‘I was reborn’: Thai hostages have reunion after homecoming from Gaza

By Napat Wesshasartar, Thomas Suen and Arton Pookasook

KHON KAEN, Thailand (Reuters) -After he was released by Hamas from captivity in Gaza, Thai farm worker Natthaporn Onkaew, 26, described the experience as dying and being “reborn”.

“I missed home so much … it’s something you’d never expect would happen to you,” he said, wearing a flag with the Thai and Israeli flags.

At an airport in northeastern Thailand, relatives swarmed Natthaporn with hugs, flowers and garlands, welcoming him home.

Later, outside their home, family and friends gathered for a reunion, with some tying holy threads on his wrist in a traditional Thai homecoming ritual.

Natthaporn was among the 23 Thai labourers to return home after being freed by Hamas during the first truce of the war in Gaza. Nine remain in captivity.

He said he was given food and water but didn’t get to shower.

“We only got to brush our teeth,” he said.

Before the war, about 30,000 Thai labourers, mostly from the country’s rural northeast, worked in Israel’s agriculture sector, making them one of the largest migrant worker groups in the country.

Many come to Israel seeking higher pay to send money back home to their families where some are sole providers.

So far, 9,000 Thais have been repatriated.

In the nearby Khon Kaen province, also in the Thai northeast, another reunion was taking place.

Family and relatives sat on the floor having sticky rice and papaya salad as Boonthom Phankhong, 45, recounted his experience.

“We kept encouraging each other. We had to survive … all we could do was sit and wait,” he said.

He recalled that one of his friends even dreamt they were being released.

“He was missing home. He told me … ‘we would get to go home in three days’ – all we could do was hope and pray.”

But for some, the experience would not stop them from returning.

“If given the chance, I would go back,” said Natthawaree Mulkan, 35, referring to her hopes for once the conflict was over. “There were many good things that left a lasting impression in our hearts,” she said.

(Additionaly reporting by Artorn Pookasook; Writing by Chayut Setboonsarng, Edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)