How name dropping Lionel Messi saved an Israeli grandmother from Hamas

By Thomson Reuters Mar 21, 2024 | 5:20 AM

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – “I’m from where Messi is from,” 90-year-old Esther Cunio told the two masked Palestinian gunmen who moments earlier invaded her home in southern Israel.

It was the morning of Oct. 7 and Hamas was carrying out its killing spree in communities near the Gaza border, including in Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Cunio, who was born in Argentina, was living.

She spoke about the horrifying encounter in a new documentary about the Hamas rampage that focuses on the Latino-Israeli community called “Voces Del 7 De Octubre – Latino Stories of Survival”.

The two armed men were demanding to know where the rest of her family was.

“‘Don’t speak to me’, I said, ‘Because I don’t know your language. You speak Arabic and I speak Hebrew poorly’. I tell him, ‘I speak in Argentine Spanish’,” Cunio recounted. “So he says to me ‘What is Argentina?'”

She steered the conversation towards legendary soccer forward Lionel Messi as she communicated with the intruders with a combination of broken Hebrew, Spanish and gestures.

“So I tell him, ‘Do you watch soccer?’ Then he says to me, ‘Yes, yes, I like soccer’. So I say to him, ‘I’m from where Messi is from’. Then he replies, ‘Messi! I like Messi’.”

And then, in one of the most surreal moments of the Oct. 7 rampage, one man leaned over the seated Cunio, and placed his assault rifle on her lap. The other man photographed them.

“He put his hand like this,” Cunio said, extending two fingers. “And they took the picture of us, and, well, then they left.”

The picture of Cunio with an AK-47 on her lap, and the masked assailant with a Palestinian flag on his military vest, went viral on social media.

He was wearing a headband from Islamic Jihad, a smaller armed group that joined Hamas’ attack.

In another part of Nir Oz, Cunio’s family was taken hostage.

Her grandchildren David, 33, and Ariel, 26, are still being held in captivity in Gaza. David was abducted along with his wife and twin children, who were later released during a brief November truce in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Now, she said, she awaits the return of her “golden boys”.

The Hamas attack sparked the devastating war in Gaza that has raged for more than five months.

Both Argentina and Peru have said co-nationals of their countries have been killed in the conflict, while Mexico has said it had co-nationals among the kidnapped. Dozens of survivors were interviewed for the Spanish-language documentary.

(Reporting by Herbert Villarraga and Janis Laizans; Editing by Alison Williams)