Gal Almog-Goldstein, 11, seen through left window, and his brother Tal, 9, seen through right window, stand in a bus transporting them to an army base in southern Israel after the Hamas militant group released them from the Gaza Strip on Nov. 26, 2023.

Gal Almog-Goldstein, 11, seen through left window, and his brother Tal, 9, seen through right window, stand in a bus transporting them to an army base in southern Israel after the Hamas militant group released them from the Gaza Strip on Nov. 26, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Kept underground, not much food, poor hygiene.

Those are the conditions in which a 10-month-old baby and his four-year-old brother are being held, along with dozens of other Israeli hostages still in Gaza, according to Ofri Bibas, whose brother was kidnapped with his wife and two children.

As those abducted from communities near Gaza on Oct. 7 start to return home under a cease-fire with Hamas, they’re speaking haltingly about what they went through.

The conditions were fairly grim — sleeping on plastic chairs, limited light, long waits to use a toilet. But despite their seizure amid extreme violence in which 1,200 people were killed, there are few reports of physical abuse of the hostages in Gaza.

The 10-month-old and his family have been handed by Hamas to a separate militant group, according to the Israeli army, which said some captives were being treated “like loot.”

The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum said that Hannah Katzir, one of those released, lost 44 pounds in 50 days of captivity and didn’t receive medication she needed. Others were given limited food — rice, hummus and beans — and slept in crowded conditions. One freed hostage, 84-year-old Elma Avraham, has been in critical condition in the hospital. Her pulse was 40 and she was covered in wounds, her daughter Tali Amano told the Times of Israel.

The reports, limited as they are, are beginning to answer questions about what happened to the men, women and children taken into Gaza during the attack. So far, about 70 hostages have been released, including 20 foreign nationals.

Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, issued a set of guidelines to hostage families regarding press interviews, urging them not to discuss details of where they were held, their daily routine or identifying details of the kidnappers. These were requests, however, not orders, and some are talking.

Some media cite hostages saying that Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas, met hostages in a tunnel and spoke to them in fluent Hebrew, assuring them of their safety. Sinwar spent two decades imprisoned in Israeli where he mastered Hebrew. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.

A month ago, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, an early release, spoke from her wheelchair at an unplanned hospital news conference. She said she was hit with sticks by her captors as they took her by motorcycle into Gaza and then was forced to walk a couple kilometers through what she described as a “spider web” of damp tunnels.

Another freed hostage, 25-year-old Israeli-Russian Roni Krivoi, told relatives that after an Israeli air-strike damaged the building where he was held, he escaped and hid for four days, only to be handed over by locals again to his captors.

Zohar Avigdori, whose sister-in-law and niece were kidnapped, said six family members who were released this week need to come to terms with the fact that some of their relatives were killed on Oct. 7, which they are just now learning.

“My sister-in-law’s brother, whom she went to visit, was murdered,” he said in an interview at the headquarters of the Missing Persons Families Forum in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday. “It’s one step at a time, getting help readjusting to life, taking in and realizing everything that has happened in those weeks and getting used to the fact that they are like reality TV stars now.” He said 2,000 people had lined the streets around one of his relatives’ homes when they returned.

For many families, especially those whose captured relatives are soldiers of either gender or adult men, there is little prospect of a release anytime soon and no guarantee that their poor living conditions will improve. To date, aside from foreign nationals, no men have been released.

There have been touches of wry humor. Alex Danzig, 75, an educator and historian of the Holocaust, has been lecturing fellow hostages, according to some who returned. His son-in-law said to Israel Radio, “Well, at least he now has a captive audience.”

‘Beyond pain’

Others are deeply worried.

“My father is almost 80 years old,” Noam Peri said of her father Chaim. “He is a brave man, but he is not a healthy man. He has survived a heart attack and he depends on medication. It’s very urgent to let them all out.”

Peri and other hostage family members have repeatedly demanded that Hamas allow staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross to gain access to them. The ICRC, in a response to queries, said Hamas has rebuffed its repeated requests.

So for most, the uncertainty of the fate of their family members deepens.

“I don’t know how many of you have kids, but its hard to describe the feeling of not knowing if your kid is alive or not. It’s a feeling beyond pain,” Ruby Chen, father of 18-year-old kidnapped soldier Itay Chen, said at a news conference. “Believe me you do not want to live in my universe.”

©2023 Bloomberg News.

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