I am now safely back in Jerusalem with my parents after a terrifying experience. Yesterday I travelled with some family members from the UK (aunt, uncle, cousins) to our cousin's community to spend a special Shabbat (Sabbath) celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of his son. I was hosted by a wonderful Australian-Israeli family who made me very welcome. Following evening prayers and a huge, delicious family meal, I went back to my host family and we chatted for a while then I went to bed.
Not long afterwards there was a banging on my door and one of the host's daughters shouted, "Fire, fire is coming, we need to get out!" She threw a coat at me and I grabbed my bag (luckily I'd been too tired to unpack properly) and made for the door. From the front garden I could see the tops of flames in the brushland below the house.
The hostess called out that she was grabbing her phone and I ran back in to get mine too, while her husband went to turn off the electricity. We came out and met in front of the house and there was a sudden gust of wind and I saw the flames rise up to the house. We ran down pedestrian footpath through the houses shouting at the neighbours to get out and as we came through the trees to the road at the bottom we could see the fire.
The sky was full of glowing orange embers which were strangely beautiful, then suddenly there was a terrible smell of smoke.
We began to run towards the synagogue which was the emergency meeting point but then one of the daughters remembered an elderly couple who might not hear the commotion and so my host and hostess ran down the road to check on them, shouting to their daughters to look after me. I asked the girls where the house was that my relatives were staying in and they pointed towards it saying that they were sure everyone from there had been evacuated. At that moment we saw a figure moving about behind the curtains and realised that they were still inside.
The girls ran in to make them hurry and there was another gust of wind, and what I can only describe as a wall of fire rose up further down the road. I began to scream "the fire's here, get out, run!" My relatives and their host family ran out in their pyjamas, shoes and coats, there was no time for them to bring anything. We headed for the synagogue but the wind picked up and it was no longer safe.
We began to run towards the exit of the village, literally trying to outrun the flames and smoke. Those community members who had managed to get their cars were stopping and offering lifts to whoever they could fit in. Others were shouting that they were looking for their kids or their spouse. Someone had two seats so we sent our young cousins into that car. We continued to run and eventually another car with a mother and her 2 daughters offered the 3 of us places. By the time we got to the gate we had taken in other people so there were 7 of us in the 5 seater with 2 on laps.
We managed to get out and drove away without any plan of where to go. My aunt and uncle realised that their kids didn't have phones or any way to contact us and wouldn't know where we were. We had no idea whose car they were in or where they would be taken although we knew that they'd be looked after. The family decided to stay with a relative about 45 mins away and as they were travelling past my brother's town we asked them to drop us off.
On the way, the daughters were hysterical, thinking of their friends and family and home. The driver thankfully managed to speak to her husband who had found their other kids and told him where they were heading.
Once we were dropped off, following effusive thanks to the family who'd helped us get away, we woke up my brother and sister in law who were absolute stars and took us in, they could not have done more for us. My aunt and uncle had nothing but the clothes they stood up in and we all stank of smoke. By about 3.30am we'd found out that our Israeli family members were safe and together but no one knew the whereabouts of our 2 young English cousins who'd been in the other car. We were finally able to locate them this evening with much thanks to our Israeli cousins.
My brother took my aunt and uncle to collect their kids from a neighbouring village where they had been beautifully taken care of. The Bar Mitzvah family ended up in yet another village where the community had given their son the opportunity to read his Torah portion in their synagogue this morning. He had his parents, siblings, grandparents and a few cousins with him so even though many of us were now unable to attend he became bar mitzvah.
We discovered that the house that my uncle and aunt had been staying in had only received superficial smoke and water damage and my uncle was allowed to briefly enter tonight to collect their cases, passports and other items. I'd managed to grab most of my stuff but throughout today I noticed the things I'd left behind, my DMs and smart suede party shoes, odd bits of clothing, books, my charger... and what I saved smells of smoke.
To put it in perspective though, I was devastated to learn that the house I'd been staying in had been burnt to the ground and that wonderful, warm family had lost everything. It seems likely that the lady who drove us to safety did too, as it turns out that she lived in the same neighbourhood. At least 15 houses have been completely razed to the ground. I have seen an aerial photograph and only the brick outlines of the foundations remain.
This has been a incredibly traumatic experience and I am very shaken although so grateful to be alive and well, and to have been with family.
I will never forget the kindness shown to us, especially from my host family who had to worry about a stranger as well as their children. They have a tight knit community and I'm confident that they will move on and rebuild, both literally and figuratively, but I don't think we'll forget the past 24 hours in a hurry. I'm hoping that writing this will help to relieve some of my shakiness and anxiety so that I can sleep.
I am safe and well.