I think it is fair to say that the entire country of Israel is currently capsized by the hostage crisis. Over the past 54 days, we have become intensely connected to the hostages, learning their stories through nightly news, participating in protests by the tens of thousands, and watching videos of the kidnapped children on WhatsApp groups.
Many of us are familiar with the story of the nine-year-old Irish girl, Emily Hand. As a toddler, she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her father Tom remarried Narkis, whom Emily considered her “second mom”. Upon Emily’s return from captivity, she had to be told that she lost her second mother as well. Narkis was murdered by terrorists on the day Emily was kidnapped.
Emily had been at a sleepover at her friend Hilla Roten-Shoshani when she was kidnapped along with Hilla, and Raaya, Hilla’s mother. Raaya lovingly took care of both girls in Gaza. Yet, in another example of Hamas’ game of psychological torture, and against the agreement between Hamas and Israel, Raaya is still being held captive in Gaza.
What made Emily’s story so memorable was her father’s original reaction to the news of her supposed death. At first, it was assumed that Emily had been killed, and he explained that he was relieved to hear the news because the alternative (Emily being taken hostage) was far worse. It was a shocking statement, but one which many of us secretly agree with. The idea that a child of ours is being held captive by a monstrous terror organization can justifiably be perceived as a fate worse than death.
But Tom’s greatest fears did come true. About a month later, he found out that Emily was alive and being held captive by Hamas.
It turns out that Tom was correct in his assumption that Hamas is torturing children in Gaza. Since his startling statement, we have heard the story of twelve-year-old Eiytan Yahalomi who was beaten by multiple people including Gazan civilians. He was also kept alone in a room in solitary confinement for 16 days and later moved to a room with other children where they were forced by gunpoint to watch videos of the brutal October 7th attacks.
We also know a bit about 17-year-old Noam Or and his 13-year-old sister Alma’s experience in Gaza. We know that when it was time for them to be released, Hamas did not tell them where they were going. They blindfolded them and shoved them into a car. After having spent 50 days in a room with another prisoner (they have still been unable to talk about what happened there), they had no idea where they were going or what their fate would be. Even as Hamas was releasing these siblings, they were cruelly torturing them. It turns out they were brought to the Red Cross and returned home where they then had to face the news of their mother’s death.
Most of the stories of the child hostages have not yet been told due to the extent of psychological damage Hamas wreaked on these children. We know that in most cases food was so scarce that many lost a significant amount of weight. We know that the hostages did not receive the medications they required. Even the Red Cross refused to bring them their meds. We also know that the conditions both in the tunnels and above the tunnels were terrifying. In the tunnels, it was dark and difficult to breathe. Above the tunnels, the hostages were dragged by gunpoint from building to building to escape missile fire.*
When Tom finally got the phone call that Emily was coming home, he packed up their dog, Johnny, and went to meet her at an army base near the crossing. The meeting was very emotional. Emily ran into Tom’s arms, and he hugged her like he would never let her go. It wasn’t until they separated that he saw that her previously childish chubby face was gone. She looked very thin and pale. She whispered as softly as she could that she had thought that he had been captured. Tom had to struggle to hear her, even when her mouth was directly at his ear. Hamas had forced the children to speak in a whisper so they would not make too much noise. Many child hostages who have been released can still only speak in a soft whisper. It is almost as if somewhere deep in their subconscious they are still in Gaza. Tom asked Emily how long she thought she had been there, and she whispered, “a year”. It was 53 days which felt like a year. Later when looking at a picture of their first meeting, Tom describes Emily’s expression as that of “glassy-eyed terror”. Emily still cries herself to sleep every night.
Tom may never know the full extent to which Emily was tortured by Hamas, and there is a bittersweet tone to their reunion. But at least now she can begin her difficult journey to recovery in the arms of Tom and her dog Johnny.