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‘I Left Him Behind’: Freed Hostage Fears for Father, Still in Gaza

In the 52 days that Sahar Kalderon, 16, spent as a hostage in Gaza, it was not only her captors who terrified her.

It was also the relentless Israeli strikes on the enclave, she said, as the Israeli Air Force pummeled the territory night after night in one of the most intense air campaigns this century.

“Many times I told myself that, in the end, I will die from Israel’s missiles and not from Hamas,” the teenager said in her first interview with the international news media since being released from captivity on Nov. 27.

“Will I ever see my family again?” she remembered wondering. “Will I return to my normal life? Will I not be killed? It’s complete helplessness.”

It is that kind of sentiment that highlights Israel’s strategic bind as it attempts to free more of the people captured by Hamas and its allies during the Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel.

Israel began its devastating counterattack on Gaza soon after the assault, seeking to rescue the roughly 240 hostages while destroying the group that led their abduction. The two-pronged strategy initially worked, as the Israeli army captured large parts of northern Gaza before agreeing to a brief truce in November to allow for the release of more than 100 hostages. Ms. Kalderon and her brother Erez, 12, were among them.

Erez and Sahar Kalderon were released by Hamas on the fourth day of the temporary truce.Credit…Kalderon family

But as Israeli troops push deeper into Gaza, the fear is that the fight against Hamas might come at the cost of the remaining 129 hostages still being held in Gaza, 21 of whom are believed to already be dead. Last week, three Israeli hostages were mistakenly shot and killed by the army despite bearing a makeshift white flag.

For Ms. Kalderon, the fear is particularly acute because she believes her father, Ofer Kalderon, 53, remains a hostage.

“What about my father, who has been left behind?” she said. “I ask of everyone who sees this: Please, stop this war; get all the hostages out.”

Ms. Kalderon met for an interview on Sunday in Tel Aviv, far from her destroyed village in southern Israel. Surrounded by her mother and siblings in an apartment lent to her family by the government, Ms. Kalderon seemed upbeat and composed — an exterior that masked deep trauma, her mother said.

She last saw her father on the morning of Oct. 7, when terrorists surged into their village, Nir Oz, close to the border with Gaza. It was one of more than 20 communities and military bases overrun that day by Hamas. The rampage killed an estimated 1,200 people, Israeli officials say.

Ms. Kalderon, a keen painter and dancer, was at the home of her father — a carpenter and cyclist — and her brother Erez when the assault began. Her parents live separately; Ms. Kalderon’s mother, Hadas, was at her own home in the same village at the time.

When the attackers entered her father’s house, Ms. Kalderon said, she escaped with her brother and father through a window and hid in a thick bush. She and her father removed the white shirts they were wearing to make themselves less visible, Ms. Kalderon said.

Ofer Kalderon hid in a bush with his son Erez and daughter Sahar after attackers entered their home on Oct. 7.Credit…Courtesy of family, via Associated Press

Through the gaps in the leaves, she said, she witnessed the ransacking of her village. Crowds of Gazans surged through Nir Oz, firing guns, burning houses and looting whatever they could find, she said.

“Bikes, tractors, mattresses, refrigerators, motorcycles, television sets, everything,” Ms. Kalderon recalled. “I see the terrorists holding bags packed with things.” The Israeli Army was nowhere to be seen.

Two hours went by. Her legs went numb after crouching for so long. “I see all this and I just think: How did this happen?” she said. “I sit in the bush and I just pray and hope they don’t catch us.”

But they were spotted, and they fled the bush. Ms. Kalderon, her legs barely mobile, could not keep up. She soon found herself separated from her father and brother.

One gunman shot at her legs but missed, Ms. Kalderon said. And then she ran into a group of 10 armed adults wearing civilian clothes and two children. Two people hoisted her onto some kind of motorcycle or scooter, she recalled, before driving her, screaming, toward Gaza.

Along the way, she saw things that defied comprehension, she said. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Gazans had streamed across the border, which was just a few hundred yards from the village.

“The motorcycle drove through the fields, and there, too, were thousands of terrorists, people, Gazan citizens,” she said. “Tractors and pickup trucks, things from our homes. I saw many small children and mothers from Gaza. Clashes. People coming toward me to hit me.”

When they crossed into Gaza, she said, “I had never felt that kind of fear. I was scared to death.”

Ms. Kalderon was reluctant to reveal much about who had held her hostage and where, after warnings from the Israeli security services that such details could endanger the hostages who remain in Gaza. But she described her seven weeks in captivity as a period of profound hunger amid widespread food shortages in Gaza, and uncertainty.

As more freed hostages have begun to speak publicly about their time in Gaza, it has become clear that every hostage’s experience was different. Some were held in Hamas’s underground tunnel network, others in hospitals and in private homes. Some have said they had been allowed to listen to the radio or had been kept informed by their captors about the outside world.

But Ms. Kalderon was not. She was kept apart from her relatives, she said. She didn’t know that her grandmother and cousin had been killed on Oct. 7, and she didn’t know what happened to Erez and her father, Ofer.

“I didn’t know how many hostages there were,” she added. “I thought it was me and the people I was with.”

With no daylight where she was held, she lost her sense of time. “I didn’t know anything about who’s alive and who’s dead,” she said. “I also felt I had been forgotten,” she added.

The news that she would be released came as a surprise, Ms. Kalderon said; she was told only an hour before it happened. When she was taken to a white van, waiting there, again to her surprise, was Erez — 52 days after she last saw him.

“I started crying,” she said. “And I said to myself, ‘At least I have him.’”

They were driven through the streets of Gaza, she said, and handed over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who brought them out of Gaza.

Back in Israel, reunited with her mother, sister and elder brother, she initially felt a wave of relief. But then she realized that her father was still in Gaza, and questions began to race through her mind, she said.

“How is he?” she recalled wondering. “Is he OK? What is he feeling? Who is he with; how is he being kept?” She added: “I felt that I left him behind.”

Nearly a month later, both Ms. Kalderon and Erez are deeply traumatized, according to their mother, suffering from insomnia and experiencing panic attacks.

“They lost their childhood,” said their mother. “They are afraid that behind each door in the house are terrorists.”

Only their father’s return can help them heal, she said, adding: “We know he is alive. We want him back alive.”

Johnatan Reiss, Carmit Hoomash and David Blumenfeld contributed reporting.

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