The food that was divided into crumbs so that it would suffice, the long hours that they had to control themselves for the toilets, the severe lack of hygiene, the lice that filled their heads and the cruel psychological terror that Hamas terrorists purposefully used on them regularly: in a rare interview, a senior physician who treated the children returned from captivity talks about the shocking experiences she heard. “It is impossible to continue in a normal fashion after understanding what the children endured.”

There was nothing the specialists at Schneider Children’s Medical Center waited more for than to see the children who were kidnapped to Gaza on the bloody Shabbat of October 7th return to a protected area meticulously built for them in the hospital. But nothing could have prepared them to cope with the excruciating traumas the captives endured. Dr. Yael Mozer-Glassberg, Director of the Liver Transplant Recipients Unit in Schneider Children’s and a senior physician in the Captive Returnees Department, has difficulty sleeping at night since she met and treated them.

She tells of unbelievable situations alongside times of incredible courage that surfaced during the period that 26 hostages, of which 19 were children, were in the hospital. “There is absolutely no precedent for what these children endured. Firstly, everyone without exception lost 10%-15% of their body weight. Some even told us how they divided the little food they were given into small crumbs so they could hold on for the rest of the day. The older children said they would only allow themselves to eat after the smaller children had already received enough food. When they arrived at Schneider, we prepared meals appropriate to what they had all endured, but they practically did not eat and divided it into small portions. Apparently, their fear was totally assimilated, it was simply awful,” shared Dr. Mozer in a recent interview to the Israeli news site Mako Health.

Moreover, she describes significant hygiene disorders that affected the children. “None of them showered in over 50 days. In the best case, they were given a towel with cold water to wipe themselves a bit, and I am talking about those who were the lucky ones.” Some, she says, even spoke about the especially difficult moments, such as when a small child was not allowed to go to the toilet for hours. “One doesn’t need a developed imagination to understand what happens to feces when restraint is maintained for such a long time. And again, I mention that there were no showers.”

Another terrible phenomenon, frightening and perhaps the most surprising that she recalls was the lice that filled the children’s heads. “We are speaking about dimensions of lice that I have never seen before in my life. One can reasonably assume that they were infected in one of the houses that they were kept in. Today we know that they were moved from place to place and we don’t know with whom they came into contact.”

Over and above the harsh physical aspects, Dr. Mozer also tells of the psychological terror that the children endured. “They said to them that no-one was looking for them, that no-one cared about them, that they had to remain in captivity for at least a year. Think what goes through a child’s mind hearing this. Furthermore, the children were forced to keep absolutely quiet over many weeks, perhaps this explains why, when they arrived in the department, everyone spoke quietly. They looked sad, but also whispered when they spoke, I imagine because they were used to it.”

How do you go on during the day after hearing these stories?

During the time that we treated the children in the hospital, we practically did not rest for a moment. All of us were deeply absorbed within the saga. This is something extremely hard to internalize. As part of my regular duties, I head the Liver Transplant Recipients Unit where I treat very ill children. One can say that the tissues are in a permanent place on my desk because I am used to telling parents bad news. And yet, the emotional burden that I experienced after treating the children who returned from captivity was the most exceptional.”

What helps them survive in your opinion?

I honestly don’t know. This is such a complex situation, but apparently children are able to develop different mechanisms that help them. The fact that some of them were with older women who looked after them helped a lot, but others had to cope in captivity alone. Some of the children spoke for instance about a pack of cards that helped them pass the time. They did not have any, but every day, they made up a new card, a kind of creative game they devised. Little things like these helped them keep and maintain their sanity, it is very sad.”

How do you feel about this role at this time?

“I want to express my thanks for the huge privilege accorded me to accompany these children and their families. I met lionesses of mothers. I always say that it is natural that we have almost an animal-like ability that allows us to protect our children even in the most extreme circumstances. Right now, I only have one wish in my heart – that we will be privileged to treat two more children, those of the Bibas Family.”