Standing before a gathering of select young officers from the IDF’s 188th Armored Brigade in mid-February, 67-year-old Col. (res.) Amnon Sharon recounted his searing tale of survival.
Sharon spoke to soldiers stationed on the northern border, where he found himself 42 years ago, facing Syria.
Instead of today’s chaos and civil war, he ran straight into a tidal wave of invading Syrian ground forces during the Yom Kippur War; Sharon was wounded, captured and underwent months of severe torture.
The father of three did not just share his story with the officers, and with The Jerusalem Post – he provided proven tips on how to deal with extreme situations and emerge from them with an optimistic approach to life, tools he said can be universally applied.
Sharon is a prominent member of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization – Beit Halochem Center for Disabled Veterans in Tel Aviv, where he attends sculpting class and speaks to visitors. Through his sculptures, he has been able to reproduce some of the jarring experiences he underwent in Damascus as a young tank force commander in the hands of a cruel enemy.
“These officers serve on the Golan Heights. In 1973, I was a reservist company commander, and I joined the 178th Armored Brigade in the fog of war,” he told the Post before his lecture to the officers. Sharon’s message is pertinent in 2015, when Hamas and Hezbollah are keener than ever to capture Israeli soldiers, and to use their release to free as many security prisoners as possible.
Unlike today’s soldiers, in the early 1970s Armored Corps soldiers received no training on how to handle captivity.
“When you are in captivity, you depend on the grace of your captors. Nothing is certain until you are out of there,” he said.
Sharon’s challenges did not end with his freedom. He deals with aftermath of a severe car accident that left him injured and financially ruined a few years ago, though he has physically recovered from that, too.
A year-and-a-half ago, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body, leaving him in a wheelchair. But he rehabilitated himself, and is able to walk again today. “I do not give up,” he stressed.
The techniques Sharon developed to cope with traumas and difficulties in his dark Syrian prison cells have been described by psychologists as guided imagination tools, he later found out.
Back in a lecture room in Tel Aviv, captivated young officers listened intently as Sharon told his story. Instead of the state-of-the-art Merkava MK-4 tanks today’s Armored Corps officers have at their disposal (Sharon took part in developing the first Merkava MK-1 tanks in the 1970s), he was called up to an old warehouse, where 10 poorly maintained Centurion tanks were stationed.
It was Yom Kippur 1973, and the IDF was unaware that Syria and Egypt had begun their joint surprise attack on Israel. IDF Northern Command knew something was taking place, however, and dispatched unprepared, hopelessly outnumbered forces to the Syrian border.
On October 6, as the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights began, Sharon received orders to take 10 tanks up to the border – part of a relatively small number of Israeli tanks initially mobilized in the face of an attack by 1,500 Syrian tanks.
“We didn’t have binoculars on board for target selection,” he recalled. The IDF scrambled a jeep to bring him the missing equipment, as his tank force began rolling northward, turning right into the Jordan Valley, and left toward Syria.
“No one knew the Syrians had broken through all of our defense lines and that there were dozens of casualties.
Three of our tanks broke down on the way,” Sharon recounted.
Oblivious to danger, they rolled on. Radio instructions from Rafael Eitan, then commander of the 36th Reserves Armored Brigade on the Golan Heights (and later chief of IDF staff), came in, ordering the tanks to turn off their lights.
Soon afterward, the situation deteriorated rapidly. A wave of friendly fire destroyed a tank in Sharon’s column with a direct strike. “I still hear the screams of the crew to this day,” he said.
Then, a Syrian attack: Sharon’s tank was struck directly, killing crew members inside. The Syrians were firing from 150 meters away, and were equipped with night-vision goggles, which the Israelis lacked.
“I jumped out into the night, intending to climb onto the third tank in our column,” he said. But it too sustained a direct hit, killing all on board. Sharon found himself dodging machine-gun fire. “I ran into dark, and found one of my officers lying wounded. Then I looked at my Uzi submachine gun and saw it had no barrel – the army had taken it out to protect against thieves back at the arms storage room.”
He ran back to his own tank to try and rescue surviving crew members, and saw the turret was on fire. Then, a huge mushroom-shaped blast tore up the earth nearby, knocking him to the ground. “The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground near the tank, with a loud ringing in my one of my ears; then I lost consciousness again. I came to, and was lying on large rock, seeing a row of burning tanks – my tanks. Then I saw another blast. A Syrian tank appeared, then another, then a whole row of enemy tanks approached.”
His first thought was, “We accidentally drove into Syria.” Yet Sharon realized, with some shock, that he was still in Israel, in the middle of a Syrian invasion.
“Row after row of Syrian tanks came in. I thought, ‘Where is the air force?’ The ringing in my ear was driving me crazy. I saw aircraft blowing up in the night sky, and artillery fire light up the horizon.”
A Syrian soldier suddenly appeared, looking at Sharon. The Syrian raised his hands in surrender but quickly assessing the situation, lowered his hands and pulled out a handgun, “with a shaking hand,” said Sharon. He had entered captivity.
