Lest we forget

Families of missing soldiers are anxiously waiting for signs of life. Some have been waiting for decades.

By ERICA CHERNOFSKY
February 22, 2007 11:39
lest we feat 88 298

lest we feat 88 298. (photo credit: AP)

 
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During his address at last week's annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, a prominent Israeli businessman welcomed the presence of the families of captured soldiers Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. He expressed his support for their struggle and gave an impassioned plea for the soldiers to be returned home. Sitting in the audience, Rina Hever angrily pushed back her chair and stormed out of the hotel conference room. Hever's son, Guy, was declared missing in action by the IDF in 1997. At the table with her sat Pirhiya Heiman, sister of Staff-Sgt. Yehuda Katz, missing in action since 1982, along with Staff-Sgts. Zachary Baumel and Zvi Feldman. Sitting nearby was the Halabi family, whose son, Majde, has been missing since May 24, 2005. No official information on the status of these soldiers, all considered MIAs, has been presented to their families. They have no concrete evidence as to whether they are alive or dead. Like Schalit, Regev and Goldwasser, all are presumed by their families to have been captured - either by terrorist factions in Lebanon and Syria or by some other criminal or terrorist ring. The businessman later apologized profusely to Hever for not acknowledging the other soldiers missing while in active duty. But, says Hever, this isn't the first time she has felt that the life of her son was not on the agenda. "It's like we don't exist," she says. "We don't have the ability to dominate the media like [the Goldwassers, Regevs and Schalits]. So no one cares about us." While serving in an artillery unit on a base in the Golan Heights, Guy, 20, disappeared early on Sunday morning, August 17, 1997 after finishing his guard duty. He was due in military court later that morning for initially declining to participate in an activity placing signs around the base that proclaimed his artillery unit better than the other. Though he eventually joined the childish game, his officer reported him for disobeying a command. Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen later termed the suit "a ridiculous reason to bring someone to court." But Guy had never gotten along with his commanders, says Rina. They never understood the quiet boy who read science fiction books in English and loved to draw. He was probably frustrated and left the base to clear his mind before the trial, she guesses. An officer from his unit called her at home later that day, telling her "Guy left the base, look for him at home." But Guy never came home, and no one has heard from him since. A year later, Rina received a phone call from Ilana Voltesh, a psychiatrist from the Golan. On the day Guy disappeared, Voltesh said, she had stopped at the Katzabiya junction, one kilometer from the Syrian border, after being hailed by a hitchhiking soldier. She rolled down her window and the soldier asked to be taken further north to Kuneitra. Taking in the soldier's haggardly appearance, Voltesh rolled up her window and drove away, later admitting she didn't want the sweaty soldier dirtying her car. That soldier, she says, was Guy. After seeing his picture in the newspaper in the days following his disappearance, she recognized him immediately, but was scared to call his family and let them know she was the woman who could have saved their son but didn't because he looked dirty. He still haunts her dreams, says Voltesh, asking over and over, "Now will you give me a lift?" What is known is that Guy left his base in uniform with his weapon, dog tags and ID. Rumors surrounded his disappearance - he committed suicide, he went AWOL, he became a Beduin - but he left no trace behind, had no passport, hated nature and couldn't swim, and all these theories were eventually discounted. The only remaining option, says Rina, is the most obvious - he is being held by the Syrians, who have been known to hold foreigners against their will and publicly deny any knowledge of their existence. In fact, last week a Syrian group calling itself the Resistance Committee for the Release of the Golan Heights announced it was holding Guy, and demanded the release of nine Syrian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for him. IDF sources said this was not the first time a group claimed custody of Hever, and that it was investigating the authenticity of the claim. But Rina is sure that's where her son is. "If someone disappears near the Syrian border, we know they didn't vanish into thin air," she says. German intelligence chief Ernst Urlau has invited Rina to Berlin four times to discuss the situation and has spoken to Syria on her behalf. