‘We were constantly in terror’: Israeli hostage tells of captivity in Gaza

<span>Chen Almog-Goldstein: ‘They kept on telling us they’re not going to harm us and that we were very important to them.’</span><span>Photograph: Emine Sinmaz/The Guardian</span>
Chen Almog-Goldstein: ‘They kept on telling us they’re not going to harm us and that we were very important to them.’Photograph: Emine Sinmaz/The Guardian

Chen Almog-Goldstein refuses to forget her eldest daughter’s last moments. Yam, 20, was gasping for breath, having been shot in the face by Hamas gunmen, who minutes earlier had killed her father.

Almog-Goldstein, 49, did not see Yam or her husband, Nadav, again because she and her three surviving children were bundled into a car and abducted. During the seven-minute journey across the border into Gaza on 7 October, their two captors smiled and took photographs of the traumatised mother and children.

“Almost everything, every day, reminded us of Nadav and Yam,” said Almog-Goldstein of their 51 days in captivity. “But when we’d cry, we’d quickly have to wipe our faces and snap out of it because our guards would tell us to be happy, which in itself was a sort of emotional harm. We didn’t have the space to grieve.”

The family was moved repeatedly from tunnels to apartments, and later to a supermarket and a mosque, sometimes on foot and once on a donkey cart, as the bombardment around them intensified. Almog-Goldstein was more worried at times that she and her daughter, Agam, 17, and sons Gal, 11, and Tal, nine, would be killed by the Israeli offensive than by their captors, who once shielded the family with their bodies as shrapnel rained around them.

The family, who were released on 26 November as part of a week-long ceasefire deal, are trying to rebuild their lives but they still don’t have a permanent home.

On 7 October, the Almog-Goldsteins had barricaded themselves in Yam’s bedroom, which served as the safe room of their home in the Kfar Aza kibbutz. Five hours later, five Hamas gunmen burst in and shot Nadav, 48, in the chest at point-blank range.

The family had to step over the talented triathlete’s body as the militants led them outside, where Yam fainted. Almog-Goldstein tried to wet her daughter’s face in the bathroom before going to check on her other children. When she returned a few seconds later, she saw that Yam, a soldier just two months from the end of her service, had been shot in the face.

“I remember there was a hole in her cheek and she was gasping her last breaths. There was an exit hole on the other side and her head was bleeding profusely,” Almog-Goldstein said through tears.

“With time this image becomes more and more blurred but every night, throughout this whole time, just before night-time, I try to force myself to remember that image, that scene. It was such a difficult thing that I was witnessing, that it’s a process of self-torture in a way for me not to ever forget that.”

On their arrival in Gaza, the family were driven to the courtyard of a residential block and guided to a hole in the ground that led to a tunnel. “Throughout the entire event of the kidnapping all the kids were seemingly calm. They were not pulling my shirt, they were not screaming or shouting, but that was the moment my nine-year-old boy cried for the first time,” Almog-Goldstein said.

When Agam had a panic attack on day two of their underground confinement, one Hamas guard reassured her: “Tuesday, you’re back in Israel.”

That was not to be the case. The family were eventually driven to an apartment in a multi-storey block where they would spend the next five weeks. “You could see the sea, not very far off in the distance,” Almog-Goldstein recalled.

On some days, they were allowed to spend time in a child’s toy-filled bedroom, but they would spent most nights sleeping on mattresses in the corridor. They were not physically harmed and often ate pitta and cheese with their captors until food became scarce.

They were always watched over by at least three of their six heavily armed guards. “Because some of them would go and fight and then come back, that’s what they told us,” Almog-Goldstein said.

The family tried to establish a relationship with their guards, engaging them in long conversations as part of a “survival mechanism”. Two spoke some English and another was learning Hebrew.

“They kept on telling us they’re not going to harm us and that we were very important to them,” Almog-Goldstein said. “But we were always terrified they would flip on us, that they’d get an order from someone to harm us, because clearly they were low-ranking cogs in the machine. We were constantly in angst or terror.”