Sharon spent the next few hours passing through the custody of a number of Syrian soldiers and officers. Some showed kindness and let him drink water, but one soldier struck him with the butt of a Kalashnikov rifle and tore off his watch, also firing bullets around his feet.
A Syrian army team pulled Sharon away; another soldier struck him in the face. “I saw stars. Yet suddenly, my ear cleared up; the ringing was gone,” he said.
A soldier cocked a gun and put it to his head. “I closed my eyes, started eulogizing myself. I said goodbye to my family; I saw my childhood, scenes from kindergarten.”
A Syrian commander arrived on the scene and pulled Sharon to safety. “He knew some Hebrew. He forced the other soldier to return my watch and apologize,” recalled Sharon. The Syrians tore off his dog tags, put him in a car and drove him to Damascus.
“My interrogation began; two Syrian military intelligence officers in suits begin questioning me. They offered me drinks. One knew fluent Hebrew; he had a million-dollar smile, and brought me sweet tea,” said Sharon.
He began telling them his story, explaining that he was a tank commander. The mood suddenly darkened. “You’re a liar. You used the word ‘dugri,’ that is Arabic. You are a spy,” charged the interrogator.
Dugri (meaning to be straightforward and honest) is an Arabic loan word common in Hebrew. The Syrian guards raised their Kalashnikovs, and struck Sharon repeatedly. “Speak Arabic, kus emek [Arabic obscenity],” they shouted, and two military police officers dragged him to the cell. He had arrived in Damascus.
In a dark and cold cell in only his underwear, Sharon became the recipient of a daily routine of beatings. His interrogators used metal poles and cables; he often passed out, and bled profusely.
“I felt I was floating in the air; I could not move my legs,” Sharon said. He found he had been tied up in chains and suspended in the air, stretched out and beaten. Next, he was on the ground, sustaining blows. Syrian soldiers jumped on his chest, breaking his ribs.
When he woke up and saw his body, he nearly passed out again. “I was put in an isolated cell with pieces of glass on a cement floor. I was bound 24 hours a day, with a sack over my head. Every 30 minutes I was struck with pipes.” During interrogations in the torture chamber, the Syrians tore out his toenails and administered electrical shocks.
Sharon was moved to a cell in a central Damascus prison, where the beatings continued. He did recall one Syrian “angel,” a guard who brought him water whenever he requested it.
“I spent five months in this dungeon; I was interrogated every day. This is when I started building up a survival doctrine,” Sharon said. He first composed a prayer to God, which he uttered three times a day. The prayer, he said, enabled him to feel a wave of warmth in the freezing Syrian winter, despite the lack of any protective clothing.
Sharon began daydreaming to cope with stress, a process he later would learn was called guided imagination. In his dreams, he saw himself returning to Israel, to freedom and safety, on June 8.
When he wasn’t daydreaming, the dangers and torture continued. During one interrogation, Sharon was asked by a Syrian officer, “What is the Merkava [Hebrew for “chariot” and the name of the then-top-secret, new Israeli tank program, which Sharon would go on to develop after his release]?” He continued: “I did not know at the time, so I said, ‘We don’t use the cavalry anymore!’” That answer resulted in a Syrian soldier putting a knife to his throat, plunging it into his back.
Sharon passed out, and was dragged back to his cell; his blood covered the floor. A Syrian guard poured iodine on the wounds, and that was the extent of his medical care.
One day, Sharon got a mattress, which stank of cigarettes and urine, and a blanket. He rejoiced. “I felt like I was in the Hilton. In my daydreaming, I saw myself setting up a factory for mattresses.”
After five months of torture, he was thrown into a new room, filled with bearded men. Sharon thought they were Arabs, but soon realized they were Israel Air Force POWs. “I notified them: We are getting out on June 8.” He was met with suspicious skepticism, Sharon noted.
“We set up committees; a Shabbat committee that lit candles on Friday; a food committee. We stole a Red Cross marker and drew the Israeli flag on a T-shirt, and hung it from a double bunk bed. We started getting letters to our families. Red Cross officials visited,” he said.
Sharon learned that his wife had given birth to boy. “I called him Dror [Hebrew for “freedom”]. Bella, my wife, called him the same, without knowing the name I had chosen.”
On June 6, Sharon and the other POWs landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. In civilian life, he later set up a factory for mattresses.
Sharon listed the lessons he has learned: “You can get out of every situation,” he began.
“None of us POWs sleeps at night. My medicine is to be busy all of the time. I was injured from head to toe, and Syria taught me: Do not dare trivialize the enemy. Today, from Islamic State to Hamas, they all fight hard, and have an ideology.”
Most crucially, he said, “Do not pity yourself. Face up to the situation you are in; look right, look left – that is what you have to deal with. Do not hang your head; raise it high. You can get out of every situation.”
Sharon’s artworks, based on memories from captivity, have helped him deal with the traumas. “When the Syrians jumped on me, I imagined they were dancers with music,” he said, pointing to a sculpture of dancers on a man.
“Dream about things you can obtain realistically,” he counseled. “The fact that I believed my freedom would come on June 8 made my life easier.”
Sharon has documented his memories in his book, Sane in Damascus.