ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Thai couple freed from Gaza return home to well-wishers, worries over mounting debts

Freed Thai couple Boonthom Pankhong (center L) and Natthawaree Mulkan (center R), who were held hostage by Hamas terrorists following the October 7 assault on Israel, take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony for their safe return to Thailand, at their house in Thailand's northeastern Udon Thani province on December 6, 2023. (Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)
Freed Thai couple Boonthom Pankhong (center L) and Natthawaree Mulkan (center R), who were held hostage by Hamas terrorists following the October 7 assault on Israel, take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony for their safe return to Thailand, at their house in Thailand's northeastern Udon Thani province on December 6, 2023. (Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)

A Thai couple is welcomed home by dozens of well-wishers seeking to lift their spirits after they were held hostage for weeks by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

But the return of Boonthom Pankhong and Natthawaree Mulkan, who had worked in Israel, is overshadowed by worries they might not be able to pay off their mounting debt — unless they work abroad again.

“I get panic attacks when I hear loud noises,” Boonthom tells AFP, saying the sounds reminded him of strikes he heard while held in the Gaza Strip that left him unable to sleep.

The 45-year-old traveled to Israel to work on a farm six years ago — one of around 30,000 Thais, mostly from poor rural provinces, who were in the country during the October 7 devastating assault.

He and his partner Natthawaree worked on the same farm in southern Israel but said they were held separately after being abducted by Hamas terrorists.

“I am slowly recovering,” Natthawaree, 35, tells AFP.

Many Thais chose to work in Israel where they can earn significantly larger salaries as farm laborers, under strict fixed-term contracts. Natthawaree says she had earned about 50,000 baht ($1,400) a month — which she used to support her two children from a previous marriage back in Thailand.

Thailand’s labor ministry has promised returnees around 50,000 baht in compensation, with the government also stating they would be eligible for a low-interest loan of up to 150,000 baht.

But Natthawaree says she received less than half of what the government promised, and desperately needed more to support her family and pay off existing debts. She still owes 500,000 baht.

“I am finding a way to work abroad again,” she says, perhaps in Australia to pay off her debts. “Now we have nothing.”

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