Over the past week, as hostages returned from their captivity in Gaza, testimonies accumulated, painting a picture of the harsh experiences they endured. These testimonies were mainly provided by close relatives, with a small portion coming directly from the firsthand sources.
The testimonies naturally vary, and it's crucial to remember that these are descriptions primarily told by adult women, mothers, and children. It remains unclear whether the conditions for the male captives, almost all of whom are still in captivity, were identical, and if the treatment towards them differs significantly.
What did they eat?
According to various testimonies, the hostages mostly received meals based on rice, preserved hummus, and beans. "Sometimes they also had salty cheese with pita, but nothing beyond that. No fruits, no vegetables, no eggs, "Dr. Margarita from Wolfson Hospital, who treated several of the released women, said.
Ruth Munder, a 78-year-old resident of Nir Oz who was released, said that at times they also received frozen chicken with rice, along with cans of preserved food and cheese. "We managed, until the economic situation deteriorated, and people were hungry," she said. Released Filipino citizen, Jimmy Pacheco, said he was forced to eat toilet paper due to the food shortage. "Sometimes there was almost no water, and it was salty," he added.
This hunger was evident in their physical condition as well. Ruth Munder and her daughter Keren lost 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) each during the seven weeks in Hamas captivity. Yaffa Adar, an 85-year-old resident of Nir Oz, also lost weight, as did the younger hostages held, like 9-year-old Emily Hand, who, according to her father, "lost a significant amount of weight." Pacheco also said that he lost significant weight during his time in captivity.
Where were they held?
One of the first to be released, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, detailed the conditions in which the captives were held after her return. She recounted being beaten with sticks on the way from Israel to Gaza until they reached tunnels, where they walked kilometers underground through damp soil resembling a spider's web. Upon arrival, they were told that, as believers in the Quran, they would not harmed by the captors would be provided the same conditions that they had. After a trek through tunnels, they gathered in a large hall with 25 people. After two to three hours, five were separated, including Yochved's family from Kibbutz Nir Oz, and placed in a separate room.
Eyal Nuri, the brother-in-law of Adina Moshe, 72, released on Friday, said that his aunt had to adjust to sunlight after spending weeks in complete darkness. He described her walking with eyes to the ground, not accustomed to daylight. According to his testimony, she was held in a location five stories below ground.
Pacheco said that during the first weeks, they were held in a simulated cell, and he, along with the other captives, had to clean the facilities in the tunnels. However, not everyone was in the tunnels. Thomas Hend said that Emily told him the terrorists holding her moved her and others from house to house, from hiding place to hiding place, to escape bombings, without going underground. Similarly, the cousin of Noam, 16, and Alma, 13, Or, said they had reported being held not in a tunnel but in a room in a random house with another captive. Relatives of the Munder family said that they were also above ground all the time but were moved periodically.
Where did they sleep, and did they get medications?
Yochved Lifshitz said that during her captivity, she and her fellow captives slept on mattresses, and every two to three days, a doctor would come to check on them, ensuring they received the necessary medications. However, others who spent a longer time in Hamas captivity described much harsher conditions. "The boys went to sleep late, and the girls would sometimes cry. It was very tough. They slept on chairs without mattresses. Not everyone had a blanket. The boys slept under the benches," recounted Ruth Mondar.
Dr. Meshabi, who treated the released captives, said that based on their testimonies, in the initial days, it was challenging for them to fall asleep at night because of tension and fears. They eventually obtained sleep medication, dividing the pills into four pieces to allow as many people as possible to get some rest.
For one of the released captives, the shortage of medications was critical. The daughter of Alma Abraham, 84, who returned to Israel in a deteriorated condition, said "She was neglected medically throughout the entire period of captivity. She did not receive life-saving medications. She was abandoned twice, once on October 7 and the second time by all the organizations supposed to save her."
Did they shower?
Adina Moshe, 72, told medical professionals that she and the released captives with her had not showered for 50 days. Even the youngest children who were kidnapped did not experience considerate conditions from Hamas terrorists. Carmel, the grandfather of Abigail Idan, whose parents were murdered, revealed that the little girl, who celebrated her fourth birthday in captivity, "probably hasn't bathed since the first day."
Netta Heiman, the daughter of Ditza Heiman, 84, said, "she told us about difficult things she went through. The sanitary conditions were bad, and she did not receive any medications at all, which greatly concerns us regarding everyone else who remains."
Were they abused?
Some of the released captives said that they were not physically abused, but the aunt of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi described horrors in captivity. "Hamas terrorists forced the children to watch horror movies from October 7, and whenever one of the children burst into tears, they threatened him vigorously to keep quiet," she said.
According to her testimony, Eitan said that he was beaten by Gazans when he was taken . "When he arrived in Gaza, every citizen he encountered beat him - we're talking about a 12-year-old child." His grandmother, Esther, said, "In the first 16 days, he was alone, even in a closed room. Imagine what he went through there."
The Munder family, sharing their experiences, said that sometimes they had to wait for an hour and a half or two from the moment they requested to go to the restroom until they were allowed.
Even if there was no physical abuse, there was evident psychological abuse. Many of the children released hesitated to speak when they were first reunited with their families, or spoke in whispers, having become accustomed to the silence enforced by the captors for the seven weeks they were held.
"When she spoke to me, she only whispered," said Thomas Hand about his daughter Emily. "I couldn't hear what she was saying, so I brought my ear very close to her mouth to listen, and she said, 'I thought you were all kidnapped.' She didn't know what happened that morning; she thought everyone was either murdered or kidnapped. She had no idea." Yair Rotem, whose niece Hila Rotem-Shoshani was released on Sunday, said that he had to remind her not to whisper. "They constantly told them to whisper and be quiet, so I make a point to tell her she can raise her voice," he said.
