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

Some things she doesn’t want to remember. Some things she can’t.

But there is an image etched in Nutthawaree Munkan’s mind from October 7, the day Hamas and other militants stormed into Israel, holding her hostage in Gaza for nearly 50 days. As the percussive sounds of war approached, her boyfriend, Bunthom Phankhong, a Thai farmer who worked just five miles from the border, ran toward her bicycle. Mrs Nutthawaree jumped into the back and put her arms around him as he pedaled hard towards what they hoped was safety.

She remembers her legs shaking on the dry earth. Then, armed men stopped the couple who were riding a 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 other people, Nutthawaree prayed that her boyfriend would survive. He prayed that one day he would be able to see her children in Thailand, and her hopes were sustained by the affection of one of the hostages confined with her, an Israeli girl. She prayed to see her mother, to whom she sent money every month to maintain the home and pay the family debt.

Surviving on bites of round bread and barely enough water, Nutthawaree, 35, made a promise: If her boyfriend survived, they would get married. But first, Buddhist monks and nuns would be ordained for a time. This was love: submitting to the absence of worldly desires, for the promise of life.

The cell was not small, but fear invaded it. Nutthawaree recalled being confined with two Thai men (she was the only Thai woman taken hostage) and an Israeli woman, Danielle Aloni, and her five-year-old daughter, Emilia. To pass the time and distract himself from hunger, Nutthawaree used her broken English to talk to Emilia about Thai food, especially rice noodles seasoned with tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Pad Thai noodles, she Nutthawaree thought, would be best for an Israeli girl unaccustomed to the bracing spices of Thai food, especially the chili-rich food of her native Isaan in northeastern Thailand.

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

When her captors said that in a day or two, or maybe three or four, they would be freed, 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.

“Loop?” she said. “I had never heard of this country before.”

On November 24, the five occupants of the cell were taken outdoors, the first time in 48 days. Ms. Nutthawaree did not yet know that terrorists had killed at least 39 Thai farm workers. And she had no idea that three dozen Thais had been kidnapped, making them the largest group of victims of the October 7 attacks after the Israelis.

Near the border, among the crowd of 24 hostages from three different nations released that day, was a man. His height was about Mr. Bunthom’s, but Mrs. Nutthawaree is nearsighted. She remembered narrowing her eyes as the man, thinner than she remembered, approached.

Ms Nutthawaree and Mr Bunthom shook hands, finally a quiet meeting.

Six days after his release, while Nutthawaree was recovering in Israel, with Bunthom by his side, he had 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 on the number seven.

After showers and food, they both looked different. Emilia said Mrs. Nutthawaree looked beautiful. She returned the compliment and blew kisses through the phone, like she used to do with her children in Thailand.

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

The messages, Nutthawaree said, made her sad.

“It was like a conversation,” he said, “but I couldn’t respond.”

On December 11, a week and a half after the couple returned to Thailand, Bunthom, his head shaved and his body wrapped in a white ceremonial robe, climbed onto his nephew’s shoulders in his hometown of Ban Hin Ngom. . A crowd of family members and villagers cheered as Mr Bunthom was lifted into the air as part of his monastic ordination ceremony. A woman tossed marigold petals into the air, a shower of botanical confetti.

The sun was hot in Isaan, home to most of the 30,000 Thai agricultural workers who cultivated fields and processed agricultural products in Israel. Salaries in Israel are at least five times what people can earn in Isaan, and both Bunthom and Nutthawaree had family debts to pay off.

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

Anucha Angkaew was one of the Thais taken hostage on a farm near Gaza. Gunmen shot dead two other people he had been hiding with. For the first four days of his captivity, while he was held in an underground compound just a 30-minute drive from his farm, Mr. Anucha had his hands tied 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 settled. Back in Isaan, he sat in front of the almost finished house he bought for her with his salary from Israel. His father couldn’t stop smiling as he smoothed the cement. His mother also laughed at how in just over a week she had managed to put more than six pounds back on her son’s body by feeding him her favorite spicy beef tartare and her fried grasshoppers.

“I’m glad I went to Israel to earn money,” Anucha said, “but I’m afraid to travel abroad again.”

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

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

At the temple entrance, Lord Bunthom was taken down, with a golden parasol protecting his freshly severed head. He will serve here as a monk for a week before continuing his religious duties in Mrs Nutthawaree’s village, a couple of hours drive away. She plans to take vows as a nun for a month.

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

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

The constant flow of supporters and government officials to his family home meant having to buy gallons of soda and food. Ordination ceremonies are expensive. So is all the documentary work (notary, photocopying, printing) necessary to request compensation from the Thai and Israeli governments. So far, Nutthawaree has received $300 from the Thai government and $280 from Israel, she said. She expects more but she doesn’t expect it.

While Ms. Nutthawaree was held by Hamas, her salary was no longer sent home. Her mother went to the pawn shop to sell gold rings and necklaces to cover the costs. Nutthawaree says she will soon have to travel abroad to work, like her mother did picking berries in Sweden. She hopes Mr Bunthom can go with her, perhaps to Australia, because the idea of ​​harvesting carrots and chives with hopping kangaroos sounds nice, she says.

However, there is no certainty that Australia will be open to the couple. Israel, she said, could draw us back. The pay was good. It’s where they fell in love.

“When everything is peaceful, when they stop shooting, we could return,” he said. “I was very happy working there and he and I, as partners, never lacked work.”