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The Illustrated Hostage Diary of Moran Stella Yanai

She was held captive by Hamas in Gaza for 54 days. Now released, she tells her story.

by
Rachel Shalev
May 15, 2024

All illustrations by Rachel Shalev

All illustrations by Rachel Shalev

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This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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“Let’s go sit in the sun at the café next door,” Moran writes to me.

I enter the colorful neighborhood café in a student district in Beersheba and look for a secluded table with privacy and an electrical outlet.

One table is already taken. It’s reserved for Noa Argamani and Avinatan Or, and it has a notebook on it.

“This was ‘my’ table,” Moran says as she arrives. “They don’t seat people at this table. They brought a notebook, and people wrote to me when I wasn’t here. It was bizarre. Noa will come back, and she’ll have a notebook, too.”

Moran Stella Yanai, 40, arrived at the Nova festival on Friday evening, Oct. 6. She had just returned from a trip to Thailand, and this was her first time opening a jewelry stall of her own design at such a big festival. But the atmosphere, she says, was very strange. There was a lot of movement from people, but nobody was buying anything. The vendors around her started turning off lights and joining the partygoers to dance. Moran and her friend settled into beach chairs and took out a thermos. “Almost everyone around us is doing drugs, and here we are, sitting like two old ladies, drinking tea.”

The atmosphere changed only when dawn broke. “It was one of those scenes everyone couldn’t stop talking about. It really captivated us. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve seen, and I had returned just three weeks earlier from Thailand, where we had plenty of sunrises. But there was something very pure, innocent about this one, I don’t know how to explain it ... and everyone stopped. Even me. I looked at the sky and smiled. And suddenly I see two rockets rising diagonally.”

Stunned, Moran couldn’t utter a word and simply kicked her friend’s leg repeatedly until she exclaimed, “What?!” Moran pointed to the sky, and her friend smiled and exclaimed, “Wow! Fireworks.” Moran screamed, “Rockets!!!” And that was it. Everyone around fell silent, the DJ stopped playing, and the nightmarish escape journey began. Along the way, Moran was captured twice and escaped, and on the third occasion, she was violently kidnapped to Gaza. She was held captive by Hamas for 54 days and nights, transferred between four houses, and some of the time she was held with other hostages, including Itay Svirsky, who was later murdered, and Noa Argamani. Moran was released on Nov. 29 in the final round of the prisoner exchange.

I met her that morning and listened breathlessly to her story. It is beyond comprehension. That is exactly why I wanted to give her testimony words, lines, and colors: to illustrate, through drawings, what she went through in Hamas captivity. As of the writing of these lines, there are still 133 hostages in Gaza. Watch and read what Moran went through there, and keep them in mind.

The Kidnapping

They dragged me as if I was Jesus. They put a white casket hat over my head and a hoodie on top of that. And all around, a deadly hustle of men. One military helicopter passed above us, I lifted my head and prayed silently that it would drop a bomb on us. They forced my head down, dragged me, and tore all the jewelry from me, and then, somehow, the letter hey (the fifth letter in the Hebrew alphabet—also the name of God) was carved onto my hand. I looked at it, and the wound didn’t bleed; it was just red. And that’s how I knew that no matter what, I was being watched over.

Imagine the uproar of people shouting, like you see in movies, and suddenly, I’m still seeing them shouting, but it’s silent. There’s silence in my head. Except for one sentence that echoes: Don’t resist; everything will be fine. And it loops. Don’t resist; surrender; everything will be fine. And then at some point they lifted me, and they started tossing me from one to another until they threw me into a stolen white Israeli Hyundai jeep. I’m now inside the jeep with two terrorists in the front, four terrorists in the back, and three more terrorists in the trunk. And I’m alone with them.

We drove. And then he, the only “official” Hamas guy in the car, raised my head and said to me, “Look at me.” The Joker, really, I called him the Joker. He had a Joker’s smile on his face and drugged eyes. And he said to me in the most theatrical way: “Welcome to Gaza.”

The Necklace

Just before I was kidnapped, I escaped with a group of people who ran away from the festival, and we hid under a tree. A group of Israelis surprised us in our hiding place, telling us that we could be seen, and as soon as we got up to leave, we heard Arabic shouts approaching us.

The group split into two, everyone returned home safely that day, and for some inexplicable reason, only I remained on the ground. Then I lifted my head and saw a terrorist above me, and he said to me, “Cuckoo!”

I don’t know what got into me, I just turned around and said I was Arab. Everywhere in the world, people think I’m Arab. I had a necklace from Egypt with my name in Arabic, so I used that and said my name is Stella.

