ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER — Some 20 paratroopers sit on the grass, skullcaps on their heads and M-16 rifles lying gently on their laps, and sing the traditional tunes marking the end of the Sabbath. They have plenty of reason for prayer, to give thanks that they survived the fighting in Lebanon and to mourn their slain commander.
“Yiftach used to say the only thing he cared about was getting us all home alive,” one of the soldiers, Aharon Tzohar, said in the weekly sermon, mixed with eulogy. “Well, we all made it back except for him.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the platoon was holed up in a house in the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras, when an anti-tank missile was fired at them. The platoon commander, Yiftach Shrayer, 21, was instantly killed and three of his soldiers were badly wounded.
While the world is focused on the geopolitics of the conflict, the battle has become intensely personal for the soldiers on the front lines. Thirty-three of them have died in fighting with Hezbollah over the past 19 days.
“We all have, have had, or will have children in the army. Every soldier harmed is like our own child,” wrote columnist Sima Kadmon in Thursday’s Yediot Ahronot daily, following a day in which nine were killed in Lebanon, including Shrayer, in house-to-house battles in the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbail.
“It is so easy to identify with a terrified mother in a hospital corridor, with a father whose eyes are red from sleeplessness and worry,” she added.
Many who go into battle keep it all to themselves _ some haven’t even informed their parents where they are.
At a guesthouse in northern Israel, for a brief furlough before a return to battle, they take off their red boots for the first time in a week. Showered and with new underwear, they smile again. But it’s deceiving.
Sgt. Dor Adar, 20, from Jerusalem, ducks as artillery fire explodes overhead.
“Every one of those makes my heart drop, it takes me back,” he said. “It was the hardest week of my life _ so many explosions, so many bodies, so much blood.”
He said he hasn’t slept or eaten in a week, vomiting everything he puts in his mouth and seeing dead bodies any time he closes his eyes.
The hearing in his right ear has been damaged, while others here still carry shrapnel in their limbs. But he said the damage to the soul was much worse.
“I think every one of us needs to see a psychologist,” he said. “There is not one man who came out of there OK.”
Sgt. Eliran Raban, 20, from Dimona, was on the roof of the house 10 seconds before the missile struck. He was walking down the stairs to fetch some water when the explosion sent him flying through the air. He ran back up to the roof. No one remained unscathed. Shrayer was dead and the others burned beyond recognition.
“To see a friend and only be able to recognize them by the sounds of their screams and the shape of the body you know from the shower, it sticks,” he said. “I was in shock, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I survived only by the grace of God.”
Adar said the image of dead bodies, both of comrades and the enemy, continue to haunt him. Like everyone else here, he said he believed in the cause and was willing to do everything for the sake of his country. But at the same time he couldn’t come to grips with the heavy price he and his comrades had to pay.
“We weren’t ready for this. I don’t think it has sunk in yet for anyone. Any minute it’s all going to pour out. You see a friend of yours blown to bits. It’s the worst feeling you can imagine. I can’t understand why a 20-year old has to see something like that,” he said. “What happens up there is not human, you can’t describe it.”
But Sgt. Ron Yehushua, 21, of Jerusalem, said there were moments of beauty in war, too.
Despite the brutal carnage he witnessed, he said the image etched most deeply in his mind was that of the Lebanese family he encountered in the midst of battle. He said he shared some of the little food he had with them and handed a young girl a piece of candy.
“That’s the bravest thing I did,” he said. “I was afraid that in war people lose their humanity, that they become bad. I will carry that memory with me because it reminded me that I am human, and that I am fighting for peace.”
© 2006 The Associated Press