Hostage plight etched on Durban beach
We silently wandered down from the sleepy promenade onto the yellow sand dunes of North Beach, as if in reverence for the task that lay ahead. Fishermen, here long before dawn, cast out another line, and joggers strode past a group of Shembe worshippers as they prepared to enter the sea for baptism. The glowing morning light seemed to reveal another perfect Durban day, which made the bright red towels and beach buckets in my arms seem all the more jarring.
We were part of a group in Durban who came together to show solidarity with and raise awareness of the horrific plight of the Israeli men, women, and children taken hostage in Gaza four weeks ago.
Every one of the 242 red beach towels we laid out had a poster for each of the innocent civilians being held by Hamas terrorists. Men, women, and children, some elderly and sick, others just toddlers, and even a baby of nine months old. Lives so full of promise, with their stories just beginning. Brutally ripped from their homes, taken from their families, and abducted into darkness, simply for the crime of being Israeli.
A particularly difficult moment was when I had to count out each of the 32 buckets and spades to symbolise the missing children. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ariel, aged four, and Aviv, aged two, loved toys like these as much as my own children safe at home.
The red towels stretched out as far as the eye could see, a stark reminder that 242 isn’t just a number but a collection of individual worlds. Each one has a name, an age, a favourite food, or hobby. They are someone’s mother, a best friend, an aunt, or a nephew. Someone’s child who is loved more than life itself. While South African government ministers and a Hamas spokesperson in a South African Broadcasting Corporation interview refers to “prisoners” and “settlers”, we won’t let their humanity be erased.
As we finished setting up and took a moment to gaze at the surreal contrast of a beautiful beach day with the living hell that the hostages must be enduring, a group of onlookers wandered over. South Africans from all walks of life were shocked to read the posters, learn the names, see images of the hostages, and hear some of the stories of what had happened during the massacre in Israel on 7 October. One woman was moved to tears and comforted by our community members.
An impromptu prayer service was held by a group of Christian pastors who had come to see the towels and express their solidarity with Israel. As they linked arms, their words of protection for those abducted floated across the beach to where some of us were reciting tehillim for friends and family in Israel.
During our planning, we hoped there would be no need for another campaign. Each installation, from the red balloons along Nelson Mandela Bridge and the Israeli flag lighting up Ponte in Johannesburg, has elicited the most heartening reaction from South Africans across different communities. Please G-d, the red beach towels will be our last event, and the nightmare of our 242 brothers and sisters will be brought to an end soon. Until then, we won’t stop saying their names and sharing their plight. We cannot look away.
- Alana Pugh-Jones Baranov is the social and political justice liaison for the national office of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and social justice liaison for the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre.