"When something like this happens, I feel personally that we have to speak out," said Schwarzenegger while hosting families of hostages in Los Angeles
Content warning: This story contains graphic and disturbing details.
Arnold Schwarzenegger says it is "extremely important" to shine a light on civilian accounts from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
On Friday, the FUBAR star opened up his Los Angeles office to survivors and family members of Israeli hostages taken during the October attack, in an event organized by the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.
“It’s extremely important that the world hears those stories,” Schwarzenegger tells PEOPLE. “We hope that will make this hatred slowly disappear. Because a huge amount of damage is done through hatred, a huge amount of lives are lost.”
"I have never dealt with anything like this before," Schwarzenegger also admits during the event. "I always want to be there for the Jewish people, and for Israel."
Noting he's "been on this campaign for a long time to fight hate," the former governor adds, "when something like this happens, I feel personally that we have to speak out."
During the event, Israeli teen Ella Shani, 14, spoke bracingly of waking up in her home in kibbutz Be'eri and running from terrorists while still wearing her pajamas, then days later learning her father had been murdered. Her 16-year-old cousin, Amit Shani, was held hostage in Gaza until Nov. 29.
“On October 7th, I woke up to the sounds of "Allahu Akbar," sounds of gunshots and explosions,” the teen says at Schwarzenegger's crowded conference table. Hiding inside her home's bomb shelter with her mother and younger brother, Shani explains that she logged onto a WhatsApp group shared by a hundred local teenagers.
“Usually we use this group chat to discuss stupid things, like when is the food coming or when's the bus coming out and 'I'm late.' But that day was different," she says.
"On October 7th, the messages we received in that group chat were nothing but kids begging for help, begging for their lives.”
Shani says Hamas cut the electricity to her home and recalled sitting in the dark reading texts from her uncle saying his house was on fire.
After hiding for hours, at 5:30 p.m. the Israeli Defense Forces knocked on their door and then placed them in a safe room of a nearby house with seven children and three adults. Thirty minutes later, the IDF told the group to prepare the children for what they were about to see.
In the living room, the floor “was covered with blood and there were body parts scattered around," said Shani. "I remember having a hard time realizing what I'm looking at, but as soon as I realized, my first instinct was covering my little brother's eyes."
Then Hamas attacked again, she says.
“And it's like in the movies when you see the bullets hitting the wall right behind you and you hear them whistling next to your ear."
Surrounded by the IDF unit, the group "started running towards the kibbutz's exit. We run wearing nothing but our pajamas. I was very lucky to have my phone. Kids with us were running with nothing but blankets," Shani explained.
As they fled, “everything was on fire," she says. "Houses of my friends. Remembering the texts from before, them saying, 'I'm in a room with the bodies of my parents and the house is on fire. Somebody help me.' And I'm seeing the house, knowing they're still in there.”
Exploded cars lay along the roads and Shani says bodies lay, “killed by unimaginable horrific ways. Every Israeli I've seen had their limbs or other body parts lopsided or missing, cut off. Some of them were burned.”
Finally reaching a bus that would take them to Tel Aviv, with windows shattered by bullets, Shani allowed herself to cry.
“An 8-year-old boy, a friend of my little brother, came to us wearing nothing but his boxers and shirt and blood all over his face and his glasses were missing. And he told my brother, 'They killed my dad and (10-month-old) sister and shot my mom.' That's when we find ourselves with an 8-year-old boy and a 3-year-old boy covered with their parents' blood going on the bus. And that's honestly what broke me, realizing that actually happened and kids actually became orphans."
Both of Shani's grandparents had been shot inside the kibbutz, but survived. Her cousin Amit was taken hostage, she would find out later, and another devastating update was yet to come.
“Five days after everything that happened, I remember hearing my mother crying in the bathroom. I remember just asking, who is it now? And she looked at me without saying anything and I realized it was about my dad.”
A day later, Shani buried her father, Itzik Kozin, too shell-shocked to speak. “That's why I also couldn't give him any final words or goodbye because I couldn't process anything yet.”
The teen explains that she hopes her truth will be recognized by the world. “Many people say these things didn’t happen. I'm here telling you loud and clear: People were beheaded, people were burned alive. People's body parts were cut off, women were raped, children were kidnapped. All of that happened. I have names of my friends who had to go through these terrible things.”
Also at the roundtable on Friday was Yaakov Bohbot, 36, whose brother Elkana, 34, was kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival on Oct. 7 and Bar Rudaeff, 27, whose father Lior Rudaeff is also being held hostage. According to the Israeli government, there are still 137 hostages being held by Hamas.
Yaakov Bohbot, 36, calls his brother Elkana a “happy, kind family man” and said he was kidnapped after helping evacuate the wounded at the desert festival.
The married father of a three-year-old son was presumed missing until his family saw him in a video released by Hamas showing him bound on the floor with his face bloodied.
“We’re going through hell,” says Yaakov. “Every day is more and more painful. The only thing that we can do is raise awareness to bring him and all the hostages back home.”
Lior, 61, is a volunteer ambulance driver, said his son Bar, and on the morning of Oct. 7, he and his wife heard gunshots from the neighboring kibbutz.
“So without thinking, he just told my mom, 'Go to the safe room,' and ran outside to see where he can help because that’s who he is. That's his mentality,” Bar says.
Lior's family soon lost contact with him and later found his bloodied glasses in the nearby woods. “My father is still considered missing,” Bar adds, noting Lior is dependent on daily mediation following a severe heart attack two years ago. “We have no information.”
During the roundtable, Schwarzenegger was gifted with a symbolic silver necklace honoring Israeli hostages that read "our hearts are in Gaza."The actor in turn presented attendees with bronze eagle statues.
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