Forty years ago, I saw my first corpse.
Or rather corpses.
In October of 1973, with the Yom Kippur War raging, I joined an Israeli government press tour of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. I was a freelance journalist in Jaffa and jumped at the opportunity to visit an active war front. My wife and I had visited the Golan only about a month earlier, following our honeymoon in Montreal, never imagining that it would soon become a battlefield pitting Israel against Syria.
The Yom Kippur War broke out on Oct. 6, on a warm Saturday afternoon, when Egypt and Syria, in a coordinated offensive, attacked the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan respectively in an attempt to wrest these territories back from Israel. But as far as I was concerned, the war really erupted on Saturday evening, when no one showed up at my going-away party.
After having lived in Israel for two-and-a-half years, I had decided to return to Canada. I made the decision to leave in September 1973, about a year after my marriage to Etti, a student at Tel Aviv University who was completing an MA degree in English literature. The plan was that she would join me in Montreal a few months later. In the meantime, she invited our friends to a party at her parents’ home in Jaffa on Oct. 6.
On that fateful Saturday evening, after Yom Kippur, the telephone rang off the hook as one person after another phoned to cancel. All the men had been called up by the army and the air force and were already packing their bags. They were on a war footing, but no one knew what was afoot.
I was not entirely surprised by the turn of events.
On Friday evening, Etti and I had gone for a stroll along Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa’s main thoroughfare, and had been surprised by the unusually high number of military vehicles clogging the road. We wondered what was happening.
On Saturday morning, we awoke to the muffled roar of jets overhead. Etti, noting that mornings in Israel had always been quiet on Yom Kippur, said, “There is going to be a war.”
After breakfast, we took a walk, hoping to gather some information. The roads were already jammed with army jeeps and trucks. Very strange, we thought.
At 2 p.m., we turned on the radio to listen to the news. War had broken out. Egyptian commandos were crossing the Suez Canal to assault Israel’s supposedly impregnable Bar-Lev Line, while Syrian tanks were bearing down on Israeli positions on the Golan.
Shortly afterward, sirens wailed. Etti and her parents, Moritz and Renee, headed down to the bomb shelter. I showered, thinking I might not have access to a shower for the next few days.
Within a few moments, Etti and her parents returned to their flat. But the war was far from over. Egypt and Syria had made impressive but alarming gains in the first two days, throwing Israel on the defensive.
As the days passed, I visited my cousin in Haifa. An air force pilot, he had been shot down over the Golan in the first hours of the war and had miraculously survived. Having been slightly injured, he had been given a brief leave of absence. He used the opportunity to marry his fiance. After a very short honeymoon, he returned to his squadron.
In the second week of October, when the tide of war began shifting in Israel`s favor, I received a media pass from the Israel Government Press Office in Tel Aviv, learning I was eligible to join bus tours of the front.
The bus I was on reached the Sea of Galilee at around 10 a.m. I sat in front of Zubin Mehta, the India-born conductor who had finangled a seat. We were given a military briefing at Kibbutz Ginossar, and while I’ve forgotten what was said, I clearly remember looking up at the sky in some awe as four Israeli Phantoms jets roared across the lake in tight formation and swept into Syria on a bombing raid.
As our bus labored up a two-lane road toward the Golan, a plateau that offers panoramic views of a verdant Israel, an explosion about 200 metres away startled many of the foreign journalists.
`We could have been killed,” said an Italian reporter, revelling in the thrill of being so near, yet so far.
The bus stopped at El Al, close to the escarpment. A disabled Syrian tank lay partially in a ditch by the side of the road. Evidently, Syrian armor had almost conquered the Golan.
Further up the road was a sight that has permanently imprinted itself in my mind.
There, on a yellow field scorched by fire, lay two dead Syrian soldiers, a rope connecting their bodies. An American correspondent asked our Israeli escort why they hadn’t been buried. He said they would be as soon as possible.
These nameless Syrians were not the only fallen soldiers on the field.
As I wandered around, I saw a carbonized figure in a jeep leaning toward the streering wheel. He was deathly still as flies buzzed around him. Another horrific apparition, a Syrian soldier whose testicles had swollen grotesquely, lay in a ditch. A photographer standing next to me said he did not have the heart to take a pîcture of this poor soul.
We continued our journey, pausing at an Israeli jeep with a small bullet hole in its window and at a damaged Israeli tank with an El Al Airlines travel bag inches away from the turret.
Near Majdal Shams, a Druze village, we visited an Israeli machine gun emplacement, chatting with the soldiers, who seemed to be in an upbeat mood.
At a road junction, we watched Israeli armored personnel carriers pass by, the soldiers waving. To the thump of artillery fire in the distance, we chatted with a group of soldiers awaiting orders. Mehta engaged a young officer in a conversation about great composers. It was surreal.
I returned to Tel Aviv that evening, amazed by the jarring jutaposition between the war on the Golan and the normality that prevailed in Jaffa.