Since October 7, Israeli communities close to the Gaza border have become ghost towns, and educational institutions have been closed for over a month. However, a kindergarten in one Kibbutz became the temporary home of a IDF reserve unit deployed to the area.
The troops enjoy air conditioning, a shower, and hot water. The facility also includes a small kitchenette with a refrigerator and adjacent parking. The transition from a military camp with cramped sleeping bags to a clean mattress on the kindergarten floor is undoubtedly an improvement for the soldiers.
At the entrance to the abandoned kibbutz, there is heavy military presence. Itzik Savidiya, the battalion’s master sergeant demands of his men to respect the premises. "Kids, don't enter the kindergarten with muddy boots and we just washed the floor," he bellows. When we ask if these kids" behave well, he laughs and says "The 'kids' are behaving well. We make sure to keep the place clean – no bullet casings are left in the yard, we clean the bathrooms, and preserve the drawings on the walls. We’re here to allow the children to return to the kindergarten safely," he says.
Ido, a reserve soldier, took me for a tour of the yard. "Two days after October 7, we left the reserve bases for the kibbutz and came here with the company to protect the area," he says. “We’re very strong and united, and I hope this unity will last even after the war."
After rain fell on the area, the kindergarten’s sandbox turned into a collection point for supplies and various personal items donated to the soldiers. "We have a lot of packages of underwear and socks here, shampoo bottles, and deodorants in large quantities, but we've run out of soft wipes," Ido says.
Dozens of mattresses are spread across on the floor alongside weapons and personal gear. Clotheslines and wet towels are hung in place. Weary-eyed soldiers who have completed operational activities eat a small meal with the others.
Despite the holiday of Hanukkah fast approaching, the walls of the deserted kindergarten are adorned with works the kids made for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays, alongside pictures of the children who played in the kindergarten in the days before October 7. The optimistic photos of the smiling kibbutz children conceal a terrible tragedy.
"We’re here to bring the children back to their kindergarten, and we won’t leave until it happens," Yoav Adomi, the battalion’s deputy commander says. "We’re temporarily stationed in the kindergarten. We’re guarding it, and we’re working in full cooperation with the residents of the kibbutz. They are strong, brave people; they fought for their homes here. After we finish and return to civilian life, the kibbutz will flourish again, and the children will return to the kindergarten,” he says.
Absolute darkness prevailed in the kibbutz’s library. Among the bookshelves, mattresses were scattered, and reservists who were active throughout the night returned there for sleep.
"Finally, there's time to read books on reserve duty, which is very nice, Niv, one of the soldiers says. "There are some books here that I loved as a child, and it was very emotional to find them again. I miss my wife and my son Tom a lot, but I and all my friends will stay here as long as is needed for the children to return to the kibbutz safely."