Held Hostage in Gaza, a Thai Worker’s Prayers for Freedom Come True

Held Hostage in Gaza, a Thai Worker’s Prayers for Freedom Come True

Some things she does not want to remember. Some things she cannot.

But one image is seared in Nutthawaree Munkan’s mind from Oct. 7, the day when Hamas and other militants stormed into Israel, taking her hostage in Gaza for nearly 50 days. As the percussive sounds of war drew closer, her boyfriend, Bunthom Phankhong, a fellow Thai farmhand working just five miles from the border, scrambled for his bicycle. Ms. Nutthawaree hopped on the back and looped her arms around him as he pedalled hard toward what they hoped was safety.

She recalls his churning legs over sere earth. Then armed men stopped the pair on the bicycle. That was the last time she saw her boyfriend before she was taken to Gaza, she said.

In captivity, huddled in an underground cell with four others, Ms. Nutthawaree prayed that her boyfriend would survive. She prayed that she would one day see her children back in Thailand, her hopes sustained by the affection of one of the hostages confined with her, an Israeli girl. She prayed that she would see her mother, to whom she sent money each month to support the household and pay off the family debt.

Surviving on bites of round bread and barely enough water, Ms. Nutthawaree, 35, made a vow: If her boyfriend made it through, they would marry. But first they would ordain, for a time, as a Buddhist monk and nun. This was love: to submit to the absence of worldly desire, for the promise of life.

The cell was not small, but fear filled it. Ms. Nutthawaree recalled being confined with two Thai men — she was the only Thai woman taken hostage — and an Israeli woman, Danielle Aloni, and her 5-year-old child, Emilia. To pass the time and distract from their hunger, Ms. Nutthawaree used her halting English to tell Emilia about Thai food, especially tangles of rice noodles flavored with tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce. Pad Thai noodles, Ms. Nutthawaree thought, would be best for a little Israeli girl unused to the bracing spice of Thai food, especially the chili-heavy fare of her native Isaan in northeastern Thailand.

She taught Emilia songs in Thai. She taught her how to count to 10. In return, Emilia, with the conviction of youth, told Ms. Nutthawaree that she would see Mr. Bunthom again.

When their captors said that in one or two days, or maybe three or four, they would be released, Ms. Nutthawaree wasn’t sure she could trust them. She had been moved several times to different underground cells. She frequently heard explosions, although she did not know who was carrying out the airstrikes. She didn’t understand where the guards told her she was.

“Gaza?” she said. “I’ve never heard of this country before.”

On Nov. 24, the five occupants of the cell were hustled out into the open air, the first time in 48 days. Ms. Nutthawaree did not yet know that at least 39 Thai farmworkers had been killed by the terrorists. And she had no idea that three dozen Thais had been abducted, making them the biggest group of victims of the Oct. 7 attacks after Israelis.

Near the border, among the crowd of 24 hostages from three different nations released that day, stood a man. His height was around that of Mr. Bunthom, but Ms. Nutthawaree is nearsighted. She recalled squinting as the man, thinner than she remembered, came closer.

Ms. Nutthawaree and Mr. Bunthom joined hands, in a quiet reunion at last.

Six days after her release, as Ms. Nutthawaree recuperated in Israel, Mr. Bunthom by her side, she took a video call with Emilia, arranged by Israeli officials. Counting on her fingers, she watched as the Israeli girl practiced her Thai numbers, stumbling only over the number seven.

After showers and food, the two looked different. Emilia said Ms. Nutthawaree looked beautiful. She returned the compliment and blew kisses through the phone, as she used to do with her children back in Thailand.

Separated for years from her 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, Ms. Nutthawaree knew that life could be shared, somehow, through a screen. She used to video chat with them three or four times a day, she said. When Ms. Nutthawaree opened her Facebook account after emerging from Gaza, she found a torrent of messages from her children. Each day for seven weeks, they sent news of their lives, a singing contest or a school triumph. Mostly, her children wondered where Ms. Nutthawaree was and told her they missed her. They ordered her to come home.

The messages, Ms. Nutthawaree said, saddened her.

