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‘Shadows of Children’: For Youngest Gaza Hostages, Life Moves Forward in Whispers
Middle East Science & Health

‘Shadows of Children’: For Youngest Gaza Hostages, Life Moves Forward in Whispers

After being held captive in the tunnels of Gaza for seven weeks, they are now able to freely laugh, chat, and play. However, some of the children who were released from captivity are still hesitant to speak above a whisper.

In principle, they have the freedom to consume any food they desire, rest as much as they prefer, and overcome their fears. However, in reality, some may need reassurance that there is no longer a need to hoard food for future scarcity.

Finally, the 86 Israeli citizens who were released during a temporary ceasefire between their government and Hamas have returned home. However, the terror attack on October 7th by Hamas on approximately 20 communities has left many of the children among them without a permanent place to live. Some of their parents have passed away and others are still being held captive, indicating the challenges that lie ahead.

Gradually and systematically, these youngsters, their mothers and grandmothers who were imprisoned with them, and their loved ones are exploring ways to heal and move forward. Even the doctors and therapists who have been caring for them are uncertain about the journey and its duration.

“It is a challenging situation. The individuals in question have returned and are now unbound. However, it is evident that they have endured hardship,” stated Yuval Haran, whose relatives are commemorating the reunion with his two nieces, their mother, and grandmother. They are also eagerly awaiting the release of the girls’ father, who is still in captivity.

Haran, who appears visibly fatigued from the past two months of stress, is currently busy fixing bicycles and helping those who have returned set up bank accounts. He believes that the most crucial aspect is to provide them with love, hugs, and the power to control their own lives. This will give them a sense of empowerment and the ability to make their own decisions.

Yuval Haran, whose family is celebrating the return of his mother, his sister and four others from Hamas captivity in Gaza, poses for a portrait with a picture on his phone of his family's hostage posters, in Herziliya, Israel, on Dec. 4, 2023.

Yuval Haran’s family is rejoicing as his mother, sister, and four other individuals have been released from Hamas captivity in Gaza. In a photograph taken in Herziliya, Israel on December 4, 2023, Yuval poses with a picture on his phone of his family’s hostage posters.

As soon as the youngest were rescued from the helicopters, it was evident that they had been subjected to harsh treatment while in captivity.

Dr. Efrat Bron-Harlev of Schneider Children’s Medical Center in suburban Tel Aviv described the former captives, most of whom were children, as resembling shadows. She was involved in treating over 25 of these individuals.

A few were not permitted to shower throughout their time in captivity. Numerous others experienced a decrease of 15% in their body weight, yet they hesitated to consume the provided meals.

When questioned, the response was given in hushed tones: “We must save it for a later time.”

A 13-year-old girl shared her experience of being held captive and how she spent the entire time thinking her family had left her, as her kidnappers had repeatedly told her, according to Bron-Harlev.

The girl informed her doctors that she was being told that nobody cares about her, nobody is searching for her, and nobody wants her to return. She also mentioned that she could hear bombs exploding nearby and that those who are after her only want to harm both her and those around her.

Dr. Yael Mozer-Glassberg, who treated 19 of the children who were released, stated that after going through such a difficult experience, it will always be a part of their life story.

Please remain extremely quiet.

Since the hostages were set free, almost all of them have been discharged from medical facilities and reunited with their loved ones. Some were even greeted by thousands of supporters upon their return.

Medical professionals and others responsible for caring for the released hostages spent several weeks getting ready for their homecoming. However, the sheer number of patients who had endured such extreme conditions has surprised doctors, especially with the initial hesitation of many children to communicate.

Bron-Harlev, the physician, stated that the majority of them discuss the importance of remaining extremely quiet at all times. This includes not standing up, talking, crying, or laughing, but instead being very still and quiet.

The experiences these children have endured are beyond imagination.

However, there are instances where some individuals seem to be flourishing.

Noam Avigdori, 12, who was released with her mother, has spent the past week trading jokes with her father and meeting with friends, and has even ventured out to a store.

In an interview, Hen Avigdori, Noam’s father, mentioned that when he gives her instructions, she responds with “Dad, you know what happened to me.” She is aware that she has the power to turn a difficult situation into a positive one and takes pleasure in doing so.

Avigdori mentioned in a separate press conference this week that there are occasions when his daughter awakens in the night, crying out in terror.

FILE - Sharon Hertzman, right, hugs her husband, Hen Avigdori, as they reunite in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Nov. 25, 2023. Sharon Hertzman and her 12-year-old daughter, Noam, not pictured, were released by Hamas after being held as hostages in Gaza for 50 days. (Haim Zach/GPO via AP)

Sharon Hertzman and her husband, Hen Avigdori, embrace in Ramat Gan, Israel on November 25, 2023, after being reunited. Sharon and her daughter, Noam, who is not pictured and is 12 years old, were freed by Hamas after being held captive in Gaza for 50 days. (Photo by Haim Zach/GPO via AP)

Most of the individuals who have been released have not shared much information about their time in captivity. According to their families, authorities have advised them not to reveal the specifics of how they were treated, out of concern for the safety of those who are still being held.

However, accounts from their relatives, medical experts, and mental health practitioners, as well as statements from officials and other sources, indicate that although all the hostages endured hardships, their individual experiences during captivity were diverse.

