Fri. Apr 19th, 2024
alert-–-‘when-we-arrived-in-gaza,-the-terrorists-grabbed-my-daughter-and-showed-her-off-to-the-cheering-crowd-–-boasting-they’d-stolen-a-little-israeli-girl’:-a-haunting-interview-with-a-mother-held-hostage-by-hamas-with-three-childrenAlert – ‘When we arrived in Gaza, the terrorists grabbed my daughter and showed her off to the cheering crowd – boasting they’d stolen a little Israeli girl’: A haunting interview with a mother held hostage by Hamas with three children

At 6.30am on October 7 last year, Avichai Brodutch and his wife Hagar were woken by the sound of wailing sirens as thousands of rockets rained down on their small farming community less than two miles from the border with the Gaza Strip.

Such attacks had become part of life on a kibbutz so near enemy territory and the couple immediately followed a well-established routine.

Hagar quickly woke their three children and led them all to a small safe room, while her husband rushed outside to watch the deadly firework display in the sky above them.

But this time something was different.

Suddenly Hagar heard her husband screaming: ‘The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming!’ Scores of paragliders soared over the border wall that divided Gaza and Israel and headed towards the kibbutz of Kfar Azar, with its population of just under 800.

Avichai Brodutch with his wife Hagar and three children Ofri, ten, Yuval, nine, and Oriya, four

Avichai Brodutch with his wife Hagar and three children Ofri, ten, Yuval, nine, and Oriya, four

Hagar still bears the mental scars of her time in captivity and her youngest son Oriya doesn't leave her side

Hagar still bears the mental scars of her time in captivity and her youngest son Oriya doesn’t leave her side

Avichai, a 42-year-old trainee nurse who doubled as a security guard for the community, immediately grabbed his uniform (his gun was kept in the kibbutz’s armoury) and headed for the front door. As he did so, he heard a faint knock.

His heart pumping, he peered through the peephole. At first he couldn’t see anyone but, when he looked down, he was confronted by a sight he will never forget: his neighbors’ three-year-old daughter shaking with fear and drenched in blood.

He opened the door to let her in and Hagar rushed the little girl to the safe room where her own children were already hiding.

In the minutes that followed, she pieced together the horrifying ordeal that Avigail Idan had gone through before heading for the home of her father’s best friend.

‘It wasn’t her blood, it was her parents’ blood,’ Hagar explains in her first sit-down interview. ‘She saw how terrorists, dressed in military uniforms, killed her mother.

‘Her father picked her up and tried to run away with her brothers. But they killed him too. She was in his arms when they killed him and he fell on top of her. They let her go and she ran to our house.’

By now her husband had left home to coordinate the kibbutz’s resistance to Hamas’s invasion, and Hagar and her three young children – Ofri, ten, Yuval, nine, and Oriya, four – as well as Avigail, cowered in the safe room in the dark, hidden under blankets.

For four hours they hid silently there until Hagar heard the sound of the front door being smashed in.

The 40-year-old community manager quickly texted her husband, ‘They’re coming’, and stationed herself by the door, determined to use all her strength to keep it shut.

But she was no match for the attackers and, as 14 armed men barged into the room, shouting in Arabic, she desperately screamed: ‘It’s only kids! It’s only kids! Please don’t do anything!’

That was the moment Hagar and the children became five of the 253 hostages taken by Hamas during its lethal invasion.

On that day, around 3,000 Gazan terrorists embarked on a blood-crazed killing spree that took in multiple kibbutzim in the south of Israel and a music festival in the town of Re’im.

In November, 112 hostages were released in a ceasefire exchange deal, including Hagar and the four children in her care. At the time of writing, 134 hostages remain in captivity.

Meanwhile, the final death toll totalled 1,200, 62 of them killed in Kfar Azar alone.

My interview with Hagar takes place in the foyer of a shabby hotel in Shefayim, a coastal town 60 miles north of her kibbutz, where she is staying with other refugees from Kfar Azar whose homes were destroyed on October 7.

Nineteen members of the community were taken hostage that day and, while 11 have subsequently been released, five remain in captivity and the names and pictures of these hostages have been hung from the ceiling in the lobby. Whenever a hostage is released, their picture is taken down.

