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Months after Hamas committed a massacre in their town, they returned home to live among the 'ghosts'

KFAR AZA, Israel — It looks like a grisly crime scene. But to Shahar Shnorman and his wife, Ayelet Cohen, kibbutz Kfar Aza looks like home.

The couple were the first to return to Kfar Aza — a sleepy, sun-drenched hamlet in southern Israel where Hamas killed 80 people and kidnapped another 19 on Oct. 7

“People thought we are crazy to come back,” said Cohen, 55. “I didn’t want to be a refugee. I wanted to live in my own house and sleep in my own bed. And for me, it was very important.”

Shnorman and Cohen spoke as they walked past their slain neighbors’ homes, many of them burned down, pocked with bullet holes and still wrapped in police tape. 

On some of the scorched one-story dwellings, signs showed pictures of the dead and kidnapped. Nearly four months after the massacre, the local community center and the kibbutz’s restaurant remain shuttered. 

Kibbutz Kafr Aza
Kibbutz Kfar Aza in in southern Israel.David Necochea / NBC News

The middle-age couple are the only residents who have returned for good after the Oct. 7 attacks, which claimed 1,200 lives in Israeli and saw 240 taken hostage. Around 100 people still remain in captivity after scores were released in late November as part of an exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Almost 25,000 people have been killed since Israel launched its military assault on Gaza, according to the enclave’s health ministry. 

These days the only other people on Kfar Aza’s streets are heavily armed soldiers, media crews and international visitors who walk through on guided tours. 

And Shnorman and Cohen have become one exhibit in the macabre tourist attraction. 

“I like to hear the laughter of the kids,” said Shnorman, 66, when asked what the couple misses about life before Oct. 7. “I like to see all my friends. I miss, you know, a normal social life. That doesn’t exist.”

The streets are quiet in the town that had a population of around 800 before the Hamas attacks. Most have relocated to Tel Aviv and kibbutz Shfayim, a few miles north of the city in central Israel. Of the 19 people taken hostage from Kfar Aza, 11 were released in November and five remain in captivity. Alon Shamriz, 26, and Yotam Haim, 28, were mistakenly killed by the Israeli military in December.  

Without their voices, most of the noise in the kibbutz comes from the steady buzz of drones overhead and the regular thud of artillery from the Gaza Strip, about 3 miles away.

“It’s the music of our lives,” Shnorman remarked after one loud blast. Even before Oct, 7, explosions were a regular refrain during the periodic flare-ups between Israelis and Palestinians.   

Life is slightly harder here now, the couple said. The street lights were knocked down by Israeli tanks when they cleared the neighborhoods, so Shnorman said he rarely leaves home after dark. The kibbutz’s small store has stopped doing business, so daily essentials require a short drive. 

But for both of them the thought of not returning was unthinkable — something like capitulation. 

“In my mind to leave the house, it’s defeat,” said Shnorman. “It felt natural to come back home and in a way to show our enemy that they can’t break us.”

The couple now live among ghosts. Each home they walk past recalls individual names and intertwining family trees. 

The pair said they suffer from the trauma of Oct. 7 — “the event,” they call it — but living among the ruins is a kind of catharsis.

“It’s more normal for me to be here and to get used to the fact that these people won’t come back,” Cohen said. “If you are not here, it’s more like it’s remained an unfinished business. So coming here is like more of a closure for me.”

The couple acknowledged that their once tranquil lives here will never be the same. 

“But hopefully,” said Cohen, “it will feel good enough to be a new beginning.”

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