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Thai workers return to overjoyed families in Bangkok

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Thai workers return to overjoyed families in Bangkok

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BANGKOK — Seventeen freed Thai hostages have returned to Bangkok after being held in captivity by Hamas for nearly 50 days.

Their release is separate to an agreement that has so far seen Hamas free 70 Israeli women and children.

The extension of the truce has now renewed hope for the release of the remaining nine Thai hostages.

Nearly all of the abducted foreign workers were Thais. Israel employs some 30,000 of them as farm labour, making it one of the largest migrant groups.

Thirty-nine Thai nationals were among the 1,200 people Hamas killed in its attack on Israel on 7 October.

Six Thai hostages who were released in the last two days are still in Israel for a medical examination. But the others who were freed are being accompanied home by Thai foreign minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara.

They arrived early Thursday evening at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where some of their families are eagerly awaiting their return.

Chanapa and Sirirat Bupasiri left their village in the middle of the night so they could reach Bangkok in time for their brother Buddee Saengbun’s arrival.

“We haven’t had any sleep,” Chanapa told the BBC, while she waited outside Bangkok international airport. She said they realised Buddee was safe when they saw him on the news after he was released in the past week.

“We had no idea what had happened to my brother. We tried everything — Facebook groups, the department of employment, some families had heard about their loved ones but not us.”

She smiled tearfully when asked what she would do when she finally met her brother again. “Hugs. Hugs and tears,” she said. “One month and 18 days. We’ve been counting each day.”

The workers will travel home after a brief press conference, where they will answer questions from the media. Most of them are from north-east Thailand, a poor, rice-growing region which sees much of its working-age population leave in search of better opportunities.

Elderly parents who can’t make the journey to Bangkok, or families that cannot afford the long trip, are waiting back home.

“I’m overjoyed. I can’t wait for her to come home,” says Bunyarin Srichan, whose daughter Nattawaree “Yo” Mulka was the only female Thai hostage taken by Hamas.

She says they will celebrate with an indulgent meal – fried pork with garlic and “the best sticky rice we’ve got.” She also plans to hold a small homecoming ceremony, widely believed by Thais as a way to bring back the soul that was spooked during a traumatic experience.

Yo’s boyfriend, whom she met while working in Israel, was also abducted, and was freed with her.

Bunyarin, who has been caring for Yo’s two children, said her daughter called or messaged three times a day before she was kidnapped in the 7 October attack. And she sent her mother half her salary every month — 25,000 Thai baht ($715; £560).

Many of the workers borrow money to go to Israel and send home savings to support their families and pay off debt. Natthaporn Onkaew, 27, who was released on Saturday, is his family’s sole breadwinner.

He started working in Israel two years ago, and sent home about $800-$1,000 (£630-£800) every month.

“I’m very happy that my son is coming back,” his father, Thawatchai Onkaew, told BBC Thai, adding that his son had been calling home every day from the hospital since he was freed.

The family is preparing his favorite dish – raw beef salad – to welcome him home, and are also throwing him a party.

Thawatchai said his son does not plan go back to Israel for work because he is “still very scared”.

Around 8,500 Thai nationals have been repatriated since the 7 October attack. But the BBC understands that some have since gone back to Israel, likely driven by debt and joblessness back home.

Many have also previously told BBC Thai about their harrowing work conditions in Israel, such as unsanitary living quarters while being overworked and underpaid.

More than 14,500 people have been killed in Gaza in Israel’s retaliatory bombing since 7 October, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.

But a negotiated pause in fighting, which has now lasted six days, has seen Hamas release 102 of the 240 hostages in exchange for 210 Palestinian prisoners, many of them woman and teens, held in Israeli jails.

The truce was scheduled to end on Thursday, but has now been extended by at least one day.

That has given Narissara Chanthasang fresh hope — her husband, Nattapong Pinta, is still a Hamas hostage.

“I felt like my heart was being squeezed when I learned that he hadn’t been freed yet,” she said. “I will definitely go to the airport [when he returns]. Nothing will stop me.” — BBC

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