ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 192

Roei Saban. (Dafna Talmon)
Photos by Dafna Talmon

'The first time I cried, there were tears of relief - relief for getting my kids out, that they are alive, that I am alive. After that, there was more crying - for friends, for at least 100 people I knew and were murdered'

Divorced and father of three ● He serves as a reserve company sergeant major in the Jericho area ● Since the war started, he has no permanent place of residence ● This is his story

Photos by Dafna Talmon

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.

I was born into a religious family in Safed. After finishing my regular military service, I took a short trip. When I returned, I moved to Jerusalem and studied at the Musrara School of Photography. In my head, I played with the romantic idea of becoming an artist.

After graduating, I moved to Tel Aviv and started working as a video editor at Channel One and the Sports Channel. At the same time, I worked as a line cook, and that’s where I met my now ex-wife. A year later, we moved to Heletz, the easternmost moshav in the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. Heletz is not considered a part of the Gaza Envelope community as it is 7.2 kilometers (4.4 miles) away from the border. (The Gaza envelope includes populated areas within 7 kilometers, or 4.3 miles, of the Gaza border.)

Four years ago, after my wife and I separated, I moved to Sderot to stay close to my kids. I lived in a rented apartment for the first two years, and then I bought a house. I love Sderot.

What do you like about it?

My parents were born in Safed, part of a large community of Tunisian Jews. When someone would ask my dad for directions to a certain street in Safed, my dad would reply, “Don’t tell me the street — tell me which family you want to go to.”

Sderot has a similar vibe, with a base for those from Morocco and a large community from the Caucasus that arrived in 1992.

I love the tranquility of Sderot, and I love the south. Sderot is a 20-minute drive from the beaches in Ashkelon, an hour from the desert, and an hour each from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when there are no traffic jams. We’re a hair’s breadth away from the breathtaking nature of Bitronot Ruhama, and the influence of the surrounding regional councils — Sha’ar HaNegev and Ashkelon — also adds to its appeal.

Sderot carries a racial dynamic that fascinates me. I grew up in the Mizrahi tradition, and I internalized racial conflicts. For years, I resisted acknowledging my roots. My sister would listen to Mizrahi music, and I would tell her, “Why not listen to Shlomo Artzi and Arik Einstein? We’re better than that…” There was a time when I felt ashamed hearing my grandparents speak Arabic.

Cars in the southern town of Sderot, January 2, 2024. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

During my studies at Musrara, I explored the issue of my identity a lot, and today I see myself as an Arab Jew.

A good friend of mine owns Pub Sderot, a multicultural hub that brings together people from Sderot, the surrounding kibbutzim and students from Sapir College, who bring with them a young and curious spirit. I love the social and geographical periphery.

Saturday, October 7

On Friday, October 6, I was at home in Sderot with the kids. We sat together for the Shabbat meal, and I remember feeling whole, as if nothing was missing. In a way, Friday meals and the kiddush (blessing over the wine) have become indicators of my parenthood and the progress of our new family.

We hung out, it was fun. Friends from my running group, the Sderot Front Runners, messaged about a morning run. I set the alarm on my phone and told them that if I felt up to it, I would join. The next morning, I woke up, washed my face, and then decided to go back to bed.

An hour later, we were woken by a Red Alert rocket siren. Me and the boys (Shany, 15, and Guy, 13) sleep upstairs, and my youngest daughter (Zohar, 9) sleeps downstairs in the safe room. We heard the first explosions as we reached the bottom of the stairs. We got into the safe room and closed the door.

The kids asked me, ‘Dad, what’s happening?’ We started laughing, joking that someone probably fell asleep on the button. The number of rockets was highly unusual

Usually, it’s one, two, three explosions and it’s over. The kids asked me, “Dad, what’s happening?” We started laughing, joking that someone probably fell asleep on the button. The number of rockets was highly unusual.

I waited for the first brief pause, rushed upstairs, grabbed my phone, got dressed, and took out my gun. I’ve always supported the Labor party and believe in coexistence with our neighbors, but my 23 years of reserve duty have also made me aware that the situation can flip at any moment. So I keep a gun, so I can protect my family if I have to.

Roei Saban. (Dafna Talmon)

The WhatsApp running group became active. We’ve run during rocket attacks before — you just get down on the ground until it passes. Soon, videos started coming in, showing vans full of armed terrorists driving the streets of Sderot.

