It has been more than 50 days since Hamas militants released Sharon Aloni Cunio and her twin three-year-old daughters, but she remains haunted by her time as a hostage - most of which she says was spent in a Gaza hospital - and longs for her husband who remains captive in the Palestinian enclave.
“I’m both mother and a father right now,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday. Though when her children are out of sight, she watches videos and listens to voicemails of her husband, David Cunio, “to feel connected to him – but I’m pretty much depressed.”
Aloni Cunio’s family were among the more than 250 people kidnapped on October 7 and taken to Gaza during the Hamas attacks on Israel that killed more than 1,200 people.
She told Cooper that while her family had become separated in the chaos of the attacks, the four of them had been reunited in captivity when militants hid them alongside dozens of other hostages being held at Nasser hospital in southern Gaza.
In an account that potentially backs up US and Israeli assessments that hospitals were used to shelter hostages, Aloni Cunio said there were three rooms at Nasser hospital each holding between 10 and 12 captives and that they were tended to by a male nurse every other day. “He knew who we are, he went along with it,” she said.
CNN cannot independently verify Aloni Cunio’s account. Hamas issued a statement Thursday following the interview, denying that Khan Younis’ largest hospital was used to hold Israeli hostages. The group acknowledged Aloni Cunio had been held hostage and released during a temporary ceasefire but said they “reject the allegations” that she was held in Al Nasser hospital. The statement did not provide any further details about where Aloni Cunio or her family were held and CNN cannot independently verify Hamas’ claim denying her account.
The 34-year-old also told Cooper that even though she was eventually released alongside her twins, Yuli and Emma, during a weeklong truce at the end of November, her freedom was bittersweet as she had been forced to leave David behind.
“My mind couldn’t be happy about the fact that we were released because of my concerns about David, and his health… and his mental state of mind,” she said.
Kidnapped and separated
On October 7, roving militants had set fire to their home in the kibbutz of Nir Oz while the family were hiding in a safe room alongside Aloni Cunio’s sister and child – Danielle Aloni and Amelia.
They were all kidnapped as they fled the burning house, but in the melee Aloni Cunio and her husband became separated from one of the twins, Emma, and they feared the worst had happened to her.
Aloni Cunio was taken into Gaza on a tractor with David and Yuli and held in a home guarded by two Hamas militants. On their ninth day there, a neighboring home was shelled and she says they were then taken in an ambulance to Nasser hospital.
“They brought in an ambulance [and] disguised David as a corpse. They put me in traditional Arab clothes and they put Yuli on me and covered her with a sheet,” she said. “There were about three rooms of hostages [in the hospital]. Each one was 10 to 12 people in it, small rooms, 12 square feet. So not a lot of room.”
It was there where she was eventually reunited with Emma. Hamas militants wanted to film the family “and suddenly I heard a voice of a baby crying outside the door” that sounded like Emma, she said. At first, she thought she was hallucinating but someone walked in with Emma and handed her to Aloni Cunio “like a package,” she said.
It took a few nights to settle Emma as “she would wake up screaming and wouldn’t calm down for hours,” causing the militants to “yell at us to be quiet,” she said.
Aloni Cunio spoke of the harsh living conditions they endured in captivity. They slept on a blood-strained pillow, and there was a bathroom outside their room, but it could take hours for the door to be opened – a torment especially when “we all had diarrhea and vomiting.”
At one point, they were given a bucket and glass to shower, but she said she was able to shower only five or six times in the two months they were there. They were barely fed and she described the food they received as moldy.
All this time, the situation was taking a toll on the parents. Aloni Cunio did not have her medication for depression and says she “used to cry almost every day.” David’s frustration led him to “beat himself in the face sometimes until he bled,” she added.
‘He asked me to fight for him’
Even when she learned she was to be released, there was little cause for celebration.
David was taken out of the room and was told by Hamas that the deal struck with Israel was to send back only women and children. He was also told that he was going to be taken to where the other men were being held.
“We just sat there and cried and I begged him not to go and he told me he was so scared and asked me to fight for him,” she said.
She even tried to convince David to let her stay with him and for the twins to go back to Israel alone. “We have an amazing family from both sides, I know they will take good care of them,” she said of the conversation she had with him. But in the end, she had no choice and David was taken away on November 24.
Days later, the Red Cross ushered Aloni Cunio and her daughters back to Israel.
Now she must watch from afar, but every report of a hostage death in captivity makes her only more determined to secure the release of David and the other 104 hostages Israel believes to still be in alive in Gaza.
“Everything needs to be done in order to make a deal and bring them home,” she said, adding that she wants David to know that she is fighting for him.
“Because you deserve it, and I love you and I can’t wait to see you.”
This article has been updated with additional developments
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