When I was in captivity, they took away the jewelry I had on me. On the day I was released, they returned it, because they said Hamas returns jewelry, which is very twisted and strange. I don’t know why, but they returned it. What is taken within Gaza, returns to the person. What is taken outside of Gaza is as if it’s dead.

I gave this necklace as a gift to one of the terrorists who captured me, like a bribe, so he would release me.

So now there is someone walking around in Gaza with the word “Stella” on them.

The Cage

They led me into the first room wrapped in a sheet, then unwrapped it, revealing a bald, chubby investigator seated before me in a white shirt and blue jeans, smiling and asking, “How are you?” I’m there, crying, screaming, sitting on a mat, clutching the corner.

I’m crying hysterically, and then he asks me in English: “Where do you serve?” I don’t understand what he wants. I reply, “What? What?” He repeats, “Where do you serve?”

“What?” Then he grips my pants firmly: “Where do you serve?” It dawns on me that I’m wearing green cargo pants and army boots. That is what I happened to wear for the festival

And then I stopped crying in a second and answered in Arabic: “No, no, no, no. No, no, no. I’m not a soldier ...” And then he said, “Oh, you know Arabic.” I said, “No, no. No. No, I don’t know Arabic. Zarir—just a little.”

In that room, cockroaches and mice were running on the floor, but that’s nonsense. On the wall, two cages hung, each containing a songbird. He then told me that he breeds birds. In the adjacent room, he keeps over 100 birds; I loved listening to their chirping.

The Gun

Somehow, I managed to get a deck of cards and hide them. They were with me in every house I’d been through until they confiscated it from me in the fourth and last house. It broke my spirit; it was the only thing I had. I imagined myself like the Jewish woman who plays with the Germans to get food. I played cards with them and talked, trying to make them laugh, so we would get as much as possible and suffer as little as possible. But at some point, a bitter reality set in. Once, we all sat in the same room playing cards, and everyone was laughing. I probably said something—whatever it was, I did something that wasn’t acceptable to them, I did it jokingly, the terrorist didn’t understand, so he left the room, everyone stopped laughing. He came back with a gun, and he put it to my head.

He said that if I did it again, he would shoot me in the head. This was already very realistic—a cold barrel pressed against your head. I finally advanced a bit mentally, and then again, I became such a small ball, much smaller than I was before. Don’t be mistaken, such situations were happening all the time, and all the time I would rise above myself, and in the end, I would return to being the representative of the room. At that moment. There’s no time. It’s inner strength, no time to cope, no time to be afraid, no time to cry, no time to be angry.

It’s forbidden to cry, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to think. Forbidden. As far as they’re concerned. Even if you are sitting doing nothing, he comes: “What are you thinking about?” “I look at the window.” “Why are you looking at the window?” No, no, ... as if you’re not allowed to think. They don’t want you to miss anything or think about what they’re going to do to you, everything’s fine. As if, as far as they’re concerned, everything’s fine.

Noa

In the fourth place, I was with Noa Argamani. At first, I didn’t realize we knew each other. She talked to me, and I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t recognize her. But I did recognize her body movement, which was a stretch she did. Because I’m very observant of people, I notice elongated people who make certain movements properly, and she caught my eye. Then I realized that I had happened to watch her training before. Do you understand? It took me a long time to understand this and to realize that we had trained at the same studio in Beersheba.

I wasn’t allowed to do anything in that house without asking for permission, including drinking or using the restroom. They always checked my gait before the transitions and got angry when I limped. Once, before the release, one of them demanded that I show him how I walk. Noa witnessed all of that. I wasn’t allowed to limp. Nothing was allowed. But on the last day before they transferred us from there toward the release, I said goodbye to Noa and hugged her before I left, even though it was forbidden.

Itay

When I arrived at the fourth house, in the last week of captivity, I also met Itay Svirsky.

I slept on a flowery mattress, and he slept on the mattress next to me. One night they came to take him. We both woke up. We were alert. And then they told me: “You stay.” So we looked at each other and smiled at each other. Yes, in the middle of the night, we sat on the edges of the mattress, and of course, I was not allowed to touch him.

I said to him: “Will you write to me?”

He replied to me: “Yes, you, too.”

And we smiled at each other with a big smile, and I said to him: “Itay, just remember that you are one of kind, one of the most special men I’ve ever known.”

And he left.

I really insisted on telling him that he was the man. The manliest man I’ve ever met in my life.

(In the days to come, Itay’s family will be informed that he was murdered in captivity.)

