The trance music festival in southern Israel where Hamas militants killed 260 people on Saturday was supposed to be an escape – a tight-knit community’s peaceful celebration of love, nature and electronic dance music, event staffers who spoke to Rolling Stone say. It turned into hell on Earth.
Offering new details of the worst civilian massacre in modern-day Israel, festival staffers say the tranquil open-air event quickly devolved into a chaotic, bloody nightmare. They described Hamas fighters descending from the sky on motorized paragliders and heavily armed militants chasing terrified festivalgoers with trucks and motorcycles.
“It’s crazy to do a massacre like that on innocent people. Young people with dreams. Not one of these people wanted war,” Chen Mizrachi, a music manager who was working backstage at the Supernova Sukkot festival, an offshoot of Brazil’s Universo Paralello, tells Rolling Stone. “I knew so many of them. They just wanted peace, love and to travel the world. They were people of love, like Woodstock people.”
Mizrachi, 34, helped plan logistics for the gathering, including parking for security. At one point, he found himself inside the security RV as rockets flew overhead and grenades tore through the trees outside.
“We called the Army to let them know we were in the security station, stuck. We asked, ‘Where are you?’ Then we heard in Arabic Hebrew, ‘We are on the way for you,’” he said, explaining Hamas had overheard the radio communication and responded with an ominous threat.
While trying to get to a vehicle, Mizrachi saw what looked like an Israeli policeman stop a car. He quickly realized it was a Hamas fighter wearing a uniform likely stolen from a kidnapped or dead officer. “I could see just two in the car. Then shooting. After that, the car was still moving, but he killed them. The car was driving in a straight line without anyone (steering),” he said.
He said the paragliders wasted no time attacking the revelers. “I saw them landing and shooting at the cars,” he said. “I see the look in their eyes, just murdering people. I didn’t see even one percent peace in their eyes. They just wanted to kill innocent people. You don’t mess with young, unarmed people like that. This is not human.”
He said watching so many people being “slaughtered” in the dusty field near Kibbutz Re’im on the border with Gaza, he kept thinking, “How am I alive?” It seemed like death was closing in without escape. “I told myself, ‘Don’t look back, just run.’”
Mizrachi linked up with friends, broke through a fence and jumped into a police officer’s van. His two friends were hit by bullets shot through the exterior, he said. A rocket propelled grenade hit the back of the vehicle, wounding some passengers with burns and lacerations, he said.
The badly damaged van stopped near an abandoned Israeli tank. They took cover behind the tank and were pinned down in a firefight. Mizrachi said he tore his shirt into strips to make tourniquets. He also helped carry a young woman to a hiding spot after she had been run over by a Hamas vehicle and couldn’t walk, he said.
Eventually, Israeli forces arrived to rescue them. Mizrachi sent his wounded friends ahead first. He later rode with a wounded soldier who kept passing out. Mizrachi roused him back into consciousness to keep him alive, he said.
Now back home in Ramat Gan, Mizrachi is grateful his friends made it to the hospital and will survive, but he’s consumed with worry for those who were kidnapped.
“My best friend living in Costa Rica, his two sisters are missing. Who gave them the free passes? It was me. It’s on my heart,” Mizrachi said. “We’re talking with the police, to get the information, but they don’t have information. I think Hamas doesn’t even know how many prisoners they have.”
“My best friend’s … two sisters are missing. Who gave them the free passes? It was me. It’s on my heart”
Sofia Nikitin, 26, was working as a bartender at the festival when the surprise attack on the 3,000 festivalgoers began. She tells Rolling Stone everyone was confused at first and had a hard time grasping the magnitude of the threat. She and other staff stayed behind as people started to leave, believing they were still on the clock. She was pitching in, trying to comfort and calm young women who were brought to a makeshift triage center near where festival police were staged.
When everyone realized the militants were getting closer, she first tried to flee by car but then realized it was a trap and ran into the forest and hid.
“They were shooting at our backs. You can see the guys that are falling down,” she tells Rolling Stone in a phone interview. She was with a few dozen people, hiding in the trees, hoping the fighters wouldn’t see them as they tried to contact police to get them out.
“There was shooting from every direction. Suddenly, one of the girls screamed that someone was aiming a missile at us. After a second, there was a big boom that hit in the middle of our group. It was like in the movies. You see all gray, there’s wind in your face, and sound. Then you don’t hear anything in your ears, you hear only buzzing. I just started to run,” she recalls. “We knew they saw us. We knew they could come and kill all of us.”
Nikitin ran back into an open field and eventually saw some soldiers. She was scared to approach them at first because she’d heard the militants were disguising themselves. The forces were friendly, and she was taken to a police station when she waited for hours before it was safe enough to travel back to Tel Aviv. On Tuesday, she attended a funeral for her fellow bartender, Liron Barda. She broke down crying describing Barda and the other bartenders she recommended for the job who are still missing.
She said surviving staff have been in tight communication, describing the group as a “family.” She said one bartender returned to the stage of the party and put blood on her face to hide amid the bodies. Hamas found her and ordered her to open a bar refrigerator where people were hiding, as well as a cash register, Nikitin says. It’s believed they did this so if the people inside the refrigerator were armed, they would shoot the bartender first.
“Everyone hiding in the refrigerator, they opened it and killed them. Then the people hiding in the trunks. They opened the trunks and killed them,” she said. (The bartender was later released.)
Nikitin said the festival, organized by Tribe of Nova, had been a mini utopia before the attack, with revelers camping in nature, sharing reusable cups to cut down on waste and dancing under the open sky. She could never imagine it would devolve into “death everywhere.”
“It was like hell, and it hasn’t ended yet. It’s only getting worse,” she said.