A freed Israeli hostage relives horrors of captivity and fears for her husband, still held in Gaza | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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A freed Israeli hostage relives horrors of captivity and fears for her husband, still held in Gaza

Sharon Alony Cunio is reunited with her cat, Elvis, on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in the ruins of her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz from where she was kidnapped with her daughters and husband on Oct. 7, 2023, by Hamas militants. Her husband is among scores of captives believed to be alive in Gaza, after 120 hostages, including his wife and daughters, were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Original Publication Date January 16, 2024 - 9:26 AM

KIBBUTZ NIR OZ, Israel (AP) — Standing in the ruins of her home in the Nir Oz farming village on the Gaza border, Sharon Alony Cunio gazed at the distant skyline of Khan Younis, the Palestinian city where Hamas militants dragged her more than three months ago. Her husband, David, remains captive in Gaza.

He’s kilometers away but completely out of reach.

Cunio and her 3-year-old twins were released from Gaza on Nov. 27. They are physically healthy, safe. But she can't stop thinking about her husband's last words to her. He was skinny and frail, wounded in the leg, as the family embraced for a final time in captivity.

“Fight for me. Don't give up," she said he told her. “Please yell what I cannot yell. I'm scared as hell.”

David Cunio is among scores of captives believed to be alive in Gaza after 120 hostages, including his wife and daughters, were freed during a weeklong cease-fire.

As days spin by, punctuated by reports that other hostages have died in Hamas captivity, those freed have increasingly spoken out about the conditions they endured in Gaza. With the plight of the remaining hostages gripping the nation's attention, those who survived hope to pressure the government into reaching another deal.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sharon described the Hamas attack and her time in captivity, most of which she said was spent in a hospital — bolstering Israel's claims that Hamas has abused protected medical locations for military purposes.

Her girls, Emma and Julie, don’t yet understand what happened to them after Hamas militants rampaged through southern Israel on Oct, 7, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping 250. The Hamas attack prompted a blistering Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip.

In captivity, she told the girls the near-constant sounds of bombardment were just thunderstorms and the militants who guarded their door were their protectors. Now, when it rains in Yavne, the central Israel city where the three are staying with Sharon’s parents, the girls ask, "Mommy, where are the booms?”

____

On the morning Hamas militants attacked their home, the family cowered in their fortified safe room. David Cunio muscled the door shut against the intruders, his wife said, but they eventually flicked on the gas and lit the house ablaze.

As smoke poured in, David grabbed Julie and climbed out the window, leaving Sharon and her sister, Danielle, in the safe room with two children. Armed men stood outside.

“I started to lose consciousness,” Sharon recalled. “At that point, Danielle shook me and said, 'Let's open the window and get out. It's much better if they shoot us. Then there will be no pain, no suffering, instead of watching us all choke to death in here.'”

But militants didn’t shoot them. Instead, they dragged them, with four other hostages, to Gaza on a tractor stolen from the kibbutz. In the melee, the family lost one of the twins — Emma was gone, and they feared it was for good.

Sharon, David and Julie spent 10 days in a Palestinian home, guarded by two Hamas militants. Their captors said they were in Khan Younis, Gaza's second largest city, Sharon said.

“I had a mental breakdown, I had tics, I had panic attacks,” she told AP.

On day nine of captivity, the house next door was bombed. As the explosion sent the walls around them crashing in, David and Sharon climbed on top of Julie, protecting her. Glass pierced Sharon's scalp.

Soon after, the captors moved the family. Sharon said militants covered her husband in a white sheet so he looked like a corpse and dressed her in traditional Arab clothes. They wrapped Julie in a cloth and pushed her into Sharon's arms. They packed the family into an ambulance and brought them to a hospital Sharon said she now recognizes from the news as Nasser, in Khan Younis.

Three days later, Sharon said, she heard crying outside their room. She instantly recognized the cries as Emma's.

“This guy just handed me Emma, like she’s a box or something. And I was shocked,” she said. “ I was certain she was dead. She was panicking and crying. I couldn’t believe that they brought her back to us.”

