ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER — Lt. Yaron Genkin never saw the Hezbollah guerrillas he and his men were fighting.
What the 21-year-old tank commander did see were explosions all around him, and two friends killed before his eyes. But three days later, after attending their funerals, the battered and exhausted soldier says he is ready to go back across the border and return to the battle.
Slouched on an ammunition box on the border Thursday night, opposite the village he narrowly escaped, Genkin recounted the battle.
Genkin led a convoy of tanks into the south Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras early Monday to evacuate infantrymen hit by a Hezbollah ambush. Suddenly, Genkin was under fire himself. He heard a huge explosion, whipped his head around and saw an enormous plume of smoke emerging from the last tank in the convoy. He scrambled, poked his head into the smoldering tank and found his friend, Lt. Lotan Slevin, lifeless inside.
“I started screaming ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!” Genkin recalled.
He had little time to grieve. Mortars and anti-tank missiles were landing all around and the tank was filled with soldiers who were wounded, some seriously. So Genkin left his good friend behind, jammed a half-dozen of the wounded into his own tank and barreled to the border.
“During the evacuation you don’t think about anything. I just tried to get out of there with the wounded as quickly as I could before I got hit by a rocket, too, and the whole evacuation would have been for nothing,” he said.
As they fled, a second tank was hit by a roadside bomb, killing another friend, Staff Sgt. Kobi Smilig, and injuring the battalion commander.
“I couldn’t return fire. I had too many injured men in the tank that I couldn’t rotate the cannon. Also, I couldn’t tell where they were firing from,” he said.
At one point, he asked for authorization to fire at a home he suspected was a source of fire. He was refused, for fear of harming innocents, he said.
Not once did he see the guerrillas, whom he described as an “invisible enemy.”
After rolling into Israel, he cried as he was hugged by two surviving friends atop his tank.
A photo of the image was captured by an Associated Press photographer. But to date, Genkin had yet to speak about what he experienced.
Only at Slevin’s funeral did it all sink in.
“At the funeral, I realized what had happened and it broke me,” he said.
And yet he is prepared to go back into Lebanon, he said.
“We still have assignments, and we still have work to do,” he said. “Am I afraid? Of course, I don’t think you will find anyone who is not afraid to go in there. But I’ll do it all over again.”
Many soldiers along the border say they can’t wait to fight in Lebanon. They want revenge, especially in light of the mounting Israeli casualties that include nine killed in house-to-house fighting Wednesday.
“I just want to go in there and hit them as hard as I can,” said Sgt. Golan Gavish, 20, from the Engineering Corps, an M-16 strapped across his chest and a cocky smile on his face.
Genkin said it all looks different after you’ve been in a battle.
“Whoever comes with a ‘fighter’ attitude saying he’s looking for action, hasn’t been in there,” he said. “Whoever has been in battle like us is a thousand times more careful, is always on the lookout for explosives, is more wary, and thinks twice about everything. Before I went in, I didn’t think about it too much, now when I go back in, I’ll think a thousand times before I go anywhere new.”
He said he is not the same kid he was Saturday, when he playfully tossed Slevin in a bush. The last time he saw Slevin alive was when they rolled into Lebanon and Slevin waved goodbye from his tank before the hatch closed.
“It makes you grow up, for sure,” he said. “What’s certain is that it’s an experience I will never forget.”