Supernova survivors, parents of slain soldiers heal at Secret Forest in Cyprus
Survivors of the Supernova massacre eat breakfast at the Secret Forest wellness and spa resort in Cyprus, Feb. 20, 2024.
(Photo: Amelie Botbol)

‘The work we do gives people hope. If you can hold on to hope, you have a chance of surviving.’

By Amelie Botbol
March 1, 2024

(JNS) — A 30-minute drive through the stunning mountain scenery from Paphos to Miliou, one of Cyprus’s smallest villages, leads to Secret Forest, a temple of wellness, alongside currents of healing sulfur water flowing from thermal mineral springs.

There, groups of survivors of the Hamas massacre at the Supernova music festival and bereaved parents whose children were murdered in the Oct. 7 assault on front-line Israeli communities or whose soldier children were killed in action in the current Hamas war, gather to heal. Of the thousands who attended the music festival, 364 were murdered by Hamas terrorists.

No car is allowed unannounced through the parking lot surrounded by trees and natural rock walls, so as not to disturb the peaceful atmosphere.

In January 2023, Yoni Kahana, CEO of the Yonik Group, which specializes in kosher vacations, signed an agreement with the owners of Secret Forest wellness and spa resort to turn the establishment into a kosher one.

On Oct. 7, Kahana and his team were spending the Simchat Torah holiday at Secret Forest when Hamas launched its surprise attack on the northwestern Negev. Quickly, Kahana founded “Choose Life,” a wellness retreat to assist survivor healing. On Oct. 22, the first group arrived at Secret Forest.

“In the wake of the Hamas attacks, Yoni decided that he wanted to open the place to survivors,” Despina Maria, one of the owners of Secret Forest, founded by her parents in 1983, told JNS. “As a Greek Orthodox, I feel close to the Jewish people. We have a church outside and right next to it, there is a synagogue, like in Jerusalem.”

A man prays near the entrance to the Secret Forest resort in Cyprus, Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo: Amelie Botbol)

1,200 survivors

Every week, Sunday through Thursday, 50 to 70 Supernova survivors arrive at Secret Forest to begin their healing process. From Thursday to Sunday, 30 to 45 bereaved parents embark on a four-day journey seeking a measure of internal peace.

Since Oct. 7, 1,200 Supernova survivors have taken part in the Choose Life program.

“For each group of eight survivors, there are holistic therapists that specialize in reflexology, shiatsu, singing and speaking circles, and yoga,” Chris Davarashvili, who manages the program, told JNS.

“October 7 hit close to home. Toar, the host of the program, is from Sderot. We are very connected to what happens in Israel,” Davarashvili added. “We can’t identify with what they went through, but we can give them a platform to face their pain and meet others who went through something similar,” she said. 

At first, Kahana and his team assumed the costs. As demand increased, the Israel-based humanitarian organization IsraAID provided financial support to the initiative. Bereaved parents of IDF soldiers are supported by Yad Labanim, a volunteer organization that cares for families who lost a child in the IDF. 

“We are getting messages from parents telling us that we gave them their child back. Survivors start working again, they eat and sleep better and they even stop smoking. They leave as one big family and keep in touch after the retreat,” Davarashvili said.

“When they come with other survivors, we make sure they spend time apart for each survivor to speak freely, relax and focus individually,” she added. Once they return to Israel, participants keep in touch with therapists for four months; often the therapists continue to support them on a volunteer basis after the mandatory period.

“When I heard about what happened in Israel, it brought me back to Rwanda after the [1994] genocide. It brought all the feelings back,” said Shani, 54, from London, who spent time in Rwanda in the ’90s and leads yoga sessions for survivors at Secret Forest. Shani worked as a mental healthcare nurse for 10 years before teaching yoga. She started working with Kahana in early 2023. Before the war, she was already practicing yoga as a healing method.

“The work we do gives people hope. If you can hold on to hope, you have a chance of surviving,” she said.

“Some parents feel guilty about doing things they love. They are scared that their children will be forgotten,” Shani added.

Secret Forest’s cook, Dvir Sharabi, 30, from Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, evoked the power of food in healing people.

“When we sit together for breakfast or dinner, they open their hearts to me. In the beginning, some did not want to eat. I had to surprise them and be creative. Sometimes, the simplest things like a chocolate cake provide comfort,” Sharabi told JNS. 