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, head of the Arabic Department at Bar-Ilan University, writes letters to the Syrian government pleading for information on Guy. Last month, Rina met with US Sens. Arlen Specter and Christopher Dodd after their trip to Syria. No new information has come out of any of it. The Israeli government says it's doing all it can, but Rina says it isn't doing enough. "I have no shadow of a doubt he's alive," she says, the bags under her eyes a testimony to 10 years of sleepless nights worrying over the fate of her oldest son. "I'm his mother, I know he's alive, and he doesn't understand why the country isn't bringing him home, but he knows we won't abandon him." Rina's closest ally is Pirhiya Heiman, the older sister of Yehuda Katz, who disappeared July 11, 1982 when five IDF soldiers went missing in a battle with Syrian and Palestinian forces near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yakoub, hours before the declaration of a cease-fire in the first Lebanon war. Several years later, two of the captured soldiers were returned in prisoner exchanges with Syria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. The other three - Katz, Zachary Baumel and Zvi Feldman - are still missing. Over the years, there have been numerous conflicting reports on their whereabouts and condition. In the days following their capture, correspondents from Time magazine, AP and La Stampa reported visuals of an Israeli tank accompanied by its crew paraded through the streets of Damascus, confirming that the soldiers were still alive upon their capture. Chezi Shai, one of the soldiers who was returned home, recalled his captors discussing other Israeli prisoners and specifically mentioning Katz's name. The families have spent the last 24 and a half years exhausting every effort, establishing contacts throughout the international intelligence community and the Arab world in the hopes of gaining any information on the status of their missing sons. A few years ago, the government tried to declare the soldiers dead, recalls Heiman, and the families were forced to go to court to reverse the ruling. "Our case is so much more complicated [than that of Schalit, Goldwasser and Regev]," says Heiman, "and I almost think the government would rather Yehuda, Zachary and Zvi come home in coffins because it's easier." The government failed in its efforts, she says, and blames its leaders for not being able to admit their mistakes in handling the matter. If and when talks - official or not - begin with Syria, the first thing discussed, even before the Golan Heights, should be Feldman, Baumel and her younger brother, she says. At the conference last week, Heiman was the only representative of the families of the soldiers captured in the battle of Sultan Yakoub. Her parents are too old now, she says, and after almost 25 years of fighting, the other families have close to given up hope. "In the beginning, we were all certain they were still alive," says Heiman, "but over the years hope dies a bit... but I do believe there's still a chance he's alive. And I still think about him all the time." MORE THAN seven months since the capture of Gilad, Ehud and Eldad, the Schalits, the Goldwassers and the Regevs are only just getting started with their international campaign to free their sons. More progress - if it can even be called that - has been made on the Schalit case; five months ago, his parents received a letter in his handwriting, the only indication they've received that he is alive. Gilad, 20, was captured on June 25, 2006, when terrorists from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, killing two other soldiers. Since then, Gilad, from Hila, has been held by Hamas. Though there are often reports in the media by members of Hamas that Gilad is healthy and being taken care of or that his release is imminent, none of the information has been based on anything concrete, says his father Noam. Schalit hopes the recent Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah will lead to Gilad's ultimate release, echoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's words that Gilad will be the first test of the new Palestinian Authority government. Barring that, the family's hopes ride on a prisoner swap, but Schalit points out that the Hamas administration is in no hurry and the Israeli government isn't doing enough to secure his release. "We know they're working, but I can't say I'm satisfied with what they've done so far because Gilad's not home yet," says Schalit, who is in touch with Razi Hamed, a spokesman for Hamas who has told him the ruling powers in the group have no influence over the kidnappers. Schalit has also spoken with leaders of nations and organizations, recently meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov, and he has even applied for permission to visit the Gaza Strip to gain information on his son. Their family, he says, has tried to create some sort of routine to go on living; he and his wife continue to work and their two other children continue going to school. Nonetheless, Schalit says, they live