The guards also discussed politics and the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Ultimately it would always end with the guards telling us to go read history books; that we’re the ones who expelled them from their lands; we’re the ones who killed them; and we’re the ones who kept them in a pressure cooker that kept bubbling and bubbling until it erupted,” Almog-Goldstein said.

Some of the guards told the social worker they wanted to live side-by-side as neighbours, but others warned her to move away. “They told me to go to Tel Aviv but don’t return to Kfar Aza. They said: ‘We’ll return, we’ll be back.’ They asked: ‘Do you know how many we are in the organisation? On 7 October, we were 3,000. Next time we’ll be 20,000.’”

Almog-Goldstein said she also witnessed moments when her captors displayed “sensitivity and care”. One of the gunmen apologised for the killing of Nadav, whom Almog-Goldstein started dating in high school.

“We saw them cry, we saw them miss their wives,” she said. “We saw them writing letters to their wives and putting them in their pockets. We were worried about this, thinking why are you writing a letter now?”

Towards the end of the five weeks, the guards began receiving calls on a landline. Almog-Goldstein said she got the impression they were losing control. “There was disagreements among the captors and some sort of internal divisions,” she said.

From there, the family were taken on a 40-minute walk to a supermarket. It was then that they saw the damage wreaked by the Israeli offensive for the first time.

“I saw a lot of devastation and destruction,” Almog-Goldstein said. “It made me feel terrible seeing such poverty. It was very difficult to see that. It was not a great feeling of: ‘Oh great, we Israelis showed them.’”

The three guards apologised for making the family sleep in a storage room in the supermarket but said they had some hope that the war was about to end.

The next day the supermarket was hit by shrapnel from an Israeli aerial bombardment. “It was atrocious. It was the first time we really felt like our lives were in danger,” Almog-Goldstein said.

“We heard the constant shelling and bombing getting closer and closer and could already see all the stones flying around and the rubble and shrapnel. It was closing up on us to the point where the Hamas guards put mattresses over us on the floor to cover us, and then they covered us with their bodies to protect us from our own forces’ shooting.”

When the supermarket was hit again, the Palestinians living in apartments upstairs were evacuated. The family’s guards began arguing in the pitch dark outside about where to take them next.

“But there was massive bombardment again,” said Almog-Goldstein. “There was bombs falling and they shoved us against the wall to protect us.”

Each transfer that followed was terrifying for the family. The guards ended up taking them to a school inside a mosque where displaced Palestinians were sheltering. “It seemed like the people in the mosque did not want to take us in, they were afraid,” she recalled.

The family was moved again the next day, this time on a donkey cart, to a half-built apartment complex. Their guards did not know what to do when that building too was pounded.

“Whenever I’m talking about a shock wave from a bombing, what it actually means is that doorframes get blown out, windows shatter and the Palestinians just put some blankets up, fix it up to the best of their ability, and carry on. But the bodily toll it took on us was unimaginable,” Almog-Goldstein said.

From there, there was another school filled with tents where Palestinian families were sheltering. Many assumed the Almog-Goldsteins were also displaced from the war and offered them food and water.

The family became hopeful that the war, then in its seventh week, was ending because their captors seemed “excited about a looming ceasefire”. But their guards told them there was nowhere safe left in Gaza and that they would have to wait it out in an underground tunnel with six female Israeli hostages, including two children.

“Every encounter with captives in Gaza was truly exciting,” said Almog-Goldstein. “But three of the women were wounded, some had complex injuries, and some spoke about sexual assaults.”

She said the group discussed reporting the allegations to a Hamas commander on their release. “By and large, the Hamas commanders seemed to be receptive enough that we thought there might be a chance of relaying it,” she said.

But she doesn’t know whether that happened because most of the women were left behind. She is now desperate for the remaining hostages to return home, but added: “Having experienced how horrendous the fighting and bombardment was, I can’t really understand how you can both have that and care for the captives that are there.”