Reunited, the family spent the next few weeks in a room on the hospital's first floor. Stacked boxes separated the hostage section from the rest of the hospital floor, Sharon said. She described sleeping with the girls on a small bed, using a pillow stained with blood. At one point, she said, 12 hostages were packed in the tiny room.

The family soon found out they were being held near two additional rooms of captives, nearly 30 in total. Captors eventually let the hostages spend time in one another's rooms, Cunio said.

The Israeli military has come under international criticism for the forced evacuations and closures of more than half of Gaza's hospitals during its offensive, leaving the medical system near collapse. Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of storing weapons and hiding hostages in hospitals in an attempt to justify military operations at the facilities.

Cunio said some captives received medical treatment from hospital staff. When one of the captives in her room grew sick, she said, he was taken away, returning with an IV in his arm. Another young hostage underwent leg surgery, she said.

Food didn't come on a regular schedule, but most days captors brought them two meals. Sharon described plates of spicy rice topped with meat, and often-moldy pita bread with feta. Some days, no food came at all. Cunio said the adults often gave up their food to feed the twins. They split the bread into quarters, in case no food came the next day.

Cunio lost 11 kilos (24 pounds) in Gaza and said each member of her family suffered from vomiting and diarrhea at least once.

“A lot of the times, the girls were just crying, saying ‘I’m hungry,’" she said. “It was devastating.”

When they needed to use the bathroom, they knocked on the door and waited for captors to open it. Sometimes they waited five minutes, other times hours, Sharon said, and the girls sometimes relieved themselves in the sink or trash can of the windowless, humid room. Every time they left, they had to cover themselves with a hijab.

For the last week of captivity, militants moved the hostages into an outer room, with a window. Cunio said she saw rows of displaced Palestinians camped around the hospital.

The captives were told not to make noise. At night, Sharon said, they cracked the window for fresh air. It grew cold, but the hostages had blankets. The girls had been taken captive in underwear and tank tops, and another hostage fashioned long pajama pants for them out of extra clothing.

Sharon said David, an electrician born and raised in Nir Oz, blamed himself — he was the reason the family lived so close to the Gaza border. Sharon cried all the time, she said, and David once beat himself until he bled inside the mouth. Other times, he managed a bit of levity.

“I would tell him, ‘You’re the best man I have ever known,’” Sharon said. "And he told me, ‘It’s about time you figured that out.’”

One day, Sharon said, David was pulled out of the room to speak with a Hamas officer. The man told him Israel had decided to bring back only women and children, Sharon recalled, and David would be taken somewhere with the other men.

“We sat there for three hours, just hugging. Me, him, and the girls," Cunio said. "I’m begging him not to go and begging to stay with him. The girls are crying. ‘Why are you leaving? Why are they taking Daddy? Can they take other dads? Why do you have to take ours?’”

Three days later, Red Cross vehicles ferried Cunio and the girls back to Israel.

____

Now, Sharon said she won't be able to sleep through the night until her husband comes home.

“Everything is full of blame," she said. ”Taking a shower, eating hot food, smoking a cigarette, playing with our girls, being outside when he’s in the tunnels."

On Monday, Sharon toured Kibbutz Nir Oz — where militants killed some 20 people and took more than 80 hostage — for the second time since her release. She got excited as familiar faces appeared, with neighbors collecting belongings from ransacked houses. Everyone had a story — a son still held hostage, a spouse murdered.

Sharon's old cat, Elvis, sauntered up. He survived the onslaught, nuzzling into Cunio's leg as the two reunited.

Sharon said the family won't return to the kibbutz, whose idyllic flowering paths and orange groves now give way to homes pockmarked by bullet holes. On the horizon, she sees pillars of smoke rising from the place she believes her husband is held.

For now, Sharon sends the girls to preschool each day and hugs them at night, soothing them through their nightmares.

When she gets a moment to herself, she turns to an archive of her husband's voicemails. “I love you, you’re the best,” he says in the one she can't help but play over and over.

“I promised him I'd fight for him,” Sharon said. “I won't stop until he comes back.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2024
The Associated Press

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