“I went through hell”
Dec 20, 2023 | Alana Schetzer, Aviva Winton
What the released hostages say about their captivity
Hamas terrorists kidnapped 240 Israeli and foreign nationals as part of their barbaric massacre across southern Israel on October 7 which claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people and injured another 10,039. Babies, the elderly and disabled people were among those kidnapped and taken into Gaza.
Over the course of seven days, between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 105 hostages – including 81 Israelis (some of whom were dual nationals), 23 Thai nationals and 2 Filipinos – were returned to Israel as part of a deal brokered by Egypt and Qatar, and supported by the United States. The deal, which focussed on children and women hostages, included an initial four-day ceasefire (which later was extended to seven days) and the release of 240 female and minor Palestinian prisoners, more than 60 per cent of whom had been convicted of, or charged with terror offences.
The truce reportedly broke down after Hamas refused to return the remaining female hostages, which the US Administration charged was likely because Hamas did not want these women to reveal what it had done to them.
There were also two US and two Israeli hostages released prior to the ceasefire deal, and one Israeli was rescued by Israeli forces. At the time of publication, Israel says that another 138 people, including 17 women and two children, remain as hostages in Gaza.
Hamas broke the seven-day ceasefire multiple times, including launching rockets at Israel – a war crime – and two Hamas members from the West Bank murdered three Israeli citizens in a shooting attack at a bus stop near the entrance to Jerusalem.
Propaganda has been an enormous part of Hamas’ strategy for years, and Hamas and its sympathisers have used the hostage release to attempt to burnish Hamas’ reputation, with widespread claims on social media and in Arab media that hostages were grateful and sympathetic to their captors.
Returning hostages were forced to smile, shake hands with their captors and thank them publicly as part of Hamas’ propaganda. However, in one video a Hamas fighter is seen ordering captives to keep waving – and there are also reports that hostages were given tranquilisers prior to their release to make them appear happy.
According to testimonies collected so far, returned hostages, their families and medical workers have spoken about how they were treated while in captivity. These include:
- Starvation and lack of food;
- Physical abuse;
- Sexual abuse;
- Psychological abuse;
- Confinement, cages and no access to sunlight;
- Lack of hygiene;
- Fear and anxiety;
- Medical neglect and lack of medical care; and finally
- PTSD and post-release recovery.
Starvation and limited food
Returned hostages have revealed what food they were given – or not given – by their Hamas captors. Some have spoken of being given one slice of bread for a whole day, which was sometimes substituted by rice. Others have spoken of only being given a limited amount of rice, canned hummus and beans, and occasionally cheese and pita. Of the food they were given, they had to cook it for themselves, even the child hostages.
During their last two weeks in captivity, hostages reported that food supplies ran low, which meant they ate even less food.
Merav Mor Munder, cousin of returned hostage Keren Munder, said: “There were days when there were no supplies, so they only ate pita bread. They were not tortured, but there were days when they barely had any food, in the last few days they only ate very little rice.”
Survivors have spoken of suffering from constipation and digestive problems due to the hummus and beans, as they were not used to eating it every day (note: made from legumes, i.e. chickpeas, eating a lot of hummus is known to cause gastrointestinal problems). Several stated that even though they were given very little food, they tried to eat as little as possible of the hummus and beans because of the side effects, as they were afraid of getting sick while in captivity.
Dr Yael Mozer-Glassberg said the returned hostages she treated lost between 10 and 15% of their body weight while in captivity. The impact on the elderly women who were kept hostage was even more extreme, with several having lost between eight and 15kg.
Professor Itai Pessach, who has treated other returned hostages at Lily Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, said some hostages were sometimes given no food, and when they were, it was “sometimes only a cup of tea and a biscuit or a single dried date in the morning and rice in the evening.”
There are multiple accounts of hostages, including children, being subjected to physical assaults. Several stated that they were beaten with sticks soon after they were brought into Gaza on October 7. Eitan Yahalomi, 12, said he was beaten by Gazan residents when he was taken into the strip; he was then kept in solitary confinement for the first 16 days of his captivity.
“A 12-year-old, kidnapped alone after his father was shot, was beaten by Gaza residents and forced at gunpoint by Hamas to watch videos of their murder spree and massacres,” Yedioth Ahronoth journalist, Nadav Eyal, said of Yahalomi’s experience.
Hamas allegedly drugged multiple children and used motorcycle exhausts to deliberately burn ‘identification marks onto their legs; this was done to “brand” them so if they escaped they could be identified and to signify that they “belonged” to Hamas.
