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An Israeli responder's work on Oct. 7 shows the challenges of investigating atrocities

Chaim Otmazgin, 50, poses for a portrait in his home in Petah Tikva, Israel.
Maya Levin for NPR
Chaim Otmazgin, 50, poses for a portrait in his home in Petah Tikva, Israel.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence and sexual assault.

PETAH TIKVA, Israel — By the time first responders reached the site of the Nova rave, it was 10 p.m., and the rockets and gunfire were still ringing out.

The bodies were everywhere — hundreds of bloodied young men and women, still dressed in their party clothes — in what authorities would later determine was the single deadliest site of the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Among the responders there that night was Chaim Otmazgin, an officer in the Israeli military reserves and a commander in Zaka, a volunteer rescue group in Israel that specializes in handling remains.

One body he handled belonged to a woman who was found partially naked, Otmazgin said. Her skirt had been lifted all the way up, she had no underwear, and there was a wound between her legs, he said.

In what he believed was an act of respect, Otmazgin, 50, an observant Orthodox Jew, adjusted her skirt before taking a photo to help identify her body later. "I had to pull down her skirt because I couldn't photograph her while she was so exposed," he said.

At the time, Otmazgin and his colleagues weren't thinking about how, months later, the world might want evidence of atrocities, he said — especially sexual violence.

Israeli officials allege that Palestinian attackers committed sexual violence on Oct. 7. Hamas denies the claims and has accused Israel of using the issue as a way to justify its military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.

Five months after Oct. 7, the allegations surrounding sexual violence have emerged as one of the most contentious issues about the attacks. Efforts to investigate the claims — including a report by The New York Times — have faced criticism from pro-Palestinian social media activists and left-leaning publications.

A report released Monday by the United Nations found "reasonable grounds to believe" that sexual violence, "including rape and gang rape," occurred in at least three locations on Oct. 7, including the site of the Nova rave.

The report's authors were unable to verify other accounts of sexual violence, and they found two sensational stories of gender-based violence that day, which had been widely repeated in media accounts, to be outright unfounded.

The challenges of investigating allegations of sexual violence on Oct. 7 have been numerous: No survivors of assault have yet come forward publicly, and most of the alleged victims are dead. As a result, Israel's case has relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses and first responders, like Otmazgin. And as is common in war, collection of physical evidence was hindered by ongoing combat and a large, chaotic crime scene, as well as by Jewish burial traditions and Israeli officials' decision to prioritize identification of missing individuals over forensic analysis of bodies.

"In the context of conflict and war, when whole communities are struggling to respond to the crisis, people are not thinking a few steps ahead about how to actually use this window — this very limited window — to capture evidence that is ephemeral," said Karen Naimer, a human rights lawyer who founded the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps document atrocities around the world.

Scrutiny has focused especially on Zaka. The group's workers, including Otmazgin, are not trained in forensics, and some Zaka volunteers' accounts of the aftermath were later discredited. The organization's response to the attacks has been criticized, including accusations that its handling of remains may have inadvertently destroyed evidence.

In an interview with NPR, Otmazgin recounted in detail his work the night of Oct. 7 and in the days that followed, and he acknowledged the shortcomings of the response. His story, along with photographs of the aftermath he shared with NPR, demonstrates the challenges of investigating the allegations.

"There wasn't even the thought to stop for a second and say, 'Wait, we're here — let's be investigators,'" Otmazgin told NPR. "We don't have the tools for that. It's not our job."

Remnants of the Nova party massacre seen on October 09, 2023.
/ Maya Levin
Maya Levin
Remnants of the Nova party massacre seen on October 09, 2023.

Responding to the attacks

Of the approximately 1,200 people killed on Oct. 7, more than 360 died at the Nova rave, a weekend-long outdoor music festival staged at a nature site about 3 miles from the border with Gaza.

The attack on the rave began around 6:30 a.m., and it lasted for hours. The scene was enormous, stretching from the dance floor, camping area and parking lot to nearby highways and farm fields, where some of the festival's thousands of attendees were killed while trying to flee by car or foot.

Later, as Israeli security forces fought with militants and worked to secure the area, they moved bodies they encountered back to the central site of the rave — a decision that decreased the size of the area the military had to keep secure but that compromised responders' ability to understand what had happened to the victims.

