AUTHOR and former lawyer, Patricia Chew, was in Jerusalem as part of a group visiting the Holy Land when Hamas launched the attack on Israel on the morning of 7 October. For someone coming from the relative safety of Singapore, getting caught up in the middle of a war proved to be a distressing experience.
She recounts her ordeal in trying to leave the war-torn region.
At 6:30am on the morning of 7th October 2023 when war broke out in Israel, I was with a contingent of 30 International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ) participants from Singapore. We were oblivious to the terrorist attacks launched by Hamas on Israel earlier that morning.
It seemed like another normal beautiful day and I was excited because we were getting ready to take a short tour of Israel before finally returning to Singapore in the evening by Turkish Airlines.
I was in the lobby of the St George’s Hotel, Jerusalem, at about 9am, waiting to check out when I heard a loud explosion. Two hotel staff rushed out of the hotel. They lifted their eyes to the bright blue sky. Being curious, I quickly followed suit and ran out of the revolving glass doors. Not being conditioned to this situation I asked them what they were doing. They explained to me that the white wisps of smoke were the rockets that had been intercepted by the Iron Dome. It was an amazing sight. At least three times the missiles sent by Hamas were intercepted.
I took some photos of videos that I shared with the ICEJ group.
The leader of our group, Jehu Chan, saw the pictures and videos and decided that we should meet up as a matter of urgency. With my smattering of Arabic, I was able to ask the Palestinian staff to let me have the use of a small meeting room in the hotel. Mr. Chan then advised us that as the hotel did not have any bomb shelters, we should cancel the rest of our tour and instead proceed swiftly to Ben Gurion Airport.
We piled into the coach headed to Ben Gurion Airport with a security check en route.
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When we arrived at the airport, we looked for food. Alas, unlike Singapore the choices that were available to us were few and far between. There was the ubiquitous McDonalds and the Italian deli La Farina selling bagels, croissants, sandwiches that we found user friendly. The food in another outlet was always completely sold out or the coffee machine was not working.
But what was far worse was being caught in snaking queues of people who were competing for the attention of the inadequate service staff. One could not help but wonder, is this truly the Promised Land mentioned in the Bible, that was flowing with milk and honey?
After being fed, we were soon fed up. We started queuing at the Turkish Airways counter to check in, which was the start of another nightmare. Our leader and his wife and those that needed special assistance were the first to check in together with their luggage. However, the rest of us were not able to check in because the flight was cancelled! This was a rather difficult situation because we had to check if those who had checked in could exit. After a long time we saw them emerging from the departure gates.
Some other leaders from the group then stood for hours trying to get tickets for the next Turkish Airways flight. After many hours we succeeded to get the tickets for the 23 of us on the flight. We settled down on the chairs hoping to get some rest before the flight out.
The chairs at the airport are similar to the plastic ones that one would find in our polyclinics or hospitals, clean and fuss free. Certainly short in supply, we found ourselves losing our precious seats to other passengers waiting like hawks the moment we got up to visit the washroom or charge our phone.
Heading For The Bomb Shelter
One event will remain indelibly etched into my memory for a long time to come.
While charging my handphone, I suddenly heard screams of panic from the front entrance of the airport. As the glass doors opened, there was a surge of people pushing their way through the airport. I had no idea why they were screaming and where they were going. In the panic, I found that my line of vision of the rest of the Singaporean contingent was cut off as these passengers surged forward and pushed me and others back.
I asked one Jewish passenger what was happening and he told me that sirens had sounded and I had to follow these people into the bomb shelter.
Then I heard voices above the commotion shouting that we had to leave our luggage behind and not take them with us into the bomb shelter. I was pushed or rather suddenly sucked up into this sudden vortex of confusion as the crowds struggled to get to a narrow flight of steps and walk down it into this mysterious bomb shelter.
I was suffering from separation anxiety at this stage because I was cut off from the rest of the Singapore team.
Various thoughts raced through my mind as I stood at the bomb shelter. How long would we be required to take shelter here, half an hour, an hour or more? How were we going to get food or water if we were required to be here for a long period? Where were we going to sleep? Surely the authorities did not expect us to sleep standing up?
While these thoughts raced through my mind, we were informed that it was alright and we could go up the stairs. Although I was relieved to go to main hall of the terminal, I suddenly felt a wave of sadness and tears welled up in my eyes. I realised, as I went back to charge my handphone, that I had probably taken the presence of my teammates for granted and this experience woke me up to the fact that we are all so vulnerable in situations like this.
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Another Flight Cancelled!
This incident though was not the end of our ordeal. The next day we were informed that the Turkish Airlines flight was once again cancelled! Our hopes of getting out of Israel were once again dashed.
Our flight was cancelled on 7 October and again on 8 October. We had to get ourselves out of Israel.
This time, though, we were not content to just queue up to get tickets out of the country. Some of my team mates had gone online to purchase tickets for us to get out of Israel. We were fortunate that we had team mates who had left earlier who were able to get us tickets to Thailand by El Al Airlines.
The El Al flight was smooth and the flight attendants were attentive and polite.
We met a gentleman who lives with his family in Singapore. His family was back in Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles, which coincided with my visit there.
He has two children, a boy and an infant girl. The family live close to Gaza and when the bombs fell around 6:30am last Saturday morning the older boy was upset.
The father then told the children that they had to play a game to see who could run to their bomb shelter first. The children happily obeyed as they thought it was a game.
He later said that many children were abducted and murdered and some unfortunate children were decapitated. He was saddened by what was taking place.
We were in Bangkok for about three hours and we were able to get a decent meal there before boarding Thai Airways for the final leg home. The others got onto Scoot or SIA flights, so we had various waiting times depending on the carrier we were on.
Although most of us returned to Singapore on Monday night, there were two others who didn’t get out of Israel until Thursday night.
Another Singaporean team arrived on Saturday but did not have the luxury of touring the Holy Land. Instead Pastor George Annadorai had to get the 50-strong Singaporean delegation out of Israel and into Jordan by Monday.
Although we went into Israel as a 30-strong contingent we were all separated upon our return because it depended on how fortunate we were to get our plane tickets.
The Lessons I Learnt
(1) Be prepared for all eventualities. Travel insurance is indeed a must.
(2) Don’t expect much from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially in fast-moving and dynamic situations. The MFA called me and others every few hours but did not share any plans with us on how we could get out of our predicament in Israel safely, or by offering to airlift us.
(3) Think carefully about which airline you choose on your travels. In our case, Turkish Airlines proved to be unreliable; proof that cheap and good don’t go hand in hand. Travel with airlines that have integrity and can deliver on what they promise.
(4) it is important to have unity of spirit and mind otherwise we cannot achieve anything in chaos.