What did they know about what was happening outside?
There is significant variation in the testimonies here. Some of the captives said that they had the opportunity to listen to Israeli radio, allowing them to stay informed about the atrocities in their communities and the fate of their relatives who were either killed in the massacre or remained in captivity. For example, Ruth Munder knew that her son Roy had been murdered. "We feared having to tell her," her niece shared. "We waited for her to ask, 'Where is Roy?' but were surprised to find out that she already knew because she heard about it through the radio."
Hanna Katzir, whose husband Rami was murdered and whose son Elad is still held captive, had to hear the heartbreaking news upon her release from captivity. "As soon as she arrived, she asked, 'Where is Dad?'" her daughter Carmel recounted the painful update. "She didn't know that Dad was murdered. We told her, and she said she sensed it was true, and that she needed to know as soon as possible. She immediately asked, 'Where is Elad? Why isn't he here?' We told her that he was abducted."
Adina Moshe's husband was also murdered in the massacre, and she was unaware of it until her return to Israel. "During her captivity, she was disconnected from the outside world," her relatives said, noting that she had no idea she was going to be released until the last moment. "When she saw the Red Cross, she understood – okay, these terrible seven weeks are over."
In contrast, Moshe, the father of Gila Brodtz's husband, Avichai, who was one of the leaders in the struggle for the return of the captives, said, "There was great excitement when they came. Gila thought Avichai had been killed. She lived for 50 days with the awareness that he was killed."
Were they aware of the efforts made to release them?
In conversations with Dr. Meshabi, Adina Moshe revealed that in the place where she and other captives were held, they "did not see television. But when people from the second group of captives saw Adina, they told her, 'You know, we saw you on TV.' She asked where, and they said, 'On the news in Israel, there are protests by the families of the captives, and your granddaughter held your picture.'"
A similar and touching incident occurred with Ohad Munder, a 9-year-old who was released with his mother and grandmother. On his birthday, and at his family's request, many red balloons were hung in the hope that he would be released soon. Another child who arrived at the place where Ohad was held (and has since been released) approached him and asked, "Are you Ohad? Happy birthday."
According to the testimony, "Ohad was amazed and asked, 'How do you know it's my birthday?' and the boy answered that he saw on TV that former Israeli soccer player and the current head coach of Hapoel Be'er Sheva Elyaniv Barda, congradulated Ohad and was waiting for his return. Journalist Sharon Nissim, who shared this story, said that "Ohad, who until then had been keeping strong in captivity and did not cry at all, broke down and cried with excitement. The family recounts that the tribute gave him great hope and strength to continue and survive in captivity until his release."
How did they pass the time?
Emily Hand, who, according to her father, returned from captivity with a head full of lice, said that she was not physically harmed, but the children were forbidden to make noise. All they could do to pass the time in captivity was draw a little and play with cards.
The adult released captives told Dr. Meshabi that when they asked for pencils or pens to write and pass the time, the Hamas captors did not agree because they feared information would be transferre . So, they were without television and reading, passing the time only in conversations with each other.
According to Dr. Meshabi, "The strength came both from being together and taking care of each other and from their personalities. Adina Moshe said that on the first day, they sat and shared the horrendous experiences they went through, each contributing what they could. For example, there was a man with excellent knowledge of the history of the State of Israel, so they sat for two to three hours a day, and he delivered an interesting lecture on history."
Did they know how much time has passed since they were taken captive?
Adva Adar, the granddaughter of Yaffa Adar, said that her grandmother "counted the days in captivity. She came back and said - I know I was there for 50 days."
In contrast, the girl Emily Hand - who was released the next day - was asked by her father how long she thought she was in captivity. "She answered 'a year,'" the father recounted in pain.
Did they meet Hamas officials?
At least according to two testimonies, the answer to that is positive. One of the released captives recounted that in the early days of the war, they were led towards the southern part of the Gaza Strip.
Then, according to her account, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar entered, showing interest in their Hebrew names. Afterward, he reassured them, saying that nothing would happen to them and that they were safe. He said to them, "Hello, I am Yahya Sinwar. You are the most protected here. Nothing will happen to you."
This week, Yocheved Lipshitz also said that she encountered Sinwar. Her son clarified later that the security system had verified this and it was indeed a senior Hamas figure who spoke Hebrew, though not Sinwar. In any case, the senior figure scolded Lipshitz's 85-year-old mother, saying, "How are you not ashamed?"
Did they try to escape?
There is one testimony so far about this, from one of the few men who were released. The aunt of Roni Krivoi, a 25-year-old from Carmiel released as part of the "Hamas tribute to Putin," revealed that he tried to escape from captivity after the building where he was held was bombed.
"He said he was kidnapped by terrorists who held him inside a building," she said. "I understood that the building collapsed due to the bombing, and he managed to escape from there and hide alone for several days. Eventually, the captors caught him and handed him back to the terrorists."
What were they told before being released from captivity?
The uncle of Noam and Alma mentioned that before their release, the captors lied to them to prevent the third hostage, who was with them, from knowing that the two brothers were returning to Israel. The captors told them they were going to the bathroom, but then blindfolded and handcuffed them, leading them to a vehicle that took them to a location where they were transferred to the Red Cross. "They tried to conceal it from the woman left behind, alone, and perhaps it was to exert psychological pressure on her."
The cousin of Adina Moshe said that before her release, "she knew something was happening when all the bombings suddenly stopped on Friday, and suddenly there was silence. My aunt said that when they were taken out of the tunnel, they were afraid and thought they were being taken to be killed. Only when they saw the Red Cross vehicles did they realize they were on their way to freedom." A close family member added, "They continued to instill terror until the very last moment."