As he and the other Zaka volunteers worked to collect the remains, Otmazgin said, the scale of the attack staggered him — and so did the state of the bodies. Of those he encountered that night and in the days after, some seemed to have been killed more violently than by gunshot, he said. Some had zip ties around their wrists, and some were in various states of undress.

"Even when you're working like a machine, there are bodies that you meet and you feel like you've been punched in the stomach," he said. "You stop for a second, you breathe, you stand back up and you keep working because you have no choice. But it is burned into your consciousness."

They felt pressure to move quickly, he said. Combat was still ongoing. When rocket alarms sounded, the workers dove to the ground amid the bodies to take cover, he said. They worried that departing the site for the night could leave any remaining bodies vulnerable to abduction by Hamas and that returning in the morning would expose workers to rocket fire, he said.

"You see that the person has been stripped of their clothes, and you have to photograph. You try to pull down the skirt a bit, take the photo, and then you pack the body up. All this is done in 20 or 30 seconds total," he said. "At this stage, you don't even stop."

A team of Zaka volunteers clean up human remains from the Oct. 7 attacks in a home in Kfar Azza, Israel.
/ Maya Levin
Maya Levin
A team of Zaka volunteers clean up human remains from the Oct. 7 attacks in a home in Kfar Azza, Israel.

Those photographs, some of which NPR reviewed, were intended to help identify the dead, Otmazgin said, rather than serve later as forensic evidence.

There was the woman dressed in a rainbow sequin top, her white jeans stained with blood from gunshot wounds, including one to her pelvic area. Another woman, her red top pulled up to reveal her body underneath, a gunshot wound to her ear and her neck cut open.

In the days that followed the attacks, Otmazgin worked at practically every site that had been attacked, he said, including at the kibbutzim and along Highway 232, the main highway along the Gaza border, where the U.N. also found credible accounts of rape.

The morning after responding to the attack on the rave, Otmazgin encountered a trio of bodies in an orchard along the highway, likely where the three had tried to escape the attack by foot. One woman was found topless, and her jean shorts had been hiked up unusually high and were torn away, partially revealing her injured and bloodied groin. He covered her chest, he said, and then took a photo.

In total, NPR reviewed 19 photographs that Otmazgin said were taken either by him or by someone else in his crew as they responded together to the scene. The remains of at least 20 people are visible in the pictures, including several suspected victims of sexual violence. Otmazgin also spoke with U.N. researchers and shared photographs with them, he said.

Many of the images contain evidence that they were taken by an Israeli responder, an indication of their authenticity. Tarps and body bags bearing the Zaka logo are visible in five of the photographs, including the one showing the woman whose skirt Otmazgin says he pulled down. In one photograph, several bodies are seen piled on a poster for the music festival. A set of pink identification tags regularly used by Zaka is seen in another photo, and a man's Israeli ID card can be seen in another.

The photographs both demonstrate the brutality of the attack and show how difficult it can be to draw definitive conclusions from photographs alone.

The U.N. team, which included a forensic pathologist, examined more than 5,000 photos related to the Oct. 7 attacks, and the report noted several examples of ways that untrained responders had misinterpreted that evidence.

For instance, grazing gunshot wounds in the genital area had sometimes been mistaken for targeted knife wounds, the report said. The U.N. team ultimately concluded that, while some of what it gathered constituted "credible circumstantial information" of genital mutilation, it could not verify any pattern of such violence.

In another example, the authors said some burned bodies had been mistaken for possible victims of sexual violence due to a physiological effect known as "pugilistic posturing," in which extreme temperatures can cause muscles to shrink, resulting in a pose with clenched hands, bent arms and legs, and legs spread open.

After seeing those images, the public's concerns "are genuine and often well-intended," the report notes. "However, many of these individuals do not have the requisite expertise to draw conclusions as to whether sexual violence is occurring or has occurred based on the images that they are seeing."

A roadside bomb shelter where people were killed while trying to hide from Palestinian gunmen on Oct. 7.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
Maya Levin for NPR
A roadside bomb shelter where people were killed while trying to hide from Palestinian gunmen on Oct. 7.

The challenges of human rights investigations

Investigations of human rights abuses are often difficult, experts said. Among the challenges is that such crimes and the initial response often take place amid ongoing conflict.

