‘I was sobbing’ – SA woman’s trip from hell
“I felt like we were suspended in time,” says Capetonian Sonja Woolf (29) of the moment she and her best friend swam in the calm Tel Aviv sea as the sun rose on the morning of 7 October 2023. “I had landed at 04:00, and the only thing I wanted to do was to swim in the ocean.” Back in Israel for the first time in 10 years and seeing her best friend for the first time in more than two years, she felt content, happy, and excited.
“I can’t even explain what a beautiful morning it was,” she says. She and her best friend, Andi Shapiro, filmed themselves swimming at 06:00 in turquoise water, laughing together. “That video was taken 20 minutes before the first siren went off. We had no idea what was to come,” says Woolf. “We meditated on the beach, and I just felt so unbelievably grateful to be back in Israel. I was excited to be on a Partnership2Gether (P2G) leadership seminar, see close friends, and maybe understand Israel a little more.”
But as she and her friend walked back to their apartment, sirens sounded, and they dived for cover alongside a building. “We were holding each other and the rocket hit very close. It was a huge shock. Everything was shaking. Andi said to me, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but that was the loudest I’ve ever heard it.’”
They got back to the apartment, but the block had no safe room or shelter, so every time the sirens sounded, they had to go in the stairwell. “It was my first time experiencing this, when everyone brings their dogs and babies and everyone is together. It was loud and scary.”
She eventually realised things were serious. Sleep deprived, in shock, and scared, she and Shapiro stayed in the apartment, too scared even to go out to get food. “When the sirens continued to go off in the afternoon, I could no longer hold it together. I was sobbing. I was fearful for my life, and looking around me, dogs were barking, there was crying. There were rumours circulating that Hamas had stolen vehicles and were coming into the city dressed as the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], saying they needed to come in. They were saying that we needed to lock our doors but also hide in the stairwell. There were layers of fear.
“In the afternoon, I lost all composure. I was very worried. I had nowhere to go. I didn’t feel that anywhere was safe. In the evening, the programme organiser called and said, ‘We can get you out. You can take the next El Al flight at 23:30. Do you want it?’”
Woolf felt a lot of guilt but was scared that she would get stuck in Israel. She didn’t know if things would escalate for hours, days, or months. She spoke to people, and “not one person told me to just wait it out. Everyone said, ‘Get out as soon as you can.’”
So, she called the organiser back and agreed to go. “There was one ticket, which cost $3 000 [R57 500]. It was shocking, but they said they would cover the cost.” But another siren went off at that moment, and in the stairwell, Woolf lost signal. By the time she returned to the apartment, the ticket had been taken by someone else.
However, the organisation miraculously found her a ticket on another flight. She grabbed her bags and booked a cab driver, still feeling fearful about whether this was safe – from getting into a taxi with a driver who could be anyone, to getting safely to the airport. “I was sobbing. I was hysterical about leaving my friends. And everything was chaotic.”
She got to the airport, but arrived to massive queues. Miraculously, two other P2G participants were at the front of the queue, and she was able to join them. Everyone from airport staff to other passengers helped her get on the flight. “There was a lot of panic but also solidarity. People let others through if they needed to get past urgently.”
As a woman on her own, Woolf had to go through a rigorous security check. “I got to the flight with 10 minutes to spare. People were helpful, and I and the other P2G participants even got seats together. Safely on the plane, there were no words for how we were feeling. It was surreal. I wasn’t even in Israel for 24 hours. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Back home in Cape Town, “I’m now trying to process it all and the feeling of wanting my friends to get out, but also respecting that they want to stay,” says Woolf. She knows that what she went through is minor compared to so many others, but still felt so much fear and heartbreak. “There’s so much grief for all the suffering. I feel like it’s a miracle that I got out, and I am eternally grateful to the staff at P2G, who did everything they could to help me.”