Different experiences

Some were separated from their fellow captives. However, Noam Avigdori and her mother, Sharon, were kept with family members, allowing the 12-year-old to take on a role similar to an older sibling for her younger cousins who were also being held.

According to Dani Lotan, a clinical psychologist who treated some of the former hostages at Scheider, those who were accompanied by family members or friends were in significantly better condition upon their release.

However, this can still differ even among members of the same family.

During their time in captivity, Danielle Aloni and her 5-year-old daughter, Emilia, formed a strong bond with one of the imprisoned Thai farm workers, Nutthawaree Munkan. Upon their release last week, the girl joyfully sang to Munkan during a video call, showcasing the numbers she had learned in Thai while being held captive.

However, Emilia’s cousins, who are 3-year-old twins, are struggling since they came back.

Sharon Aloni, along with her husband and one of their twin daughters, were kept in a confined space with around eight other individuals while in captivity. According to Aloni’s brother, Moran Aloni, the couple endured 10 distressing days thinking their other daughter had been killed after being taken from them upon entering Gaza.

Sharon’s claim that she could hear her missing daughter, Emma, caused a woman to suddenly appear and return the child to them. This joyful reunion allowed the mother and daughters to remain together for the rest of their time in captivity. However, a few days before they were released, the girls’ father was separated from them and his current location is still unknown.

According to Moran Aloni, the girls, who are now liberated, often wake up in tears during the night. Emma is unwilling to be separated from anyone. They have regained their ability to voice their opinions, but their mother still speaks in hushed tones.

FILE - Danielle Aloni laughs next to her daughter, Emilia, 5, as they meet family members at the Schneider Children's Medical Center in Israel on Nov. 25, 2023. The two were among hostages held by U.S.-designated terror group Hamas in Gaza.

FILE – Danielle Aloni laughs next to her daughter, Emilia, 5, as they meet family members at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Israel on Nov. 25, 2023. The two were among hostages held by U.S.-designated terror group Hamas in Gaza.

and water

Different quantities of food and water

Several previous captives have shared their experiences of receiving small portions of food. However, according to Mozer-Glassberg, a senior medical professional at Schneider, the amount of rations appeared to differ among different groups and without clear reasoning.

A family informed the medical staff that they were given a biscuit and tea at 10 o’clock every morning, and occasionally a lone dried date. They were served rice at 5 p.m., but it was not sufficient. The constant worrying had diminished their appetites over time.

A 15-year-old girl shared that she went without food for several days to provide for her 8-year-old sister.

A few of the 23 Thai hostages who were recently freed reported to their caretakers that they were given approximately half a liter of water and had to stretch it out for three days. They mentioned that at times, the water was saltwater.

A group of ex-captives mentioned that they were permitted to wash themselves on three occasions during a span of seven weeks, using only cold water and buckets. However, according to doctors, one child did not have the chance to bathe at all.

Bron-Harlev stated that a majority of individuals mentioned experiencing intense hunger and a strong desire to eat. Additionally, many of them expressed feeling unclean and struggling to maintain personal hygiene or use the restroom.

It will be challenging to recover.

According to doctors, recovering from prolonged trauma will be a gradual and fragmented process. While adults may have an easier time understanding their experiences, their healing presents its own difficulties.

Many, particularly the older and infirm, remain weak after losing 9 kilos (20 pounds) or more because of the meager rations provided by their captors. When they speak, their families hear notes of resilience, but also of fragility.

Margalit Moses, an elderly cancer survivor who has faced numerous health challenges, has resumed taking the medications that were withheld from her while she was held captive. However, she is still too frail to walk more than a short distance.

“I believe that after two months, her body had reached its absolute limit and was barely holding on,” stated her niece, Efrat Machikawa.

According to her niece, ever since Moses came back, she has been enjoying simple pleasures like peeling a ripe orange and spending time on crossword puzzles.

FILE - Released Israeli hostage Margalit Moses walks with an Israeli soldier upon her arrival in Israel on Nov. 24, 2023, after being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. (Israel Defense Forces via AP)

Margalit Moses, the Israeli hostage who was held by Hamas in Gaza, was released and arrived in Israel on November 24, 2023. She was accompanied by an Israeli soldier. (Image credit: Israel Defense Forces via AP)

Adva Adar shared that her 85-year-old grandmother, Yaffa Adar, who survived the Holocaust, was taken from her kibbutz and quickly transported to Gaza on a golf cart. Yaffa has been discussing her experiences during her captivity with her family, but as time goes on, she is struggling to come to terms with the events that took place and the loss of her beloved community.

“She’s incredibly mentally strong, but you can see how the hell got into her soul,” the younger Adar said. “It’s in the way she looks at the world, the way she looks at people.”

Medical professionals in the hospitals were cautious in their communication with the ex-hostages, as they did not want to exacerbate their traumatic experiences. However, now that they have adjusted to their new environment, both children and adults are facing the consequences of the October attack that were previously concealed by their captivity.

During the seven-week period of her captivity, Shoshan Haran and her family were left to ponder the whereabouts of her husband.

Yuval Haran explained that we had to inform them of my father’s murder.

In the coming days, he and his colleagues recognize that they will have to address the challenge of moving forward without those who have passed away or are still unaccounted for. However, for the majority, it is too early to do so.