‘Time is Running Out’: A Hostage Family’s Desperate Plea

April 25, 2024

After her 23-year-old daughter was abducted from the Nova music festival by Hamas militants on October 7, Meirav Gonen’s world was torn apart.

“I had been thinking that it wouldn’t be long before she would be back,” she says, recalling an early discussion about whether to keep Romi’s rented apartment. “When she’s back, she probably would prefer to come to my house to rest.”

More than six months later, Romi Gonen is still held in Gaza. Her family will not celebrate Passover this year. For them, this is not a time for celebration.

“Romi is a kid of freedom,” Meirav says. “She’s energetic, she’s funny, she knows how to laugh at herself because she’s clumsy. She has willpower. She is strong, and she is a leader.”

But it’s getting more and more painful to tell her daughter’s story.

On the morning of October 7, Hamas militants invaded Israel through the border fence in a horrific, unprecedented terror attack. Attackers murdered almost 1,200 civilians and soldiers in Israel and took more than 200 Israelis and foreign nationals hostage.

Romi Gonen was at the Nova festival with thousands of other young people. It was supposed to be a celebration of Sukkot. Instead, it became the site of a horrific massacre as armed Hamas terrorists rode in on motorcycles, trucks and paragliders and raped, murdered and butchered over 370 of the people who attended the festival.

“Mom, I was shot, I am bleeding, and I am afraid I am gonna die,” she said as she called Meirav, who stayed on the line with her for 45 anguishing minutes during the attack. She tried to escape with friends in their car, but it came under fire. Two friends were killed, one was badly injured and later died in Gaza, and Romi was shot in her arm.

Meirav told her daughter she’ll find her. Told her that she loves her. Told her that they would go on a trip together anywhere in the world. Then she heard Hamas militants approaching the car. One of the men said in Arabic, “​​She’s alive. Let’s take her.” Then, the line went silent.

Time is Running Out

Romi and her four siblings weren’t from the south of Israel where the attacks took place. They grew up in the north, surrounded by five cities predominately made up of members of Arab Christian, Muslim and Druze communities.

Romi’s sister Yarden says her Arab, Christian and Muslim friends were the first to offer their family support following October 7.

“They were the ones that helped me when terrorists called my phone to harass me, saying they got my sister,” Yarden says. “They were the ones that helped us locate my sister’s phone in Gaza.”

The family recalls waiting in agony during the temporary ceasefire in November, which led to the release of over 100 hostages.

Several returning Israeli hostages said they had been with Romi in Gaza. Her gunshot wound had not been treated well, they said, and she had lost the full functioning of that hand.

“It was very hard for us to think about it because we knew some of the women that returned were with Romi,” Meirav says. “So she knew they were coming back, and she was sure she would be out also, but she wasn’t.”

Several extensions allowed for the release of even more hostages, with a list circulated daily. Every day, the family checked for Romi’s name.

One day went by. Then another. Then another. Then the ceasefire collapsed. There was no list, and Romi didn’t come home.

American Leadership is Vital

On April 7 – exactly six months after Romi was taken – Meirav and Yarden, on a trip to the United States, joined J Street as our guests to speak to our supporters. Their message: “Let my people go – time is running out.”

“There are 133 people that are still in Gaza, and we know of about 34 who are dead already,” Meirav says, stressing the importance of US leadership in bringing all parties to the table and ratcheting up the pressure to reach another hostage release deal. The “US is the strongest nation among the free world. We already heard Hamas shouting, “Death to Israel, death to the US. It has to stop now, so the light of the free world will win over the darkness of Hamas.”

Yarden says that sometimes it feels like the world has abandoned them.

“We hear the whole world shouting ceasefire now, and humanitarian aid now, and we both agree and are rooting for those things,” she says. “But I ask you, please don’t let everyone say ceasefire now without saying release all hostages now. The hostages in Gaza are from 20 different nationalities. This is the whole world that is in danger.”

As the family has navigated this crisis, they’ve found community among the other families in the Hostage Families Forum. They’ve shared in the bittersweet joy of families whose loved ones have been released and the crushing pain of those reported dead.

In January, one young man’s body was returned to Israel for burial. The news that he was dead shattered his loved ones and the broader community. “For all the hostage families, this was a big loss,” Meirav says. “He was like one of my family members.”

“It was yet another reminder that for all of us. Time is running out,” she says.

This moment, and the catastrophe faced by families on both sides of the war, is a challenge for the community of hostage families, the broader community of Israel and the region, and for the entire world, the family says.

Raising a big family has prepared her for that challenge, Meirav says. We must focus on our goals and what unites us rather than what divides us.

“We all want the same thing,” she says. “We all want freedom. That the light be brighter than the darkness. My daughter is a light. She is my baby and she deserves to live in freedom. The light must win.”

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