“It was like a conversation,” she said, “but I couldn’t answer.”

On Dec. 11, a week and a half after the couple returned to Thailand, Mr. Bunthom, his head shaved and his body wrapped in a ceremonial white tunic, climbed on his nephew’s shoulders in his home village of Ban Hin Ngom. A crowd of relatives and villagers cheered as Mr. Bunthom was lifted into the air as part of his monastic ordination ceremony. A woman threw marigold petals in the air, a shower of botanical confetti.

The sun was hot in Isaan, home to most of the 30,000 Thai farmworkers who tilled fields and processed produce in Israel. Salaries in Israel are at least five times that of what people can earn in Isaan, and Mr. Bunthom and Ms. Nutthawaree both had family debt to pay off.

Though jobs in Israel have offered financial salvation to many Thais, the Oct. 7 attacks were a terrifying demonstration of the risks.

Anucha Angkaew was one of the Thais taken hostage from a farm near Gaza. Gunmen shot dead two others with whom he had been hiding. For the first four days of his captivity, while held in an underground compound just 30 minutes’ drive from his farm, Mr. Anucha had his hands bound behind his back. He eventually lost 37 pounds.

Mr. Anucha was released shortly after Ms. Nutthawaree and Mr. Bunthom. (Nine Thais are believed to remain hostage.) His family debt is paid off. Back in Isaan, he sat in front of the nearly finished house that his salary from Israel bought him. His father couldn’t stop grinning, as he smoothed cement. His mother laughed, too, at how in just over a week, she had managed to put more than six pounds back on her son’s frame by feeding him his favorite spicy beef tartare and fried grasshoppers.

“I am glad I went to Israel to make money,” Mr. Anucha said, “but I am afraid of going abroad again.”

Many people in Mr. Bunthom’s temple procession had worked overseas or had family who had. The scale of the Oct. 7 attacks shocked Isaan residents, even if they knew that farms near the border with Gaza were occasionally targeted by Hamas rockets, killing Thai workers. Ms. Nutthawaree said she never got used to the explosions.

“It’s a world-level war, and it’s hard to imagine how Thais would get involved,” said Phra Kru Photit Wattirakhun, a senior monk at the village temple.

At the entrance to the temple, Mr. Bunthom was lowered down, a golden parasol shielding his newly shorn head. He is to serve as a monk here for a week before continuing religious duties at Ms. Nutthawaree’s village a couple hours’ drive away. She plans to take vows as a nun for a month.

Mr. Bunthom repeated after the senior cleric the precepts that he needed to follow as a monk, such as avoiding perfumes, dancing, sex and alcohol. His Pali, the holy language of Buddhism, was rusty. The cleric joked that Mr. Bunthom had been in Israel too long.

After Mr. Bunthom disappeared into the meditative seclusion of the temple, Ms. Nutthawaree considered more earthly matters. In her four years in Israel, working even on her day off, she had cleared her debts. But, like the other 22 Thai hostages released so far, she had to pay for the airplane ticket from Bangkok to her home province. (The flight from Israel to Bangkok was covered by the Thai government.)

The constant stream of well-wishers and government officials to her family home meant having to buy gallons of refreshments and food. The ordination ceremonies are expensive. So is all the document work — notarizing, copying, printing — required to apply for compensation from the Thai and Israeli governments. So far, Ms. Nutthawaree has been given $300 from the Thai government and $280 from Israel, she said. She hopes for more but does not expect it.

While Ms. Nutthawaree was held by Hamas, her salary was no longer sent home, Her mother went to the pawnshop to sell gold rings and necklaces to cover costs. Ms. Nutthawaree says she will soon have to head overseas for work, as her mother once did picking berries in Sweden. She hopes that Mr. Bunthom can come with her — perhaps to Australia, because the idea of harvesting carrots and spring onions with kangaroos hopping by sounds nice, she says.

There is no assurance, however, that Australia is open for the couple. Israel, she said, might beckon again. The pay was good. It’s where they fell in love.

“When it’s peaceful, when they stop shooting, we might go back,” she said. “I was very happy working there, and he and I, as partners, never lacked for work.”