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Freed Israeli hostage recounts time in captivity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One hundred twenty-nine days - that is how long Luis Har was a hostage in Gaza. He was taken, along with more than 250 other captives, when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. Last month, Israeli special forces freed him in a nighttime raid. NPR's Daniel Estrin spoke to Luis Har and brings us his story.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: When the rockets started flying in from Gaza on October 7, it didn't seem unusual to Luis Har and his family.

LUIS HAR: (Through interpreter) We all gathered in the safe room, and we said, a few minutes, and we'll get out.

ESTRIN: Har is a 71-year-old accountant originally from Argentina. He lived in a kibbutz near the Gaza border. He was with his partner and her brother and sister and niece that morning. And as the rocket fire intensified, they turned on the TV and watched Hamas attackers entering towns and kibbutz communities nearby.

HAR: (Through interpreter) We also heard Netanyahu declaring war.

ESTRIN: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war five hours into the attack.

HAR: (Through interpreter) And then we heard pounding at the door, breaking glass windows. Suddenly, we heard Arabic. They broke into the house.

ESTRIN: Armed men forced all five of them onto the back of a pickup truck. They were sitting on a pile of weapons. Har knew they were being taken to Gaza.

HAR: (Through interpreter) We were in total shock.

ESTRIN: They were brought to a tunnel and led deeper and deeper underground.

HAR: (Through interpreter) Complete darkness.

ESTRIN: He says they walked in the tunnel for a few hours, then climbed up a ladder to daylight in Gaza. He says they were moved from one home to another and eventually brought to an apartment, where they were all kept in one room.

HAR: (Through interpreter) And we were there basically the whole time. They never moved us from there.

ESTRIN: One room, five captives from the same family, plus Bella the dog. His partner's 17-year-old niece had brought along her Shih Tzu. They were guarded by four armed men.

HAR: (Through interpreter) In the beginning, they were always suspicious and with their weapons, and they would shout. And we ignored it.

ESTRIN: Har says the guards did not harass anyone physically, but he and the other captives were afraid for the 17-year-old girl.

HAR: (Through interpreter) Of the guards fixated on her and would tell the girl all the time he wanted to marry her. And we told her to turn around - to pretend she was sleeping. She was very tense and stressed and cried several times - quietly, so they wouldn't hear. We tried to calm her. We didn't say it out loud, but each one of us, within ourselves, was worried.

ESTRIN: They didn't have a radio or TV. Their captors would tell them bits and pieces about the war, like when the Israeli army mistakenly killed three other hostages. It was true, but they didn't know whether to believe what they were told. Every evening, it would grow dark before the guards turned on the light, and the captives had a ritual.

HAR: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: In the evening, in the dark, before they turned on the light, the girl would ask for a story from Luis.

HAR: (Through interpreter) Because I have a rich past of stories - it helped us pass the time.

ESTRIN: He's a folk dancer, so he'd talk about dance. He acts in musical theater. And one time, in captivity, he told this story for once.

HAR: (Through interpreter) Once, we were in a show. And one of the girls lifted her leg, and her shoe flew off her foot. And it did this in the air - boom - and fell on the audience. We burst out laughing. Stories like that - usually funny things to pass the time.

ESTRIN: After 53 days, the women and teenage girl were freed, along with their dog, as part of a cease-fire and hostage deal. Har was overjoyed that his family back in Israel would learn he was alive. He and his partner's brother, Fernando Marman, were told that they'd be freed in a few days, but the cease-fire broke down.

HAR: (Through interpreter) It was Friday, 7 in the morning. We suddenly heard the explosions. We understood, that's it. We're not leaving. Every time we fell into depression, we overcame it with stories. We started to say, where are we going to travel to today in our minds? So today we are in Argentina. And we're doing this, and we're doing that.

ESTRIN: A hundred twenty-nine days into their captivity, Har and Marman were woken up in the middle of the night by a huge explosion. Har thought the IDF - the Israeli military - was bombing the building they were in.

HAR: (Through interpreter) And someone grabbed my leg. He said my name - Luis. He said, IDF, IDF. We came to take you home.

ESTRIN: There are still hostages in Gaza. Har says the way to rescue the hostages is through negotiation with Hamas - Israeli captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Israelis.

HAR: (Through interpreter) An exchange - our people for their murderers. Because even if they're murderers, the main thing is to return all the hostages to their homes. They need to be here and be given treatment here.

ESTRIN: During the rescue raid, the Israeli military said it carried out large-scale airstrikes as a diversion to provide cover to the special forces. Palestinian men, women and children were killed - more than 70, according to Gaza health officials. I asked Luis Har about it.

HAR: (Through interpreter) I don't know. It's not my business. The military can answer you. I see that most of the people there are Hamas. They don't intend to pet us and to love us, and I have no mercy toward them at the moment.

ESTRIN: He says he's working with psychologists now to reacclimate. They recommend he not go back home yet to his kibbutz on the Gaza border. He says what has given him strength is immediately getting back to what he loves.

HAR: (Through interpreter) What's normal for me is dancing, and I immediately went back to dancing.

ESTRIN: Which is how he planned to end the day after we met - with a dance troupe, folk dancing.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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