The women and children of Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the southern Golan Heights were evacuated with the start of the Yom Kippur War. They didn’t know the true drama was yet to come: A surprising accident en route to safety was just the first of many challenges the kibbutz members had to deal with in the nerve-wracking months before the cease-fire agreements.
On Thursday, October 5, 1973, Chaim “Chaimke” Avni, a member of the Egged transportation cooperative and Kibbutz Mevo Hama, drove bus 018 from Tiberias to the kibbutz located in the southern Golan Heights. Before setting out, around two-thirty in the afternoon, the traffic controller approached him and told him that war would break out the next day, asking him to be at the ready with his bus. The kibbutz itself also started to organize.
This is where the story of Mevo Hama’s Yom Kippur War refugees begins. The evacuation of the kibbutz was ultimately only carried out after the outbreak of hostilities, when one could already see the enormous cloud of dust kicked up by the Syrian tanks and the bombardment of the area the next day. Noga Regev was just seven years old then, but she remembers that Saturday clearly: “We all gathered together, all the children of the kibbutz, around the secretariat building. There was an enormous ruckus there. Many walky-talkies in the background, noise, and chaos. In retrospect, I know that there was a debate whether to evacuate or not, because they promised us we wouldn’t be coming down from the [Golan] heights until Defense Minister Moshe Dayan himself called to tell us to do so. And he didn’t call, obviously. The adults refused to evacuate, but at two in the afternoon, they understood there was no choice. We had to.”
Regev had three brothers: a five-year-old and twin two-year-olds. She remembers that the kibbutz’s loudspeaker system asked the members to go gather their things ahead of evacuation: “I remember that we ran to the children’s homes, and we gathered a few things in a plastic bag and ran to the bus. A pretty short time before this, an exercise was held drilling the evacuation of the whole Golan Heights and we participated. So we knew what to do – we all ran to the buses and the men who stayed outside waved us goodbye. And then the scariest experience I had in the war began.”
At the time, there were only some 1,500-2,000 people living on the Golan Heights, spread among a number of isolated communities. During the War of Attrition, there was constant tension in the area marked by shooting incidents, terrorist infiltrations, and the laying of roadside bombs.
The evacuation was delayed and the dithering of the residents, who didn’t want to leave their homes until they received direct instructions from the Defense Minister, meant they couldn’t take the usual road to the kibbutzim in the Galilee where the evacuees were supposed to be taken. Regev remembers those moments well, even though she didn’t completely understand what was happening. At the same time, Chaimke the driver wondered which road to take. He was ultimately forced to make a far from ideal choice and take the evacuees along a narrow, winding road rather than the main route. One of the vehicle’s wheels quickly came off and the bus was about to fall into the abyss, along with all its passengers. “I remember the cries of the mothers. We all left the bus and pushed. This was a shared effort taken on by people who were experiencing a difficult moment of sheer terror. To this day, I still have unpleasant thoughts when I pass by that road. There was a feeling that the bus would fall off the cliff at any moment,” says Regev.
In an excited voice, Regev describes how the mothers and children succeeded in helping get the bus back on the road. The ride continued and the bus evacuated them to three kibbutzim – Ein Harod, Afikim, and Dovrat. Regev, her mother, and her brothers were evacuated to Dovrat. “They decided on this distribution because we have family there. This was a pre-arranged plan organized by the kibbutz movement. We arrived in Dovrat and were given a moving reception. They immediately arranged a place for us to sleep. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I remember that the residents were pleasant and warm towards us.” Regev’s mother was nevertheless worried and restless: “I remember my mother being very scared and saying there wasn’t enough food for those left in the kibbutz. This greatly worried her.”
Fortunately, none of the settlements in the area were damaged during the fighting. 48 hours later, after the situation was stabilized in the Golan sector, it was decided to allow the men to return to their homes. Towards the end of the war, all the residents of the kibbutz returned. Chaimke, the bus driver, remembers the happy and accident-free trip bringing the Mevo Hama refugees back to their homes, including his own wife and children.
But the members of Kibbutz Mevo Hama couldn’t enjoy going back to their old routine. Because of the security situation after the fighting, they found themselves closed down and cut off: “It was half a year of detachment where we were isolated in lockdown,” Regev recalls. “No-one came in and no-one left the kibbutz. We were closed. I couldn’t even go to school. In the children’s home we had an amazing kindergarten teacher named Michal and she took care of us. Thanks to her, we learned all the material on the kibbutz without leaving it. We didn’t leave the kibbutz, we couldn’t get off the heights, but life in the kibbutz itself went on as usual. I remember that one family forgot their daughter’s pacifier when they visited Kibbutz Afikim before, and an army tank went out to get it back.” During this time, Regev’s father was also called up to serve, and her mother dealt with four children, two of them three-year-old twins, alone. “My mother went back to manage her affairs at the kibbutz. We were cared for by the caretakers and at night we all slept in the same shelter.”
During the ongoing lockdown, the adults tried to create as calm and happy an atmosphere as they could by normalizing the situation in various original ways. “A father of a friend was seriously wounded in the war and he returned with casts on both legs,” Regev said. “They brought us dolls and we practiced putting them in a cast. We were given a sort of crash-course using the dolls. They taught us how to deal with people suffering with disability, and they helped my friend learn how to receive her father.”
Regev remembers the kibbutz bomb shelter as a happy place, and she still recalls the songs she learned: “The adults did everything to make us happy. They succeeded.” The commitment, quick organization, support, and even the maintenance of routine and optimism, all had a major impact. Regev claims that in those days, it was an internal kibbutz alternative to a non-functioning state system. She doesn’t even remember the lockdown as a trauma or even as imprisonment, but as a new experience that included sleeping together with her mother and father in the shelter, everyone together.
“It was simply a shared task,” Regev summarized. “It may be hard today to understand but we had no choice then but to charge ahead. Even when a wheel falls off, even when you need to push back a bus from teetering off a cliff, leave home, or spend long months in lockdown on the kibbutz. We didn’t know where we were heading. We certainly didn’t know the scope of the damage. If we heard or saw explosions somewhere, we accepted it as part of the situation because that’s all we knew. It’s hard to contain all this mess, but our parents, who created a haven and safe space for us within the chaos, kept us together and functioning. They deserve all the credit for that.”