“She's going to be in the tunnels of Gaza. She's not going to know it's her birthday. There'll be no cake or anything like that,” Thomas Hand tells PEOPLE of his daughter Emily
A father is fighting for the return of his daughter on her ninth birthday.
Emily Hand, who will turn 9 on Nov. 17, was kidnapped by Hamas in its attack on Israel on Oct. 7. She is believed to be among the more than 240 hostages currently being held by Hamas as the war between Israel and the terrorist organization continues.
“She's going to be in the tunnels of Gaza. She's not going to know it's her birthday. There'll be no cake or anything like that,” Emily's father Thomas Hand, 63, tells PEOPLE.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Emily was having a sleepover with her friend Hila at a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
As the attack began, Thomas — who emigrated to Israel from Ireland — heard gunfire as it got "heavier and heavier and closer and closer and spread out all over the kibbutz,” says Hand. “300 to 400 terrorists were running all over the place. They were everywhere.”
While Emily’s mother died from cancer when Emily was only two and a half, Hand’s ex-wife, Nikus, was like a “second mom” to the 8-year-old. “My Hebrew isn’t as good," he recalls, "so I rang my ex-wife and told her to get in her bomb shelter and call Raya, the mother of Hila, who Emily spent the night with.”
As Hand waited to hear if his daughter was safe, violence intensified. “If they couldn't get into your house, they would burn you out, they'd try and asphyxiate you,” Hand said about the Hamas terrorists surrounding the kibbutz. “You could come out of your bomb shelter and they’d shoot you, or you were going to die as the house burnt down.” His ex-wife decided to run the 300 feet to her mother's house. “They shot her along the way. She was 20 meters [65 feet] from safety,” says Hand.
Weighing his options, Hand decided not to run to where Emily was staying. “I thought, 'Well, if I do that and I get shot dead now, Emily won't have a mother or a father.' Maybe she will survive. Maybe they won't touch her house." Reflecting on that decision, Hand says, “I still feel guilty about that. I should have just gone for it. Maybe things would've turned out differently.”
Hand sat in his home “shaking uncontrollably with fear” until the Israeli army arrived at one in the morning: “I've never been so terrified in my life.” He had two minutes to pack his valuables and get on a bus headed for a kibbutz near the Dead Sea, still unaware of his daughter's whereabouts. “The people who were driving those buses were just civilians. They risked their lives to come and get us out,” he tells PEOPLE. “So many accounts of bravery that day.”
The next day, the group was transferred to a hotel, where they still reside, “We’re refugees,” he says. Four days later, “I was told they found Emily dead at the kibbutz,” Hand says quietly with tears rolling down his face. “I was relieved. It is a very strange thing to say when somebody comes up and says, 'Sorry, your daughter's dead,' and you go, 'Thank God for that.' Because I did not want her to be kidnapped and in the tunnels of Gaza. That was worse in my head.”
Then on Oct. 31, the situation he thought was worse became his reality. “The [Israeli] army gave me official information and said, 'We haven’t found any body or blood that can be identified as Emily,' " he recalls. “It was the lack of evidence that led them to believe that she, along with her little friend and her friend's mother, were kidnapped and are in Gaza.”
A few days later, an eyewitness confirmed this to be true, saying they saw the 8-year-old girl being pulled into a van.
“When I was told, I just kept saying, 'No. No. No. No.' That was not the news I wanted to hear at first,” Hand says. “But once it trickled down into my head, into my heart, of course, I want her back, I want her back alive, I want her back at any cost. I'm doing everything, we are doing everything we can to get her back. There are no limits to what we will do to get her back. We will get her back.”
While Emily remains captive, her father is making sure the world celebrates her birthday in his continued fight to bring her home. “Tomorrow, in honor of Emily’s birthday, people around the world are holding birthday parties in her honor,” the 63-year-old says. “It is starting in Times Square tomorrow morning with these massive billboards, and there’s going to be 1,500 of them all over the country in at least 48 states in honor of Emily.”
Hand, who says his only goal is to “get [Emily] back alive,” will continue fighting for his daughter. “I just keep taking another step forward.” He says of the more than 240 hostages currently being held by Hamas, “Bring them back, bring them home. They're innocent civilians, babies, children. Bring them home.”
If his daughter could hear him now, Hand says he would simply say, “Emily, I love you. We all love you. We want you back."
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Read the original article on People.