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Adventurous Israeli dies at Victoria Falls

  • IsraeliDrowning5
Ofer Cohen, aged 34, literally had the world at his feet when he visited Victoria Falls earlier this month. But that all came to a tragic end when his body was found floating in the Zambezi River last Tuesday. It is suspected that he drowned when taking a spontaneous swim without a lifejacket.
by TALI FEINBERG | Feb 14, 2019

Cohen is the second Israeli to die at Victoria Falls over the past few months, says African Jewish Congress (AJC) Rabbi, Moshe Silberhaft. The other Israeli collapsed and died at Victoria Falls Airport in December.

“Ofer was missing for two days, but we didn’t know that until someone sent an SMS to my mom to tell her he had passed away,” says his sister Tamar Cohen. “We hadn’t heard from him for two days, and we were worried, but we thought it might be a scam. My husband who works in IT looked into the message, and said it was real.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, she describes her late brother as “a free spirit who loved adventure”. She said he had told their parents not to worry as he travelled the globe as a skydiving instructor. Travel was in the family’s blood.

“My mom travelled from Argentina to Israel when she as 19, and my grandfather left Poland when he was 13. So travelling is part of who we are,” she said.

Their grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and Cohen entered Zimbabwe alone on his Polish passport for a 30-day visit. In fact, just before he died, he asked his family to send him the video of his grandfather’s Holocaust testimony. But the file was never opened.

A report made to the police stated that Cohen “drove in an X-Trail belonging to one of his friends on Sunday going to the Zambezi River. While there, he walked down the gorges to take photos before deciding to swim.”

The report continued, “His friends noticed that he had not returned, and looked for him on Monday. They again went on a search on Tuesday, whereupon they saw his clothes on the edge of the river before spotting the body floating on water.”

Ayellet Black, Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to South Africa, says the embassy was alerted to Cohen’s disappearance and death by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a hotline and department for Israelis in distress.

“As soon as we heard, we dropped everything to help find him, and then to begin the long repatriation process. It is extremely complicated, but we were helped by so many people along the way, including ZAKA [emergency response teams in Israel] and the Chevrah Kadisha from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and many people on the ground.

“Israel wanted to ensure that the repatriation was as quick as possible so the family has one less thing to worry about, and it was done in record time,” she said, pointing out that “the South African Jewish community’s efforts really go beyond borders”.

A skydiver by profession, Cohen wrote on Facebook two years ago that he had logged more than 4 500 skydiving jumps in more than 40 locations in more than 11 different countries on five continents. “I was trying to remember the last time he had a permanent address in Israel. I think it was when he was 19!” says his sister.

Cohen said that he had seen “the Andes mountains, the Pyrenees, Sierra Nevada, Mount Fuji, Kilimanjaro, and the lowest point on earth from the sky. I got to land on the sandy beaches of two oceans, and saw many other seas from a bird’s-eye view.

“I even crossed between two countries’ airspace with my parachute. I took almost 3 000 people on their first skydive as their instructor, and got to use my reserve parachute seven times. I hope for many more years of skydiving, travelling, and new experiences,” he wrote.

So, it is not surprising that he may have decided to swim in the Zambezi River close to Victoria Falls where he was staying. “He never did anything by the book,” says his sister. From what she understands, he had swum in the river a few days earlier, and he was always safety conscious. But this time, something must have gone wrong. The area is known to be unsafe.

Local police were reluctant to descend the steep gorges to retrieve the body last Tuesday, instead waiting for a specialised sub-aqua unit, according to TimesLIVE. Two police divers from Bulawayo arrived and teamed up with rafting guides last Wednesday morning. It took more than two hours for the rescuers to recover the body. They used a swing line to bring Cohen’s body to the top of the gorge on a stretcher.

“We are hoping that when we get his phone we will be able to piece together what happened in those last few hours,” says his sister. She says he was due to spend two weeks in South Africa before travelling to Kenya to do skydiving training for the army there.

Black confirmed that Cohen’s body arrived in Israel on Monday morning. “He will be buried in the place where we grew up, which is right next to the airport. I think that would have made him happy, as the airport was his favourite place!” says his sister.

Cohen leaves a legacy that extended around the world as he made close friends wherever he went. “Every few hours, we hear from more people he knew, and their memories of Ofer,” says his sister. “He kept in touch with a lot of people. One friend even named his son after him.”

Indeed, a year ago on Facebook, Cohen wrote, “It is over a decade now that I’ve been browsing through this world like it was a fairground full of views, flavours, wisdom, and love to be explored. But above all, there are people. The fact that the digital waves of love and encouragement I get are coming from over 25 countries around the globe… is good reinsurance I made good choices for my life.”

One such friend is Kathi Diamant, who lives in San Diego, and treated Ofer like a son. “Like everyone I know who met Ofer, I loved him immediately, was impressed with his open heart and lust for life,” she says. “He came and stayed with us in San Diego several times, and we gave him a key to our house so he could come and go whenever he wanted.”

She travelled to Israel for the funeral, and wrote: “Ofer Cohen, an illuminating spirit in human form, will shine forever. Those who knew Ofer were blessed to have known him. He died as he lived, embracing the world in its original form, with all its terrifying beauty.”

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