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Former hostage of Hamas pleads for husband's release

Aviva Siegel was abducted by Hamas militants and held hostage in Gaza
— Geneva (AFP)

Aviva Siegel survived 51 days as a Hamas hostage in Gaza, held in captivity alongside her husband Keith. Now freed, she clings to the hope of them seeing each other again.

The Israeli kindergarten teacher, 62, said she will not rest until he is returned safe and well.

"We don't know if he's alive. We don't know if he's dead. It's hard," she told AFP during a visit to Geneva, where she met Red Cross leaders and UN human rights chief Volker Turk on Thursday.

South African-born Aviva and Keith Siegel, a 64-year-old US national who works in medicine, lived on the Kfar Aza kibbutz, near the Gaza border. The couple have three daughters, a son and five grandchildren.

On October 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

The Siegels were among around 250 hostages taken by militants, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

"I'll never forget that moment," she said, recounting her ordeal.

"We were very, very scared.

"They just opened the door. We were sitting there in our pyjamas. And they just took us... in a very brutal way: they pushed Keith and they broke his ribs."

- 51 days of 'hell' -

In captivity in Gaza, she described being with other hostages and being moved multiple times from one location to another.

"I went through hell," she said.

"I thought I would die every minute that I was there.

"I was in shock for 51 days. The way that I was treated wasn't human and I was scared all the time. All the time. I did not sleep. I did not eat."

Israeli former hostage Aviva Siegel wore a T-shirt showing a picture of her husband Keith Siegel, taken three weeks before their abduction

The hostages "tried to keep positive and help each other," she said, despite orders not to speak among themselves.

Siegel recounted one woman hostage saying she had been sexually abused on a bathroom trip.

"We cried together, all of us, and we were very upset. For her, and for what could be," she said.

Siegel said the lowest moment was feeling "not able to help the girls that were abused".

- Last goodbye -

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and its retaliatory military campaign has killed 30,035 people, according to Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry.

Former Hamas hostage Aviva Siegel comforted her daughter Elan Tiv during a meeting with sympathisers outside the UN in Geneva

A seven-day humanitarian pause in late November led to 80 hostages being released in exchange for aid deliveries into Gaza and the freeing of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Siegel was released on November 26. A man suddenly told her she was going back to Israel.

"I didn't know where he's taking me because I didn't really believe him," she said.

Siegel pushed past the man to say goodbye to her husband.

"I gave him a hug and I told him to be strong for me and that I'll be strong for him, not knowing what's going to happen: if I'm going to live or he's going to die, or if we'll ever see each other again," she said, her voice breaking.

- Son presumed dead -

Siegel described the swirl of extreme emotions on being freed.

"That day that I left Gaza, I didn't believe that I would live," she said, recounting people "trying to break the windows" of the Red Cross convoy vehicles.

She only felt certain she was being returned after meeting the first Israeli soldier.

Israeli former hostages Raz Ben Ami (L) and Aviva Siegel (R) attended the United Nations Human Rights Council

The excitement of being able to see her daughters again was mixed with having to confront the presumed death of her son in the October 7 attack -- then "one of the happiest moments that I've ever had" on being told he had survived.

Negotiators are working on a truce, reportedly involving the release of more Israeli hostages.

"I can't decide what's going to happen... but I want Keith home as soon as possible," said Siegel, describing him as a "sweet" man.

"He doesn't belong to Hamas; he belongs to us. And we need him."

- 'I want peace' -

Freedom has not come as a great relief, Siegel said, as her life is consumed with fear for her husband and pleading for the remaining hostages' release.

Aviva Siegel was present as Israel's ambassador addressed the UN Human Rights Council

At the United Nations in Geneva, Siegel wore a black T-shirt with a picture of Keith, taken three weeks before their abduction.

"I want the world to understand that we are human. We need human rights and we are just simple people, like everybody else," she said.

She appealed to those holding her husband.

"I want peace. Most of the world wants peace and it'll be good for them if they'll have peace, because people only live once," she said.

Siegel said she would personally find peace "only when Keith comes home and all the hostages come home".