israel-hamas war

‘Those Pictures Do Not Leave My Mind’

The last message Ofri Levy’s brother sent was about Hamas entering his home. Then, photos of him appeared online.

A man, a woman wearing a white shirt, a red-headed boy munching on an apple and a baby pose for a family photo.
Photo: Ofri Levy
A man, a woman wearing a white shirt, a red-headed boy munching on an apple and a baby pose for a family photo.
Photo: Ofri Levy

At 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, October 7, Ofri Levy received a series of text messages from her brother, Yarden Bibas. Bibas lived in the Israeli kibbutz Nir Oz with his wife, Shiri; their 4-year-old son, Ariel; and their 9-month-old son, Kfir. He told Levy that he was scared and that as the family of four hid inside their home, they could hear Hamas fighters shooting and shouting outside. At 9:34 a.m., Bibas texted Levy: “They’re coming in the house.” It was the last message she received from her brother. Residents of Nir Oz say a quarter of its 400 residents were killed or kidnapped in Hamas’s brutal attack. Levy’s brother and his family were among those taken hostage. On Sunday, October 15, Levy spoke to the Cut about her family.

That Saturday morning, my brother texted me, telling me they were going inside the safe room in their house. “Here we go again,” he wrote. They’re just so used to all the bombing. Yarden and his family had been living in Nir Oz for four years. They didn’t want to live there anymore. Instead, they wanted to live next to us, up north in Israel near Syria and Lebanon, and were planning on visiting next month to look for houses.

I turned on the news and realized this was more than just a bombing. Terrorists were going into settlements. So I texted my brother to ask him what was going on. He told me that he was terrified and that it “feels like the end.” He said they could hear gunshots outside his home — automatic weapons — so I begged him to stay quiet so the terrorists couldn’t hear him. He wrote to me that it was difficult keeping the kids quiet, but they were trying.

Around 9:30 a.m., Yarden said he heard Hamas screaming in Arabic outside. At 9:34 a.m., he wrote that they were coming into the house. That was the last message I received from my brother.

Three hours later, we saw a picture of Shiri and the kids circulating online. They were surrounded by terrorists, being taken into Gaza. After an additional two hours, friends from England told me they saw a video of Shiri being taken circulating on X. She had both children in her arms, she looked really, really scared, and she just kept saying in Hebrew: “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

Yarden was not with them. My brother was declared missing from Saturday until Tuesday morning — his birthday. The day Yarden turned 33, we saw the first picture of my brother in captivity on an Arab-news website. In the picture, he was surrounded by Hamas terrorists. He was alive but bleeding from his head.

Later, we found three additional pictures of Yarden. In one of the pictures, you can see the terrorists strangling him with one hand and holding a hammer in another. I don’t know if they hit him in the head with the hammer. In every picture, my brother’s face just looks worse and worse — he’s bleeding more and you can see he’s scared. In the last picture, they are walking him somewhere and he just looks defeated.

In one of the photos of Bibas that Levy came across online, her brother is shown, in the center, bleeding from his head. Photo: Hatem Ali/AP

Those pictures do not leave my mind. I wake up with them. I go to sleep with them. I try not to think about them, but they keep coming up.

So we know they were taken alive to Gaza, but we don’t know if they’re together. We don’t know if they’re alive now, or if they’re dead, or if they’re being tortured. I don’t know if my brother got any care for the bleeding on his head. I don’t know if 4-year-old Ariel is eating properly or being fed. I don’t know if they’re giving the baby formula.

My brother is three years younger than me, but has always worried about me and kept me safe. While I’ve always considered Yarden to be a big, strong man, inside he’s the most gentle and sensitive person there is. As a father, he constantly worries about his children. We used to laugh at him because his son, Ariel, is a redheaded boy full of energy — he’s always climbing and jumping off things. Yarden would be fraught with worry, yelling: “Stop, it’s dangerous! Ariel, don’t do that!” We would remind him that it’s okay — he’s a boy, that’s what they do. He was just always worried about his babies.

Ariel is energetic, loves to work in the family garden, and is obsessed with everything that has a motor and wheels — like his father. My sweet 9-month-old nephew, Kfir, is just a smiley, always laughing baby. Shiri is the headmaster of the family, forever in control and managing things. She is a great mother — always doing what is best for the kids and giving all of herself for them.

It’s been over a week since we saw those pictures and videos, and I’m really tired and worried and scared. I have two younger kids, one about to turn 4 and another 2, and they can sense our tension. They know something is wrong. My daughter is Ariel’s best friend. The other day, she was playing on her father’s phone and a picture of Ariel and Kfir appeared on the screen. She started screaming, “I found them! Mommy, look, I found them! I helped!” It broke my heart.

If they are dead, Hamas stole two parents and two kids who just wanted to live their lives. I don’t think they were going to make a big change in the world, but they deserve to live a quiet and peaceful life, just like any other family.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the kibbutz where Yarden Bibas and his family were kidnapped. They had been living in Nir Oz.

‘Those Pictures Do Not Leave My Mind’