They spoke as the United States continued to push for a cease-fire deal that would secure the release of hostages still held in Gaza, but as a senior Hamas official said the group does not know how many of them are still alive.

This has only added to the anguish of those whose family members were not freed in the deadly operation last weekend, in which Gaza health officials said 274 Palestinians were killed.

Also freed in last weekend’s deadly operation was Shlomi Ziv and Noa Argamani, 26. The mother of a soldier still held in Gaza told Israeli media Friday that Argamani told her the women had been treated like “slaves,” forced to clean and cook in a luxury villa.

As the families are slowly learning more about the ordeal, so is the public.

‘Andrey is in a helicopter’

It was a slow morning in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Kozlova, 52, was packing up to head to Israel for the third time since Oct. 7. 

Her son, 27-year-old Andrey,  who had moved to Israel two years earlier from his home in Russia, had been kidnapped from the Supernova music festival in the Hamas terror attack.

Kozlova had received no news about his fate in the ensuing eight months and felt little optimism about talks for a cease-fire deal that might free him. 

“I was a bit depressed, actually,” she recalled Thursday. She says she didn’t expect any news, let alone good news. 

Then the phone rang.

“Andrey is in a helicopter, in Israeli territory,” the Israel Defense Forces official on the other end told her. 

Kozlova’s husband, Mikhail Kozlov, also 52, was convinced it was fake news.

That was until he saw Andrey, in a video call from the hospital. Kozlova describes the moment she held the phone and spoke to her son. “I had him in my hand” she says, “It was like holding my baby in my arms again.” They were reunited the following day at Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan, in central Israel.

Aviram Meir, 58, was at home in kibbutz Bahan, some 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, when his phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message from the family’s IDF support officer. 

It had a photo of his nephew, 21, alongside Kozlov and Ziv. “There’s a picture on Telegram,” the text read. The IDF officer said she didn’t know what it was yet but was “finding out.” Then another text message arrived, this time from a relative working for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. It had just two words: “Almog rescued.” 

Almog’s mother, Orit Meir, was by the poolside when she got the news. After eight long months, her partner had taken her away for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. “Is he alive? Is he OK?” she screamed down the phone, her brother recalled in an interview in Tel Aviv.

 Soon she was surrounded by hundreds of holidaymakers “all hugging her,” singing and celebrating, Meir said.

Aviram Meir, Almog Meir and Orit Meir.
From left, Aviram Meir, Almog Meir Jan and Orit Meir.Oren Kornfeld

But the reunion has been bittersweet for the family.

His nephew learned the friend with whom he had gone to the festival had been killed. This was “the first blow,” Meir says. A few hours later, Almog learned that his father had died hours earlier — his family said of a broken heart. “That was the second blow,” his uncle says. 

That has only added to the sense shared by Meir and the Kozlovs that the freed hostages are experiencing psychological trauma.

“It wasn’t easy for them,” Meir says. “They were under constant threat.”  The three male hostages were held together for months in the same room, “without ever leaving.” 

The room was above a family home in an apartment building in the Nuseirat refugee camp, Meir says. They weren’t allowed to look out of the window and there was no electricity, with the sound of children downstairs offering a reminder of the world beyond captivity.

“They had some kind of a routine,” he adds, waking up late and playing the card game rummy to help the days go by. Now, they have pledged to only play it once a year, he said, to mark the anniversary of the operation that freed them.

“They had a day with underwear and a day without,” says Meir, explaining that the pair the hostages were wearing the day they were captured is the only one they were allowed for eight months. They were “washing them one day,” he says, “and wearing the next.” 

The trio cut one another’s hair, Meir added. “They looked after one another the whole time.”

But they were far from sure they were going to make it.

“There was a period when there was a lot of bombing,” Meir says. “They were very very scared” and were left to hide under mattresses, he says. As the Israeli army attacked deep inside Gaza, “there were some close bombardments,” he says. 

That wasn’t the only threat. 

Andrey has told his parents that his hands were tied for weeks behind his back and then handcuffed in front of his body, a small but welcome relief. He has also described facing punishments for minor perceived infractions, his parents have said this week.

The psychological torture was no less painful, they say. The hostages were told their families had forgotten about them and that Israel didn’t want them. Andrey was told that “Israel’s only solution is to kill the hostages”, Kozlova says. The rescuers who stormed the apartment found Andrey and Almog huddled together under a mattress. “He didn’t know if they came to kill him or to save him,” she says, her face reflecting her son’s horror and confusion.

The rescuers were quick to reassure them and their son is now safely home. But the Kozlovs fear he is suffering.

“He talks,” and jokes Kozlova says. “But he said there are things we will never talk about,” her husband adds, “and this worries us.”

Arnon Afek, acting director of Sheba Hospital, said in an interview earlier this week that despite appearing generally physically healthy, the hostages seemed to be suffering from both malnutrition and mental scars as a result of their time in captivity.

Kozlov’s father is concerned that the rescue operation will have severe consequences for the remaining hostages held in Gaza. “The whole world has to put pressure on Hamas to make a deal,” says Kozlov’s mother.

“This is why we are here, giving interviews,” she says. “We want to fight for the other hostages.”


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