house from outside. We went back to the bomb shelter and stayed inside until 9:00 the next morning.

In the morning, they announced that they were clearing the kibbutz, and groups of soldiers would go from house to house. They knocked on the door and said, “We’re from Kfir [army unit], is everything okay? Is anyone wounded? At 11:00, a bus will be leaving the kibbutz for Eilat. You can also take your own car.”

Just before we left, I went to throw out the garbage, and on the way, I saw an RPG lying on the road. I saw the demolished houses in the youth neighborhood, which is nearby, but I still didn’t understand the significance of what happened and didn’t know what had happened to Amit.

Amit Gabay

Throughout all the hours we were in the bomb shelter, messages were constantly sent in the youth WhatsApp group. Mainly, people were asking what had happened to Amit Gabay, Asaf Ferber, and Liam.

Amit Gabay (Courtesy)

My relationship with Amit began with teasing each other as children and developed into a wonderful friendship. We counseled bar and bat mitzvah kids together, and we had a group that also included Segev, who was in my grade, and Liam, who was in the grade below us. We liked hiking and partying together.

Amit was murdered on Saturday morning, but I only found out on Sunday. His death was one of the motivators for my decision to get out of the crisis I had been in. I knew he was looking down on me, and who am I not to give my everything to success when he didn’t get that chance?

Amit was sweet, smiley, funny, and beloved. He loved life and was constantly moving. I didn’t know he had so many friend groups. Sometimes we had motivational conversations when he was sick of school. We talked about his plans and what he wanted to do when he grew up.

The evacuation

While leaving the kibbutz, we saw dozens of terrorists’ bodies. Outside the kibbutz were the terrorists’ trucks, one of which had a TV they stole from one of the houses. We were shocked. We still didn’t understand what had happened to us or what world we were in.

We arrived at the Isrotel Sport Club in Eilat where the staff welcomed us wonderfully. The hotel’s deputy CEO took me under his wing and got me a bicycle and cycling and swimming gear because I had just started training for a triathlon. Every morning, he would check on me, and on Saturdays, we would cycle 100 kilometers (62 miles) together.

The hotel was not a home. It’s hard to be with the whole kibbutz in one place. Everywhere I went I saw sad faces. Everyone was in pain, everyone had lost people, it was unbearable.

Nitzan Mano (Dafna Talmon)

I escaped to sports. I trained in the gym, swam in the sea, and cycled. I trained for more than 13 hours a week. The rest of the time I listened to music and tried to be with my family. After a few days, my dad, who is a farmer and manages the kibbutz field crops, went to work the fields and only came back to the hotel on the weekends.

My friends weren’t in the hotel. They’d all already enlisted into the army and I was the only one who postponed my enlistment until April. I did a volunteer gap year in a boarding school for at-risk youth in Ramat Yishai, and it was a complicated year for me that helped me develop a lot of abilities. I needed a break.

On January 1, we moved to Tel Aviv. The youth were given apartments in a building above Levinski Market, and the rest of the kibbutz moved into two buildings on Herzl Street. Suddenly, I found myself in an apartment in Tel Aviv, funding myself and looking after myself. I was paying for expenses and not taking money from my parents. The state paid the rent.

I didn’t want to waste away until I enlisted, I wanted to work at something to do with sports. We arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday, and by Monday I had already gone for an interview at the Aliyah Country Sports Center and got a job. The center’s staff welcomed me very nicely. Tal, the main manager, Or, another manager, and the whole staff made sure I felt good. Very quickly, they realized that I wasn’t just an evacuee, I was also a hard worker.

Thanks to my work at the center and living in Tel Aviv, I was exposed to communities I hadn’t known before. LGBTQ+ people, foreign workers, and a lot of people with all sorts of disabilities. I worked as a receptionist. I found myself a home there with a youthful and fun atmosphere, and I enjoyed working there.

In Re’im, I lived in a bubble. Tel Aviv is also a bubble, but it’s different. There’s everything there. It can be overwhelming, but it did me good. I could have sat at home and lived off the support from the state until I enlisted, but I preferred to live, to be open-minded to new things, and not wallow in grief. It’s the only way to go on.

Evacuees from Kibbutz Nir Oz in the lobby of a hotel in Eilat on October 17, 2023. (Aris MESSINIS / AFP)

The decision

Do you know that feeling that everything is falling? You try to hold on, and it all falls from your hands, and one day you make a decision and start to slowly pick up the things you dropped.