Automatically, I went into soldier mode. It’s what my body did for 25 years in the army — I secured the entire house, positioned myself next to the bedroom window overlooking the yard, and for 30 hours, I alternated between checking on the kids and maintaining my post by the window. I heard faint, distant gunfire, but it didn’t fully register. From a distance, I witnessed shooting incidents.

I don’t remember what we ate during those hours. I did my best to shield my kids from the barrage of information. I asked them not to click on any videos. I was called up to the reserves under Tzav 8, Israel’s emergency call-up notice. As a company sergeant major in the Jordan Valley Brigade, I knew they wouldn’t send us into Gaza because it’s not our sector. I spoke with my ex-wife and assured her that once things calm down, I’ll bring the kids to her. I didn’t really sleep all night. Actually, I haven’t slept much since.

Israeli soldiers deploy in Sderot, Israel, on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The evacuation

On Sunday, around 11 a.m., I mistakenly thought that the army had regained control of the city. I was fully packed, and in my uniform. I went out with my gun, scanned the area, and brought the car around to the house. I had told the kids that when I shout for them, they need to leave the house immediately and run to the car.

I hit the gas pedal and in just five seconds, we were out of the city. I tried to look away, but it was hard to ignore the charred vehicles scattered on the roadsides. I told the kids to keep their heads down, and we got out of there as fast as we could.

A car destroyed in the Hamas terror onslaught is seen in Sderot, Israel, on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/ Ohad Zwigenberg)

On the way, I stopped at Kibbutz Bror Hayil to drop them off at my ex-wife’s sister’s place, as there is no safe room in Heletz. I explained to the boys why I had to leave. I said, “There’s been a disaster. Hamas terrorists captured a number of places and murdered many people.” I explained to them that when something like this happens, I’m called up for reserve duty. I gave them a big hug and left.

From the moment I got into the car until I reached Nabi Musa near Jericho, I cried

From the moment I got into the car until I reached Nabi Musa near Jericho, I cried. At this point, I already knew that Kobi Pariente and Naomi Shirtit, my friends from the running group in Sderot, were murdered by terrorists. Lior Yitzhak, also from the group, went out that morning for a bike ride and was murdered on his way back. Avi Amar, another group member, was killed in combat in Ofakim. He was a police officer and went out to fight.

How are you coping?

I haven’t processed the event yet. You’re the first person I’ve talked to about what I feel. The tears on the way to reserve duty, there were tears of relief — relief for getting my kids out, that they are alive, that I am alive. After that, there was more crying — for friends, for at least 100 people I knew who were murdered. The circles of pain are endless. And then you arrive at your post and have to start functioning, and you go into automatic mode.

Are you surprised by what happened?

I raised my children to believe in peaceful coexistence. Today, I know that I was wrong. Everyone there wants us dead. Maybe there are one or two righteous people, but the vast majority want us dead.

Last weekend, I watched the news for the first time and there was a segment about Maya and Itay Regev, the brother and sister who were released from Hamas captivity. The residents of Herzliya went out to the streets to welcome them and celebrate their return. And I thought about how the residents of Gaza welcomed them… the same thing, only with sticks and stones. I’ve lost all trust in the people of Gaza. And in the people of the West Bank.

Roei Saban. (Dafna Talmon)

Are you more afraid today than you were before?

I think so. There is nothing certain in this world.

Where do you go during leave from reserve duty?

I am an evacuee, like all the residents of Sderot. I can’t go back home because a missile fell in my yard, windows shattered, and Sderot is a war zone. Things aren’t that quiet here in Jericho, either. Near Jericho, there is a refugee camp — the third most dangerous after Jenin and Nablus. There are weapons, terror cells and Hamas operatives, something that developed in the last two years, and we feel it today.

In the first 30 days, there was no leave at all. When they started talking about going on leave, I tried to understand where I was going. We got a 24-hour leave. I hadn’t seen the kids in a month. A friend from my previous job wrote an anonymous post for me about needing an apartment for 24 hours, and within minutes, friends found me an apartment in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv. That’s where I went. The kids were in Eilat.

What were you thinking during those hours?

