Thai hostages held in Gaza freed from Hamas captivity
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Some 30,000 workers from Thailand were in Israel when Hamas launched its October 7 attack. Hamas militants killed 39 Thais and took more than two dozen hostage. Now at least 17 of those Thai hostages have been released as part of the deal between Israel and Hamas. NPR's Michael Sullivan has more.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For seven weeks, Tippawan Ponkong feared the worst. She'd heard nothing from her husband, Mongkol, who worked on a farm near the border, since the Hamas attacks. And she'd seen no photos or videos circulating on social media, as other Thai families had, proving he'd been taken alive. Then, at 2 o'clock Saturday morning, her phone rang. It was one of her husband's friends in Israel.
TIPPAWAN PONKONG: (Through interpreter) My heart was shaking so much. I couldn't do anything. Then he told me that my husband has already been released. He also sent a picture for me to look at. I clicked to look. And I told him, yes, it really is my husband.
SULLIVAN: She spoke to him briefly by phone on Sunday. He said he was safe, not to worry, but said he didn't know when he'd be coming home. He's been in Israel for about three years picking tomatoes, making the equivalent of about $1,500 a month, almost all of which, she says, he sent home to support her and their two daughters. That's about five times what most Thais from the impoverished northeast make in a month. But she says he better not even think about going back to work in Israel.
PONKONG: (Through interpreter) I won't let him go. I don't know if he would want to or not. But if he asked me, I will tell him I will not allow it.
SULLIVAN: When the war began, Thailand's government urged its citizens to come home, and roughly 8,000 did on repatriation flights. Twenty-seven-year-old Sirot Phomboot, also a tomato picker, was one of them. The fighting never reached his farm, though he could hear it and he was torn about leaving.
SIROT PHOMBOOT: (Non-English language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "I had just gotten there, and it was very hard to make a decision," he says. "But my family kept telling me to come back home. They were worried. So finally," he says, "I decided to come home for them." But here's the thing - he wants to go back after the war is over.
PHOMBOOT: (Non-English language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "Here in Surin, I was earning about 330 baht a day," he says, "pumping gas." That's less than $300 a month compared to the $1,500 a month he was making in Israel. His biggest worry - that his job won't be there when he tries to go back, that it will have been filled by someone else from somewhere else, and he'll have no way to pay off his family's debt.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)
SULLIVAN: Debt and dreams are what send most Thai workers to Israel, like Gong Sae Lao, one of those still missing. I visited his wife in rural Chiang Rai two weeks ago for NPR's Morning Edition, where she told me of his plan to use the money he earned to pay off his car loan and other debts racked up by his extended family, who he also tried to support after his father died. But his wife, Suntharee, said he also had a bigger goal in mind.
SUNTHAREE: (Through interpreter) Gong said once he paid off the debts, he would save money for another year. Then the year after, we would be able to start building a house.
SULLIVAN: That dream is now on hold as she sits in her mother's one-room dirt floor house, watching as other Thai hostages get released but not her husband. She saw a video of him being taken by militants, and she's convinced he's still alive. But with each release with no Gong, that belief is being sorely tested.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS MUMFORD AND TOM HOWE'S "NIGHTINGALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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