I didn’t go to a single friend’s funeral. I couldn’t. I was a close friend of Amit’s, I didn’t stop thinking about Liam, and Dvir Karp was the manager of the kibbutz gym, and sometimes we had deep conversations when we were the last people left at the pool.

I lost friends from Be’eri and Nir Oz. At school, I had a substitute teacher, Liat Atzili, who was kidnapped to Gaza. When I heard that she had been taken hostage, I sent her a message saying, “Liat, message me when you get back, I’m waiting for you.” When she was released, she wrote to me, “I’m back!”

So many people who were close to my parents, my siblings, and me were murdered. It was the first time I saw my father in pain like that.

What does all this death do to your life?

At first, I thought, “If one death is a whole world, what do you do with so many dead worlds?” I felt like I wasn’t giving enough attention to those who were murdered, but that wasn’t true. You just cannot contain so many names of victims. Soldiers from special units that I dreamed of embodying and thought were invincible were killed.

Nitzan Mano (Dafna Talmon)

A lot of people around me skipped the dealing with it somehow and jumped straight into action or shut down. For me, running is medicine. Running gives me air, refuge, and strength. I start my day with a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) run, fill up on energy, and only then can I go out to take on the world.

The sports environment, and especially running, is what sees me through the hardest periods, and if anyone would ask me for advice on how to get out of that dark place, I would tell them to focus on what they love.

I joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s running group. Yigal Lev, one of the best running coaches in the country, added me to his group for free. In general, I feel like a lot of people are embracing me. Maybe at first, it’s because I’m an evacuee and they want to help me, but I think it’s also because of who I am.

In two weeks, you’re enlisting as a paratrooper

I’m ready and willing to enlist, and I’ve been waiting for it for years. I had to fight for my profile (a rating based on physical and mental health that determines what unit future soldiers can join).

When I was in third grade, at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, a rocket from Gaza hit our house, and there was another incident with my dad, my brother and me involving an incendiary balloon from Gaza. We were in a tractor that got stuck on a tree trunk and a fire started under us because of the balloon. We got out of there charred and scared.

Israelis hike in the Ashalim stream, in southern Israel, on March 24, 2023. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

These types of incidents have followed us our whole lives, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to give something of myself to the country and help protect my people and my friends.

I grew up in a home where the most important value was giving. My parents educated us to love the country. We went hiking almost every weekend. Last week, we hiked at Nahal Ashalim and Nahal Azgad, and next week, I’m going with my dad and brother to Nahal Rahaf in the south. I love to love the country, to feel it through my feet.

Does the army consider the fact that you’re an evacuee?

Yes. I don’t know who will speak to me about it when I get there, but I got an extra grant to buy equipment and they called to ask how I was doing and make sure I was evacuated. After what I went through, not enlisting is an option.

Are you scared to enlist?

No.

Nitzan Mano (Dafna Talmon)

Were you scared on October 7?

No. To me, it was action. I think I just didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation and I was in denial.

What do you miss?

Running in the fields. The quiet. Our sunsets. The smell of the fields, the smell of the earth, and even the smell of the garbage in the fields. I’m a boy who grew up in fields, who picks carrots and eats them straight from the earth.

I miss the quiet moments. Just enjoying nature, going to the pool in the kibbutz, and not worrying about anything. Sitting in the corner my mom calls “a corner of paradise” where we sit for coffee in the afternoon when my parents come home from work.

Life can end in a single moment. It happened to some people. It means that any day, my life can end. I can meet death at any moment, and it’s there, waiting for you. I chose to make an effort to get a distance from it.

I chose to take care of myself so I could feel better, to meet people, and live the life I want to live. I could let myself sink, but it isn’t what I want. I want to move on, be on a positive trend, start a family, and influence the world in one way or another.

Do you see yourself going back to live near Gaza?

I don’t know. I’m proud of the place I live in now, and I have no problem going back to live in the kibbutz. It’s less suitable for my parents. They’re not willing to take the risk anymore. They don’t trust anyone because they know there were a lot of promises that no one kept.

Do you let yourself cry?

I barely cry, but sometimes, I have nightmares. Sometimes I dream about my friends. What would have happened if I had been in the house next to them? Would I have been able to go out with a first aid kit and save someone?

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