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Freed Israeli hostage says she endured ‘psychological warfare’ during 50 days of Hamas captivity

Doron Katz Asher said her daughters can “remember every little detail” about October 7.

How they woke to the sound of sirens and hid in their shelter. How the gunshots got nearer. How, when the doors burst open, their grandfather rushed out of the shelter so Hamas gunmen wouldn’t see the rest of them hiding inside. How he was taken. How they left the door open to the shelter in the hope other attackers would think it had already been raided and move on. How that didn’t work.

Asher, her mother and daughters, 5-year-old Raz and 2-year-old Aviv, were thrown into the back of a tractor with other hostages from the kibbutz, before gunmen opened fire. Asher was shot in her back; Aviv was shot in the leg; her mother was shot dead.

Asher, 34, and her daughters were taken into Gaza, where they were kept first in a home, then in a hospital, before being released in November during a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Asher and her daughters were taken first to an apartment that belonged to a family in Gaza. “They stitched my wounds without anesthetic, on the couch while my girls were next to me,” Asher said.

After being exposed to the October 7 terror attack that she called a “war movie,” Asher said she tried to reassure her daughters the danger was over. “I told them there are no terrorists anymore and we’re with good people now who are guarding us until we can return home,” she said.

The three of them were watched over every hour of the day by children and grandchildren of the owner of the house. Asher never learned their names, but was able to communicate with the father, whom she said spoke Hebrew as he used to work in Israel.

While Asher and her daughters were not harmed physically, she said she was subjected to “psychological warfare.”

“They didn’t give us a lot of information, they mainly tried to say that Hamas wants to release us but in Israel no one cares about us,” Asher said. “That we won’t return to live in the kibbutz because it’s not our house – it’s not the place where we belong.”

But she said she did not believe them – and that the sound of fighting outside the building in Gaza was “how we knew that something was going on in order to get us back home, to put pressure on Hamas to release us.”

After 16 days, Asher and her daughters were taken from the apartment to what she described as a “so-called” hospital in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. Why “so-called”?

Because a hospital is “a place that is supposed to take care of people, but instead it was taken over by Hamas and they used it to hide hostages,” Asher said.

The Israeli military has repeatedly said Hamas hides terrorist infrastructure in and around civilian institutions in Gaza, such as hospitals – a claim denied by the militant group. The US has said that Hamas used the Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza, as a command center and a place to hold hostages. Asher did not say where she was held.

Asher was joined by other hostages in the hospital complex – the first captives she had met since being taken into Gaza.

She said she received some medication when her daughters became sick while being kept inside, “but it wasn’t enough.”

When Aviv contracted a fever, Asher put her in the sink with cold water to bring her temperature down. “She was screaming. They would tell us to keep quiet, but the girl had a fever and I had to take care of her somehow.” They remained in the hospital for nearly five weeks.

Asked what her darkest moment was, Asher said “surprisingly, it was the day that we were released.”

When they were “smuggled” out of the hospital into a Hamas vehicle, she did not know where she was being taken. “No one told us that we were getting released,” she said, “so the drive through the streets of Gaza was very, very frightening.”

She said the streets were lined with thousands of people – including children and the elderly – trying to hit the car and knock on its windows. Asher said she feared she would be lynched.

“This is the first time that Raz said to me, after a month and a half of me protecting her, ‘Mommy, I’m scared,’” Asher said.

A total of 105 people were released by Hamas during a temporary truce with Israel, which began on November 24 and ended December 1. Videos capturing some of the moments the hostages were transferred to Red Cross staff often showed Hamas members acting kindly towards the hostages, holding the hands of elderly women, for instance, and helping them out of cars.

“It’s one big show,” Asher said. “Before I was released, my girls and I were barefoot for 50 days. We were cold because they were wearing short sleeves in November.” But before they were handed over to Red Cross staff, they were given shoes and Hamas members “put me in a nice dress,” Asher said.

Once they were back in Israel, Asher and her daughters were taken to a hospital in Tel Aviv before being discharged and returning home. The first thing her daughters did was “to go outside to feel the wind on their skin,” Asher said.

“We didn’t see daylight that entire time … for them, just to be able to run outside, here in our yard, that’s the first thing they did.”

Her family is now trying to regain some semblance of normality. But Asher said the trauma easily resurfaces.

“There was one day that they saw a tractor here and they asked if the evil men are here. I had to tell them no, the tractor doesn’t belong to the evil men,” Asher said. “The tractor isn’t the thing that hurt you, it’s something we work with in the field, in construction.”

Asher said she has been unable to mourn the death of her mother. “While we were hostages all of my energy was devoted to the girls, because if I were to get lost in grief there would be no one to take care of them,” she said. “I was acting on autopilot … I’m still on autopilot.”

And the relief she felt once released has been tainted by the knowledge that others remain in Gaza. As of December 29, 106 hostages remain in Gaza, as well as the bodies of 23 who have been killed, according to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

Among them is Gadi Moses, Asher’s mother’s partner. “We’re waiting for him, he’s going to be 80, he’s without his meds,” Asher said.

The Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad – another Islamist group operating in Gaza – released a video in December showing Gadi Moses and another hostage, Gadi Katzir, 47, speaking in front of the camera, asking the Israeli government to arrange their release. “He got very skinny – we saw him in the video,” Asher said.

“I can’t comprehend what has happened to my family, and I can’t comprehend the inhumanity of them. People who murder people in their beds. Who does that? That’s not human.”

Bianna Golodryga conducted the interview in Tel Aviv and Christian Edwards wrote from London.

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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