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'It was hell': Israeli mother held hostage with her children describes 51 days in captivity

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During the 51 days she was held by Hamas in Gaza, Hagar Brodutch never lost track of what day it was. She says she made a point every morning to remember the day of the week and how many days she had been held hostage.

Six months later, she’s still counting.

“It’s 235 days today, and it’s unbelievable,” she says.

Brodutch, her three children and four-year-old neighbour Abigail Idan were kidnapped by Hamas-led militants from their home in Kfar Aza, Israel on Oct. 7. They were released in November as part of the brief ceasefire, but she says her thoughts are never far from those still being held in Gaza.

“I can’t imagine what they are feeling,” she says. “I know what I have been through and that was only 51 days.”

Brodutch, her husband Avihai and their children, Ofri, 10, Yuval, 9, and Oriya, 4 just arrived in Toronto where they are spending part of the summer visiting relatives.

Avihai, Hagar, Ofri, Yuval and Oria Brodutch. (Supplied)

“I think we are getting better every day,” she says. “We lost many friends and we lost our home and our community. But we will go on.”

October 7

Brodutch says it was around 6:30 a.m. when the sirens started going off on Oct. 7. Shortly after, there was a knock at her door and standing outside was their then three-year-old neighbour, Abigail Idan. Brodutch recalls that she wasn’t injured but was covered in the blood of her parents, who had just been killed next door.

Brodutch rushed the little girl inside and went to the home's safe room with her kids. A member of the community’s civil guard, Avihai put on his safety gear and left the house to help.

Brodutch recalls they spent four hours in the safe room waiting for the “all clear.” Instead, she estimates 15 Hamas fighters entered her house and forced their way into the safe room.

She says they asked her for her car keys, “and then they told me ‘shoes’”, she recalls. “That was the moment I understood what was going on.”

Brodutch says the five of them were driven into Gaza in her own car, where a crowd was waiting.

“There was a big crowd, cheering and dancing,” she says. “Happy to see us, a woman and four kids.” She says the man driving the car kept trying to lift up 10-year-old Ofri to show the crowd.

“They took her shirt and tried to show the crowd that he got a little girl. A Jewish, Israeli little girl,” she says.

51 days

Brodutch says they were taken to a family’s home and locked in a small room with another female hostage who was injured. She says there was no running water and minimal electricity; at night it was so dark, she says she couldn’t see her own hand.

“The kids kept asking, ‘When are we coming home? What's going on?’”, she recalls. “I couldn't believe that my kids are going to sleep there at night, in Gaza, in someone else's house.”

They were kept there for just over two weeks, until the house was hit by a strike.

“And then the house collapsed from the IDF bombs,” she says. Ofri was injured, but Brodutch says they were lucky they survived.

After the house was hit, they were separated from the other hostage and moved to a different location. Brodutch says they were loaded into an ambulance and driven to another family’s home, but this one was empty.

“It was a nightmare, it was just hell,” she says, “You're locked in a small room with four of them. We had cards so we tried to use it, to go through the day. But we suffered. We were starving.”

Brodutch says they were each given small amounts of water and one piece of pita a day. They could hear bombs all day and all night, and lived in fear they would be hit.

When the bombs stopped at the end of November, Brodutch said she knew something was happening outside. She and the four children were released on Nov. 26 as part of the ceasefire deal.

For weeks before their release, Avihai sat outside the ministry of defence building in Tel Aviv, one of the first to call on the government to prioritize the release of the hostages. 112 have been released, while Israel says more than 130 remain; it’s unclear how many are still alive.

“We have to stop everything and bring them back home,” she says. “Nothing is as important as them.”

Ceasefire

The hostages have been at the centre of ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas, talks that have broken down a number of times as the war in Gaza continues. Prospects for the negotiations to resume have grown recently, even as Israel carried out new attacks in Rafah.

On Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “tragic mishap” was made in an Israeli strike that set fire to a camp housing displaced Palestinians. At least 45 people were killed, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) says it has opened an investigation into the deaths.

The strike added to fresh international criticism over how Israel is carrying out the war, which has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

While no date has been set to renew ceasefire talks, new proposals by mediators from Egypt and Qatar are in the works.

As for Brodutch, she is hopeful there will someday be peace.

“I want to live in peace with my neighbours,” she says. “We have to find a solution for both of us. For Israel and the Palestinians. War is not an option. We can’t live like this anymore.”  

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