By Corinne Baum
Ofir Bugana bought tickets for the Supernova Sukkot Gathering even though she didn’t have a plane ticket to get to Israel. The festival itself wasn’t that important to her. All she really cared about was spending time with loved ones back home.
Bugana, 31, moved to Dallas from Israel nearly 10 years ago to become a real estate agent. She went back home on Sept. 16 to spend the holidays with friends and family, and specifically wanted to have quality time with her friend, Shir Tsemah.
“I didn’t care specifically about the festival. I didn’t even know who was playing,” Bugana said. “I told myself, even if I’m not gonna make it to the holidays, I’m gonna be at this festival with Shir because I want to have quality time with her.”
The two decided to go to the festival in the middle of the Negev because of a recommendation from Bugana’s younger brother, Jon, who attended separately. “I never ever go to parties and stuff with my brother,” Bugana said. “He’s the younger brother! It’s like embarrassing to him and me.”
Any trepidation about going to a party with her brother in attendance faded away once they got to the festival. The music was getting really good. The energy was as electric as the neon lights that surrounded them. Ofir and Shir were just two of 3,500 people who came together to celebrate the end of Sukkot and take in the gorgeous scenery. The pair danced together into the wee hours of the morning.
At around 6 a.m., Tsemah went to eat in her car. She texted Bugana nearly 30 minutes later that there were rockets and to come to her car immediately. Everything became more real when one of the 30 security guards hired for the festival came over the loudspeaker and told attendees to seek shelter immediately.
“I’m from the U.S., I don’t even know what I should do,” Bugana said. “Where should I go? Where should I drive? What should we do?”
The pair drove through the festival grounds until they hit the main road. It was the only way out. While they wanted to turn left toward Be’eri, a man directing traffic only let the pair go right. The pair sat in traffic until they decided to make a U-turn and drive away from the traffic director.
“Now I know that this guy was a terrorist,” said Bugana. Hamas had appointed members to act as traffic directors, block the main road and let traffic come to a standstill before they started firing into cars. The pair did not know what they narrowly escaped until much later.
Once Bugana and Tsemah were nearly to Be’eri, all of the cars around them did a U-turn. They rolled down the window to screams from nearby drivers that terrorists were in the kibbutz.
“Until now, we didn’t even know. We were just sure it’s just the rockets. But now we know there are terrorists in Israel. Still, we don’t think it’s gonna be so many. Maybe one or two. For sure not 3,000 of them,” Bugana said.
On the drive back from Be’eri, the pair saw terrorists shooting at the intersection they had been jammed into. “You could hear so many shooting noises. On auto; they’re just shooting anywhere,” said Bugana.
ZAKA, an Israeli rescue service, said that paramedics collected 260 bodies from the festival that day. The Israeli police force’s finalized count was 364 dead and 40 kidnapped. Overall, the death toll at the festival and the areas surrounding it is believed to be the worst civilian massacre in Israel’s history.
The pair tried to go to Re’im, but the gates to the kibbutz were closed. Had they gone inside, they would have been trapped in another massacre. As they drove back in the other direction, more cars around them warned the two of terrorists inside Re’im.
At this point, Bugana and Tsemah were truly surrounded. Terrorists were in both of the nearby villages as well as on the main intersection. Rockets were shooting everywhere. Sirens were wailing.
Eventually, Bugana’s cousin, who had been on the line with the pair since the drive to Re’im, found an unpaved back road using Bugana’s live location on WhatsApp. She navigated them partially to Shokeda, a small moshav a few kilometers away from them, before hanging up to take a work call.
As the two made their way to safety on the back roads, they passed dozens of free-standing bomb shelters. According to reporting done by The Wall Street Journal, Hamas terrorists began to hunt down civilians in these nearby bunkers around 8 a.m.
“I tell Tsemah, ‘Let’s jump into one of those bunkers!’ and she’s like, ‘No way! I’m not I’m not going into those.’ She kept driving,” said Bugana. “Thank God because those bunkers, they threw grenades into all of those.”
When Bugana’s cousin called back, the pair had come to another road that could either take them to another village or to Shokeda. “I asked her (Bugana’s cousin) where I should go and she’s like ‘I can’t make that decision for you,’” said Bugana. The pair went back and forth before Bugana insisted her cousin choose for her, and they continued right to Shokeda. “Thank God, because the other village on the left side, they also killed a lot of people over there as well.”
Bugana and Tsemah left the car and entered Shokeda at around 7:30 a.m. through the pedestrian gates. Tsemah attempted to break into the first house they saw before the owner came out and welcomed them into her home. They stayed there for 11 hours before they were able to start the drive back to Tsemah’s house in northern Israel.
The journey back north was stressful, to say the least. The pair hadn’t slept in 48 hours. They picked up bloodied people with no way home at a gas station until they couldn’t fit anyone else in Tsemah’s car. They drove on the shoulder of the road to avoid traffic, but then got in even more traffic for doing so.
“Shir’s mom is calling her and tells her, ‘Listen to me, Tsemah. You can wreck the car. You can do whatever you need to; make your way home right now!’”
They finally got to Tsemah’s house around midnight. Another miracle? They had been running on the same tank of gas they used to get to the festival the night of Oct. 6. The light went on only when Tsemah pulled into her parking spot.
Bugana returned to Tel Aviv the next morning, then flew home to Dallas three days later. She has spoken at a few events in the area since her return to Texas. She knows that her story is a survival story of hope instead of loss, unlike so many others who were at the festival with her that fateful day.
“Three days before, I was standing with my cousin and I tell her ‘I love you so much.’ When do you do that with your cousins? Three days after, she saved my life,” Bugana said. “Really love your people, because that’s everything.”