The Kiddush

At one of the lowest moments in captivity, I tried guided visualization. I imagined myself at a Friday dinner, embracing my parents, and then I said, wait a minute, I need to make this vivid: What is Mom cooking now? What do I feel like eating? Oh! She’s probably making this first course, and she prepared these salads for me, and she’ll really be excited, so she’ll probably also make me this dish, which she hardly ever makes. And I sit with them. We do Kiddush, and I eat the first course, with the dipping of the bread and all. And then Mom goes and brings the second course, and a smile comes on my face.

And then I hear: “Stella ... Stella ...” and I was the hungriest in the world. I opened my eyes and I saw a plate on the floor. Friday night, each person received 30 grams of halva, a piece of pita and a half for three people. And halva was the only thing I didn’t want to eat. And I stuff the halva into the pita, crying my eyes out. I chew and I cry, because I was just at dinner, you didn’t have to bring me this food at all. It was tasty, I was fine.

And I cried quietly because I didn’t want them to hear me crying. And I was close to the wall, my mouth dried up, I had nothing to drink. Imagine, I don’t want to eat this, I know I’ll choke. And just out of frustration and despair, I banged my head against the wall three times. Boom, boom, boom. There’s a syndrome of people who hurt themselves more than the pain, and I said: I’m doing it now, I’m hurting myself more than the pain. I had to stop it, and I banged my head against the wall. The terrorists heard the banging. I heard them jumping off the sofas … actually, falling off them, and they rushed into the room. And he got really angry and forcefully pushed me to sleep on the mattress.

The Song

One day, I caught a bacterial infection in my intestines. It felt like I had a fever of 40 degrees Celsius. On the first day, I vomited and had diarrhea that drained my life away. I had 20 milliliters of water that they gave me for two days, and I vomited that, too, so my body became even more dehydrated. On the second day, imagine a corpse. My head was slumped on the mattress. I said, this is it, I’m going to die like this. This is what’s going to happen. In my mind, I was already saying goodbye. And we had this thing with their radio. Obviously, we didn’t listen to the radio, but when the terrorists would scan through the stations, sometimes they would come across an Israeli station. The door was open. One of them just came in with his radio, and he saw me with my head slumped, and as he entered, I heard: “Hear Israel, you are the omnipotent …” [from the song “When the Heart Cries” by Sarit Hadad].

Do you know what kind of smile that gave me? And then we remembered the song’s end is: “Make it end, for no more strength is left within me.” I didn’t agree to say that, so I changed the lyrics to: “For I have plenty of strength! For I have plenty of strength!” and I recovered.

Home

The day of the deal was a mixture of excitement and fear, worrying this was all a show, and outside, a firing squad awaited me.

They held us for 27 hours in a room with soldiers, the elite of Hamas. And then came Muhammad. You don’t understand what a handsome boy, the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in Gaza. Twenty-four years old, porcelain face, rosy cheeks, beard, mustache, everything neat, on point, standing solid, with fluent Hebrew. So, for 10 hours, I spoke with him and tried to reach him. But still, respect and suspect him.

At 1:30 in the morning, his friends entered with a comb: “Going home. Anyone want to brush her hair?”

And I stand there, before the smallest, filthiest mirror there is, and brush my hair. Until then, I have seen myself maybe four times. I looked at this mirror, and there was also light, so suddenly it is as if I saw my own face. I look, a tiny smile that no one will see, I triumphed. I won.

In this war between us and them, I won.

The Dream

Rachel: Moran, I want to draw you a scene that you wish to happen in the future.

Moran: Wow, that’s the simplest scene ever. I don’t want noise, I don’t want ringing, I don’t want commotion. I want to be that person sitting on the couch, turning on the TV, and coincidentally at that moment, there’s this red banner that says, “There is a deal. They’re going home.” And you see them getting out, home.

It’s tough. People don’t understand. I feel that compared to them, we were in the summer camp of captivity. Compared to what they’re going through, I almost feel ashamed to say I was a Hamas hostage. They’re not my family, they’re not my friends, I don’t know the people there, but we’re connected like that. That’s how it is, there’s no way to explain it.

That’s what I want.

For them to come back.

So I can start living.

We part with a hug. “Maybe we’ll meet again,” I say to her.

“Are you coming to Beersheba?” Moran asks.

“To be honest, no,” I reply in embarrassment.

“You know, Noa [Argamani] really loves to draw. She’s an amazing artist. They would bring her paper and paint, and she would paint gorgeous Chinese flowers, and then they would take them away from her. They really loved her paintings. So, when she comes back, you come again and we’ll paint together.”

Translated from Hebrew by Inbar Perez.

The article and illustrations by Rachel Shalev were first published in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on May 3, 2024.

Rachel Shalev is an illustrator, writer, and comics creator based in Pardes Hanna, Israel.

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