Pornsawan Pinakalo’s three great aunts would not have missed his return for the world. Kularb Pinakalo’s knees couldn’t quite get her up to the room in Bangkok airport where her nephew was meeting other family members for the first time since being taken hostage in Gaza. But after travelling for four hours by van to the Thai capital, the 63-year-old was ready and waiting for him to emerge in the arrivals hall, alongside 84-year-old Nangnoi Pattataysan and Noi Prakobkan, 82.
“I just want to give him a hug,” Kularb said. She was so overwhelmed that she could hardly think of what to say to him, she added.
Pornsawan was one of 17 Thai nationals who landed in Bangkok on Thursday after the foreign ministry and Thai Muslim groups worked to negotiate their release.
Wearing shirts with the Thai and Israel flags, the freed hostages stood beside officials and paid tribute to the 39 Thai nationals killed in the war. Before the attacks on 7 October, 30,000 Thais were working on Israeli farms. Thais accounted for the biggest group of foreign nationals killed or injured in the conflict.
“I would like to express my condolences to our Thai workers who died,” said the group’s representative, Uthai Saengnuan. “We are sorry for their loss. I would like to ask everyone to spend a one-minute silence.”
Initially, Pornsawan’s family, from Nakhon Ratchasima province, had believed he was among those killed. His parents provided DNA samples to the Thai authorities, fearing the worst, but there was no match. His mother went to temple and promised the monk that if her son could return safely, he would be ordained for 15 days. When the Thai embassy in Tel Aviv called to say he was still alive, his mother cried with joy.
Nangnoi Pattataysan had brought with her a white thread to tie around Pornsawan’s wrist, a tradition that is believed to bring the spirit to the body, and that normally takes place during a bai sri su kwan ceremony. The traditional event is often held at times of celebration, such as weddings or an ordination, but also to bring consolation and comfort.
“I will tie up the white threads as soon as I see him,” Nangnoi said. “It is to call his kwan [spirit] back home.”
Pornsawan, 29, the main breadwinner in the family, was one of thousands of Thais who had moved from rural areas of the country to work in Israel’s agriculture industry, where salaries are often much higher than those at home.
Other families, mostly from the north-east, were not able to travel to Bangkok and instead waited for their loved ones in their home provinces or at local airports.
Boonchob Kongmanee, 62, from Amnat Charoen province, whose son Bancha Kongmanee was also among those who flew into Bangkok on Thursday, said she felt overjoyed. “It feels like I have won the lottery,” she said on Wednesday night from the family home, which was bustling with visitors preparing for his arrival. “I will say [to him]: I love you very much, I miss you, it is good to see you again.”
Bancha had been doing overtime in a farm close to Gaza on 7 October when he was taken by Hamas. He had gone out to work because he wanted to earn some extra money, Boonchob said, and prior to being taken he said over the phone that he did not think the 7 October attack seemed especially concerning. “He said he was used to hearing bombs but didn’t think it was critical,” she said.
His colleagues who had stayed back at their camp informed her that he was missing. “I thought I had lost my son,” she said. She waited for news and heard nothing. Monks at the temple reassured her he was still alive, she said. Like Pornsawan’s family, Bancha’s will also hold a bai sri su kwan ceremony to mark his return.
A total of 23 Thai hostages have now been released in Gaza and nine are still being held.
Nattawaree Moolkan, the only woman among the hostages, cried as she thanked everyone for their support on Thursday.
Uthai told reporters he was in better spirits now he was home, but added: “I don’t know how the other hostages are doing.”
The foreign minister, Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who flew from Israel to Thailand with the returnees, thanked the Israeli authorities for looking after them, as well as the governments of Malaysia and Qatar for supporting negotiation efforts.
Pornsawan had been working on a potato farm when he was kidnapped. “It would be better if all of our friends could come back,” he said. “When I was there I tried not to think too much about what might happen, because I was sad I wouldn’t see my family again.”
His aunts say as many as 100 people will come to their village ceremony on Friday to welcome him home. They have invited everyone they know.
“We haven’t slept a wink last night knowing that we would see him today,” said Noi Prakobkan. “I’m very excited to see Pornsawan.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report