Hila Rotem Shoshani had invited her friend Emily Hand to spend the night at Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel. The girls, then ages 12 and 8, woke up early the next morning, on October 7, to the sound of thunderous explosions – the beginning of the deadliest attack in their country’s history.
For about six hours, Hila and Emily hid in the safe room of the house with Hila’s mother, Raaya Rotem, 54, as Hamas attackers invaded the kibbutz. Then, armed men burst in with guns and knives and took the three into a landscape of horror, past bodies and burning buildings, to a car. One of the attackers noticed Hila clutching a stuffed animal. She grabbed it and tossed it aside.
“I had it in my hand the whole time. I didn’t realize,” Hila said Friday in an interview in New York, before speaking at a rally in support of the remaining hostages. “When you are afraid you don’t realize it.”
Hila was one of more than 30 children kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 and held until late November, when they, along with dozens of adults, were released during a brief truce. Hila, now 13, is the youngest of the returned hostages to speak out about the harsh conditions in which they were held, seeking to highlight the plight of more than 100 hostages who remain in Gaza.
Hila said that during the terrifying journey to Gaza, surrounded by Hamas terrorists, was the first time she fully realized how “really close” the territory was to the community in which she had grown up.
She said she, her mother and Emily were taken to a house in Gaza, where they were put in a dark room with a couple of other hostages. At first, an armed guard remained in the room, but eventually moved to the living room.
“They understood that we were not going to flee,” Hila said. “It’s dangerous outside too. Why would we run away?”
They were warned not to try to escape, Hila said, and told that “if we leave, ‘the people there don’t like you, so they’ll kill you anyway.’”
Their captors gave them little food. (half a pita and a little halva some days, canned beans on others) and very little water, often well water so unpleasant, Hila said, that she had to force herself to drink.
Sometimes the captors ate while the captives did not, he said: “There were days when there was simply no food and they kept it for themselves.”
From time to time, Hila said, they heard other children’s voices and wondered if they were in another part of the house. They had to ask permission to use the bathroom, and Hila learned the Arabic word for it, hammam.
Once, a nearby explosion caused their bedroom window to shatter, Hila said, but they escaped unharmed.
A few times, he said, they were woken up in the middle of the night and hurried away in the dark.
“At first they told us, ‘You will move to a safer place,’” Hila said. “But we didn’t know if they would kill us.”
The girls were told to remain silent. Emily turned 9 and Hila’s birthday was approaching. They tried to keep themselves busy, drawing or playing.
“We play cards, but how much can you play cards, all day, every hour?” Hila said.
Freedom came suddenly, he said.
About a month and a half into their captivity, the captors suddenly separated the girls from Hila’s mother.
“Mom had started to be afraid that something wasn’t right, that they wouldn’t take her,” Hila said, adding, “and then they came and took us, and she stayed.”
The girls were then released and returned to Israel. The separation of mother and son violated the terms of the exchange agreement, sparking outrage in Israel. Raaya was finally released several days later, just after Hila’s 13th birthday.