"That makes it very difficult to think a few steps ahead, to be thinking about what should I not be doing or how do I seize this window to really ensure that I don't mess up or fail to gather evidence when I should be doing that?" said Naimer of Physicians for Human Rights.

It is not uncommon to lack testimony from victims of sexual violence themselves, Naimer said. Victims often do not survive the attack. Survivors may be too traumatized to talk about it, or cultural stigma can keep them from coming forward. While no survivors of sexual violence on Oct. 7 have come forward so far, the U.N. report did note firsthand accounts from released hostages and declared it "clear and convincing" that sexual violence occurred during captivity in Gaza, including rape and sexualized torture, and warned that such violence could be ongoing.

Compounding the challenge in Israel is the relative lack of physical forensic evidence, as noted by the U.N. team and in other reports byPhysicians for Human Rights Israel (an Israeli organization that is unaffiliated with Naimer's U.S.-based group) and theAssociation of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. In the weeks after the attack, Israeli authoritiesreportedly chose to prioritize identifying victims over forensic investigation of the bodies.

Experts, including the authors of the U.N. report, say that forensic evidence is not necessary for human rights bodies or courts of law to make findings about sexual violence.

"There is very much what's known as the CSI effect, where there is a perception that without forensic evidence or DNA, then you don't have a case. And that's just patently not true," Naimer said.

The testimony of first responders, who are often witnesses to the aftermath of what happened, can be valuable to investigations. But their mission is not the same as that of investigators, said Jessica Peake, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"They're there to help the people who can be helped. So their primary goal is not evidence gathering; it's not accurately documenting everything in a very unbiased and impartial way," said Peake, who has helped investigate or prosecute crimes committed during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia.

A lack of neutrality can sometimes be another challenge with first responders, she said.

"Particularly in a conflict situation, they're coming from one side or another," and "preconceived notions" can color their understanding of what they witnessed, Peake said. "That's not to say that first responders are always biased or partial. That's not the case either. But it's just not their primary function."

The accounts of some workers from Zaka, a nongovernmental volunteer organization, have been called into question since October.

After one volunteer's statements to Israeli media werefound to be false, Zaka responded that its volunteers "are not pathology experts and do not have the professional tools to identify a murdered person and his age, or declare how he was murdered, except for eyewitness testimony."

Zaka's handling of Oct. 7has also been criticized, including that some of its members used the aftermath as an opportunity to fundraise.

Chaim Otmazgin, 50, goes through images he took of dead bodies on and after Oct. 7. The photos include several suspected victims of sexual violence.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
Maya Levin for NPR
Chaim Otmazgin, 50, goes through images he took of dead bodies on and after Oct. 7. The photos include several suspected victims of sexual violence.

The emotional toll of being a witness

Much of the skepticism has focused on a lack of firsthand accounts of sexual violence.

The U.N. team was "made aware of a small number of survivors" still undergoing treatment for trauma, Monday's report noted. But no firsthand survivor accounts have appeared in the media or independent reports; most of the attack's victims are presumed to be dead.

"Obviously, it's a very sensitive issue, and they need to come forward in their own time on their own terms. So we did not push," said Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict and the lead author of Monday's report.

Some skeptics of the allegations accuse Israel of using them to justify the intensity of its military actions in Gaza. Even as the U.N. report has helped substantiate that sexual violence took place, Patten said, it should not be used to legitimize further violence in Gaza.

"Continuing this war will not serve to protect hostages from the risk of further sexual violence. On the contrary, for the sake of the hostages, a cease-fire should be a priority," she said at a press conference Monday.

So long as there are doubts, Otmazgin says, he will continue to speak publicly about what he saw. Even though he did not directly experience or witness the violence, weeks passed before he was able to revisit the photos he had taken, he said. His therapist had initially advised him not to, for the sake of his mental health.

But Israeli authorities began pressuring him to give a statement, he said, especially as it became clear that his photographs could help the government make a case to the world that sexual violence had taken place. And the more he heard about the doubts, the more willing he grew to share his testimony.

"On one hand, I'm happy that people are skeptical," Otmazgin said. What he saw is beyond belief, he said, and to feel doubt is to be normal.

But, he added, "when you, after two months, suddenly hear that people don't believe what happened ... you remember the feeling of being punched in the stomach."

Additional reporting by Eve Guterman in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.