DONPILA, Thailand — Cheering relatives crowded into the streets of this rural Thai village, flashing peace signs as they awaited a young local’s return to a corner of the world that has been unexpectedly drawn into the war in the Middle East.
Anucha Angkaew, 28, a migrant worker, was finally home.
Dozens of relatives greeted Anucha, one of 17 Thai hostages who returned from Israel after having been released by Hamas during the weeklong truce deal, on Thursday as he arrived back in the northeastern Udon Thani province. His uncle triumphantly lifted him out of his car when it pulled up in the evening.
As Anucha sat with his 7-year-old daughter in his parents’ house the next day, a string was tied around his wrist in a Thai ritual meant to preserve good luck.
Anucha, who was held for more than seven weeks, said in an interview Friday that he had no hope he would be freed. He said little about his time in captivity, which he described as “a real torture.”
Anucha’s father, Pornchai Angkaew, said he “never thought I would get my son back.”
“I am so happy I can’t put it in words,” he said through tears Friday.
Anucha Angkaew, a hostage recently released by Hamas, is greeted as he arrives in his village in Thailand’s Udon Thani province Thursday. NBC News A total of 23 Thai hostages have been released, including six who were set to return to Thailand on Monday, while nine others remain in captivity, according to the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry. The government says it will continue its efforts to free the remaining hostages.
Thailand is one of Israel’s biggest sources of foreign labor, with around 30,000 Thais working mostly in the country’s agriculture sector before the war. Migrant workers like Anucha are drawn by far higher wages than they could find in the poorer, rural areas of Thailand they call home, where their families often depend on their earnings.
Thais were the single biggest group of foreign hostages Hamas seized in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Thirty-nine Thais were also killed in the attack, one of the highest death tolls among foreign countries.
Anucha had earlier had an emotional reunion with his wife and other family members at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, where he arrived from Tel Aviv with the other hostages, wearing white T-shirts with the Thai and Israeli flags.
At a news conference, they asked for a moment of silence in honor of the 39 Thais who had been killed.
“I want to give our courage to the remaining Thai hostages who are still in captivity,” Uthai Saengnuan, a representative for the group, told reporters.
The hostages were accompanied by Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Pranpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who had flown to Israel last week. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin also welcomed them back on a video call.
Thai workers who had been held hostage by Hamas arrive in Bangkok on Thursday. Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP – Getty Images Anucha, who had been working on an avocado farm in southern Israel for almost two years, had sent his earnings back to Thailand to build a house for himself, his wife and their daughter.
He said he was excited to see the house, which he designed and his father built, for the first time.
“I only saw it from the news,” he said.
Anucha has no plans to go abroad for work again in Israel or anywhere else, saying he prefers to stay home with his child.
“I’ll be home,” he said. “I won’t go anywhere.”
Nat Sumon and Kyle Eppler reported from Donpila and Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong.
CORRECTION (Dec. 4, 2023, 6:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Pranpree Bahiddha-Nukara flew to Israel. It was last week, not earlier this week.
Kyle Eppler is a producer based in Bangkok.
Jennifer Jett is Asia digital editor for NBC News, based in Hong Kong.