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Hamas’s hostages regaining freedom face new tragedy, joy and life changes

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JERUSALEM — Ruti Munder spent seven weeks as a captive in Gaza grieving for her husband of 55 years, whom she last saw amid the chaos of Hamas fighters overrunning their tiny kibbutz of Nir Oz.

On that Saturday, Ruti and Avraham Munder were hiding in their safe room with their daughter Karen and 9-year-old grandson, Ohad. Avraham, a 78-year-old in poor health, tried desperately to hold the door against Hamas fighters trying to break in.

“He was not as strong as they were,” said Eyal Mor, the Munders’ nephew.

Avraham was forced to kneel on the ground as the other three were taken captive and driven away. For 49 days, they assumed he was dead, Mor said.

Only on Friday night did Munder — part of the first group of Israeli hostages to be freed as part of a humanitarian pause in Gaza — learn that Avraham had not been killed, but captured. Somewhere in the dark tunnels, or above ground as airstrikes rained down, her life partner was waiting for freedom, just as she was. He is waiting still.

“Until yesterday, they thought he was murdered,” Munder’s niece Merav Raviv said in a briefing to reporters Monday.

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As dozens of former hostages emerge from nearly two months of total isolation, they return to lives both familiar and forever changed. Some, like Munder, learned that loved ones survived Oct. 7. Others had their worst fears confirmed — that they would never again see siblings, mothers, fathers and children.

Amid the joy of family reunions, hostages discovered they would have new pets waiting for them at home, or that they have no homes to return to. Or even hometowns. All they know now is that Israel is a nation at war, and they are the focus of a horrified world.

“They didn’t know anything,” said Raviv. “They didn’t know they are famous.”

Learning of major changes can be one of the most disorienting aspects of regaining freedom, experts said.

“The isolation is dramatic,” said Asher Ben-Arieh, dean of Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, an expert who helped craft detailed protocols now being used to cushion returning children from the shocks of reintegration. “Isolation is a major part of the trauma of losing control of your life.”

The teams and family members meeting the hostages are careful not to flood them with information; they encourage them to ask questions and seek understanding at their own pace.

“It’s important for them to regain control,” he said.

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Children are treated with special care. Some of the young teenagers were held apart from their parents, Ben-Arieh said. “Where is my mother?” would be their first question, the soldiers meeting them outside of Gaza were told, and they were trained to say only that they were taking them to a safe place.

“Only professionals and a family member give them the news, good or bad,” Ben-Arieh said. “And it’s usually bad.”

The first hostages to be released have described a subterranean purgatory in which they were deprived of light, adequate food, comfortable sleep and information.

Thin rations, heavy bombing: Israel’s hostages start sharing their stories

Only the barest details penetrated to the chambers where they were held in small groups — sharing with each other what scraps they could about the unimaginable events that had only begun to unfold when they were dragged away.

“They themselves don’t fully understand what happened on October 7th. They weren’t here for all the testimony and the stories,” said Zohar Avigdor, whose sister-in-law Sharon and niece Noam, 12, were released late Saturday.

Like many, the two only learned after the first joyful tears of reunion that there was also deferred grief to endure. Sharon’s brother, whom they were visiting that day, and two other family members, were killed by militants.

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There were happy surprises too. After Noam’s father mentioned her long-standing wish for a dog in an Israeli television interview, she is about to get two new puppies. The mother and daughter were greeted by more than 2,000 people lining the road to their house, and they are coming to terms with seeing themselves on posters across Israel.

“They are getting used to the fact that everybody knows their faces and saw their stories and they are less of a private person,” Avigdor said.

Noam Or, 17, and his sister Alma Or, 13, waited 50 days to be reunited with their parents, according to their uncle. But soon after getting out of the Army helicopter Saturday, they learned from their grandmother that their mother was killed on Oct. 7, and their father is still missing, believed to be held by Hamas.

They learned that Beeri, the kibbutz where they grew up, is in ruins. Adva Adar, the grandmother who was driven into Gaza in her own golf cart, found out her home is a charred ruin.

“People are learning that entire communities were erased, burned to the ground,” Avigdor said.

In some cases, the trauma has to be processed first by released parents before they feel ready to share it with their children.

“Some of the children have only gotten the news [of a lost grandmother or friend or neighbor] after two or three days,” Ben-Arieh said.

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What we know about Hamas hostage releases in the Israel-Gaza deal

Ronit Lubetzky, director of pediatrics at the Dana Children’s Hospital in Tel Aviv, described an emotional envelope of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists “for those who need it to mark a return to normal routine.”

In a news conference Tuesday, she said the issues faced by the young hostages included orthopedic and nutritional problems. One little girl asked for, and was given, empanadas. Siblings Erez and Sahar Kalderon craved yogurt with granola and grapes.

“It is necessary to monitor carefully the amount of food they should consume,” Lubetzky said.

Tuesday also brought grim new accounts of life in captivity. Esther Yahalomi, the grandmother of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, who was freed on Tuesday, told Israeli media: “In the first 16 days, he was alone in a closed room. … It’s going to take a lot of work to get him talking again.”

Ruti Munder’s family had been agonizing over how to tell her that among those killed in Nir Oz on Oct. 7 was her son, Roy.

But she had already been mourning him too, having learned about his death from a radio broadcast that one of her captors had been listening to.

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She wasn’t surprised, given the the gunfire and explosions they heard as they were taken away to Gaza.

“They killed whoever they wanted to in Nir Oz,” Munder said in an interview Monday with Israeli television.

On learning that her husband was among the survivors, she joins the rest of her family in keeping vigil for his release.

Judith Sudilovsky contributed from Jerusalem.

Source: Washington Post

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