Avichai embraces his three children following their release from Hamas captivity

Avichai embraces his three children following their release from Hamas captivity

Following the ordeal, Hagar's youngest son Oriya doesn't want to be separated from his mother and nothing - not even games, food or water - are able to distract or cheer him up

Following the ordeal, Hagar’s youngest son Oriya doesn’t want to be separated from his mother and nothing – not even games, food or water – are able to distract or cheer him up

It is clear that Hagar still bears the mental scars of her time in captivity and her youngest son Oriya, now four, clings to her throughout. Nothing, not games or videos or food and water, is enough to distract him or cheer him up.

As we go back to the events of that terrible day, Hagar becomes visibly upset. Among the terrorists’ first victims were Avigail’s parents Roi Idan, a 43-year-old photographer, and his wife Smadar Mor Idan, 38, murdered a few doors away from Hagar and her children.

Fortunately for Hagar, the terrorists who broke into that safe room decided she and her charges were more valuable alive than dead.

They demanded that she put shoes on the children and get into a car with three heavily armed terrorists.

As Hagar was driven from her home she was horrified to discover that Hamas had transformed her ‘little paradise’ into an apocalyptic hellscape shrouded in smoke.

‘As we left Kfar Azar I saw lots of houses burning,’ she says. ‘Dead bodies were piled in the fields and scattered on the ground.

‘One of the terrorists told me: ‘This is not Kfar Azar anymore. It is Kfar Moot’ – which translates as ‘the village of death’. And seeing this destruction, I believed him.’

When they arrived in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians were lining the streets, cheering and dancing, and all were desperate to get a glimpse of the hostages.

‘The terrorists opened the car doors and pulled my hair [to show me off] to the thousands of people in the streets,’ says Hagar. ‘Then they grabbed my daughter by her shirt and showed her off to the crowd. They were boasting that they had stolen a little Israeli girl. All the people were cheering.’

The Brodutches, along with Avigail Idan, were then driven to a small house belonging to a Palestinian family, where they were locked in a dark 12 square metre room with another Israeli hostage.

Their captors – including a woman and children – fed them sparingly and forced them to sleep on dirty mattresses that lined the floor.

‘We had nothing to do,’ she says. ‘There was no running water. No electricity. They gave us two notebooks and a few pencils. But we weren’t allowed a sharpener.

‘The terrorists told us 1,000 people were kidnapped and thousands and thousands were murdered on October 7.

Life in captivity was made all the more anguished for Hagar by the fact she was certain that her husband had been killed defending the Kibbutz against an estimated 70 gunmen.

‘I thought that nobody cared about me. And that Avichai – my husband – was dead,’ she says. ‘I thought that Israel had forgotten about us.

‘We were in Gaza for 51 days. A woman and four kids. On the first day, I believed that Israel would do whatever it takes to come and rescue us straightaway. I never thought they would bomb Gaza with the hostages still inside.

‘We weren’t allowed to cry or scream or make any noise. We had to whisper all the time. It was a nightmare trying to keep them quiet.’

I thought that nobody cared about me. And that Avichai – my husband – was dead. I thought that Israel had forgotten about us, Hagar says

I thought that nobody cared about me. And that Avichai – my husband – was dead. I thought that Israel had forgotten about us, Hagar says

The deadly October 7 Hamas attack left homes completely destroyed in the Kibbutz of Kfar Aza

The deadly October 7 Hamas attack left homes completely destroyed in the Kibbutz of Kfar Aza 

Outside, the Brodutch family could hear the sounds of relentless Israeli Defence Force (IDF) airstrikes pummelling buildings inside the Gaza Strip.

‘I was terrified that our building would be destroyed and I would be separated from my children,’ says Hagar. ‘Or that I would be injured and unable to look after my children. It was constant torture.’

After 12 days, the family home where Hagar and the four children were being housed, was hit by an IDF rocket and partially collapsed. Luckily, they all survived – with a few minor injuries – but they were quickly moved.

Draping Hagar in a white sheet so she wouldn’t be identified, her captors bundled her and the four children into an ambulance before turning on its siren and racing through the streets to their new makeshift prison.

This time the house was empty and Hagar and the children were locked inside a room that had clearly once belonged to a little girl.

It had walls painted pink, a child’s bed, a cupboard full of small clothes and some toys and games. But conditions were much worse than they had been in the previous house.

‘Every day we got less and less food. We were starving. The kids were starving. They were fighting with each other for crumbs and scraps on the floor. I would give them most of my food and eat a little bit just to survive.