I thought about what we lost. About being taken over by the enemy. It’s the closest thing to descriptions of rape that I’ve read. A brutal intrusion into your private space, into who you are. The idea that I stood guard by the window with a gun while terrorists roamed the streets is still unfathomable. I was running scenarios in my head — how I’d go out the back door and grab an AK-47 from one of them so I could level the playing field. If the kids weren’t there, I probably would have gone out and likely gotten killed.

A Hamas weapon collected by the IDF in Sderot, October 8, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

All this came back to haunt me as I lay in that strange bed in that strange apartment in Ramat Aviv. It’s the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life. And I thought to myself, it’s better to be on base, keeping busy with my friends. All I wanted was to fall asleep.

At some point, I went to the nearby Ga’ash Beach, and there, I fell apart. There was sunshine, and there was a naked, beautiful family. Dad, mom and three kids. The country is burning, I’m attending funeral after funeral on Zoom, and here they are — swimming naked in the sea. It was unfathomable. The water was so beautiful, and they were so beautiful, and I couldn’t stop crying.

An aerial view of Gash Beach. (Matanya Taousig/ Flash90)

Creative solutions

After a month, we entered a sort of wartime routine. Going on leave was more orderly, and everyone knew that I hadn’t seen my kids for over a month, so a friend arranged for us to spend a weekend together in a hotel in Tel Aviv.

On the first day of the war, I was supposed to have a meeting with the owner of a venue hall for Guy’s bar mitzvah. A few days later, I remembered that I missed the meeting because of the war and asked them to hold the date for us, November 22, and of course, it wasn’t possible.

I told the guys in the brigade about it, and everyone said, ‘So what? We’ll have a bar mitzvah!’ And we did — we celebrated it in Vered Yeriho, a settlement close to the base

I told the guys in the brigade about it, and everyone said, “So what? We’ll have a bar mitzvah!” And we did — we celebrated it in Vered Yeriho, a settlement close to the base. The local first response unit arranged the sound system, the locals opened a synagogue for us, a DJ friend from Sderot handled the music, a friend from the brigade organized the catering, and another friend went to get the food.

I drove to Tel Aviv and bought clothes for the kids, and Guy got called up to make the blessing over the Torah. Anyone not busy on an army mission that day came to celebrate with us.

Roei Saban. (Dafna Talmon)

Every time I have leave, I need to find a place to stay. With the kids, things get more complicated. For my second leave, they came to the area and we booked a room in Kibbutz Almog. The third time, we were in a hotel in Jerusalem. Every time I want and can be with them, I have to move mountains to find a solution.

I don’t take it for granted that the kids are always with my ex-wife. She’s been alone with them for three months now, and she deserves her due. Her level of freedom has been affected in every sense.

So where is home now?

There is no home. Worse, my home has been damaged by rocket fire. Three weeks ago I passed through Sderot, and it’s hard to explain how alien I felt in my own home, the house I bought and poured my whole soul into. It was hard to be there. The windows were still shattered.

What makes a house a home?

My kids. The feeling I had at the Shabbat dinner on October 6. That’s what I want. Until we’re all at home, home is nowhere. This week, I took two sick days. I went to Sderot and met the contractor fixing the house, and everything was a mess, dusty, and there was broken glass everywhere.

I wanted to buy something to eat and said I would stop at the nearby bakery, but the bakery was ruined, and I realized that I’m alone in the city. That it’s a war zone. I slept there for one night and woke up with a stiff body. Yesterday, I slept on the army bed, and everything was fine. The army is my home now. There are my friends, things are safe and certain, there’s food.

IDF troops conduct a raid in Jericho, March 1, 2023. (Flash90)

The next day, I went to Netivot to buy something. On the way, I saw smoke rising above Gaza and felt a sting of joy. That feeling would have made the Roei of October 6 very worried. Today, I’ve been swept away by the cliché of “Let the IDF win.” As far as I’m concerned, no one should remain in Gaza.

When we were in Tel Aviv, my daughter heard someone running on the floor above us and hid under the bed. She said, “Dad, my brain hears explosions, that’s why I’m hiding.”

The future

I’m worried about returning to Sderot. I want to run a little experiment and try to be with the kids at home on a weekend. I want to arrive before them to clean and tidy the place up, so that I feel a little more comfortable. I want to stay in Sderot because my kids are nearby. But what if I don’t feel comfortable at home anymore? What if won’t feel more comfortable in Sderot ever again?

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