Claustrophobic rooms, lowered voices, rice rations and threats: a picture is emerging of the distress and discomfort of life in the hands of Hamas, after the Palestinian militant group began releasing women and children as part of a temporary truce deal with Israel.
Speaking publicly in the week that dozens of captives were released, relatives of some of those freed have evoked the fear their loved ones endured after being forced into Gaza during the Hamas assault in which 1,200 people were killed.
Some children have returned speaking in hushed voices. “The most shocking, disturbing part of meeting her was she was just whispering,” said Thomas Hand, whose 9-year-old daughter Emily was among those released. “I couldn’t hear her.” He told CNN his daughter had lost weight and was paler than he had ever seen her.
Merav Mor Raviv, niece of released hostage Ruti Munder, told NBC that her relatives, including a boy who turned nine in captivity, were “scared, they were whispering” and that one captor in Gaza frequently made throat-slitting gestures.
Dvora Cohen, aunt of 12-year-old Israeli-French national Eitan Yahalomi, told French media that militants had forced her nephew to watch “a video of horror”, which she suggested was footage of atrocities committed by Hamas during the October 7 attack.
She said that children who cried were threatened at gunpoint and that people had hit her nephew during his kidnapping.
Israel is keeping tight control over information about the conditions of its citizens’ captivity, with only a handful of relatives of those snatched by Hamas speaking to the media.
The relatives of those hostages, however, have offered a glimpse of the deprivation inflicted on the captives, ranging in age from babies to people in their 80s, who were held for seven weeks by Hamas after being taken into Gaza during the militants’ devastating assault.
Hannah Katzir, who had been held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a different militant group, lost 20kg in their custody, said her daughter Carmit Palty Katzir. The Islamists had at one stage announced that Katzir had died.
“There were days they didn’t get food,” said Raviv, the relative of Ruti Munder, in a press conference. “They ate a lot of rice and bread.”
Many hostages have lost weight but returned in relatively good physical health, according to hospitals where they arrived for examination. But others have returned dangerously ill.
“My mother arrived on the brink of death,” said Tali Amano, daughter of 84-year-old Elma Avraham, who suffers from several chronic illnesses and was airlifted straight to hospital after being released by Hamas on Sunday.
Avraham “was completely neglected medically” during more than 50 days in captivity, Amano said in a video statement. “She was not given her life-saving medication.”
The militants also abducted Israeli soldiers, but the first Israeli hostages released have been civilian women and children only. Details of soldiers’ treatment have not been made public.
While Hamas is reported to have used its tunnels to hold hostages as Israel bombarded the strip in retaliation for its attack, details revealed so far suggest at least some of the captives were imprisoned above ground.
Ruti Munder told an Israeli news channel that she, along with her daughter and grandson, was moved around during captivity, and spent part of the time staying in a “suffocating” room where Hamas guards forbade them from opening the curtains.
“I just opened a window, so there would be air,” said the 78-year-old, who added she had slept on seats pushed together.
Roni Krivoi — a dual Israeli-Russian citizen who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival where he was working — was at one point held in a building that was hit by an Israeli air strike, according to comments made by his aunt and reported by Israeli media.
She said Krivoi had managed to escape in the chaos, and had hidden in Gaza for a few days before being recaptured. Israel’s intense bombardment of the strip and its ground offensive there have left 14,800 people dead, according to Palestinian health officials, and caused a humanitarian crisis.
While dozens of hostages held in Gaza have been released during the past week, they are far from being able to return to their lives from before the attack. Ruti Munder’s husband Avraham is still being held hostage, while her son Roy was murdered during the Hamas onslaught.
Many of the freed hostages do not have homes to return to after Hamas set fire to dwellings during its assault, while other communities in the region were evacuated to keep residents safe.
Other captives were released only to learn that their family members had been murdered in the attack. Some children, including 4-year-old Israeli-American Avigail Idan, have been orphaned.
Still, there have been glimmers of hope. Historian Alex Danzig, who is among the hostages, reportedly got word to his family through people who were released.
His son-in-law Yaron Maor told Israel’s Ynet he had learned that Danzig is giving history lectures to other members of the kibbutz community who are in captivity, and has been receiving medical attention from a fellow captive who is a nurse.
On Tuesday Hamas also released a Shih Tzu dog, Bella, who was freed alongside her owner, 17-year-old Mia Lemberg, and Mia’s mother.
On returning from Hamas captivity, twelve-year-old Noam Avigdori said she only wanted avocado toast in preference to the spread of dishes and desserts at a family homecoming meal, hinting at her hunger for fresh vegetables after weeks of deprivation.
As Qatari, Egyptian and American mediators were brokering her freedom, Avigdori had been holding her own negotiations, her uncle Zohar said. Ahead of their kidnapping, the Avigdori family had been debating whether to get a pet dog. “While in captivity she was able to speak to her mother and extend that promise to two dogs,” Avigdori said.
“All in all they seem fine,” Avigdori said of his niece and sister-in-law, whose brother was killed in the Hamas attack. “But,” he added, “it’s too soon to tell.”