Meirav Gonen’s eyes are closed. She is lost in a nightmare.
She is recalling the last conversation she had with her daughter, Romi, 23, who was kidnapped from Israel’s Supernova music festival on Oct. 7.
For four and a half agonizing hours, Meirav listened as her daughter recounted the horror of what she was witnessing and enduring.
“She was terrified,” Meirav tells the National Post during a video call from Israel. “She told me, ‘Mommy, I’m afraid. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.’”
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Meirav felt helpless as she desperately sought out a strategy from afar.
“I’m a mother,” she says. “I’m used to providing solutions.”
She listened as Romi and a group of friends scrambled to find cover, attempting to escape the gunfire. They managed to reach a vehicle but were soon trapped among hundreds of others desperately fleeing the area.
As the group abandoned the vehicle, seeking refuge in nearby bushes, behind cars, or anywhere they could find shelter, Meirav heard the sound of gunshots piercing the air.
Romi and her friends were under fire. Two of her friends were killed, while Romi was shot in the arm. In the background, another man shouted his name and contact information to Meirav so that she could reach his family.
“I heard them crying and suffering,” she recalls. “Romi was saying, ‘Mommy, I’m terrified. I think I’m going to die.’”
Her voice trembling, Meirav pauses and removes her glasses, wiping tears from her face. With her eyes closed again, she returns to the nightmare.
“I said, ‘No, you’re not going to die. You’re not going to die. You will live.’”
Meirav encouraged Romi to stay calm, to find something to wrap tightly around her wound and to not give up hope. She asked Romi for her GPS co-ordinates, hoping it would aid a rescue attempt. But then the reality of the situation came back into focus.
Reaching the festival grounds was impossible. All surrounding roads were closed, and chaos and gunfire shrouded the area.
At that point, Meirav understood that she couldn’t promise Romi a rescue. So she started to change her approach.
“I decided to just remind her how much she is loved. How much I love her,” she says.
Meirav kept Romi on the phone, knowing that the conversation made both of them feel less alone. She reassured her that everything would be OK, that soon she would be home and they would be together again. That she still had her whole life ahead of her.
She listened as Romi quietly wept, masking her sorrow while she hid, desperate to remain out of sight of Hamas. Gunfire continued to echo in the background.
Then, suddenly, Romi spoke up. “Hello, Mommy?” she asked. Then the line fell silent.
“That’s all,” Meirav whispers. “She didn’t speak anymore. I only heard the shooting. I heard men shouting in Arabic, and that’s all we heard.”
It’s now been 16 days since that conversation.
Meirav and her family are no longer at home, no longer going about their lives normally. Instead, they are working with an organization that formed less than 24 hours after the attack: the Hostage and Missing Families Forum.
Run by volunteers, the organization is dedicated to reuniting hostages with their loved ones.
“We are making sure that nobody forgets the kidnapped and missing people. The women, children, the elderly,” Meirav says. “We must keep this issue at the forefront, not just in our country but around the world.”
She emphasizes that two distinct issues are unfolding simultaneously.
“There is the situation of the Gaza and Israel relationship, this needs to be solved for good. But right now, what we all have to be focused on is the innocent people who have been taken from their homes,” she says.
“Nobody knows anything about them — their conditions or whereabouts. Nobody knows anything.”
At the forum’s headquarters, Meirav is joined by other families with missing relatives as they work together to raise awareness and strategize on the next steps.
While it is painful, she says, to recall her last conversation with Romi, to relive those moments again and again, it is also necessary to share her story and to bring awareness to the hundreds of missing civilians. Working with the volunteers, she feels less alone.
“When I’m here with these wonderful people, the volunteers and the families, it’s like I can breathe,” she says. “I know that everything will be OK because we are together and meeting with people, we are hugging, we are making sure everybody gets the attention they need. Everybody has a shoulder to cry on. It’s something which is priceless. This is humanity at its best.”
Despite the lack of information, she is counting on global leaders to listen to the needs of the families as they work to reunite with their loved ones.
The middle child among five siblings, Romi is the glue that holds her family together, Meirav says.
“It’s easy to fall in love with her because she’s so good. She loves people. She’s working as a waitress because she wants to earn more money to go on another trip. She was just in South America for seven months. She is just getting to know the world. Everything is new for her.”
Despite the comfort she feels among the other families, Meirav admits it’s difficult, nearly impossible sometimes, to keep her spirits up.
“You cannot go back to normal life. Everything is different. We sleep at night for just a few hours. In a few minutes, the world has changed.”
There are small things that offer solace. She has stopped watching the news, for one. Despite her desire for the latest updates, she’s focused on putting her energy into working with the other families.
“The world is still beautiful. We have a lot of strong people with positive attitudes that are willing to do everything to make sure these kidnapped and missing persons will come back home,” she says.
That is her focus, and once the families are reunited, she says the world needs to work together to find a path to peace, to make sure that nothing like the Oct. 7 attacks ever happens again.
She calls Romi her “heart” and explains that “the nation needs to bring this light back to us.”
“If you don’t have a heart, you can have maybe a functional body, but it’s not living,” she says. “It’s not really being alive.”