Someone tried to kill me

Yuval Bar Ze’ev, 24, from Moshav Tal Shahar, a village in central Israel, arrived at Secret Forest alone on Feb. 18.

“I came here to get the help that I need because four months ago, someone tried to kill me at the Nova festival,” Bar Ze’ev told JNS. “I booked a flight and the next day, I was here. Arriving at Secret Forest is like receiving a warm hug. Secret Forest is sacred to your soul. It gives you peace.”

Bar Ze’ev said leaving Israel was essential for her.

“I did not feel safe in Israel, not in my house, not on the road and not at work. I felt as if every car was full of terrorists who wanted to kill me. On the bus, I’d look at everyone and think that they all want to kill me. I feel like it all happened yesterday. Every sudden noise creates tension all over my body that I can’t release,” she said. 

Bar Ze’ev described the effects of a meditation session with Maor Arieli, co-manager of the program.

“My head was clean of thoughts; all the worry went away. I know things are bad in Israel. But I can’t think about it. Right now, I need to take care of myself and this place is doing it. I came here as one person and will leave as another.”

Supernova was Bar Ze’ev’s first festival. She came with 30 friends who all made it safely out but lost a lot of their friends. At 6:30 a.m., when Hamas began its murderous assault by firing rockets, Bar Ze’ev laid down on the ground of the parking lot with her boyfriend, while protecting her head with her hands, expecting the rockets to be neutralized and the incident to end shortly. 

“Then I heard automatic gunfire from the Gaza border, it was getting close,” Bar Ze’ev said as she started shivering. “We understood that it was serious. We got into our car and left at 7:50. At 8:05, we were stopped by police. At 8:12, we saw terrorists shoot at the same police officers with RPG rockets. We got out of our car and ran. At this point, I became hysterical.”

As she ran out of her car, Bar Ze’ev heard terrorist gunfire getting closer. She and her boyfriend started crawling on the ground. “I was wearing green pants and a grey T-shirt. I said to myself that this served as camouflage in the fields. My thoughts switched to army mentality. I was focused on how to survive,” Bar Ze’ev said.

“At 8:45, I managed to send a picture to my loved ones, looking optimistic. I saw a girl lying in the field with a bullet in her knee. I tried to help. I hope she survived.”

She ran for 10 miles and reached Moshav Patish, after her boyfriend’s brother, an army officer, informed them that Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Re’im were under attack by Hamas and that Patish was the closest safe zone. “About 500 people from the festival escaped to Patish,” Bar Ze’ev said. 

Bar Ze’ev felt the magical vibes and energy at Secret Forest healing her in real-time. “I hope that time will do what it does. Of course, I feel guilty that I was able to go out when so many did not. We were all at the same festival. So, why me?”

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, Bar Ze’ev ended her relationship with the boyfriend with whom she attended the festival.

“When both souls are sick, it’s very complicated to deal with the situation. I needed to take care of myself. I need to heal and feel complete with myself before I can complete someone else,” Bar Ze’ev said.

Ayala Avraham stares at a painting of her husband, Ilan, who was murdered by Hamas terrorists, Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo: Nathalie Hamou)

Ilan used to take care of everything

Ayala Avraham, 55, from Beit Aryeh in Samaria, whose husband, Ilan, was killed on Oct. 7, also arrived at Secret Forest on Feb. 18.

“I try to take care of myself alone and heal alone. I went back to work very quickly, I also went back to festivals. It’s my way to heal. Being here is a gift. The treatments are amazing and allow me to disconnect from work, friends and the rest of the world,” Avraham told JNS.

On Oct. 7, after she and Ilan managed to leave the site of the music festival by car, terrorists stopped them on the road. “They sprayed the car with bullets and shot at the wheels. We ran away on foot. Ilan, myself and a friend reached Moshav Yakhini and hid in a [bomb] shelter,” Avraham recounted. 

“Ilan stood outside the shelter to prevent terrorists from entering. They shot him dead. Other terrorists entered the shelter took us out and forced us to get into their car,” she continued.

At the gate of the moshav, Avraham and her friend escaped from the car while terrorists kept shooting at them, wounding her friend. IDF soldiers rescued them.

“I feel different, Ilan used to take care of everything. I do everything very fast because there is no time. It keeps me going. We were together for 40 years,” Avraham said. “We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be. Ilan always cared for me and protected me. He protected me until the last minute. He sacrificed his life for me.

“My life is a gift. Nothing will bring Ilan back but he would have wanted me and my three children to keep living,” she said.

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