Hila Rotem Shoshani had invited her friend Emily Hand over for a sleepover in Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel. The girls, then 12 and 8, woke early the next morning, Oct. 7, to the sound of thundering booms — the start of the deadliest attack in the history of their country.
For about six hours, Hila and Emily hid in the home’s safe room with Hila’s mother, Raaya Rotem, 54, as Hamas attackers overran the kibbutz. Then armed gunmen burst in with guns and knives and took the three out into a landscape of horror, past dead bodies and burning buildings, to a car. One of the attackers noticed Hila clutching a stuffed animal. He grabbed it and tossed it aside.
“I had it in my hand the entire time. I didn’t notice,” Hila said on Friday in an interview in New York, before she spoke at a rally in support of the remaining hostages. “When you’re afraid you don’t notice.”
Hila was one of more than 30 children kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, and held until late November, when they, along with dozens of adults, were released during a brief truce. Hila, now 13, is the youngest of the returned hostages to speak out about the harsh conditions in which they were held, seeking to highlight the plight of more than 100 hostages who remain in Gaza.
The terrifying drive to Gaza, surrounded by Hamas terrorists, was the first time, Hila said, that she fully realized how “really close” the territory was to the community she had grown up in.
She said she, her mother and Emily were taken to a home in Gaza, where they were put in a dark room with a couple of other hostages. At first, an armed guard stayed in the room, but eventually moved to the living room.
“They understood we’re not going to run away,” Hila said. “Outside it’s dangerous too — why would we run?”
They were warned not to try to escape, Hila said, told that “if we go outside ‘the people out there don’t like you, so you’ll be killed anyway.’”
Their captors gave them little food — half a pita and a bit of halva on some days, canned beans on others — and very little water, often well water so distasteful, Hila said, that she had to force herself to drink.
At times, the captors ate while the captives did not, she said: “There were days when there just wasn’t food, and they would keep it for themselves.”
Occasionally, Hila said, they heard other children’s voices, and wondered if they were elsewhere in the home. They had to request permission to use the bathroom, and Hila learned the Arabic word for it, hammam.
Once, an explosion nearby caused the window of their room to break, Hila said, but they escaped injury.
A few times, she recounted, they were woken in the middle of the night and hastily moved in the darkness.
“They told us at first, ‘you’re moving to a safer place,’ ” Hila said. “But we didn’t know if we would be killed.”
The girls were told to keep quiet. Emily turned 9, and Hila’s own birthday was nearing. They tried to keep themselves occupied, with drawing or games.
“We played cards, but how much can you play cards, all day, every hour?” Hila said.
Freedom came suddenly, she said.
About a month and a half into their captivity, the captors suddenly separated the girls from Hila’s mother.
“Mom had started to be scared that something wasn’t OK, that they weren’t taking her,” Hila said, adding, “and then they just came and took us, and she stayed.”
The girls were then released and returned to Israel. The separation of mother and child violated the terms of the exchange deal, drawing outrage in Israel. Raaya was ultimately released several days later, just after Hila’s 13th birthday.