Real Life

Kiwi mum reveals how her whānau fled from escalating war in Israel

‘Speeding to the airport was the longest 20 minutes of my life’

On a buzzing 30-degree Friday night in Jaffa, a funky hipster-style suburb of Tel Aviv, Annie Romanos sat with her family at a restaurant enjoying Middle Eastern cuisine.

It’s her favourite city in Israel and, over one of the best meals she’d ever eaten, the Kāpiti Coast mum soaked in the last evening of a month-long holiday with her ex-husband Aaron and their three children, Alexandro, 17, Thea, 16, and Gabe, 10.

Devastatingly, the following day, the very spot they’d had their last meal was hit by missiles launched by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, from nearby Gaza.

At 6.30am on 7 October, Annie was woken by blaring warning sirens, which were soon followed with an explosion. When Alex found concerning TikTok videos of Hamas landing nearby in motorised parachutes, they knew it was serious. Eventually, social media began flooding with images of Hamas militia shooting and kidnapping civilians, and the Kiwi family scurried to pack their bags, beginning a daring escape from the Israel-Hamas war.

“My ex-husband and I had excitedly planned an intrepid Middle East adventure with our kids, starting in Egypt, winding up through Jordan and finishing in Israel,” Annie, 51, tells after arriving safely home in Aotearoa. “We saw pyramids, temples and ancient cities, and slept in the desert. It was magical.”

Aaron and Annie with kids Alex, Thea and Gabe (front).

When the family arrived in Israel to spend five days in Jerusalem, they noticed it was heavily guarded by Israeli special forces. “The kids wondered, ‘Why are they armed?’ and so we discussed the history,” recalls Annie, 51, who works as an executive ADHD coach. “The security looked like just a way of life there, but it unsettled us. Within a week, Hamas targeted a rave on the border of Gaza, killing hundreds of young people and using social media to publicise it.”

The morning Annie woke in Tel Aviv to wailing sirens, she assumed there was a fire and assured her worried daughter it would stop. But it didn’t. When they heard an explosion and movement in the stairwell, the mum’s heart began to race.

“Aaron opened the apartment door and was told by residents that when the sirens alarm, you immediately go to a safe place, which is an internal staircase in the apartment,” tells Annie.

“The locals didn’t seem scared at that point because it isn’t uncommon. There’s the odd missile fired from Gaza, which is why Israelis have the Iron Dome [an air defence system that detects and intercepts missiles] and people seek shelter to avoid any falling shrapnel.”

But Hamas surprised Israel by launching at least 5000 rockets into the city that day, overwhelming the US-backed Iron Dome. Annie says, “I was very afraid because as New Zealanders, we’ve never been in anything like this. It was the stuff of movies.”

Annie guided her daughter through an anxiety attack, working hard to remain calm herself. She put the Netflix show Glow Up on as a distraction and kept Thea off social media. But then Alex came into the lounge in tears and told his parents he’d just witnessed an execution online.

Annie told Aaron, “We need to leave the country now.”

Taking in the sights of old Jerusalem.

The family had a flight to Bangkok booked for midnight, while Alex was set to jet to Italy at 5pm to meet his girlfriend.

Annie says, “We were very fortunate to have a rental car, so we didn’t have to find a taxi to take us to the airport. The city had gone quiet as this was unfolding and there was no public transport.”

Before they sped at 150km, through red lights, down an eerily empty motorway, Annie tried to ring the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, but there was no answer, so she called her two sisters in Kāpiti. Concerned for the family’s safety, the sisters rang the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who didn’t yet know anything.

“Aaron and I were worried Hamas had reached Tel Aviv on the ground, like at the rave, where those who survived hid under bracken and bush for hours, not moving an inch,” tells Annie. “Speeding to the airport was the longest 20 minutes of my life.”

They arrived at the airport at 11am and noticed signs for bomb shelters. An hour later, the conflict had reached international media and the world was told Israel was at war. By 4pm, the airport was chaotic, with tourists and locals lined up outside, and many flights delayed and cancelled.

“When it was clear Alex wouldn’t be flying to Italy, we raced to the terminal for El Al, Israel’s national airline, which we were flying with, to see if they could get him on our flight,” says Annie. “We were really lucky to get him on.”

After the family made it to the departure lounge, following a double security check, Alex and Aaron went outside for a stress cigarette. Thea was buying a smoothie and Annie sat with her youngest as he ate. Suddenly, a voice in Hebrew came over the loudspeaker.

Flying home with a shaken Thea and Alex.

Annie recalls, “I looked up at this lady and she yelled in terror, ‘Go, go, go!’ while pointing at the shelter sign.” Annie called out for her daughter and they dashed to squeeze through a corridor with hundreds of others.

“I was very anxious because you’ve only got seconds to get to a shelter, and I was thinking about Alex and Aaron. I heard sirens going off and the sound of explosions.”

Annie later learnt a rocket had struck a residential block in downtown Jaffa, where the family had dined the evening before. When they finally managed to board their flight, Annie was “absolutely on edge”, repeatedly looking at her watch before they finally took off after an hour on the tarmac. Then she noticed their flight path would take them over Iran.

“They’re allies of Hamas and have been funding their militia resources, so I wondered, ‘Is this a good idea?’ But the airline significantly altered the flight path and completely avoided Iran, which was relieving. Fortunately, it was a pretty uneventful flight.

“I don’t drink a lot, but I was like, ‘Give me the wine!’ When we landed, everyone clapped and cheered.”

Annie becomes visibly upset as she recalls hearing uncontrollable sobbing from one of the female cabin crew, who she imagines received bad news upon landing.

Mum and daughter on their last night in Jaffa, before their dream holiday was shattered.

“I was crying at that stage from a mix of hearing that young woman, all the images we’d seen, knowing we’d escaped Israel and we were all together.” Terrifyingly, there was a direct attack on the airport the following day.

Though she’s relieved to have got her family back to New Zealand, Annie still feels a sense of hopelessness around the war and is supporting humanitarian aid agencies to help offset this despair. The Raumati South businesswoman believes donating is the best thing Kiwis can do to help civilians right now.

“As a family, to process it, we’ve been talking a lot about what happened and we’re taking it easy,” Annie says. “We’re also high-fiving ourselves for our decisive action and feeling grateful. It’s important to go on with life now after a dream holiday that ended in a nightmare.”

To help civilians affected by the war, you can make a donation at msf.org.nz, unicef.org.nz, or oxfam.org.nz.

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