As of writing this, 38 hostages aged 18 and under have been freed from Hamas captivity in Gaza during a week-long ceasefire that ended last Friday. Only two kids — Kfir and Ariel Bibas, who Hamas have declared as dead, but whose death hasn’t been verified by the IDF — might remain.
In the days since their release, the stories about the children’s captivity have slowly, cautiously been shared: what they knew and didn’t know of what transpired since October 7; how they ate; how they were treated. Quite a few of the children came back whispering, many had lost a significant part of their body weight, some came back with lice. Some spent days in complete isolation. A toddler was separated from her mother and twin sister. Some hostages were drugged prior to their return. Others, hostages as young as 12, were made to watch the horror films of what transpired on October 7 by their captors.
Eitan Yahalomi, 12, told his aunt he was beaten by the mob as they entered Gaza. The two young Elyakim girls, Dafna, 15, and Ella, 8, whose father was killed in the attack, were told “no one wants you back.” They were told not to say anything about their captivity, because Hamas knows where their family lives and will come back and kill them. Some had been purposefully burned by the exhaust of the motorbikes they were taken on to make them easier to recapture.
It’s hard to take in what it means to be a kid taken hostage by Hamas, but here is what we know about the stories of a few of the families reunited last week, and the long journey they’re still on.
For weeks, Hadas Kalderon fought tooth and nail for the return of her kids, Erez, 12, and Sahar, 16, taken from their father’s home by Hamas on October 7. She started a group for mothers dealing with the same unimaginable grief. She met every official, Israeli and foreign, that she could. She went back to the home from which they were captured and wailed and screamed as cameras filmed her. “They are not soldiers. They have been picked up in their pajamas from their beds,” she told JTA. She sat in the hostage square in Tel Aviv, her hair wild, her eyes heavy with grief and determination. She never, ever stopped fighting for her kids.
On November 27, Kalderon got the call she had been waiting for. The moment was captured on video, with her hooting and jumping on benches in a crowded Tel Aviv mall. “There is a God! Erez and Sahar are on the list!” she cried, referring to the list Hamas gave Israel of the hostages it was going to release that day.
Yet that moment of victory came with fears. Kalderon had told interviewers before that young Erez had struggled with anxiety even before October 7, that he used to wrap himself with stuffed dolls to deal with it. Erez got a big teddy bear which waited for him on his hospital bed.
רגעים לאחר ששוחררו משבי חמאס: סהר וארז קלדרון בתמונות ראשונות אמש עם אימם הדס בביה"ח איכלוב pic.twitter.com/YYTrDnVOSl
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) November 28, 2023
ארז קלדרון ששוחרר משבי חמאס – מנגן בחצוצרה עם עידן רייכל שבא לבקר אותו pic.twitter.com/PYlJ19iAZD
— Ran Boker רן בוקר (@ranboker) November 29, 2023
The first images of their reunion looked triumphant — Hadas and the kids smiling and hugging; Erez getting a new trumpet and then playing it with the vaunted Idan Raichel Band. Sahar, of course, shared her first TikTok, in which she shared that the sound running through her head since she returned was a viral TikTok trend that juxtaposed a line from “Gossip Girl” — “Welcome back, queen Serena” — with Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right.”
הטרנד של בני הנוער שחזרו מהשבי ומעלים טיק טוק
כבר סרטון חמישי שקופץ לי
הפעם סהר קלדרון המתוקה pic.twitter.com/PQszylz2K3
— Merav Sever (@meravseve) December 3, 2023
“My personal superheroes have survived and returned,” Kalderon said in a rally a few days later. “For them, it was the war game Fortnite, a game that became real,” she said of their experience. The first thing her kids said to her was, “Ima, you’re alive! We didn’t know you were alive,” she shared. “This uncertainty is accompanying all the people still here,” she added, finishing in a cry for the return of all the hostages.
A few days after their return, Kalderon, with a subtle smile on her face, was asked, “How are they?”
“It’s a complex question. They’re relatively OK,” she shared, but “these are kids that lost their basic sense of a security net… they had an experience of fearing for their lives at a very early age. We are now in an apartment in Tel Aviv and they don’t feel safe here, they think terrorists can make it here, [that] behind every door there’s a terrorist.” Kalderon shared that she was given a list of psychologists and is trying to get them the mental health help they need.
“I can’t go into details,” she said of the actual logistics of their captivity. “I can say that it’s beyond anything I ever imagined… Today I’m much more scared for the people still there, their father… their healing will not be full if their father is not home. They’re very worried — it’s been two months that they’re not in touch.”
