BANGKOK: The first flight of Thai evacuees fleeing the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas landed in Bangkok on Thursday, with several recounting harrowing escapes as they were reunited with tearful family members.
Worried families gathered at the airport hours before the arrival of a flight carrying 41 Thais, including 15 evacuees, who were flown out with assistance from their country’s diplomats.
Around 30,000 Thais work in Israel, mostly in the agriculture sector, according to Bangkok’s labor ministry.
Two returning workers were in wheelchairs, their faces tired after the long journey home.
“I thought to myself I wouldn’t survive. They shot continuously like in a film,” Katchakorn Pudtason told reporters at the airport.
“The fighting was so intense that my employer let us take shelter at his home,” he added.
“He told me the situation was easing and when I tried to escape I heard the gunshots behind me and I realized that I was shot in the knee.”
Hamas fighters on Saturday crossed the Israeli border in vehicles, by air and sea, to kill more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
They also seized dozens of Israeli, dual national and foreign hostages, whom Hamas is threatening to kill.
Israel has retaliated by declaring a war to destroy Hamas’ capability, relentlessly pounding the Gaza Strip.
More than 1,200 Palestinians have died in Gaza as Israel has leveled entire city blocks and destroyed thousands of buildings.
The number of Thais killed in the conflict has risen to 21, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said Thursday.
Fears are mounting over the fate of 16 others who have been taken hostage by Hamas, the foreign ministry said.
“I have lost 10 of my colleagues,” said Kittipong Chaikow from northeastern Nong Bua Lam Phu.
“I am so happy to be back in Thailand,” he told reporters.
“Dad is here,” said another Thai evacuee while hugging and reassuring his daughter.
Yanisa Thaweekaew, whose son Supipat Kongkaew has worked on an Israeli avocado farm since last year, said she hadn’t slept in days.
“My son is everything to me. I was worried. He is the only son I have,” she told AFP.
“I cried every day knowing that he lived in the red zone.”
Many of those being repatriated are farm workers from Thailand’s poor northeast who had gone to Israel in search of vastly higher wages.
The mother and wife of Somma Sae-ja — a Thai man who moved to Israel two years ago to work in agriculture — were anxiously awaiting his safe return home after he was shot in the leg.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited and worried,” his wife Nantawan Sae-lee, 30, told AFP.
“We don’t have much money so he went to Israel. He is a really good man.”
More than 5,000 Thais are trying to return to the kingdom with diplomats exploring potential sea and overland evacuation options.
Further Thai repatriation flights are due to leave Israel on Sunday and Wednesday next week.
Sawiang Paelin, 69, from Nong Khai, said her son was able to support his entire family by working abroad but was grateful that he was returning.
“No amount of money is more important than a person’s life,” she said.