in a nightmare there is no awakening from. "We still don't believe this has really happened to us," he says, losing his determined composure for a moment. "It's hard to believe this nightmare is even real. I think about Gilad all the time, and I worry about what he's doing, and how he's getting through this. He was only a teenager when they kidnapped him." On July 12, less than three weeks after Gilad was captured, Hizbullah terrorists attacked two IDF armored jeeps patrolling the border with Lebanon. Three soldiers were killed and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped. Eldad's older brother, Benny, read on the Internet that there had been a kidnapping on the border. Knowing where his brother was doing his reserve duty, Regev tried repeatedly to contact him on his cellphone, to no avail. His father finally called the Katzin Ha'ir and received the news that his son was one of the missing. That was a Wednesday, and what was supposed to be Eldad's last day of reserve duty. The modern Orthodox family had last seen each other the Sunday before, at a memorial service for their mother who had passed away eight years ago. "I didn't know that would be the last time I would see him," says Zvi Regev, a quiet man with an innocent demeanor. He has tears in his eyes as he speaks about his son. "It's very, very hard for us." Eldad, 26, a passionate young man from Kiryat Motzkin, loved music and sports, and was supposed to start studying law at Bar-Ilan University in October. It was supposed to be Udi's last day of reserve service as well. His wife, Karnit, was at home cooking for the imminent arrival of her husband of eight months, though the two had been together for nine years. She turned on the radio to listen to the news, as she always does, and heard that there was an attack in the North and two soldiers had been kidnapped. She immediately called Udi's cellphone, but he didn't answer. She sent him text messages, but he didn't answer those either. A few hours later, distraught, Karnit was surrounded by family and friends who had come to comfort her when a delegation from the army arrived. "They said Udi was missing, and they told me three soldiers were killed and two soldiers were kidnapped, and they weren't sure whether Udi was among the dead or the captured," she recalls. Later that evening, they identified the bodies and told Karnit Udi had been kidnapped. "It was a very strange moment," she says. "If someone tells you your husband has been kidnapped, it's like the sky has fallen down on you. But because we thought he might have been dead, it was exactly the opposite - I was relieved - because at least I knew he was alive." Thousands of miles away in Durban, South Africa, where Udi's parents were living, his mother Miki also read on the Internet that there had been an attack on the border, where she knew her son was serving. "I started to cry and I called Karnit, but she had been warned already by my husband not to tell me the truth, and when I asked to speak to Udi, she told me he was in the shower," Miki recalls. Later that night, her husband, Shlomo, came home with a rabbi and a doctor and told her the truth. The doctor gave Miki a shot to calm her down, and she and Shlomo were on the next flight to Israel. "There are no words in any language that can describe the feeling of receiving the knowledge that your son has been kidnapped from his homeland by the worst enemy," says Miki. "There is not a moment of my life that I don't worry about what's happening to him." Karnit's last conversation with her husband was the night before the abduction, and it was short, she says, because Udi was tired and she knew he was coming home the next day. "I think about him always," she says, "sometimes wondering what he's doing right now, sometimes wondering what he would do if he were in my place instead of me, sometimes wondering what advice he would give me, sometimes remembering things we did together and sometimes I think about him because he's the love of my life. I've always been devoted just to him and now I really am devoted just to him - just to bringing him home." The couple, who live in Nesher with their two cats and a dog, studied environmental engineering at the Technion together, and Udi, 31, is as devoted to protecting the environment as he is to protecting his country and doing his yearly reserve duty. "He is the type of person who would get angry when he would see someone throw a cigarette on the ground," says Karnit. Since his capture, Karnit has put her graduate studies at the Technion on hold, because "I can't study... it breaks my heart to do anything that doesn't help bring him home." WHEN THE WAR ended, the families hoped Eldad and Udi would be returned. But six months have passed since UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 11 calling for "the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers." The fighting has stopped, southern Lebanon is being rebuilt, but the soldiers are still in captivity - if they are even still alive. The families refuse to believe they aren't, but they've received no tangible evidence. "We are optimistic," says Benny. "We know he was captured and taken into Lebanon alive, and we think Hizbullah has an interest to keep them alive and use them to trade for prisoners." "No one knows for sure," admits Karnit, "but I can tell you what I feel in my veins, because I've known Udi for so many years, because he's my soul mate, I can feel that he's still alive." Unfortunately, says Benny, Hizbullah is in no rush to negotiate, and the families' only course of action is to travel the globe appealing to world leaders to put pressure on the terrorist organization and on Syria and Iran to release the soldiers. Like the families of other missing soldiers, Benny says the government isn't doing enough to bring them home. "The government cannot rest for one second until these soldiers are brought home," he says. "We sent these soldiers to the border to protect us, so we have to do everything we can to bring them back. Every Israeli can imagine himself in my position, and every Israeli needs to demand that the government do everything in its power to bring them home." "We know nothing more about [Udi and Eldad] today than we did on the very first day they were kidnapped," says Zvi Regev. In his recent meeting with Sultanov, he was told that all indications are the boys are still alive - but the Israeli government says it doesn't know enough to make that statement, and Olmert has even told the families that there is classified information they are not privy to. "We feel they want to help us, but how can we say they are doing enough if we have no information?" The government, the people of Israel and the rest of the world need to keep the soldiers in the public consciousness and continue to apply pressure on Hizbullah to keep its part of the deal and release them, Karnit says. "The world - whether it's France, Germany, Italy, the Russians, or whoever - should try its hardest to influence Damascus, which controls Hamas, and Teheran, which is directly linked to Hizbullah, to release our sons," says Schalit. Although the families have turned to every organization imaginable, including the Red Cross, Amnesty International, physicians' and women's associations, no one has been able to help. They ask people worldwide to send letters to their own leaders, to the European Union and to the Red Cross demanding information regarding Gilad, Udi and Eldad (information on how to help is available www.banim.org/en/index_en.html) "Everyone that considers themselves a part of the free world needs to fight to bring them home, not just our families," says Miki. "Lebanon and the whole world need to be reminded that Hizbullah has not fulfilled its part of the resolution." In an effort to create a grass-roots prisoner exchange, Miki is even attempting to be in contact with Lebanese families whose loved ones are imprisoned in Israel, and whom Hizbullah has promised to return, with the hope that the families can unite to bring about the release of all of their sons. But in the meantime, while they write letters and travel the world meeting with everyone from Javier Solana to the pope, they all suffer the indescribable pain of not knowing. "It's very hard for me that he's not home," says Karnit. "It's the hardest time of my life. It's hard to go to sleep alone and to wake up alone. I need someone to be with me during this time and the only one who can encourage me and support me and say the right words isn't here." Two months ago, Benny's wife gave birth to a child who still hasn't met his uncle. Last week at the conference, as the families spoke to the influential American Jews, Zvi stepped up to the podium, but had only one thing to say: "Help us. Please, help us." "There's no magic way of coping," says Benny. "You find the strength to deal with it because you have no other choice. What are we going to do, throw our hands up in the air and give up? This is my brother. We have hope, and that's what keeps us going." Udi's mother says she often thinks of Ron Arad, captured on October 16, 1986 after his aircraft malfunctioned over Lebanon, and swears she won't let her child suffer the same fate. "I am like a lioness fighting for my cubs. There is no price for my son, no one will fight about a price on the head of my child," says Miki. "He was sent [to the border] by this country, and the responsibility for his life is on this country." The families vow they will never stop fighting. "I will never give up, I will never stop, until Udi is back home," says Karnit. "I'm fighting for my life, I'm fighting for my husband, and if you could ask Udi, he would know exactly what I'm doing right now. I'm just his wife, and I'm just asking people for help. Udi, Eldad and Gilad need their help. Udi promised me years ago he would never leave me, and what I'm doing right now is to help him keep his promise."

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