Shadows of children: Israeli youngsters who returned from Hamas' tunnels

Opinion: Our wildest imagination could not have prepared the care providers and the hospitals to receive 39 children who were who were torn from their cribs and beds and taken to hell, barefoot and half asleep, some alone, some with only one of their parents.

They were starved and drugged, thrown into damp tunnels and dark attics, coerced and beaten by their captors or by a raging crowd, their skin burned with fiery exhaust pipes so they can be identified and can't escape. They were forced to watch the horrifying videos of terrorist atrocities from which adults escaped in tears, weren't allowed to go to the bathroom for hours, were threatened with rifles and shouts of "quiet!" when they cried. Some came back only whispering, some had bruises and lice, they didn't shower for 50 days, did not see daylight, drank muddy or salty water, a few had severe injuries that were treated in terrifying isolation in hospitals in Gaza, and others who were wounded received no treatment at all. Their captors scared them - telling them that their parents forgot about them, that they don't want them, that they'll be in those tunnels forever, that no one is coming to take them back.
How can a delicate soul bear these horrors day after day after day after day –for 55 days??
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"And this is only the first level, we haven't gone down with them to the basement yet. Slowly they are peeling away. Shadows of children. Some of them are still silent, some of them are already talking," said caregivers I interviewed, and we understand that we need to invent new words to describe the range and depth of the horrors experienced by the children who returned from captivity Hamas.
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אביגיל עידן וקרובת משפחתה לאחר השחרור
אביגיל עידן וקרובת משפחתה לאחר השחרור
Abigail Edan returned from captivity in Gaza
(Photo: Spokesman's office, Schneider Children's Hospital)
Even this oxymoron - "children in captivity" - needs a new, invented parallel universe.
"I thought about my children who were kidnapped, and wondered which things that I taught them could help them in captivity. I taught you everything, but I'm sorry I didn't teach you how to be a hostage," Mirit Regev, mother of returned hostages Maya and Itay, said in an interview with Dana Spector, adding: "You don't know how your child will cry when they return from captivity."
Children returning from captivity. Our wildest imagination could not have prepare the therapists, the social workers and hospital staff for the return of 39 children who were torn from their cribs and beds and taken to hell, barefoot and half asleep, some alone, some with only one of their parents. But within a month, a groundbreaking protocol was born here, like no other country has ever written before.
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אמילי ואביה תומאס הנד נפגשים לראשונה מאז שחרורה
אמילי ואביה תומאס הנד נפגשים לראשונה מאז שחרורה
Emily Hand, 9, is still only speaking in a whisper
(Photo: IDF Spokesman's Unit)
This is the first set of rules for treating children returning from captivity, explaining how and what to ask, and especially what not to ask and what not to do ("emphasize they're in a safe place, don't hug or touch, but you can offer"). We, who invented cherry tomatoes and Mobileye, the Iron Dome and Waze, also set up, for the first time in human history, a protocol compiled by the best therapists and welfare staff in the country, who wrote down what a human mind cannot tolerate, and this protocol continues to change and adapt as we go, humbly and with extreme caution, according to the unfolding needs of each boy and girl.
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ענת לב אדלר
ענת לב אדלר
Anat Lev Adler
(Photo: Svetlana Krikhali)
"I hope no one in the world ever needs this, but I could already write a whole book on treating children returning from captivity; I learn so much from them about their needs," a senior nurse at one of the children's hospitals told me. "Now we know what to do, we know it has to be done slowly and gently, with modesty and caution, letting them lead and, more than anything, not harming them further."
And perhaps the most elementary thing they did in these hospitals was to attach a small Israeli flag to every white coat, so the children are assured immediately, even without words, that they are home.
First published: 22:01, 12.03.23
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