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At least 39 Thai migrant workers were killed in the Hamas attacks on Israel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Among the estimated 240 people taken hostage in last month's Hamas attack on Israel are more than two dozen Thai nationals who worked at farms in southern Israel. NPR's Michael Sullivan spoke with the wife of one of the hostages in the rural province of Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Suntharee Saelee lives a long walk up a steep mountain path that overlooks a carpet of green in the valley below - corn, rice, bananas - not far from the banks of the Mekong River, some 4,000 miles from a conflict she never knew until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

SULLIVAN: (Speaking Thai).

SUNTHAREE SAELEE: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: In her one-room dirt-floor house, she tells me how on the day of the attacks, she was watching a live Facebook feed from her husband, Gong, at the avocado farm where he worked close to the Gaza border. It was his day off, and he and a few other Thai workers were watching Hamas rockets hurling toward Israel and Israeli air defenses intercepting them.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Thai).

GONG: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: At first, they seem unconcerned. They've seen this before. Then as the explosions continue and they hear gunfire in the distance, they talk about moving to safety, and the feed ends soon after. Suntharee immediately called her husband to see if everything was OK.

SAELEE: (Through interpreter) Gong said he didn't think it was serious. I asked him a few more questions. Then the shooting started again, and he said he had to hang up.

SULLIVAN: That's the last she heard or saw of him for about a week, when she received a screen grab from a Thai journalist of a video that had been circulating on the internet of a Thai man in a T-shirt being violently restrained by armed men.

SAELEE: (Through interpreter) Once I saw the picture, I knew this was my husband, Gong, and then the video showed the men dragging him away.

SULLIVAN: Most of the estimated 30,000 Thais working in Israel come from Thailand's impoverished northeast and north, drawn by salaries of roughly $1,500 a month - roughly five times what most can make at home. Suntharee says Gong was going to use the money to pay off his car loan and other debts racked up by his family, who he also tried to support after his father died. But there was also a bigger goal in mind.

SAELEE: (Through interpreter, crying) Gong said, once he paid off the debts, he would save money for another year. Then the year after, we would be able to start building a house.

SULLIVAN: That house, and kids, was the couple's dream - one now on hold as she sits here with no money, waiting for news of her husband.

SAELEE: (Through interpreter) I still believe he's alive because none of his friends that were taken with him have been found dead either. So I have to believe they are still alive.

SULLIVAN: But she's terrified when she watches the news and sees the destruction raining down on Gaza every day, knowing her husband could be somewhere under the rubble.

SAELEE: (Through interpreter) I was so angry when I saw them take my husband away. I wanted to kill them all. So first, I was angry at Hamas, but now I am angry at Israel too because there are many innocent Palestinians the same as my husband. I would like both sides to stop the fighting. Please stop and let the hostages go free.

SULLIVAN: Since the war started, the Thai government has urged its citizens to come home, and some 8,000 have done so. But most have elected to stay in Israel. There are debts and dreams that need tending.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.

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