The Unbelievable Story of the 17-Year-Old Held Hostage With Her Dog in Gaza – Kveller
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The Unbelievable Story of the 17-Year-Old Held Hostage With Her Dog in Gaza

When Hamas captured Mia Leimberg on October 7, they didn't realize she was with her dog, Bella.

Shitzu in the elevator

via Getty Images

Over the past week, 38 hostages who are 18 and under have been released by Hamas during a ceasefire that, unfortunately, ended today. Many images and stories have stuck with us, uplifted and broken us, and many videos of reunifications have been watched on repeat.

Yet, perhaps the most jaw-dropping image of them all was that of Mia Leimberg, 17, who managed to smuggle her little dog with her into Gaza, and survived over a month in captivity with Bella the Shih Tzu.

It was stunning to see Mia march out of the vehicle Hamas had driven her in to the exchange with the Red Cross with both arms wrapped around that fluffy little dog whose whereabouts after the October 7 attack were unknown until that very moment. In a video captured of that moment, a Hamas militant can be seen pointing at the dog in surprise, and Mia, all curly hair and brazen, seems to determinedly tell him — the dog is mine, back off.

Mia Leimberg was captured from the home of her aunt Clara Marman in Kibbutz Nir Yizhak, where she had spent the night with her mother on October 7. The manga and Harry Potter fan who is a gifted vocalist was with her mother Gabriella, her Aunt Clara and her partner, Luis Har, and as well as her Uncle Fernando — they were all captured by Hamas, and only the three women have been released so far. After discovering his loved ones were in Hamas captivity, Mia’s distraught father, Moshe, looked for Bella everywhere, putting out calls for the missing dog on social media, thinking she had been lost in Israel — but in fact, she was in Gaza, eating the little scraps of whatever fare Mia and her mother got.

The dog had been with the Leimbergs for five years, adopted into their new Jerusalem home, a gift for Mia and a kind of consolation offering after the family returned from a long relocation abroad. Mia’s cousins, Maayan Sigal-Koren and Geffen Sigal-Ilan, told the story of how the 12th grader managed to smuggle her four-legged friend into captivity. Mia was captured still in her pajamas. After the gunfire and explosions started, little Bella was incredibly frightened, and Mia, trying to assuage her fears, held her tight. When the Hamas militants broke into their safe room, they saw a young girl in her pajamas, holding what appeared to be a doll of a dog. They didn’t think much of it, and took the five captives with them into Gaza.

When the kidnappers first saw that doll move a few hours later, and realized it was an actual animal, a fight erupted, but Mia, an “only child who knows exactly what she wants and gets exactly what she wants,” as her cousins affectionately described her, won out.

“It was not easy to keep her,” her aunt said. Mia made sure to clean up quickly after Bella in the bathroom, kept her close, and shared whatever scraps of food she got with the pup. She told her homeroom teacher that Bella didn’t bark there at all.

Yet caring for Bella helped the Leimbergs survive captivity. “The most important thing was that they were together. When a person is with their best friend, the dog, the most loyal, the most beloved, it gives them strength,” her cousin said.

“They’re all alright physically” Mia’s cousins told Ayala Hasson. “And with the rest… we’ll help… they’re strong and even are giving us strength. We’re both from the field of rehabilitation and know that you can grow and flower, even flourish, after the most difficult of traumas.” It will be much easier when Luis and Fernando return, they added, and said that their fight is ongoing.

Like Mia, many of the child hostages have left loved ones behind in Gaza, a fact that makes their psychological rehabilitation even more complex. Mia’s cousins said they couldn’t share where Mia was held captive — some hostages had been warned about sharing the details of their captivity and fear reprisal against their families left behind.

Being held hostage for over a month had serious effects on the children. Many lost over 10% of their body weight, and some came back whispering after Hamas insisted they stay quiet at all times. Some were in isolation, like 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, who said he was in a room by himself for many days and was made to watch the horror film of Hamas’ October 7 attack. For all, the emotional rehabilitation will be long and arduous.

And yet, we can take some comfort, and some inspiration, in young Mia, who fought to keep her dog by her side, and who, thanks to Bella and her mother, a psychologist by training, probably had an easier time surviving the stress and hardnesses of captivity.  We hope she’s reunited with the rest of her family soon.

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