The sight and smell of the 30 charred bodies that still smouldered as Haim Otmezgin pulled up to the site of the Nova Festival on October 7 will never leave him.
But Haim, a 50-year-old top official of ZAKA, a rescue and recovery organisation that was tasked with cleaning up the 1,200 killed by Hamas on Black Saturday in accordance with Jewish customs, had a job to do.
As the commander of the special units at ZAKA, he was in charge of coordinating the response to the deadly attacks, and ensuring that all the bodies were accounted for and treated properly as soon as possible.
But the brutality with which Hamas had killed more than 360 innocent partygoers at the Nova Festival shocked even him, a volunteer who had been working for ZAKA since he was just 18 years old.
Haim, who spoke to MailOnline through a translator, said: ‘There were at least 30 bodies that were burned alive.
Haim Otmezgin (pictured) is a top official of ZAKA, a rescue and recovery organisation that was tasked with cleaning up the 1,200 killed by Hamas on Black Saturday in accordance with Jewish customs
More than 360 people were killed at the Nova Festival on Black Saturday
A man holding a weapon grabs another man next to a car during an attack by Hamas militants on October 7
‘Many needed to have water poured on them because they were still burning 12 hours after because of the fuel they used to set them on fire.
‘Their bodies were soaking with this fuel that [caused them to burn for a long time].’
Hamas didn’t just use fire as a weapon of war against partygoers at the festival. Sexual violence was used to humiliate the victims at the site, many of whom were young women.
He said: ‘When I go back to the memories, I remember lots of bodies were mutilated to pieces.
‘Organs were separated from their bodies, women had been shot in their very private areas, the upper parts of their legs, their heads.
‘Women were undressed and then they were shot.
‘A few bodies that were hit by rocks in a very barbaric way, in a way that crushed the skull.
‘I saw [stab wounds] in very specific areas on women, around their genitals.’
Haim, who became aware of reports of a Hamas attack early that morning arrived at the site of the Nova massacre at 9:30pm, says his role as a leader at ZAKA meant he had to prevent these images from affecting him.
He says he had to ‘become a machine’, and was forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions on his way down from his base in Petah Tikva to Kibbutz Re’im.
Haim, who spoke to MailOnline through a translator, said: ‘There were at least 30 bodies that were burned alive’
Destroyed cars and belongings left at the Nova Festival site where hundreds were killed and dozens taken by Hamas
Destroyed cars are seen at the rave party site near the Kibbutz Re’im
Relatives of Israelis killed at the Nova music festival plant trees in memory of the victims
Israeli women May, left, and Lilach, right, comfort each other as they visit the marker for Tifret Lapidot, their friend who was killed on October 7, 2023 at the Nova music festival
‘On the way from Petah Tikva to the south, I saw a few civilians waving at my ambulance.
‘I started thinking “I know I need to get south, but maybe in order to prepare for this, I should let myself into this situation slowly and see what these people wanna say.”
‘I thought that they probably want to tell me something in regard to what’s going on in the south.’
So he slowed down, and let the civilians, who had a car, approach him.
‘They said: “We have two of them”.
‘I asked them: ‘“What two? What are you talking about?”
‘And they just showed me two dead bodies, young women, both shot in their heads.’
He had no choice but to take their bodies, and continue down to the site of the festival.
More and more civilians tried flagging him down as he made his way down with the women’s bodies in tow, each one holding a different person slaughtered by Hamas fighters, who were still rampaging throughout southern Israel.
Haim said he had to make the very difficult decision to keep going, in spite of the horrors he saw.
‘I understood that I couldn’t just stop and take every person on the way, so I carried on.
‘We needed at least 15 ambulances and a few trucks in order to take all the dead bodies that were found on the way to the festival,’ he added.
This was, as Haim put it, when he ‘made the transition from being a human being to a machine.
Hang-gliding Hamas terrorists were seen flying into Israel on October 7
Dozens of hostages were taken from the Nova Festival
A terrified IDF officer asked Haim: ‘How long does it take for a body to rot?’
‘I basically [was] just seeing these images, and just translated it into data.’
Haim said that he did not expect his day would turn out like this, when he was awoken at 6:42am that morning, next to his sleeping wife.
He was called, and told to immediately report to his base, not knowing how important his job was to become.
