Seventeen Thai workers released from captivity by the Hamas terror group were greeted Thursday by family and friends, officials, and journalists in an emotional homecoming at Bangkok’s international airport.
The 17 are among 23 Thais freed so far, with six left temporarily behind in Israel because doctors said they were not yet fit to travel. Thai officials say another nine Thai hostages are still being held in Gaza.
Ratree Sampan, who traveled from the northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom, arrived early at the airport for the reunion with her son Buddee Saengboon.
“After the war broke out, I could not contact him,” said the 57-year-old Ratree.
“For one month and 18 days, I assumed he was already dead.”
“I waited for a miracle, and it happened. He survived,” she said.
There were about 30,000 Thai workers — mostly laborers in the agricultural sector — in Israel before the October 7 massacre by Hamas, when terrorists stormed through a border fence and killed 1,200 people — 38 of them Thais — and kidnapped some 240 people to Gaza.
Israel responded with an air and ground offensive aimed at eliminating Hamas. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said that more than 15,000 people have been killed since October 7, most of them civilians. The numbers cannot be verified, and are believed to include Hamas terrorists as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.
During a ceasefire that held for seven days, Hamas released 105 civilian hostages, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thais, and one Filipino. Israel freed 210 Palestinian security prisoners.
The Thais generally come from poorer regions of Thailand, especially the northeast, and take on work in Israel because they can earn many times what they would at home. They started being recruited for such work several years ago to replace Palestinians who had been doing the same jobs.
Since the war broke out, about 9,000 Thais have been voluntarily repatriated, but some have already said they hope to return to Israel because of the money they can earn.
The freed hostages, several clad in white t-shirts with a picture of Thai and Israeli flags, arrived on an Israeli El Al flight and were shepherded to a hectic airport news conference. They are the first to make it home.
There were no dramatic stories of their captivity, however. Thai officials have followed the Israeli government’s lead in urging the released workers, their families, and the media not to make public details of their time as prisoners to help ensure the safety of those still being held.
Most were spare with their words, but Nutthawaree Munkan— the only woman among the 17 — seemed to speak for all of them when she briefly addressed the media. “Thank you for all your support to bring me home,” she said, fighting back tears.
Former hostage Uthai Saengnuan called for a minute’s silence to remember the 39 Thais known to have died in Hamas’s devastating October 7 incursion into Israel.
The releases are being seen as a triumph for Thai diplomacy and a number of Middle Eastern countries who have lobbied on behalf of the hostages. Thailand’s prime minister put in a live video call to the airport to greet them.
“Are you happy? You’re home now,” said Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.
The formalities finished, the workers were directed to get into a bus to head for their hometowns. One of the freed hostages, 30-year-old Pornsawan Pinakalo, was separately picked up by his father. They both hugged while Pornsawan kneeled down to hug his dad. Both cried with joy.
“I thought we’d lost him and now he’s back. It’s like the meaning of his name: a blessing from heaven,” his father, Kong Panasudlamai, told reporters.
Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who had traveled to the Middle East to pursue the workers’ release and to greet them when they had been sent back to Israel from Gaza, was among the officials at the airport on Thursday.
“We will continue to work on this mission to ensure that the remaining nine hostages receive freedom and return to Thailand,” he vowed at the news conference.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.