Hostages young and old endured physical and psychological torture

Family, doctors and some of the 110 hostages released tell of the suffering under Hamas captivity

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Yelena Trupanob (C), who was released by Hamas this week, speak’s during a rally calling for the remaining hostages to be released a day after the temporary truce ended outside The Museum of Modern Art known as the 'The Hostages and Missing Square' on December 2, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Some lost 20% of their body weight, one even resorting to eating toilet paper because food was so scarce. Others went weeks without vital medication. A child was kept in solitary confinement for 16 days. Terrorists took a three-year-old from her parents and twin sister. With more than 100 hostages now free from Hamas captivity, testimony of the relatives and Israeli doctors who are caring for the women and children released from Gaza paint a vivid picture of the inhumane conditions in which they were held.

“We were brutally kidnapped from our house,” said Danielle Aloni, who was taken hostage by Hamas with her daughter Emilia, 6. “Our girls saw things that kids that age, or any age, should not see.” 

After Aloni was released to Israel as part of an exchange of civilian hostages — mostly children, their mothers, and elderly women — for Palestinians held on terrorism-related charges, Hamas-affiliated social media channels sent out a letter purportedly from Aloni in which she said she and her daughter were treated like “queens.” Yet, once safe at home in Israel, Aloni described her experience as “a horror movie.”

“You feel like you want to pinch yourself and wake up from this movie,” Aloni said in a video produced by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. “I’m speaking now and I’m shaking — I’m sorry. It was terrifying…We just slept, cried. Every day that passed was an endless eternity.” 

Malnutrition is a recurring theme in the testimonies of hostages, families and medical staff. 

Ditza Heiman, 84, who was in Hamas captivity for over 50 days, said in another video from the forum that “there was little food…and as time went on, the food kept decreasing.”

“As time went by, the damage [from malnutrition] increased, and the body’s ability to survive decreased. It is life-threatening and mentally threatening,” she said.

Doctors who treated hostages reported loss of 8-15 kg (15-33 pounds) by the elderly hostages, accounting for 10-20% of their body weight, and relatives of children who returned from captivity said they lost significant amounts of weight as well. 

Some spoke of eating one piece of bread, or less, each day, and occasionally having additional food such as olive oil, beans, tuna or cheese. A Filipino caregiver taken hostage reported being so hungry that he ate toilet paper. He and others said they were given unclean water to drink. 

Several hostages sustained injuries, such as Nurit Cooper, 79, whose shoulder was broken while she was kidnapped. Mia Schem, who was forced to record two hostage videos, one in which she praises her captors for treating her well, was shot in her arm and operated on by a veterinarian. After Hamas released Yuval Engel, 11, she was transferred to a Red Cross vehicle in a wheelchair and was treated for a leg injury in an Israeli hospital. Moran Stella Yanai, 40, injured her leg when trying to run away from terrorists on Oct. 7 and was not given medical treatment during her time in captivity; she appeared to be limping in video of her entering an International Red Cross vehicle. 

At least two hostages were beaten, with Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, whose husband Oded is still hostage, saying she was tied to a motorcycle and hit with sticks while Hamas took her to Gaza, and Eitan Yahalomi, 12, was struck by people on the street in Gaza, according to his aunt. A Thai hostage who was released said that the Israelis kept with him were beaten with electric cables

Hamas terrorists reportedly branded Or Yaakov, 16, and Yagil Yaakov, 12, on their legs so that they would be easily identifiable if they escaped captivity. They were also drugged when moved from place to place in Gaza, according to a Channel 12 report. 

Relatives of children held by Hamas, like Avigail Idan, 4, and Emily Hand, 9, reported that they came back covered in lice. Many hostages were not able to shower or only showered once in more than six weeks. 

Some hostages were held underground and squinted when they were first exposed to sunlight again.

Lifshitz described being held in a “spider’s web” of tunnels. In a video released by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, she said that the oxygen supply in the tunnels diminished over time and food began running out. She said she was only released in the early weeks of the war, before the deal between Hamas and Israel, because she fell ill and her captors were concerned that she was contagious.

Relatives of nearly all the elderly hostages mentioned that they were not given access to the medications that they take regularly. 

Elma Avraham, 84, was in critical condition as a result, and required a ventilator for over a day, but is now breathing on her own. 

In addition to the physical conditions, the intense anxiety of being held hostage took its toll, and Hamas made sure to add to the psychological torture.

Twelve-year-old Eitan Yahalomi was kept in solitary confinement for 16 days. 

Several of the children taken hostage were forced to watch videos of Hamas’ brutal attacks on Oct. 7, relatives said, documentation that many adults had difficulty stomaching. 

Daphna, 15, and Ella, 8, Elyakim — who witnessed their father’s murder — were told by their captors that no one wanted them at home. When they were on the way to be released, Hamas terrorists threatened to come into Israel and kill them if they spoke of their captivity.

Some of the kidnapped children were separated from their parents. Three-year-old twins Emma and Yuli Cunio were taken hostage with their parents Sharon and David on Oct. 7; two days later, terrorists took Yuli from the rest of the family. Ten days after that, a woman brought Yuli back, though apparently it was unintentional — the toddler was just supposed to be moved from place to place. Hila Rotem Shoshani, 13, was separated from her mother two days before her release, in contravention of the agreement between Israel and Hamas that said mothers, children and siblings would be released together; her mother Raaya Rotem was freed days later. 

Released hostages told their relatives that Hamas  threatened the lives of children as young as three years old if they made noise, and their relatives noted that they continued to whisper for days after returning.

Professor Itai Pesach of Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center told Channel 12 that “you could see the marks that the suffering in captivity left on them. They were very depleted and very weak — strong in spirit and weak in their bodies,” Pesach said. 

The protocol at Sheba Hospital was that hostages who didn’t need immediate medical care would receive psychological care first.

The stories the hostages told are reminiscent of ones “from 80 years ago, from World War II,” Pesach said. “The social workers don’t rest from [caring for] the released and the families for a moment, because they need the embrace.” 

Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said these stories are “only the tip of the iceberg of revelations about the Hamas terror dungeons.”

“As the survivors of Hamas captivity begin to open up to their families, we are beginning to learn about the psychical and psychological abuse to which Hamas subjected our people,” Levy said in a briefing on Sunday. 

“We are fighting to secure the release of all the hostages. Women and men. Young and old. Civilians and soldiers. No one left behind. None of us are free until all of them are free,” he stated.

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