Peace activist and grandmother, Yocheved Lifschitz, 85 – who was one of four women released in October – said of her ordeal: “I went through hell.” She said she was beaten with sticks while being taken against her will to Gaza, leaving her with bruises and difficulty breathing. Her 83-year-old husband, Oded, remains a hostage.
Dr Hagai Levine, head of the Hostages and Missing Family Forums’ medical team, said returned hostage, 84-year-old Elma Avraham, had marks on her body that revealed “she was dragged from place to place, that she was handcuffed. She has chemical wounds from not treating her basic needs.”
A returned Thai hostage, Anucha Angkaew, reported that he and other Thai nationals were repeatedly beaten during the early days of their captivity but were treated better than two Israelis held with them, who were beaten more severely and more often, including with electrical cables.
A doctor who treated some of the 110 freed hostages told the Associated Press that at least ten men and women among them were sexually assaulted or abused. He provided no further details to protect their privacy.
Reports say further details of the sexual abuse were shared at a meeting this week between the Israeli war cabinet and a group comprising recently freed hostages and family members, At the meeting, Aviva Siegel, one of the freed hostages, reportedly said that some of the women hostages were “being touched” and others also reported sexual abuse.
Hostages have spoken of being forced to sit in silence and threatened with being killed by their Hamas captors.
Thomas Hand, whose nine-year-old daughter Emily – she was originally thought to have been murdered on October 7 – said that since returning home, Emily would only whisper so quietly he could hardly hear her; she has also learned Arabic for “keep quiet”.
“The most shocking, disturbing part of meeting her was she was just whispering, you couldn’t hear her. I had to put my ear on her lips,” Hand said of his daughter. “She’d been conditioned not to make any noise. Last night she cried until her face was red and blotchy, she couldn’t stop. She didn’t want any comfort, I guess she’s forgotten how to be comforted.”
Emily is just one of several children who have refused to speak above a whisper since they were released; Hand said Emily was mostly silent and when she did cry, she would crawl under her bed covers.
Child hostages were banned from making any noise, including crying. Some were allegedly forced to watch footage of the October 7 massacres, which depicted graphic and highly distressing images of rape, torture and murder.
Omer Lubaton Granot, who founded the Hostages and Missing Family Forums, said terrorists held a gun to 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi’s head as a threat to stop him from crying.
“What we hear from the stories from children – the captivity’s harsh reality is unbelievable,” she said. “Sisters of other children told them that Hamas have told the children that their whole family has died, that nobody wants them back, that they don’t have a home to go to. They tried to scare the children.”
Dr Mozer-Glassberg said the terrorists had “psychologically tortured” the children and teens who were kept isolated, repeatedly telling them neither their families nor the Israeli Government were searching for them and that they would remain in captivity all their lives.
Confinement, cages and no access to sunlight
Many hostages were kept captive in a single crowded room located in one of the tunnels that Hamas built up to five storeys underground and which could only be accessed via a long corridor. It’s been reported that hostages were kept in a room together, with beds pushed together on the ground; others were forced to sleep on plastic chairs.
Thai hostages said they had to sleep on the sandy ground.
However, reports allege some women and children hostages were kept in cages for parts of their captivity; Hamas itself released video showing children in cages. Several hostages were kept in houses above ground.
Being five storeys underground, hostages largely had no access to natural light for the entirety of their captivity. Some said they were only allowed two hours of artificial light per day, meaning they spent 22 hours of each day in the dark. Experts have recognised sunlight deprivation as a form of torture due to the physical and mental harm it can cause.
Eyal Nouri, whose 72-year-old aunt Adina Moshe, was among the hostages freed, said after she was dragged from her home’s safe room in Israel, she and other hostages were forced to walk several kilometres through the elaborate tunnel system.
“They took her inside the tunnels… she walked, bare feet in the mud of the tunnels,” he told CNN. “It was very hard to breathe. They marched [for] hours in the tunnels.”
Nouri said his aunt had to “adjust to the sunlight” after being kept in near-total darkness for seven weeks.
“She was in complete darkness; she was walking with her eyes down because she was in a tunnel. She was not used to the daylight. And during her captivity, she was disconnected… from all the outside world,” Nouri said.
CNN reported that hostages were forced to sit in silence. Humanitarian organisations, such as the Red Cross, have been refused access to the remaining hostages in Gaza.
Lack of hygiene
Doctors treating returned hostages said some never bathed for the entirety of their 50 days in captivity. They also didn’t have any changes of clothes, so they were forced to wear the same clothes they had on the day they were kidnapped. Any washing was done in the same room that they slept and spent all their time in. Returned hostages said they were forced to wait “hours” to use the toilet and were only allowed to do so after asking permission first.
