“It’s my birthday and no one will celebrate with me,” Yossi Schneider read out from a letter as family members and representatives of the Hostage and Missing Families Forum marked Kfir Bibas’s first birthday in Nir Oz.
“It’s my birthday and I am not with my family. It’s my birthday and I don’t get presents. It’s my birthday and I hope that you remember me,” continued Schneider, Shiri Bibas’s cousin.
On Oct. 7, Shiri, her husband Yarden and their two children, Ariel, 4, and Kfir, then nine months old, were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Nir Oz, less than a mile from the Gaza border.
Seventy-eight residents of the kibbutz were kidnapped and another 39 were killed.
“We are here in Nir Oz celebrating the birthday of Kfir, who isn’t with us,” Schneider told JNS while standing next to Kfir’s kindergarten, whose roof was reinforced three years ago to withstand rocket attacks and which was redecorated for this occasion.
“It’s crazy to bake and bring a cake, put balloons and blessings on the wall for someone who’s not even here,” he added.
Over 100 days after the massacre, the splendid greenery of Nir Oz, containing one of Israel’s most elaborate botanical gardens, still contrasts with ruins of deserted houses, dried blood stains and smells of burned flesh that Hamas terrorists left behind.
Nir Oz, Schneider said, used to be paradise, full of happy people. Now, all that remains are the memories.
Inside the kindergarten, orange balloons lined the walls along with pictures of Kfir and Maya Goren, his teacher, who was killed in the building on Oct. 7.
In the main room, a cake with Kfir’s picture is surrounded by sweets and additional balloons.
“They were very modest and humble people who had come to Nir Oz to live their life quietly and peacefully. Shiri is an artist and a lovable kindergarten teacher with a great sense of humor,” Schneider told JNS.
“Kfir did not have a chance to live a normal life, he did not have enough time to experience things. Ariel [his brother] loved Batman. The family bought Batman pajamas for everybody,” he added.
On Oct. 7, a video showing Shiri holding Ariel and Kfir in her arms as they were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists went viral on social media. Later, pictures emerged of a terrorist holding a hammer in one hand while strangling husband Yarden, who was bleeding and surrounded by a mob of Gazans.
In late November, 110 Israelis and foreign nationals were released as part of a week-long truce between Israel and Hamas. While most women and children were freed, Shiri, Ariel and Kfir were not among those returned.
Shortly thereafter, Hamas released a video showing Yarden, emaciated, imploring the Israeli government to broker a deal for his family, even as terrorists indicated they had perished in an Israeli airstrike. The claim was not confirmed by the IDF.
Nili Margalit, a former captive released as part of the ceasefire agreement, was with Yarden when his captors told him his wife and children were dead. According to her, Yarden, who was already in a weak psychological state, broke down.
Schneider told JNS that he believes the family will eventually return.
“Somehow I can feel them, I can feel that they are still alive,” he said. “I cannot really explain it, because it’s a feeling. There is no other option for me. I have to keep acting like they are alive and do everything to bring them back as soon as possible.”
As part of the day in Nir Oz, Sharon Aloni-Cunio, who spent 52 days in captivity in Gaza, visited the ruins of her house. She was released along with her daughters on Nov. 27, while her husband, David, 34, is still being held by Hamas.
“David made me promise that I would fight for him, that I would scream out his despair to the rest of the world as he is unable to do so. I will not give up on you David, you are the love of my life,” she said.
Daniel Lifshitz, whose grandparents Oded, 83, and Yocheved, 85, were both kidnapped from their home in Nir Oz on Oct. 7, also toured the kibbutz.
Yocheved was released on Oct. 23, but Oded remains in the Strip.
“Use every tool, every ounce of influence to bring our people home,” Daniel told the gathering. “I call for an immediate ceasefire. This is the first crucial step in negotiations to release the hostages, signaling our commitment to peaceful resolution,” he added.
Even as the IDF shifts its campaign in Gaza to more low-intensity fighting, the ceremony in Nir Oz coincided with the largest Hamas rocket barrage on southern Israel in weeks.
The sound of missiles and explosions in the background was not new to the residents and regular visitors of Nir Oz, Schneider explained. Alarms alerting them of incoming rockets sound almost daily, providing a 15-second window to seek shelter.
Often, the explosions would come before the sirens due to the short distance between Nir Oz and Gaza.
“Sometimes, 15 seconds isn’t even enough,” he said.
At the end of the ceremony, attendees released balloons into the sky in the direction of Gaza while wishing Kfir a happy birthday.
“For a baby to celebrate his first birthday in captivity has never happened before,” Jimmy Miller, also Shiri’s cousin, told JNS.
“These children do not belong in captivity,” he continued. “They are not Hamas’s enemies. They did not do anything to anyone. They are being used as human shields and bargaining chips. The entire world must put pressure on Hamas using all existing means for their release.”