‘I missed my family’: Tears and smiles as Thai captives come home

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Bangkok, Thailand – Three words in English gave Thai migrant worker Khomkrit Chombua the first signal in 50 days that his captors in Gaza were about to release him: “You go Thailand.”

Khomkrit was among 17 Thai captives who arrived in Bangkok on Thursday, tired and visibly thin but appearing in good spirits.

The returnees were mobbed at the airport by tearful relatives overwhelmed with relief that their loved ones, who had left home to earn money for their families back home, had returned alive after being caught up in someone else’s war.

Khomkrit Chombua, 28, a shy man of few words from Surin province near the Cambodia border, was smothered with hugs by three of his cousins after he arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport dressed in a T-shirt with Thai and Israeli flags printed on it.

“I felt so happy,” he told Al Jazeera, recalling the moment his captors told him he would be freed.

“I missed my family, I was worried about them … I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to make it out.”

Like the other freed captives, Khomkrit thanked everyone involved in his rescue but declined to speak about the conditions of his captivity.

Thailand has been among the countries most affected by the war between Israel and Hamas. At least 39 Thais were killed during Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel, all poor rural migrant labourers working on Israeli farms close to Gaza, and 32 others were taken captive.

Nine Thai nationals still remain in captivity in the Gaza Strip, according to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has pledged to spare no effort to get them back. Six other freed captives are in Israel waiting to return home.

“Our mission to rescue our Thai workers … is not yet complete,” Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said at Suvarnabhumi Airport, explaining his emotion at seeing his compatriots freed after weeks of painstaking diplomacy.

“For the nine Thais who are still being held, we will do our very best and chase every avenue we have to bring them home.”

Khomkrit had been working in Israel for over four years when he was kidnapped, about one year short of the maximum period Thai migrant workers are allowed to work in Israel without renewing their visa.

Like most of the roughly 30,000 Thais working in Israel, he was employed in agriculture, drawing on skills and experience of outdoor work learned in the rice basket region of Isan, where his home province of Surin is located.

thaiSeventeen Thai captives arrived home in Bangkok on Thursday [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

Under a since-lapsed labour agreement signed between Israel and Thailand in 2011, Thai migrant workers were guaranteed a minimum wage of 5,300 shekels a month ($2,000), several times more than most can expect to earn back home cultivating rice, rubber or sugar.

The agreement also called for increased scrutiny of the recruitment process, while Israeli officials said it would reduce by up to 80 percent the $10,000 in broker fees paid by Thai workers.

For many Thais, whose average daily wage is about 300 baht (around $10), working in Israel has been seen as a shortcut to home ownership or buying land for their family.

While Khomkrit’s sojourn was brutally cut short, he said he was still grateful to be able to work overseas and build his family a home.

“I was a delivery driver at Tesco Lotus in Bangkok before I went to Israel. I was living hand-to-mouth pretty much, a decade of savings still wouldn’t have been enough to do it,” he said of his aspirations to buy a home.

The World Bank said this week that Thailand remains the country in East Asia and the Pacific with the highest “income-based inequality”, with the richest 10 percent earning nearly 50 percent of total income.

Thailand’s household debt stands at 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin this week promised to crack down on loan sharks, which have ensnared numerous communities in debt traps.

For most young people in farming communities like Khomkrit’s, moving to the city or working overseas feels like the only option, even if that means accepting risks to their safety.

“It’s always about the money, right?” Khomkrit’s cousin Piyanus Phujuttu, 27, told Al Jazeera.

“In Thailand, with this low minimum wage, you can’t achieve more than putting food in your mouth.”

Amid the scenes of joy on Thursday, the realities of life for Thailand’s poorest were not far from view.

Waiting for her husband Wichian Temthong to enter the arrivals area at  Suvarnabhumi Airport, Malai Is-sara said he had been taken hostage shortly after starting work.

“He went there to follow his dreams: building his parents a house, paying for school for our two young boys,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I still think he’ll go back out to chase his dreams.”

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