Dozens of migrant farm workers were seized or killed in the Oct. 7 raids on Israel and relatives plead for answers: “We have nothing to do with their war.”
She does not know why they are fighting in the Holy Land halfway across the world, or even exactly who is fighting. All she wants is her son to come home.
In the impoverished northeast of Thailand, past cassava fields and cows dozing in the heat, Watsana Yojampa has her son’s new house almost ready for his return. There is a room for his daughter, soon to be painted purple because that’s her favorite hue of Care Bear. There will be fancy light fixtures and air-conditioning.
In less than two years, her son Anucha Angkaew, 28, had saved enough as an avocado farmhand in Israel to pay for the construction. On Oct. 6, Ms. Watsana showed him tile options for the bathroom over a video call. He was very particular about his “modern house” and promised to get back to her on his preferred shade of gray, she said.
A day after that call, Hamas attackers besieged Israeli communities near the border with Gaza. By the time the bloodletting stopped, 32 Thai agricultural workers had been killed and at least 22 taken hostage, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry. Another accounting puts the total number of Thais who were killed, kidnapped or are missing but feared dead at 80.
Either way, Thais, who have no connection to Israel except as a destination for a few years of hard work, are the second-largest group of victims in the Oct. 7 attack, after Israelis.
Mr. Anucha was among a group of Thai hostages whose photos were released on social media, their faces terrified as a masked man aimed an assault rifle at them. His 7-year-old daughter still does not know what happened in Israel. The family has told her his phone is broken and that’s why Daddy has halted his daily check-ins.
“Why are they hurting Thais; why are they kidnapping my son?” Ms. Watsana asked visiting New York Times journalists. “We have nothing to do with their war.”
Thailand is the largest source of foreign farm labor in Israel, with about 30,000 citizens working there before the Hamas attack. Nearly a month later, the plight of Thai farmworkers remains caught up in a haze of bureaucratic mystery and diplomatic ambiguity.
Families of those who are missing or believed to be held hostage say they have received no communication from Thai or Israeli government officials.
Many family members in Thailand say they have no idea whether their loved ones are dead or alive — or how to find out.
“It’s natural for confusion in the days after the Hamas terrorism, but it has now been nearly a month,” said Dr. Yahel Kurlander, a migration expert at Tel-Hai College in Israel, who has helped compiled lists of Thai victims.
Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, the Thai foreign minister, flew to the Middle East and said on Friday that Iran, Egypt and Qatar were acting as intermediaries with Hamas to try to free the hostages. An earlier Israeli count of the Thai hostages put the number at 54, out of more than 220 people thought to have been taken to Gaza.
On Wednesday, Ms. Watsana received a call from a local Thai official saying that she needed to submit a DNA sample. Is it because her son has died or is it a routine collection process? She does not know. The local official said he did not know, either.
“I am hoping for good news, but at this point, I just need any news at all,” Ms. Watsana said.
Another farmworker, Kriangsak Phansuri, was relaxing on Oct. 7 — his day off — within sight of the barbed-wire border with Gaza, when he heard what sounded like rockets overhead.
Mr. Kriangsak looked out and saw men in military uniforms. He assumed they were Israeli soldiers there to protect the Thais. But as they advanced, Mr. Kriangsak noticed that they all had beards. He and the other farmers blockaded their door with boxes of the potatoes they had just harvested.
Eventually, the uniformed men left and the Thai workers emerged, waiting for help. None came. Within hours, more militants returned, this time dressed in black. Mr. Kriangsak and others scattered to a nearby orange grove. Shots echoed through the fruit trees. An accented voice taunted them in Thai, yelling sawasdee, or hello. The Thais kept quiet.
He said the workers did not leave the orchard until the next morning.
“The rockets didn’t scare me,” he said. “But this attack, I knew I could not stay in Israel any longer.”
Mr. Kriangsak returned home to Udon Thani province on a repatriation flight organized by the Thai government.
The Thai farmhands who work the fields near Gaza grow much of the fresh produce that feeds Israel. Many come from the dusty villages of Isaan, in Thailand’s northeast, especially from Udon Thani, where a Vietnam War-era American air base was converted to a civilian airport — the means by which generations of workers have sought escape from poverty. Entire family trees of Udon Thani men have worked for years in the Middle East and Asia. Thousands of Western men have also settled in Udon Thani, bringing more cross-cultural currents.
The most coveted overseas jobs, residents say, are in Israel, where wages can be at least five times higher than back home. Thai migrants quickly discover, however, that the orange groves, strawberry fields and avocado farms are within striking distance of rockets fired from Gaza.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system does not cover thinly populated farms. Because they are considered temporary workers, Thais can be housed in caravans and containers without the anti-rocket shelters required in other homes. In 2021, two Thai workers were killed by a Hamas rocket strike.
Still, the money earned in Israel can be life-changing, and while about 7,200 Thai workers have returned home after the Hamas attack, many thousands have stayed. The danger persists. On Oct. 10, two Thai farmhands were killed by a Hamas rocket strike from Gaza, according to the local emergency service. On Oct. 21, in the north of Israel, two Thai workers were wounded by Hezbollah rockets.
“It is hard work and long hours, and the rockets are flying above our heads,” said Sawaeng Phathee of Udon Thani, who had worked at a farm in Israel for 63 weeks, the maximum contract length. “But when we get the money in our hands, the exhaustion disappears.”
Mr. Sawaeng’s nephew, Kiattisak Patee, was believed to have been kidnapped and taken to Gaza, along with Mr. Anucha. On Wednesday, Mr. Kiattisak’s father, Khamsee Phathee, who once worked construction in Saudi Arabia, sat in the newly finished house his son financed with earnings from a chicken farm in Israel. A newly purchased car and tractor waited outside, too.
“I go to pray at every sacred place I can find, and I go to fortune tellers for their wisdom,” Mr. Khamsee said. “I am powerless to do anything else.”
While Thai workers say that they have nothing to do with a conflict that has simmered for decades, their presence in Israel, which began to increase sharply in the 1990s, coincided with a desire to replace Palestinian workers with foreign labor after the first intifada uprising by Palestinians.
Although most Thai farmworkers work legally in Israel, roughly 7,000 of the 30,000 are undocumented, labor groups estimate. While these workers enter Israel with valid visas, they either overstay or switch employers without letting officials know.
Gong Saelao is a member of the Hmong ethnic minority, one of the poorest in Thailand. His family went into debt to pay for his trip to Israel. In Thailand, Mr. Gong had earned about $10 a day transporting fruit and vegetables. The daily wage in Israel was about $50.
His wife, Suntharee Saelee, lives in a cinder block home with a dirt floor in northern Thailand, near the border with Myanmar and Laos. On Oct. 7, her husband posted a Facebook account of what he thought was a rocket attack. Ms. Suntharee chatted with him and told him to stay safe. That evening, when she heard about the Hamas assaults, she called and called Mr. Gong, but there was no answer.
After a few days, as lists of victims appeared in Facebook groups, Ms. Suntharee worried that his undocumented status would mean that he would go uncounted. She visited the local employment bureau, which had advertised the job in Israel. They had no information.
A week after the Hamas attack, a Times reporter sent Ms. Suntharee a still image from a video that had been circulating online. A graphic montage of people killed and assaulted in the Hamas raids, the video featured a brief image of a man caught in a chokehold, with men in black restraining him. That was her husband, Ms. Suntharee confirmed. It was his T-shirt, his floppy black hair, his rosebud lips.
“People on the internet have replied to me and told me to go read the history about how Palestinians and Hamas are oppressed,” Ms. Suntharee said. “Well, I understand, but Gong is an innocent person.”