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More than 200 hostages are held in Gaza. Their families lack needed information

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

As the daily bombardment of Gaza continues and the Israeli government prepares for a possible ground invasion, the fates of the more than 200 Israeli and foreign hostages held in Gaza remains unclear. Some Israeli families of the hostages say they feel like President Biden has spoken about them more than their own government has. As NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports, they're turning instead to civilian volunteers for help.

YONI ASHER: You know, the only words that I can describe - it's the gates of hell.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Family photos hang on the walls, and children's toys are neatly organized in the corner of the living room, a constant reminder for a father of the nightmare he now lives in.

ASHER: She called me, and she was terrifying, whispering.

SHERLOCK: Yoni Asher tells us about when, on October 7, Hamas gunmen kidnapped his wife and two children.

ASHER: Telling me she hearing gunshots. People entered in the house.

SHERLOCK: I can't imagine what it must have felt like to be on the phone when that was happening.

ASHER: It was a quite horrific moment, but it wasn't the worst moment.

SHERLOCK: When Asher later lost contact with them, he checked the location of his wife's phone. It showed she had been taken to Gaza. But even worse than this, Asher says, was when the video was published.

ASHER: Nine seconds long video, which I recognized and identified my wife getting covered on her head by one of the kidnappers, and I knew for sure that day they were abducted.

SHERLOCK: Asher's wife and his two daughters, Raz and Aviv, aged 5 and 2, are among 203 Israelis and foreign nationals held by Hamas and other Palestinian militias in Gaza. Some of them have medical needs that are urgent and make every day in captivity even more dangerous, says Dr. Hagai Levine.

HAGAI LEVINE: Eighty-seven years old with dementia and 12-years-old child with autism who needs close family members all the time. Who knows what hell she's now going through? Nine-months-old baby who needs baby formula all the time. There are people with malignant disease who need strong painkillers who are now in agony.

SHERLOCK: Levine is one of over a thousand civilian volunteers now working to keep the focus on the hostages.

OPHYR HANAN: The world needs to know the stories, the events, the names, the faces of the hostages, of the missing, of the - of every one of the survivors.

SHERLOCK: Twenty-six-year-old Ophyr Hanan (ph) is one of the founding members. She shows us around.

HANAN: Very busy, very hectic.

SHERLOCK: It's been less than two weeks, and already, they've taken over two floors of offices in a glass skyscraper in central Tel Aviv.

HANAN: Here we have people that are conducting direct communication with communities abroad. We have a social media team. We have people working with influencers.

SHERLOCK: They've pulled in lawyers, diplomats and even hostage negotiators. And they're doing all this with the families, Hanan says, because they feel the government is not.

HANAN: Our world had been turned upside down, and no one from the government or none of the officials in power were providing any information for the civilians.

SHERLOCK: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a task force for the hostage crisis, but his public focus is on destroying Hamas. So despite the warnings by experts of the danger this poses to the hostages, the daily bombardment of Gaza and preparations for a ground invasion continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

SHERLOCK: To demonstrators outside the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, like Gali Mir Tabon (ph), the hostages have already been forgotten.

GALI MIR TABON: It's abandoning the hostages. First, we need to bring them back home. All the other things can wait.

SHERLOCK: Taban's son lived in one of the kibbutz in southern Gaza brutally attacked by Hamas. For the hostages. She's pinned her hopes on another world leader, President Biden, who visited Israel earlier this week. Her son met with Biden.

TABON: He's on it, while my prime minister is definitely not on it.

SHERLOCK: Yoni Asher has turned instead to the German government to help rescue his family because they're dual citizens.

ASHER: And I beg them. I'm not expecting them because I don't know how to tell them how to do their job. I have no training in diplomacy or military.

SHERLOCK: He's doing what he can to keep the focus on them. He tells us he's given over 60 media interviews. He keeps the video of his wife and daughters' abduction ready to play on his phone at the tap of a finger. But when I ask him instead to show me a happy video of his family before all of this...

ASHER: No, I just can't. It's too hard. And I hope to hear the real voice, not on video.

SHERLOCK: Until then, Asher tells me he'll keep up the pressure, talking to anyone who will listen. He doesn't have anything to lose, he says. He's already lost everything.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Tel Aviv. 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.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.