Kalderon’s children told her that on October 7, they escaped through the house’s window because a grenade had been thrown at its door. The family hid in the bushes and saw the horrors unfold around them before they were taken by Hamas. “They saw the fence breached and a mass of people coming to destroy the kibbutz. They saw bodies being carried. It’s impossible to describe,” she told Channel 12 News.
When they were captured, she said, they had just woken up, still in their pajamas. Everyone was taken by a different person so they didn’t know what happened to each other, or what was going to happen to them. They wondered, often, “are they going to die, are they going to be raped?”
“Sometimes there was food, sometimes there wasn’t, sometimes one pita per day…. physically and mentally, they’re in real distress,” she said of their time in captivity. “They thought everyone died. They thought the world had ended. They thought there was no more Israel.”
The Kalderons are currently healing in displacement. Hadas never wants to return to their destroyed kibbutz, a place now full of triggers and fear. But they found out that the Tel Aviv apartment they were staying in had to be vacated.
This is a problem for quite a few of the returned hostages. Many of them are staying in the hospital longer than needed, just because they have nowhere else to go.
Emily Hand, who turned 9 in captivity, also can’t heal at home. Her kibbutz, Be’eri, the one her father, Irish immigrant Thomas Hand, called “paradise on earth” until it turned into “hell,” is now inhabitable.
Emily was released with the second wave of captives. For many days, her family thought she was dead, not captured. Her father is widely remembered for an interview in which he said that when he discovered his daughter was dead, he rejoiced, knowing that she wouldn’t have to go through the horrors of captivity. In an interview with journalist Ilana Dayan, he sister revealed that Emily has seen that heartbreaking clip of her father.
“Did you really think I was dead?” she asked in a whisper, and then, “Did you cry?”
Emily’s older sister Natalie Hand was on a trip to Australia on October 7. After learning of the attack, she first talked with her mother, Narkis. “I’m in the safe room with Schnitzel the dog,” Narkis said. Then her mother stopped answering. She called and a man picked up the phone. “Ima, Ima,” Natalie cried out the Hebrew word for mother. “Ima Aza,” the man replied, meaning “Mother is in Gaza.” But she wasn’t — she had been killed that day. But Emily was taken to Gaza, along with Narkis’ good friend, Raya, and her daughter, Hila Rotem Shoshani, 13.
Emily came back gaunt and whispering. When she gets food, she insists her sister eats first. “Please eat for me,” she begs. It’s apparently because the hostages shared their food, giving some to those who needed it most first. She calls where she was held in Gaza “the box” and said the only good thing that came out of it was that she learned to love pita and olive oil eaten together. Raya took care of her until two days before she was released. She cut her and Hila’s hair in captivity, and told them to hide the fact they had lice. She was separated from the girls, but has also now returned home.
Emily hasn’t said much of her captivity. When people annoy her now, she imitates her captors’ calls to be quiet in Arabic. She did tell her sister that she saw a man being shot, a bullet going through him. She thought the whole kibbutz had been kidnapped, along with her dad. She thought she might have been in captivity for a year.
She takes comfort in her loved ones and in two main things principally: her favorite food, sushi, and the music of Beyonce, which she asked her father to play on his phone the day she came home. A music producer recently promised her a ticket to any future show of the singer, whose tour just ended.
For her dad Tom, the only thing that matters now is to fix his broken little girl. Nataly, now back in Israel, just wants to stay close to Emily.
“We were captured brutally from our home,” Danielle Aloni, 45, who was released with her daughter Emilia, 5, said in a recent video. “Our daughters saw things that kids of any age should never see… it was a horror movie…. You cry, you sleep, every day is an eternity.” She begged for the release of the family still there: her brother-in-law, his brother and his partner.
After all this darkness, here’s a little light: an incredible connection between Danielle, Emelia and one of the Thai immigrants also held captive and then released, Yo. Before Yo and her husband left back for Thailand, they had an emotional call with the two Israelis. “I love you, and I told you when we were there, that we’re family now,” Danielle told Yo, who told them that the night before, she missed Emelia a lot. Then Emelia counted in Thai for Yo on the phone. They called each other beautiful and said they were sending each other hugs.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) November 30, 2023
Emilia is back at preschool today. Her uncle is still in Gaza. But life returns to a sort of normalcy, despite rocket fire. Upon arriving at school, she got a hug from everyone. And she smiled.
Little Emilia Aloni, who was held hostage by Hamas, returned to kindergarten for the first time since being released. Her little friends shower her with love. pic.twitter.com/VJeaOcBSEf
— Aviva Klompas (@AvivaKlompas) December 5, 2023