The ZAKA officer was so in the dark that wasn’t sure whether to wake his children up, not knowing how long he would be away for.
But he knew enough to know that October 7 would be the most consequential in Israel’s modern history.
This was cemented at 7:30pm, at his base in Petah Tikvah. There, while preparing for a threat with a then-unknown magnitude, he received a call from the Nova Festival.
A terrified IDF officer asked him: ‘How long does it take for a body to rot?’
Taken aback, Haim told the officer he needed more details. The ZAKA officer said he was told:’I have a carpet of dead bodies in the middle of the forest, I don’t know what to do with them.
Destroyed cars and personal effects are still left scattered around the Supernova Music Festival site
Cars and belongings left at the Nova Festival site
Ela Bahat touches a picture of her 30-year-old son Dror, who was killed on October 7
‘Nobody explained to me what to do with them. I don’t have any way of treating them. I don’t have the equipment, the volunteers to deal with this. Maybe you can help me with this.’
Haim, still unsure what the officer mean, said he asked to speak on a video call. It was then, watching a blurred and jumpy video streamed from a smartphone, that Haim understood the scale of the atrocity.
He said the officer told him that he had counted at least 125 bodies, but that there were many more that needed to be counted.
In the four hours after he arrived at the site of the Nova massacre, his team had to clear as many bodies, in line with Jewish customs, as possible. He said ZAKA was able to clear 237 bodies in just four hours, while still under fire from Hamas’ rockets and guns.
But with dozens more bodies at the Nova Festival site alone, and hundreds more across Israel, Haim said his physical health took a toll as he carried his work on.
‘I didn’t stop working for 60 days. I was only getting four hours of sleep a night, and I lost 9 kilos in two months because I didn’t have time to eat.’
It wasn’t only his physical health that suffered.
Personal items from the Nova music festival site that have been put on display for family and relatives to collect at the Kochav HaYam complex
The family of Liraz Assulin, 38, who fled from the Nova festival and was killed during the deadly October 7 attack by gunmen
A person looks at photos of people who were killed and kidnapped during the October 7 attack by Hamas gunmen from Gaza
Haim said he refused to think about what he was seeing on October 7, instead focusing on the main task at hand as he worked.
He said it was only ‘months after’ the attack, when he spoke to his colleagues, that he began to process the horrors he bore witness to.
‘I didn’t want to think about it, but I felt that I needed to speak out after hearing that these things were being ignored and denied.’
‘For the first two weeks after October 7, many people were chasing after me in order to give my testimony. The police, international media, big networks around the world were asking to hear the story.
‘But I was escaping. I didn’t want to do it, and I still had this excuse of having many things to do, still operating everything.
‘It wasn’t a lie; We were still operating on a lot of the highways. I spent more than 60 days on duty.
‘But I had the privilege of escaping. I didn’t put on any news channels, or social media. I was completely disconnected, focusing on the mission.’
‘Maybe it was easier to do this, more convenient.’
Destroyed cars and personal effects are still left scattered around the Nova Music Festival site
Israeli soldiers drive by the rave party site, where scores were killed, near the Kibbutz Re’im
Destroyed cars are seen at the rave party site near the Kibbutz Re’im
‘You can never be a total machine in front of these scenes and images of what we saw. But what we witnessed over there was bigger than any physical or mental difficulty.’
His 13-year-old son kept begging him for details, driven by morbid curiosity and fear for his father.
He said he would always push the requests back, claiming that there was little signal in the south of Israel, and conveniently forgetting to tell his son about what he saw whenever he went back.
But Haim couldn’t tell his family about the horrors of what he saw, as they didn’t deserve to be weighed down with even a fraction of the horrors he witnessed at the site of the festival.
‘There’s a balance between being supported by my family, and keeping them away from the sights as a professional. You can tell part of the story, but not all of it.’
Haim said he rarely told people about what he did at work even before Black Saturday.
‘Whenever I come back from any operation that ZAKA conducts, people ask me “what happened, what’s going on, tell us about it.”
‘Usually I tell them: “Read about it in the papers, I don’t want to talk about it.”’
He said that Black Saturday was a wakeup call for Israel: ‘It reveals the reality of how naive we were about the values of war.
‘This war was about humiliating us. It was about deep hate, it was about defiling [us].’