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BANGKOK — Nearly every morning since her son went missing in southern Israel, Buasri Jirachart, 50, visited the Buddhist temples near her home in northeast Thailand to pray for his release. He was one of several dozen Thai migrant workers taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7 along with around 200 Israelis.
Then on Sunday, when she returned from her prayers, her husband pushed his phone into her hands, and there was a video showing their son, Manee Jirachart, 29, walking toward a car in Egypt — freed after nearly 50 days in captivity.
“It was like a mountain was lifted off my chest,” Buasri said in an interview. Speechless, she held her husband, Chumporn Jirachart, and cried.
The exchange of hostages enabled by a precarious pause in fighting between Hamas and Israel has brought overwhelming relief to the families of migrant workers from Southeast Asia who were abducted during the Hamas attack.
Filipino and Thai workers in Israel narrowly escape death
Over the past weeks, these families have had to grapple with the news that their loved ones had been drawn into a war halfway across the world that had nothing to do with them, and then endure an agonizing wait for their release. Amid a conflict shaped by the interests and alliances of more powerful countries than Thailand, the fate of these workers had often been overlooked.
But on Friday, finally, came some hope.
A total of 17 Thai nationals were released in three batches over the weekend, though there are at least 15 Thai nationals still in the custody of Hamas, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday. Thailand is the single biggest source of farm labor to Israel and many of those abducted by Hamas, like Manee, came from the same rural part of northeast Thailand, where a lack of economic opportunities had driven them to seek work abroad.
At least 32 Thai nationals were killed during the Hamas attack on southern Israel, and dozens more were taken hostage — the most of any nationality after Israelis. Two Philippine nationals, who were working as caregivers in southern Israel, were also among those killed during the attack.
Manee’s parents are farmers in Thailand’s Udon Thani province. He is the elder of their two children and worked as a laborer in Kibbutz Reim, near Israel’s border with Gaza, they said.
From the day they found out Manee had disappeared, they led a “life of suffering,” said Buasri. They visited multiple temples and promised the spirits to do whatever it took for their son to return home, she added. At one point, Buasri said, she vowed at a temple that she would meditate in silence for nine days and nine months — if only Manee was released.
These are some of the hostages Hamas released from Gaza
The Thai workers released this weekend have been brought to Shamir Medical Center southeast of Tel Aviv for medical checkups, officials said. Early on Monday morning, Manee video-called from the facility using the phone of an Israeli friend. “He said, ‘I’m safe now, Mom. I’ve been released.’ He asked, ‘Did Dad and Mom know that I’d been abducted?’” recounted Buasri. “I said we knew. … We knew from the very beginning.”
Manee wasn’t able to speak for very long or describe the conditions of his captivity in detail, in part because officials believe it might endanger the hostages still being held by Hamas. But like several other released Thai hostages, he told his family that he was physically unharmed.
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, announcing the release of three other hostages Monday morning, said the individuals were uninjured, healthy and able to “walk and talk normally.” He added that “everyone is very happy to be released. Overall, their mental health is still good.”
Thai officials say they are working to get the released hostages back home “as soon as possible.”
Before hanging up, Manee told his parents not to worry about him anymore — he was safe now. “I told him, ‘Mom and Dad are waiting for you at home,’” said Buasri. Tears slid down her face, she said, as her son nodded back at her through the screen and responded, “Yes, Mom.”
Tan reported from Singapore.