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As Syrian artillery shells fell, they just kept walking

It was the Yom Kippur War, in the heat of battle, and as those bearded men in black came toward me I no longer felt fear
Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz

A quiet and peaceful feeling surrounded me all those years ago.

The cotton lay white in the fields, in stark contrast to the brown stalks and soil. A long and hot summer was about to transition into a milder season, and the first late September flowers, the squill (known in Hebrew as hatzavim) were beginning to bloom.

I was part of a unique family, a brotherhood like no other. We shared everything, letters from home, little packages sent by parents or friends or future fiancees. We shared the unique fears of front-line combat warriors and just for that reason alone we felt reassured. The calm before the storm.

I was sent home, home at that time being a kibbutz some two or three kilometers from the Gaza Strip. Within 24 hours, my life would change. Forever.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful fear. I had never experienced such a terrible fear, but once faced, that fear became a feeling of resignation. What would be would be. A windbreaker caked with dried blood became my windbreaker. Perhaps it would bring me better luck than its previous owner. I wore it for many months after October 6, 1973. I put it away only on those very rare occasions when, for a day or two days at the most, I was allowed to travel to the other end of Israel for a brief moment of calm, and to catch up on the fate of others, and to mourn them.

During those first days of the Yom Kippur War, my brothers and I were in outpost (motzav) 104 and the Syrian bombardments were relentless. I could not believe my eyes when I saw them, clad in black. Black hats, bearded men with sidelocks flowing from their faces, walking towards the gate. Syrian artillery shells were falling all around them. They walked toward us, with one goal: to bring us the lulav and the etrog necessary for the Sukkot celebration. And their calm, their belief in something beyond the physical, their faith that whatever would happen was already preordained, just absolutely amazed me.

I’m about a year shy of my 70th birthday now, yet the memories of those days, the sounds and the smells, the terrible sight of death everywhere, are as fresh in my mind as ever. Is it for them that I live? Is it for them that I carry them with me every day? Is it for them that I tell the story, again and again?

The effects of war are different for every soldier. In later years, ordered to leave my Golani Brigade brothers and train as a tank commander, I came upon a new brother-in-arms. He had been in an original tank unit in the Sinai, while I was in Syria with the 13th Battalion, Golani. Every time he entered his tank driver’s compartment he relived his battles. He crushed his Egyptian enemies again and again, reliving his nightmare again and again.

During the years of my military service I often asked myself the following question: what drives a fellow human being from Syria or from Egypt (or Gaza or Lebanon or today from Iran) to hate the “other” so much as to deny their humanity? To brutalize them? To wage war against them?

During the Yom Kippur War, my platoon went on a long-range night mission, deep into enemy territory. We lay in ambush forever, and returned, at night, back to our base at Tel Shams. On the way back we were ambushed by Syrian commandos. They failed and we captured them. We gave them water. Cigarettes. Their fear was palpable. We brought them back, alive, and handed them over to be interrogated. Unlike our Syrian counterparts, we did not murder them, we did not mutilate their bodies. We did not torture them.

Some 20 kilometers outside of Damascus, my squad and I had set up a makeshift observation post. Nothing fancy, just a few empty fuel barrels and some barbed wire across a narrow road. From a distance we could see a lone Syrian soldier walking towards us. Unarmed. Walking. We faced each other when he reached our post, and saw the look of utter confusion on his face. His officers had sent him towards us, telling him that his brother was just beyond the point in the road where we had stationed ourselves.

The young man had six fingers on each hand. A birth defect that provided him with two thumbs on each hand, rendering him useless in the eyes of his Syrian commanders. So they sent him to die. We gave him water. We calmed him and offered him food and cigarettes. We told him that no harm would come to him, and that we would return him to his family after the war was over.

We prayed for bad weather, all those months in Syria. When the weather was good, the Syrians would lay down artillery fire, even after the war was “officially” over. We could hear the shriek of the incoming shells, and we grew indifferent to them. That calm and peaceful feeling. That resignation that whatever would happen was already written. Preordained.

I left Syria in late April of 1974, headed to a base in the south of Israel to begin my training as a tank commander. Years of new adventures and experiences awaited me. I was no longer afraid of the unknown. I had faced it at its worst. I saw firsthand the terrible end results of war. Death. Destruction. Loss.

I was no longer afraid of the unknown. I had seen men, clad in black, beards and sidelocks flowing in the wind, walking towards my band of brothers in outpost 104, carrying a lulav and an etrog, while artillery shells were exploding all around them.

* * *

For Moshe Bitterman, ז”ל; for Nachshon Yanai, ז”ל; for Amir Heitler Tal, ז”ל; for Uzi Dagani, ז”ל; for Avinoam Mordish ז”ל; for Danny Birnbaum, ז”ל; for Mordechai “Dudu” Gaon ז”ל.

I carry you with me. Always.

About the Author
Born in Israel, Yuval emigrated as a baby to Austria and then Canada. He returned to live in Israel in '71 until '91. His military service was in Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion (including Yom Kippur War) with reserve duty as a tank commander and later a liaison officer in the IDF Liaison Unit. He now resides in Pennsylvania, USA.
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