UDON THANI - When farm labourer Anucha Angkaew scrambled out of the bunker where he had been sheltering from rockets on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip around 7.30am on Oct 7, he expected to see Israeli soldiers.
Instead, Anucha and his five Thai colleagues were accosted by 10 armed militants, whom he identified as Hamas by the Palestine flags on their sleeves.
“We shouted ‘Thailand, Thailand’,” said Anucha, a soft-spoken 28-year-old with a wispy goatee. “But they didn’t care.”
Two of the six Thais were killed soon after, including a friend who Anucha said was shot dead in front of him in a random act of violence. The rest were forced on to a truck for a roughly 30 minute ride into Gaza.
Anucha’s first-person account offers a glimpse into what many hostages endured — and some continue to endure. He described sleeping on a sandy floor and beatings by Hamas captors, who he said singled out Israelis for especially brutal treatment.
To keep their hopes up, the four Thai men relied on chess games on a makeshift board, memories of family and craving for Thai food. Few of the freed hostages have spoken at length about their ordeal, though others who have since been released also described beatings and death threats.
Hamas officials did not immediately respond to a written request for comment on Anucha’s account.
“I thought I would die,” he said on Wednesday, at his family home in Don Pila in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, where he returned this month after 50 days in captivity.
Almost all that time was spent inside two small underground rooms, secured by armed guards and accessed by dark narrow tunnels.
At least 240 people — Israelis and foreign nationals — were abducted to Gaza on Oct 7 by Hamas militants who burst through the border and killed some 1,200 people. More than 100 hostages — largely women, children and non-Israelis — have been released.
In retaliation for the attack, Israel mounted a devastating bombing campaign and ground offensive that has killed more than 15,000 people, according to figures from Palestinian health officials deemed reliable by the United Nations.
Some 130 people, including eight Thais, remain captive. Before the war, around 30,000 Thai labourers worked in the agriculture sector, making them one of Israel’s largest migrant worker groups. Israel offers the farmhands higher wages.
Thailand, which has friendly ties with Israel, recognised Palestine as a sovereign state in 2012.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has compared the dead Thai hostages to “heroes” and said the released captives would receive the same benefits as their Israeli counterparts. (Story continues below)
Freed hostage Anucha Angkaew talks on his mobile phone at his home in Udon Thani. (Photo: Reuters)
Two meals, two bottles of water
Once in Gaza, the uniformed militants handed the Thais to a small group of men who took them to an abandoned house and tied their hands behind their backs.
The Thais were joined by a terrified 18-year-old Israeli, a man Anucha said he knew from Kibbutz Re’im, where he worked on an avocado farm.
Beatings began shortly after, as their captors punched and kicked them. “We shouted ‘Thailand, Thailand’,” he said, which eased the intensity of the blows. The young Israeli wasn’t spared.
An hour later, all five were put into another truck that drove for about 30 minutes to a small building that led into a tunnel.
Near the mouth of the tunnel, they were beaten again and photographed, Anucha said, before walking through a dark, roughly metre-wide passage to a small room.
In this windowless space, which measured around 1.5 by 1.5 metres and was lit by a bulb, the five were joined by another Israeli man. The militants continued kicking and punching the captives for two days, Anucha said. After that, they persisted with another two days of beatings for the Israelis, who were whipped using electrical wires.
Anucha was not seriously injured but weeks after his release from captivity, his wrist still bore marks from the restraints.
The captives slept on the bare sandy floor. The six men were served flat bread twice a day and shared two bottles of water between them that was replenished daily.
Their toilet was a hole in the ground near the room, where they were taken by one of eight guards armed with assault weapons that resembled AK-47s. Guards told them not to talk among themselves.
“I felt hopeless,” Anucha said.
Anucha initially counted down the days by the number of meals. After four days, the six were marched to another room.
During the walk, Anucha said the tunnel, which was lit by flash lights carried by their captors, was lined with metal doors. (Story continues below)
Anucha Angkaew shows a sketch of one of the rooms where he was held captive in Gaza, at his family home in Don Pila, Udon Thani. (Photo: Reuters)
‘Thailand, go home’
Their new room was more spacious. They had plastic sheets to sleep on. Three bulbs lit the space. An alcove served as their toilet.
The beatings stopped. The food improved to include nuts, butter and, later, rice.
Still using meals to measure time, Anucha left scratches on the floor to mark the number of days in captivity. That changed when a guard brought in some papers for them to sign. He, like the other guards, only spoke Arabic. The Israelis interpreted for Anucha, who said he speaks rudimentary Hebrew.
But the guard left behind a white ballpoint pen. They used it to mark time, draw tattoos and sketch a chessboard on the plastic sheet. Chess pieces were crafted out of a pink-and-green toothpaste box. Another distraction was talk of food. Anucha craved soi ju, a Thai delicacy of pieces of raw beef dipped in spicy sauce, that he dreamed and spoke of.
“Food was a source of hope,” he said, smiling.
Weeks passed. Anucha had no inkling of the Israeli raids and bombings aboveground. He often thought of home, his father, his seven year old daughter and his partner of 14 years.
On Day 35, a man dressed in black arrived for a brief inspection. From his demeanour and the respectful behaviour of the guards, the captives surmised he was a senior Hamas leader.
Their routine resumed, until one day, a guard arrived following their first meal and announced: “Thailand, go home.”
The four Thais were led through tunnels for roughly two hours and arrived overground to a Hamas facility, where a handful of female Israeli hostages were also waiting.
Some 11 hours later, they were handed over to the Red Cross, which drove them out of Gaza on Nov 25.
“I didn’t think I would get released,” he said, “It was like I was reborn.”
But the hardest part was still what he saw on Oct 7, Anucha said. “I lost my friend in front of my eyes.”