First on CNN: Father describes how his young daughter Emily Hand survived Hamas captivity

Emily Hand had to run from house to house, forced to move by Hamas as Israeli forces attacked Gaza, her father Thomas Hand told CNN.

“That’s terrifying. Being pulled, dragged, pushed … under gunfire probably,” he said on Tuesday.

It’s one of the details that his daughter is slowly sharing of what happened after she was kidnapped on October 7 and taken to Gaza, a place she now calls “the box.”

“She’s coming out slowly, little by little,” Hand said.

“We’ll only know what she really went through as she opens up,” he told CNN. “I want to know so much information … but you have to let them, when they are ready, come out with it.”

Emily, who turned 9 in captivity, was held with her friend Hila Rotem-Shoshani and Hila’s mother Raaya before the children were released last Saturday.

Raaya looked after Hila and Emily like they were both her daughters, Hand said. And the separation of Hila from her mother two nights before the girls were freed – in contravention of agreements made between Hamas and Israel – was “another step of cruelty,” he said.

This September 2023 photo shows Emily Hand near Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel. - Yael Shahrur Noah/AP
This September 2023 photo shows Emily Hand near Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel. - Yael Shahrur Noah/AP

From death to captivity to hope

Emily had been at a sleepover at Hila’s house when Hamas terrorists stormed Kibbutz Be’eri. Hand was trapped in his house for hours, unable to reach his daughter, as the community was ravaged – about 130 residents killed and others captured.

About two days later, he was told by kibbutz leaders Emily’s body had been seen. He told CNN: “They just said, ‘We found Emily. She’s dead.’ And I went, ‘Yes!’ I went, ‘Yes!’ and smiled because that is the best news of the possibilities that I knew … So death was a blessing, an absolute blessing.”

But nearly a month later, the Israeli army told him it was “highly probable” Emily was alive and a hostage of Hamas. Hand said the military had been piecing together bits of information and intelligence. None of the remains at Kibbutz Be’eri were identified as those of Emily. There was no blood in the house where she slept. And cellphones belonging to Hila’s family had been tracked to Gaza.

From feeling that death would be a blessing, he now had all the fear of the conditions Emily was being held in. “The unknown is awful. The waiting is awful,” he told CNN while she was a captive. But there was also some hope.

Celebration with Beyoncé video and family dog

Eight weeks after he had last seen his daughter, Hand was informed Emily was on the list of the second batch of hostages to be released under the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas.

He tried to hold back his excitement as he reached the base where the freed hostages were being taken. There was a long delay and then word that she was with the Red Cross.

“All of a sudden the door opened up and she just ran. It was beautiful, just like I had imagined it, running together,” Thomas said. “I probably squeezed her too hard,” he added, giving his view of the now iconic video of the reunion where he greets his daughter with her nickname “Emush.”

“It was only when she stepped back that I could see her face was chiseled, like mine, whereas before it was chubby, girly, a young kid face.”

Like the other hostages, Emily has lost body weight and Hand said he had never seen her so pale.

And he was jolted when she spoke to him.

“The most shocking, disturbing part of meeting her was she was just whispering, you couldn’t hear her. I had to put my ear on her lips,” he said. “She’d been conditioned not to make any noise.”

A photograph of father and daughter released by the Israel Defense Forces shows a glimpse of the situation, Thomas said.

“You could just see glassy-eyed terror,” he said.

But he also saw a sign of the child he knew when he offered her his phone in the van leaving the handover.

“The first thing she did was get a Beyoncé song on,” he said, adding that she was also smiling and was starting to laugh again.

He had taken the family dog Johnsie to the reunion to offer and receive unconditional love in case Emily was angry at him for not coming to rescue her – a fear he has held since he learned she was alive.

But Emily told her father she thought he had been taken hostage too.

And when he asked her how long she thought she was gone, she replied “a year.”

“Apart from the whispering, that was a punch in the guts. A year.”

Emily Hand embraces her father at a hospital in Israel after being released by Hamas on November 25. - IDF/AFP via Getty Images
Emily Hand embraces her father at a hospital in Israel after being released by Hamas on November 25. - IDF/AFP via Getty Images

Deprivation, but now recovery

The hostages had enough food to survive and plenty of water to drink, Hand said. “They always had a breakfast, sometimes lunch, sometimes something in the evening.”

Emily was so hungry she learned to like eating plain bread with olive oil.

She said “nobody hit us” and Hand imagines that just the strength of voices was enough to control her. The children could not make noise and were allowed to do little but draw and play with some cards.

He is so grateful that Emily was held with Hila and Raaya for the most part, getting solace from knowing Emily had someone to care for her. “She looked after them like her own two kids.”

Emily lost her mother to cancer when she was just 2 years old. And Hand has had to tell her that her “second mom” was killed on October 7. Narkis Hand was Hand’s former wife, and mother to Emily’s two half-siblings.

“That was very hard. We told her and her little eyes glazed over and she took a sharp intake of breath,” he said.

Along with her sorrow, her pale skin and hollowed out face, Emily has returned with a head full of lice, Hand said.

But she is slowly coming back. She tries to stretch out the days with her family but when she finally goes to bed she really sleeps.

And she hasn’t shut down. “Last night she cried until her face was red and blotchy, she couldn’t stop. She didn’t want any comfort, I guess she’s forgotten how, to be comforted” Hand said.  “She went under the covers of the bed, the quilt, covered herself up and quietly cried.”

She didn’t want to be touched so Hand just waited until she was ready. “She’s a very determined little girl, very strong, I knew that her spirit would get her through it.”

Emily and Hila now look out for each other, Hand said. They celebrated Hila’s 13th birthday with a cake in hospital on Monday and a cake was brought for Emily too, for the 9th birthday she missed in Gaza.

Thomas’s focus is now split. He must get Emily well. And he will do all he can to get Raya back home and all the other hostages too. And he hopes the support he felt while Emily was missing will stay strong.

“We have to get Raaya back for Hila, back for Emily, back for justice,” he said.

“Don’t go silent on us now,” he implored the world. “Bring them home, bring them home.”

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