The Thai hostages said the only toilet was a hole in the ground near the room to which they had to be escorted by an armed guard.
Different hostages have spoken of different experiences to others; 85-year-old Yocheved Lipschitz said conditions were clean and that “captives were treated well.”
Many hostages returned with skin rashes, infected wounds that were not properly treated and extreme cases of head lice.
Dr Mozer-Glassberg said: “They returned with extremely deficient hygiene. I have never seen hygiene this bad. Their head lice was the worst I have ever seen. Even with five or six treatments, the lice were not gone.”
Fear and anxiety
“It was hard for them to sleep at night due to stress and fear,” one doctor, who treated some of the returned hostages, said. Because hostages were kept underground and were cut off from the world (banned from reading, writing and no access to television, internet and radio), many lost all track of time.
Hand said his nine-year-old daughter Emily had no sense of time and thought she had been held in captivity for a year. She also referred to the room she was kept in as “the box”.
Upon preparing to be returned to Israel, several hostages spoke of their fear that their terrorist captors or even Gazan residents would attack them at the last minute; some said Gazans threw stones at the car they were travelling in to take them out of Gaza.
“Until the last moment we weren’t sure, we thought they would lynch us on the way to Israel,” a returned hostage said.
Hamas terrorists forced some hostages to write letters praising them and how they treated hostages, releasing them publicly as part of their propaganda campaign. One letter, allegedly written by Danielle Aloni – who was kidnapped alongside her five-year-old daughter, Emilia – thanked the terrorists for their “extraordinary humanity” towards Emilia, adding “I will forever be a prisoner of love because [Emilia] did not leave here with psychological trauma forever.”
Medical neglect and lack of medical care
One returned hostage, 84-year-old Elma Avraham, was immediately airlifted to an Israeli hospital after being released. She needed a ventilator to breathe and was in a critical condition for several days as she fought for her life; at the time of publication, she is in a stable condition. Her family said she had been “medically neglected” because she did not have access to essential medications, blaming the Red Cross as well as Hamas for this.
Avraham’s daughter, Tal Amano, said her mother suffered a “double betrayal” – first from Hamas and then by the Red Cross.
“Clalit [an Israeli medical health fund] was the one who fought for us. It delivered the medication that Elma required to my brother in person,” Amano said. “Yet, when my brother attempted to pass on the medication to a Red Cross representative at a meeting they held together, he was told no, they cannot do that.”
Dr Nadav Davidovitch, who treated Avraham in hospital, said medical staff implored Red Cross workers to take necessary medications with them when they collected the hostages from Gaza. “We were in meetings with the Red Cross and asked them to make every effort to bring the medications to her, because some hostages are just dying. From a medical and nursing standpoint, what we witnessed is unlawful neglect.”
Another hostage returned to Israel using crutches.
PTSD and post-release recovery
Israel has announced that returned hostages are allowed to stay in hospital as long as they wish, with ongoing medical care and counselling provided. While information on how the returned hostages are recovering from their ordeals is limited, due to respect for their privacy, some relatives have spoken about the trauma survivors are experiencing.
Yair Rotem, whose 13-year-old niece Hila Rotem-Shoshani was among the returned hostages, said the child had changed from who she used to be.
“She’s a little bit distant now, she’s a little bit cold. She talks about things that happened like it’s in third person, like it happened to someone else. She’ll say she saw horrible things, but she says it with a straight face,” he said.
Experts have stated that it will take time for survivors to recover and that they may suffer from a range of psychological reactions, including grief, survivor’s guilt, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and disorientation. Many of the hostages also had relatives or friends murdered on October 7 and only recently learned of their fate. Some also had their homes destroyed by Hamas terrorists, and so face having to rebuild their lives.
Adva Adar, whose 85-year-old grandmother Yaffa Adar was released after 50 days in captivity, said: “For an 85-year-old woman, usually you have your house where you raised your kids, you have your memories, your photo albums, your clothes. She has nothing, and in her old age she needs to start over. She mentioned that it is tough for her.”
But Dr Efrat Bron-Harlev, chief executive officer of Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, said staff treating the returned hostages were optimistic about the future they face, saying they were “determined and strong”.
“We heard from many of the children and women unimaginable accounts, some of them really surreal. We have heard stories, which are hard for us as doctors and as caregivers to believe they can exist,” she said.
“Over the last five days, we met children who were initially withdrawn and lost, and after a day or two, they were already running around the ward, playing and laughing.”