A field at Kibbutz Nir Oz against the backdrop of the sun setting on Gaza. Photo by Shahar Vahab.
A field at Kibbutz Nir Oz against the backdrop of the sun setting on Gaza. Photo by Shahar Vahab.
featureIsrael at War

His photos tell a story of a kibbutz that is no more

Shahar Vahab was about to take a picture of the sunrise when terrorists attacked. He spent the next 13 hours hiding a few feet from the killers.

Ever since I can remember, there has always been a camera at home. My dad was an amateur photographer and always chased us so he could capture Kodak moments.

At some point, I also became interested. Since my early teens, I’ve been chasing everyone with a camera. I can’t remember the last time I was without some kind of camera.

When you live in Kibbutz Nir Oz, there’s always something beautiful to photograph. In the summer, everyone is by the pool or on the grass. Holidays and big events are with everyone, just like in the beautiful songs of Shalom Hanoch and Meir Ariel.

In the winter, the skies clear up, and the plains of the northern Negev suddenly gain perspective after months of hot, gray summer skies. It feels like an eternity, the summer at the edge of the desert, and then finally, the rain comes, leaving the world clean and colorful in its wake.

A rainbow near Nir Oz while watering the fields. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

It doesn’t happen often; not much rain falls in Nir Oz, so every drop has meaning and is a real cause of celebration for the farmers and also for those behind the camera. I’ve always been both—sometimes a farmer taking photos and sometimes a photographer working in the fields during a break from school.

I’ve traveled to all sorts of places in the world, but winter sunsets like those in Nir Oz are like nowhere else. The flat fields, not even a small hill to cut through the wide expanse; and there is always Gaza there in the background, always just below the western sun.

There’s no escaping it, the view of the villages and mosques; the houses that always seem like no one has finished building or painting. Always in the middle, between the camera and the horizon.

Sunflowers grow in Nir Oz. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

I took so many photos facing west from the kibbutz. The path used by the terrorists when they breached our fields on Saturday, Oct. 7, was the same with which they returned to Gaza, using any vehicle they managed to steal from the kibbutz. The vehicles were packed with various items they had stolen, including many of our friends whom we are still looking for.

On that Friday night, I was on guard duty at the kibbutz. The shift ends at 06:00, but I linger for a moment near the farming equipment shed. The sun rises from the east, right above the tractors, and there was a nice frame there to capture.

I don’t manage to take the shot when the red alert sirens and relentless rocket explosions force me to run to the small above-ground bunker outside the garage: a concrete cube with an open entrance, filled with old things that couldn’t find a place elsewhere. Suddenly, I hear people around me, speaking in Arabic, and then gunfire and explosions.

In WhatsApp groups and on the kibbutz network, messages start flowing, becoming more severe by the minute. You’ve already heard the story; minutes turn into hours, and the messages don’t stop.

This is what I have to hold on to: written messages and what I hear. I don’t dare look outside from the shelter because Hamas terrorists are sitting talking on their phones just next to it. I hear vehicles approaching, coming, and going; I identify the sounds of motorcycles that I don’t recognize from the kibbutz.

Then comes another wave: of plunderers. They come and try to start the tractors and earthmovers. I recognize the sound of every starter of our farm vehicles and try to understand what is happening from the sounds and messages on my phone.

Every few minutes, I send updates on the kibbutz WhatsApp group: “They’re taking the big John Deere,” “They broke into the garage and are taking tools,” “They’re getting closer, they’re dealing with the backhoe loader.”

I have not yet understood the scale of the attack and think that the information I am providing could help our security team and the military forces that have come to help us. In reality, I later understood that at this stage, our security team was no longer viable, and no military forces arrived in Nir Oz at any stage of the attack.

Shahar Vahab hides in an above-ground bunker during the attack. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

While I’m hiding in the bomb shelter, I start receiving TikTok videos from friends. “Your tractors, according to the Nir Oz stickers, are in Gaza!”

Tractors and more tractors, quite new and shiny, the ones that are now operated with an extravagant touch by Gaza farmers. Dozens of Palestinians sit on our potato planter rejoicing in their village streets. Beautiful and expensive German-made red machines that had allowed us to plant thousands of acres with such precision and at the right time. 

“What will they do with them?” I ask myself. We even went for special training in Germany just to learn how to operate them. “They took them just for the heck of it,” I think.

We had been working in the fields for years, always facing the farmers on the other side who were riding donkeys or old tractors. They would wave at us, and we would wave back. Now they were probably the same people who are raiding our kibbutz.

Meanwhile, in the bomb shelter, I try to understand the world around me, peeking outside by placing my camera phone on one of the holes in the wall. I think about using my knowledge of optics to maybe see something, to somehow turn the bomb shelter into a periscope, a fantasy.

