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Thai hostages' return overshadowed by debt worries

Freed Thai couple Boonthom Pankhong (L) and Natthawaree Mulkan, who were held hostage by Palestinian Hamas militants following the October 7 attack on Israel, have returned home to Thailand
— Udon Thani (Thailand) (AFP)

A Thai couple were welcomed home Wednesday by dozens of well-wishers seeking to lift their spirits after they were held hostage for weeks by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But the return of Boonthom Pankhong and Natthawaree Mulkan, who had worked in Israel, was overshadowed by worries they might not be able to pay off their mounting debt -- unless they work abroad again.

The couple were among at least 32 Thais abducted by Hamas militants when they attacked Israel on October 7 in attacks that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, and saw around 240 hostages taken.

About 50 people, including local officials, gathered Wednesday for a traditional "Bai Sri Su Kwan" ceremony in the couple's home in a small village in Udon Thani, in the country's northeast.

The returnees' wrists were bound with white string to bring them luck and return them to health, but they said captivity had taken its toll.

"I get panic attacks when I hear loud noises," Boonthom told AFP, saying the sounds reminded him of strikes he heard while held in the Gaza Strip that left him unable to sleep.

The 45-year-old travelled to Israel to work on a farm six years ago -- one of around 30,000 Thais, mostly from poor rural provinces, who were in the country during the October 7 attack. Boonthom had not been back to Thailand since.

He and his partner Natthawaree worked on the same farm in southern Israel but said they were held separately after being abducted by Hamas militants.

"I am slowly recovering," Natthawaree, 35, told AFP.

Freed Thai couple Boonthom Pankhong (centre L) and Natthawaree Mulkan (centre R) take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony for their safe return to Thailand

The couple were among the first 17 Thais released by Hamas in November, during a short-lived truce with Israel following weeks of negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

A further six Thais were later freed, but the foreign ministry believes nine Thai hostages are still being held.

Thirty-nine Thais have been killed and 19 wounded in the war, with the kingdom evacuating more than 8,500 of its people, according to the ministry.

The Hamas-run government media office said more than 16,200 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its bombardment of the territory two months ago after the Hamas attack.

- 'We have nothing' -

Many Thais chose to work in Israel where they can earn significantly larger salaries as farm labourers, under strict fixed-term contracts.

Natthawaree said she had earned about 50,000 baht ($1,400) a month -- which she used to support her two children from a previous marriage back in Thailand.

Thailand's labour ministry has promised returnees around 50,000 baht in compensation, with the government also stating they would be eligible for a low-interest loan of up to 150,000 baht.

But Natthawaree said she had received less than half of what the government promised, and desperately needed more to support her family and pay off existing debts.

She still owes 500,000 baht.

"I am finding a way to work abroad again," she said, perhaps working in Australia to pay off her debts.

"Now we have nothing."