ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Captors convinced her Israel didn't care about hostages

Released hostage, 15, says she acted as mother to her younger sister in captivity

Dafna Elyakim tells of abduction to Gaza and murder of 3 relatives, including her dad, on Oct 7; horrible conditions and fear of death in tunnels, only eating after 8-year-old Ela

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Released hostage Dafna Elyakim, 15, recounts her time in captivity in Gaza in an interview broadcast on January 30, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Released hostage Dafna Elyakim, 15, recounts her time in captivity in Gaza in an interview broadcast on January 30, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A 15-year-old released hostage described her 51 days in captivity in a television interview on Tuesday, telling of how she had served as a mother to her 8-year-old sister, of the difficult conditions, of constantly fearing her terrorist captors would kill her, and of her pain at the murder of three family members, including her father, on October 7.

Dafna Elyakim and her little sister Ela Elyakim were abducted from their father’s home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, two of 253 hostages taken that day. They had been there to spend the Simchat Torah holiday with their father, Noam Elyakim, his partner Dikla Arava and Dikla’s son, 17-year-old Tomer Arava — all three of whom were killed, along with some 1,200 others in the Hamas-led onslaught.

Maayan Zin, the girls’ mother, lives in Kiryat Ono in central Israel. She fought a public battle to free her two girls until their eventual return on November 26 during a weeklong truce deal that saw the release of 105 hostages — mostly Israeli women and children — in return for female and underage Palestinian security prisoners.

In a lengthy interview with Channel 12 news, Dafna Elyakim started by showing a backpack that had belonged to her murdered stepbrother Tomer, with blood stains, “probably my father’s.”

She takes the bag “everywhere, even during class it stays on me,” she said, adding that the hardest thing for her now was “not having my dad. He would wake me up in the morning for school… I used to go with Tomer every morning. That’s why the bag is with me.”

“It started in the morning, with sirens,” she recounted of the early hours of October 7, when Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities as cover for the invasion of thousands of terrorists. “There were many red alert sirens and after about a half hour or an hour, [the terrorists] entered the kibbutz. My dad came to my room with Dikla and Tomer, and put the three of us — me, Tomer and Ela — under the bed and told us to be quiet.

“Then they broke into the house, started shooting. They shot the door and hit my father in the leg. And then they got us out from under the bed and started recording live.”

The terrorists who entered the Nahal Oz home documented the attack on Facebook Live, recording the family seated in the living room, where they were forced to identify themselves.

Father Noam, shot in the leg, was seen in the live feed bleeding heavily as Dafna wept beside him, with Ela seated on Dikla’s lap. The terrorists were filmed taking the couple’s identity cards and forcing Noam and Tomer outside. Tomer, 17, was was compelled at gunpoint to convince the neighbors to leave their protected spaces.

“They said they needed Tomer to open the doors of [neighbors], so they would come out of their homes. They said he would be fine, that they wouldn’t do anything to him as long as he doesn’t do anything, try anything,” said Dafna.

“They took [the rest of] us from the house to our car, and drove. And then other terrorists opened fire on the car, because they thought it was a car of civilians who were fleeing. And they hit Dikla, and she was killed instantly,” she said.

The terrorists then transferred the girls to another car and drove them to Gaza, leaving their seriously injured father with the body of his partner Dikla in the family car. Dafna said she did not get a chance to say anything to her dying dad. Tomer’s body was found later, with the story of his death unknown.

“I think about my dad and Tomer and Dikla all the time. And what would have happened if I had sat where Dikla was sitting [in the car], if I had guarded the door — could I have saved them from dying?” Dafna said.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When they arrived in Gaza, “lots of Gazans ran after us, wanted to come and beat us up, so [the captors] got us quickly into a house there and simply locked the door.”

The two sisters were then treated — by Hebrew-speaking doctors — for injuries: Dafna for a cut in her ear from shrapnel and for shrapnel in her shoulder, and Ela for injuries in her fingers and leg.

One doctor “explained what was going to happen, that we were going to stay there for a period of time and that they would protect us.”

They then told Dafna to speak on the phone and agree to do “whatever they say,” or else they would kill her.

“It’s scary when I know that whatever we do, they can kill us,” she said.

The two girls were kept in homes of Gazan families, moving from time to time between different homes. Ela sometimes played with the Palestinian children.

Ela (left) and Dafna Elyakim, who were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from their father’s house in Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Released on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)

Dafna said that before they were taken to underground tunnels — where the sisters and three other women and girls were only given a total of three pita breads for the group in the morning and another meal around 2 p.m. — she and her sister would get fed three times a day while with the families.

