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An Israeli teacher was held hostage in Gaza — her American husband is still there

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Israel, thousands protested this weekend to demand the release of hostages in Gaza six months after Hamas attacked and kidnapped some 250 people. Aviva Siegel was among those taken from Israel on October 7. After 51 days, she was released. But she was forced to leave her husband Keith behind, so she's spent much of her time since advocating for his return. Keith is a U.S. citizen and one of about 130 hostages still being held in Gaza. When I asked her about her time in captivity, she started by talking about their son, Shai.

AVIVA SIEGEL: He was on the kibbutz with me in a different house, and when we wrote to him on the WhatsApp, he wrote to us that he can hear the Arabic from outside and then we disconnected. So I was sure that my son was dead. When we were released, there was a social worker and she told me, you have four children. I asked her if Shai is OK, if he's not wounded. And she said that she doesn't know, but she knows that I've got four children. And I was very, very emotional. I couldn't stop crying. I was so excited. Before I met my family, they let me talk on the telephone with them. And I heard his voice, and it was just one of the wonderful moments that I've ever had.

FADEL: But it must have been bittersweet because to be reunited with your children, you also left a part of you in Gaza. Keith is still there. If you could tell me about the last time you saw him and what you know about him today.

SIEGEL: We don't know anything about Keith. We don't know if he's alive, if he's OK, if he's starved. I just pray all the time that he's not alone, that he's got somebody from Israel to be with, to talk to a little bit. We're trying to ask everybody we can just to tell us that he's not alone, but we haven't got any answers.

FADEL: If you could, tell me about the last moment with Keith.

SIEGEL: I didn't know that it's going to happen. The Hamas guy came to me and he said, you, tomorrow, Israel. And I looked at him and I said, I'm not going anywhere without Keith. Then when I understood that I need to go, I said, I'm going to tell Keith that I'm going. And they would not let me. So I pushed them and I went to Keith.

FADEL: Wow.

SIEGEL: He was lying on a mattress on the floor. I hugged him and I told him, you please be strong for me, and I'll be strong for you. And I think he was in shock. He didn't even answer. He just looked at me. And that's what I remember from the last minute.

FADEL: Aviva, do you feel comfortable talking about what you went through in Gaza?

SIEGEL: There was lots of violence. One of the days they took Keith into the shower and shaved him and shaved underneath his arms, and they wanted him to shave his intimate places. And when he came out of the shower, he was so humiliated. And they just stood there and laughed at him. He's 64 years old.

FADEL: Were you held underground the whole time?

SIEGEL: No, we moved 13 times in different houses. And one of the times they took us down a tunnel. They were waiting for us as if it was, like, a party. They were very happy. The second time, they took us down to a tunnel on the way to, like, a little room. When we got there, we could hardly breathe. It was Keith and I and another girl that was with us, and they just left us there. They didn't even bring us food and they didn't bring us water. And we nearly died there. One of the days, Keith looked at me while he was hardly breathing - (imitating slow breathing), like that - and I told Keith, just lie down and try and breathe. But luckily we were taken up just before we were dead. We felt like the luckiest people on Earth to go up because there was air and we could breathe. We were taken to a house with terrorists that were so mean and so cruel. They used to starve us and eat in front of us.

FADEL: How many people were you held with?

SIEGEL: When we arrived to Gaza, we were with another family, and we were separated after three days. And then two girls were with us until we were separated from them. And another girl, after three weeks, came and she was with us, too, until I left. One of the days, one of the girls left the room, and when she came back, I could see on her face that something happened. And I got up and I gave her a hug. He walked in, this terrorist, and started shouting, how come I'm hugging her? And after a couple of hours, she came to me and she said, he touched me. She went through sexual abuse. And she said that he said that if she tells anybody, he would kill her.

FADEL: You spoke at a protest recently and you addressed the prime minister, saying, I don't know if my husband's alive. Don't talk to me about victory. Don't talk to me about military pressure. Nothing has worked so far. They are dying there every day. Do not dare bring the delegation back from Qatar without a deal. I want to understand from you what you mean.

SIEGEL: I want Keith back. I want him back now. And I want everybody that does not belong there, all the hostages, to come back to the families. I go to the States, we met Biden, we met Blinken. Keith is American. He moved to Israel when he was 22 years old because we decided to get married. And while we were there, the Hamas people asked us if you've got another passport, and Keith didn't open his mouth. And I asked him later, how come you didn't tell them that you're American? And he said, I didn't want to because I was scared they would take me out and leave you here. Now I'm out and Keith is still there.

FADEL: I just want to ask one thing to make sure I understand it properly. From statements I've read from you, you want a cease-fire deal to bring Keith home?

SIEGEL: I'm against wars. I'm against killing people. I want people to have a better life in Gaza, out of Gaza, in the whole world. And the war needs to stop because I don't want wars anywhere.

FADEL: What is the first thing that you will do when you see Keith again?

SIEGEL: I think I'll scream and just jump on him. I can't wait. I just hope that he's still alive to come back.

FADEL: Aviva Siegel, I hope that Keith returns to you safely, too. Thank you for talking to us.

SIEGEL: Thank you. 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.

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