‘Even though there was a little girl’s bed in the room, no one wanted to sleep on it. The kids wanted to sleep in a huddle next to me, on the floor all the time. They were terrified.’

Throughout her captivity Hagar tried to avoid speaking with her captors as much as possible.

‘For a while there was one terrorist who spoke good enough English but I didn’t want to talk to them because I was afraid I was going to say something that would get me in trouble and it wouldn’t be good for me.

‘I was really afraid I was going to say something wrong about Allah or about the fact they had kidnapped us or had murdered Avigail’s parents.

‘I was so angry. But I knew I needed to [keep quiet] to protect the kids.’

After 51 days in captivity, Hagar finally received news that she was set to be released. But instead of feeling relieved, she was terrified about the prospect of returning home.

‘I knew that when I went back to Israel I would find out all the details of what happened on October 7. I didn’t really know anything. And – worst of all – I thought I would have to tell my kids that they no longer had a father and that their home and their Kibbutz was gone.’

In the days leading up to their release, they were transferred to a new house, where they were held with another hostage.

‘They wouldn’t let us talk to each other,’ says Hagar. ‘Me and the other hostage. We tried to whisper to understand what was going on but every time they caught us they were very angry and they would scream at us.’

On the day Hagar was due to be released, she was paralysed by anxiety. The children kept trying to ask her questions but she couldn’t respond.

‘It was the most nervous I have ever felt. I was so anxious I couldn’t speak. It felt like I couldn’t breathe.’

At midday, she was told to put on a hijab and get into a car with the children. They were then driven to a rendezvous point where they met other Israeli hostages who were also due to be released.

‘As we were arriving at a drop-off spot, my neighbour [from Kfar Azar] saw me from a few metres [away] and she just started screaming.

‘We weren’t allowed to scream anytime but she saw me and she screamed: ‘Hagar, Avichai is waiting for you. I heard him on the radio.’

READ MORE: Freed Israeli hostage says she was ‘in constant fear of being raped any moment’ while held by Hamas and was forced to undergo regular physical ‘inspections’ as she reveals her guilt over leaving behind fellow prisoner Noa Argamani

‘I never cried in Gaza. I couldn’t feel anything. I was empty the entire time. But when I saw my friend and neighbour and I heard Avichai was alive I erupted into tears.’

The memory of that moment reduces her to tears anew. Indeed, whenever she speaks about reuniting with Avichai, she starts to sob and I have to change the subject.

The hostages were divided into groups, put into cars and driven for hours until they eventually arrived at the location where they were due to meet Red Cross officials.

Thousands of people lined the route, eager to catch sight of the soon-to-be-released captives.

Hagar, the children, and all the other hostages were then made to walk to the Red Cross car parked 50 metres away.

‘You think 50 metres is a short distance. It isn’t,’ she says. ‘It is a really long distance when you have to walk 50 metres past a screaming, cheering crowd that is jumping at you and trying to grab you. It was completely terrifying.

‘And the entire time we were driving through the streets of Gaza, people in the streets were shouting at us and jumping on the car.’

And so it was a traumatised group of hostages that eventually made it back to Israel.

‘I was given a phone and told that Avichai – my husband – was waiting for my call. And I just couldn’t do it. It had only been a few hours since I was told that he was alive. That he was waiting for me. And in that moment it was too much.

‘We stayed in the base for one hour and I refused to change clothes. I told them that I wanted my family to see me as I was in Gaza. Then they took us in a helicopter to Schneider hospital and there I met Avichai and all my family.’

It soon became clear that the horrors they had witnessed and the suffering they had endured would linger for some time.

‘The children look the same but they are not the same. Our four-year-old Oriya just can’t be separated from me. He is with me all the time. Yuval, who is eight, has just started back at school for a few hours each day. Ofri – the big one – has nightmares. She is afraid of terrorists all the time. She is petrified by every little sound.

‘It’s not just that we were kidnapped and all the hell we’ve been through there. Also our community was destroyed and lots of my friends are dead.’

The way Hagar sees it, the government should make the release of all the remaining hostages its number one priority.

‘All the remaining hostages should come back home right now,’ she says. ‘No matter what. They’re in hell.

‘The hostages are ordinary people taken from their beds. They should be back home right now. There are still two babies in Gaza – Kfir and Ariel Bibas – they should be home now.’

*The identities of the hostages who were with Hagar but remain in captivity have been concealed for their safety.