“First of all I would let Ela eat, see she’s full, and then I would eat,” Dafna said, explaining that the 8-year-old hadn’t understood that food could run out the next day and that it was imperative to eat when possible. She recounted having to convince Ela to eat and shower whenever possible.

“You were really her mother there,” remarked the TV interviewer, and Dafna agreed.

“Ela didn’t really understand [what was going on], so she was, like, okay. She was afraid when at some point she saw a gun in the house, she started panicking, she thought they were planning to kill us,” Dafna said, adding that the captors had told her the gun was to protect them when they go outside.

Released hostage Ela Elyakim, 8 (right) with her mother Maayan Zin, during an interview broadcast on January 30, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Dafna said she and her sister tried not to fight and that they supported each other in the relatively few times that they cried in captivity.

Asked what their days were like, she said: “Difficult. All I thought about was what’s going on with my family, with my friends. What’s happening with Israel, did they get to all of Israel, if they destroyed Israel and took over.”

Dafna said she had heard Israel’s bombings very clearly and that all the buildings in the neighborhood where they had been kept were eventually leveled.

One night, the captors woke them up, said the IDF was going to destroy the building where they were staying, and ordered them to put on hijabs — the headscarfs traditionally worn by some Muslim women — and go out.

At some point, the two sisters were taken to a school serving as a shelter for Gazans who had lost their homes, where they were ordered to keep their hijabs on and not speak at all — in Hebrew, English or Arabic — for a full five days, or else they would be killed. They slept on a blanket they placed on the floor.

Palestinians at an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 14, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

“I was afraid to go to sleep,” Dafna said. “I didn’t know what would happen in the morning, if I would wake up. I told myself all the time that there’s a chance that I’m going to sleep and won’t wake up, or that I’ll wake up but Ela won’t, or the other way around.”

Dafna said her captors would constantly tell them that Israel wasn’t fighting for the hostages’ release, that Israelis didn’t care about them and preferred that they stay in Gaza, and that the abductees would only return in coffins. As a result, she said that during her time in Gaza, she didn’t believe her country was fighting to get her back home.

Two weeks before their eventual release, the sisters were taken into Hamas’s underground tunnels, where they met five other female hostages who haven’t yet returned — Liri Albag, Naama Levy, Romy Gonen, Agam Berger and Emily Damari.

“I think about them all the time,” she said. “When we were there it was really hard, so what’s happening now?… Now is a much harder situation than when we were still there.”

She described difficult conditions in the tunnels, where they stayed in a tiny room with a very low ceiling that didn’t allow them to stand up, and were barely given food and water.

Now, Dafna said, “we have returned and left them there. Do they have food? Do they have water? Are they sleeping? Going to the bathroom? Are they beating them up? Have they killed them?”

This image released by the IDF on January 20, 2024, shows the inside of a Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis where hostages were held. (Israel Defense Forces)

She said one of the other female hostages had been kept alone, guarded by four Hamas members. Two others had previously been with a group of women before they were separated into different homes, another one was alone, and the fifth had been with one of her male friends from Kfar Aza, before they were separated.

Dafna said she doesn’t clearly remember the evening in which she and Ela were released.

“I thought it wasn’t real, that maybe we were still in Gaza. That suddenly a Hamas member would emerge and take me, that we would be taken again,” she said, adding that only when she reunited with her mother did she grasp what had happened.

Since their return, Dafna has been posting short clips on TikTok showing her smiling and laughing, but “that isn’t real, there are many times that I cry right after that,” she said, adding that she imagines what her father, Dikla and Tomer would think about her posts.

She said she doesn’t let people see her cry or show how hard the situation is for her, to not make it hard for them and to not “seem weak.”

The TV interviewer also spoke briefly to Ela, and the 8-year-old confirmed that Dafna had “told me I need to eat, that if I don’t eat then she wouldn’t eat.”

She said she had taken some pages from the Gazan families to draw and color, creating “a booklet, and then the Hamas member there took my booklet.” She had drawn a “book about me and Mom and Dafna: The life of the Elyakim-Tzin family.”

Released hostage Dafna Elyakim, 15, next to a drawing based on a photo of her in captivity in Gaza, during an interview broadcast on January 30, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The interview ended with Dafna showing a drawing hanging over her bed, depicting herself in a photo from captivity that circulated days after October 7.

“That day really changed my whole life, so it’s here — a reminder that everything can be gone in a second, that it’s impossible to know what will happen tomorrow, that if I want to do something, I should do it.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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