Some of the hostages were held in stifling tunnels deep inside Gaza, while others were crammed into cramped quarters with strangers or confined in solitary confinement. Some children were forced to appear in hostage-taking videos, and others were forced to watch horrific footage of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack. They suffered physical and psychological injuries.
As some hostages captured that day during the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel were released, they relayed these and other stories about their captivity to their family members. Although their individual experiences differ in some details, their accounts share corroborating features and suggest that Hamas and its allies were planning to take hostages.
The New York Times interviewed family members of 10 freed hostages, who spoke on behalf of their loved ones to relay sensitive information.
Relatives who spoke to the Times described how the freed hostages, many of whom were children, were deprived of adequate food during their stay in Gaza. Many said they received only one piece of bread a day for weeks. Others received small portions of rice or pieces of cheese. The Red Cross said it had been denied access to the hostages.
Many hostages who returned to Israel last week – as part of a ceasefire deal between Israel and the armed group Hamas to exchange hostages for Palestinian prisoners and detainees – returned home malnourished , infested with lice, sick, wounded and injured. deeply traumatized.
An aunt of Avigail Idan, a dual Israeli-American citizen who was taken hostage after her parents were brutally killed and who turned 4 days before being released, said her niece shared a piece of bread pita a day with four other captives and that she did it. not taking a shower or bath during his 50 days of captivity.
According to aunt Tal Idan, the five hostages were held in above-ground apartments, changing locations at least once. Each day they received a piece of pita with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, to share.
While Avigail was in captivity, her hair was shorn because she had developed a bad case of lice, Ms. Idan said. “She was covered in it. It took a lot of effort to help him get rid of it the first night.
The surprise of the October 7 terrorist attack and the simultaneous kidnapping of so many people has been described as a national trauma for Israel, but it is also a trauma borne by individuals.
During this attack, more than 1,200 people were killed and 240 were taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities. Since then, Israel has ordered a siege of Gaza, cutting off water, food and fuel supplies to the enclave. It also launched air and ground campaigns that left more than 13,000 dead, Gaza’s health ministry estimates.
For the hostages, it was a series of horrors: first the attack, then the kidnapping and finally the captivity itself.
Nurit Cooper, 79, was detained in the maze of tunnels beneath Gaza with four older Israelis at the start of the war. They were kept in a small room with little light or ventilation, according to Rotem Cooper, his son.
Ms. Cooper’s shoulder was broken “due to the brutality of the kidnapping,” Mr. Cooper said. The group of hostages, all aged in their 70s and 80s, he added, struggled to walk through the dark, sandy tunnels.
Ms. Cooper and another hostage, Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, were freed last month, but their husbands remain captive in Gaza. Ms. Cooper’s husband, Amiram Cooper, 84, is one of the oldest hostages. The kidnappers took his glasses and deprived him of the medicine he needed, his son said.
Many family members interviewed, particularly relatives of children whose parents or siblings remain in captivity, were reluctant to share the most incriminating details of their captivity, for fear that militants would retaliate against the hostages still under arrest. their custody.
Others cautioned that they were reluctant to press too much too soon or share the most disturbing details publicly in an effort to preserve their loved ones’ privacy and prevent them from being retraumatized.
An aunt of Eitan Yahalomi, a 12-year-old kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz and returned to his family on Monday, however, told a French television channel that the boy had “experienced horrors” in Gaza.
The aunt, Devorah Cohen, said that when Eitan arrived in Gaza, he was attacked by a mob.
“When he arrived in Gaza, civilians beat him,” she told BFM TV, adding that the boy and other kidnapped children were forced to watch videos of the atrocities committed on October 7. threatened to shoot them.
Efrat Avsker, another of Eitan’s aunts, told the Times that the boy had “a long, long recovery, a long road ahead.”
“But he is in good hands,” she added.
Ohad Yahalomi, Eitan’s father, was shot in the leg and arm while trying to protect his family. He was kidnapped separately. Ms Avsker said the family was very relieved to have Eitan home, but was deeply concerned for Mr Yahalomi’s safety.
“We all need to do everything we can, everything we can to get him and others out,” she said.
By Thursday, 102 hostages had been released from Gaza, mostly women and children, aged between 4 and 85. As part of the exchange, 210 Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons, all women or teenagers.
On Wednesday, Hamas said the youngest of the hostages captured on October 7, 10-month-old Kfir Bibas, had died along with other members of his family while in captivity. The Israeli military said it was assessing the accuracy of Hamas’ statement, while a senior leader said the claims could be “psychological warfare.”
Kidnapping survivors say the road ahead could be long for those who are freed. But in the short term, some might feel simple relief. “The first emotions after being rescued are joy and relief,” said Elizabeth Smart, a child safety activist who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom in 2002 when she was 14 and held captive for nine months, during which she was raped. “It’s a miracle and it’s an answer to prayer.”
For Noam and Alma Or, teenage siblings released this week, the joy of being released was tempered by the news of the death of a parent.
Shortly after hugging the newly released teens, family members had to tell them that their mother had been killed and their father was still missing.
“I know it was very difficult,” their uncle Ahal Besorai said in an interview, adding that the children asked him not to reveal too many details about their conditions in Gaza; beyond that it was “very disagreeable”.
The siblings, he said, survived their captivity largely because they bonded.
“They said they had each other’s backs, so if one of them had a bad day or a bad day, the other would support them,” he said. “It created a kind of bond.”
Families who were able to stay together, like the Or siblings, said they found comfort in being together.
Three generations of the Munder family — Ruth, 78, Keren, 54, and her son Ohad, 9 — were held together in a room in Gaza with around ten other hostages. The group slept on chairs and needed permission from their captors to use the toilet, which could sometimes take more than an hour, said Eyal Mor, a relative of the Munders.
It was in this room, Mr. Mor said, that the family learned that Ruth’s son, Keren’s brother, had died. They were listening to a report on Israeli radio, which they could hear from time to time.
Since the family’s release, Ohad has been reluctant to talk about his October 7 kidnapping, Mr. Mor said.
“You know, you never know what the long-term impact of this trauma will be,” Mr. Mor said.
In these first days, the Israelis try to boost the morale of the returning hostages as much as possible.
Ohad’s doctors made an exception to the visiting rules and allowed him to invite his eight best friends to see him at the Tel Aviv hospital where he was being monitored.
Eitan, a football enthusiast and player, met players from Hapoel Be’er Sheva, his favorite team.
He was delighted by the meeting, said his aunt, Ms. Avsker. But above all he appreciates simple pleasures.
“Eitan is happy to be home,” she said. “Happy to be hugged and loved by his mother and the whole family – and pretty much the whole country.”
The report was provided by Nadav Gavrielov, Roni Rabin, Talya Minsberg And Adam Selle.