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Relatives describe panic, last goodbyes as they tried to stay in contact with those under attack by Hamas

Five days after Hamas militants stormed several Israeli communities, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers, families of those who are believed to have been abducted in the attack say they are struggling to get information about their relatives and fear for their safety as Israeli blankets Gaza with retaliatory airstrikes.

2 Israelis who lost touch with family members during Hamas attack say they've had little information since

Karina Arriev

Last Saturday, Alexandra Arriev woke up in her Jerusalem apartment to an unusually early call for a Shabbat morning, a day reserved for rest for Jewish people.

The caller ID displayed the number of her 19-year-old sister, Karina, who was serving in the Israeli Defence Forces, as all Israelis over the age of 18 are required to do. Her base is near Nachal Oz, a kibbutz in the south of Israel less than a kilometre from the Gaza border.

Arriev, 24, told CBC News that as soon as she answered the phone, she "heard the bombs and the girls screaming."

Her sister told Arriev she was huddled in a bomb shelter in Nachal Oz with other girls in her military unit.

"I heard their voices shaking," said Arriev. "[There] was really panic there. You could feel it over the phone."

A family photo of Alexandra Arriev, far left, and her sister, Karina, far right with their parents.

Arriev did not understand what was happening at first and thought it was "just another bombing attack [in] Israel," which happens frequently near the towns and kibbutzes close to the Gaza border.

This time was different, however, Arriev said. The screams were so loud they woke her boyfriend, who heard the piercing noises coming through the receiver.

Amid the noise, Karina explained she was calling to say goodbye. But she told her older sister "do not sink in sorrow."

"She asked me to take care of my parents, so they will continue their lives, even if she will be dead," Arriev said.

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'The terrorists, they are here'

Arriev and her boyfriend drove to her parents' house in Jerusalem. On the way, Karina was in the family's group chat on WhatsApp, saying she could see "terrorists," could hear them "speaking Arabic" and that "they were shooting."

Karina's last message was at 7:40 a.m. local time: "The terrorists, they are here."

When Arriev and her boyfriend arrived at her parents' home, around 8 a.m., the television was on and set to a local news channel. Her parents were on the phone, trying to get a hold of the police; Arriev's mother was in tears.

Like many families in Israel, the Arrievs were in a panic in the hours after Hamas's shocking, multi-pronged attack on Israel last Saturday, trying desperately to locate their missing loved ones.

The Arrievs started scanning social media channels, looking for any sort of information on Karina. It was her mother who recognized her daughter in a video, with Arabic text overlaid, posted on an Israeli Telegram channel that was gathering and sharing videos and information from Saturday's attack.

"She said to my father, 'Isn't that her? Look!'" Arriev said.

They didn't immediately recognize Karina in the video, but her mother insisted.

"She said, 'No look, look closer.' And then we said, 'Yes, this is her.' Her eyebrows, her nose, her mouth, her chest … her clothes, we recognized them. And there was blood on her face," said Arriev.

"At that moment, we went to the police to say that we saw a video and we recognized her and what should we do."

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Family of 5 believed to be taken hostage

The Israeli government says as many as 150 Israeli civilians and soldiers were taken hostage by Hamas militants during the attack on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,200 Israelis and set off retaliatory airstrikes by Israel that have claimed the lives of 1,100 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

Kibbutzes and towns along the Gaza border, including Be'eri, Nachal Oz, Nir Oz and Kfar Aza, suffered the greatest violence, with residents indiscriminately killed in their homes, safe rooms and on the street and houses looted and burned.

"I am watching atrocities that I never expected to live through in my lifetime as a Jew who lives in the aftermath of the Holocaust," said Abbey Onn, a 44-year-old American who moved to Israel eight years ago.

Onn is convinced five of her family members have also been taken hostage by Hamas militants.

She and her family in Herzliya, a city just north of Tel Aviv, were awoken at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday by the sound of sirens.

She jumped out of bed and took her two young children to the bomb shelter in their home. Once the sirens had subsided, Onn and her family tried to go back to bed. But as with the Arrievs, messages in a family WhatsApp group chat quickly changed the course of their morning.

  • Are you a Canadian in Israel or Gaza? We want to hear about what you're experiencing. Send an email to ask@cbc.ca.

Some of Onn's relatives lived about 150 kilometres from Herzliya in Nir Oz, a kibbutz near Gaza that was also infiltrated by Hamas militants.

"We were getting messages that Hamas terrorists were in the kibbutz," said Onn. "[The family members] were in their bomb shelters, but they could hear them. They could hear gunfire. They could hear them in their homes, and they were sending messages that they were afraid for their lives."

Onn said the messages in the family group chat got increasingly more panicked: "'They're here. They're here. What do we do? What if we don't get out? This is a holocaust.'"

At around 11 a.m., messages from five of the family members — Carmela Dan, 80; Ofer Kalderon, 50; Sahar Kalderon, 16; Noya Dan, 13; and Erez Kalderon, 12 — stopped.

"We know it took hours for the Israeli army to gain control of the kibbutz, and by the time they did, it had been burned to the ground, and many people had been slaughtered," said Onn.

"But they (the military) know that those five weren't there."

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39 hours later, confirmation of missing sister

Like Arriev, Onn thinks her family members have been taken hostage after seeing a video released by Hamas — in this case, of 12-year-old Erez being taken across the border by Hamas militants.

Onn says they have yet to receive official confirmation that their family members are hostages inside Gaza, but the video of Erez is enough to convince Onn and her relatives.

"The Israeli army and system here is very thorough, and so they went through and are continuing to go through the wreckage of the kibbutz, and no proof has been found of them," she said.

Israeli soldiers carry the body of a victim of an attack by militants from Gaza at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023.

Onn said other relatives who survived the attack on Nir Oz "feel very confident" the five are currently hostages inside Gaza.

Arriev's family, on the other hand, did receive confirmation from the IDF that Karina was taken hostage but only after the family reported seeing her in the Telegram video.

"Why does the family need to go and tell that they [identified] their child? [They] have the means, the intelligence, whatever," said Arriev.

Thirty-nine hours after they first saw the Telegram video of Karina, there was a knock at her parents' door. Standing on the other side was an army official, reading an official script confirming Karina was considered missing.

"When you get a confirmation from someone who comes in uniform and ranks on the shoulders, it makes you feel like that's it, it is final," said Arriev.

"It's really, really hard. They confirmed it. It's not our vision that is blurred — we didn't imagine it."

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Next steps

Both families fear what will happen next.

Arriev said their questions to the military officials have gone largely unanswered. "We asked them, 'Do you know anything? Can you connect us with someone?'" said Arriev. "But no, no one is answering our questions."

Both Arriev and Onn hope humanitarian aid organizations will reach the hostages and provide much-needed answers on their well-being.

Rubble litters a street between smoldering buildings hit by an Israeli airstrike in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023.

"My fears are everything — how they are treating them, how we get them released," Onn said. "Noya has special needs, Carmela is 80 and she can't live without heart medication.

"We need to get the Red Cross in there. We need to get them released and brought home safely. That, to me, is the only hope and the only option right now."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ania Bessonov is a multi-platform journalist at CBC News with a particular interest in international relations. She has a master's degree in security and diplomacy.

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