Yossi Vahab. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

But I can’t move, not even sit. Outside there are terrorists, and I need to remain quiet. Suddenly a message from my mom: “They shot your dad.”

“Okay,” I reply, “I’ll check who can send help.” But there was no one who could come to his aid.

Then a message from my wife: “There are people in the house, trying to break into the safe room!”

“Okay,” I reply, “Stay inside with the door locked.” Maintaining a façade of composure keeps me sane.  Luckily, two years ago, my wife insisted on installing an internal iron lock in the safe room, a reinforced steel bar that goes into the wall. I thank her for it every day, it’s the reason my family is still alive.

And I’m standing. Standing and waiting. Every moment, terrorists could enter the bomb shelter; they are just several feet away. I turn on the camera on my phone and start recording. I don’t know why; perhaps for the sake of documenting all this. Someone will see it if something happened to me. If there are red alerts or clashes with the military, they’ll surely enter the bomb shelter, that’s what I would do in their place.

Shahar Vahab and his son at Nir Oz. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

But I maintain a fake aura of calm, mainly thinking about my son. Not about what might happen to him, I prefer to push that thought away, but about what had already happened to him. That’s what breaks my heart at that moment. He has already lost his innocence, and he’s not even seven.

We failed big time if our son has to go through wars. In fact, he has been going through them since the day he was born. Every few months, about twice a year, there is a mini escalation; a little war, as if this is just another mundane part of life after which everything returns to normal.

But things will no longer return to normalcy. Not after what happened on Oct. 7. People say it might take as much as two years before things are rebuilt and restored. My blood boils thinking that several hours caused the destruction of entire lives. 

We are normative people, farmers, artists, and everything in between. We want to create and grow, not destroy.

On top of having our friends held captive and our kibbutz burnt to ashes, there is also the crisis caused by the fact that they stole our dream right beneath our feet. That little piece of paradise that was only ours, the one we built over decades, through our hard work.

It was our safe place. I’ve never locked the house door, and now my son watches “Home Alone” movies and plans how to set up funny traps for the terrorists. He doesn’t even go to sleep without all doors and windows latched up. 

I write all this from Paris, while in Israel, they bury my father Yossi. I watch it live. My wife is French, not even Jewish. Why does she have to endure all these wars? So immediately after the event, we fly to France. We feel distant from our family and friends, but we also feel safe. All I have left are the pictures.

I photographed everything around Nir Oz during my 30 years there. They took my cameras and my father’s but left the computer. Good friends managed to retrieve my backup from the house. My entire life is in pictures that are more important to me than all the possessions at home. 

I leave the bomb shelter only in the evening, with the onset of darkness. The military comes to rescue me after 13 hours, amidst a red alert. I go with them through the entire kibbutz in the dark because they haven’t finished searching the place and ensuring there are no more terrorists.

On the way, I explain to them what’s in the buildings, where it’s worth checking, what’s behind the chicken coops.

It was only then that I understand the extent of the destruction of the kibbutz, which seems as if someone had played a violent computer game inside it—with unlimited power.

Fields near Nir Oz. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

We meet some of the security team members—those who survived—and I start asking them who is alive. They don’t answer in words, only a slight nod. A light nod, but it felt so heavy. The numbers start to accumulate in my head; so many that it’s hard to remember.

In the end, we reach a safe place. All those who remain from the kibbutz are at a secure daycare center, and I’m surprised that everyone is in one place.

Meeting the family, but still wandering among everyone like a zombie, looking for who is there and who is not. It will take a few days until I know exactly who is missing. There is also a bit of food, some canned halva taken from military rations. That was great comfort food, as I hadn’t eaten for two days.

We sleep on the floor with everyone, amid looks of hopelessness from the kibbutz people who still don’t know what has happened to their loved ones.

Working the fields of Nir Oz. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

The next day, we are allowed a few minutes to collect our belongings from the house before evacuating to Eilat. Everyone goes with suitcases and with improvised bags in the scorched kibbutz.

A walk of shame, I think to myself. We’re running away like refugees from our own homes. In the drive out of the kibbutz, the scope of destruction becomes even greater, on the roads and in the fields. The last photo I take in Nir Oz is of a smoke cloud above a distant farm. I don’t want to show you this picture; I don’t want you to remember Nir Oz like this.

My father’s funeral just ended. Friends eulogize him by recalling the camera that was always with him, documenting everything, and I’m finishing up this text. Thank you, Dad, for the love of photography, which was and still is a part of me all my life.

All the friends who were abducted or murdered, the kibbutz that burned, the fields in which nothing will grow this year except weeds—everything remains in the photos and burns in me to show the whole world.

Here is Kibbutz Nir Oz as it was; these were our lives. Lives of construction and creation, not destruction. We will come back; I promise to photograph for you.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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