What kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit needs more than anything else upon his
return to Israel next week is support from a psychiatrist or social worker, and
time alone with his family, said Ori Shahak, a former POW and chairman of an
advocacy group for ex-soldiers who were once captives.
“From the first
step, he needs the support of a psychologist and his family needs as much quiet
as possible. To go from being alone for five years and then to be suddenly
surrounded by people who love you and support you is a very sharp, very
difficult thing. Picture someone who is in the pitch dark for a long time and
steps into the sunlight.
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It demands a slow process, some sunglasses to
help them get used to the light,” Shahak said on Thursday.
On October 7,
1973, the second day of the Yom Kippur War, the Phantom jet that Shahak and his
navigator were flying was shot down by a Syrian antiaircraft gun on the Golan
Heights, and the two airmen were taken prisoner.
Eight months later,
Shahak and dozens of other soldiers were released in a prisoner
Now 64 years old, Shahak is the chairman of Erim B’Leila
(“Awake at night”), a group that advocates greater state recognition and
benefits for former POWs.
“The family needs to have quiet and privacy
together in order to get used to one another again. It’s been over five years
and this takes time,” he said.
Schalit would have a “black hole” of
knowledge about the world since he has been in captivity, and would need to
slowly be brought up to date with, Shahak said.
“Think for a second,
[when Schalit was captured], there wasn’t Facebook, no iPhone, all types of
things that are taken for granted. All of these things take a long, long time to
get used to. It’s a black hole you need to fill slowly; if you do it quickly it
Even today, 37 years later, Shahak says the trauma of his
time in captivity returns unexpectedly, suddenly, to remind him that the he
carries a lifelong burden.
“It’s still not over. I try to keep in good
shape so in the mornings I go to the park and go jogging. Sometimes, I hear
footsteps behind me and I feel that it’s the Syrian soldiers coming take me. I
have to stand there and tell myself, “Ori, you’re not in Syria. It happens at
times when you’re not expecting it, and it never leaves entirely.”
says the day he returned to Israel was a moment that can’t be put into
words. “It’s impossible to describe the feeling of that day; its
excitement, it’s something you can't explain.”
Shahak related a tale of a
night in prison in Damascus, where a guard opened a door to let in a nurse to
treat one of the captive soldiers, and glancing behind the guard Shahak was
dazzled by the bright, shining object in the sky, only to realize that he was
looking at the moon for the first time in months.
“People ask me, what to
me is freedom, and I say to them when I was in captivity in Syria, the guard
stands next to the door, and I see the moon for the first time. For me freedom
is seeing the moon for the first time. It’s the basic things, to go outside, to
get water, air, when you want to. To suddenly be a free man is something
you can’t describe.”
Uri Ehrenfeld, one of the founders of Erim B’Liela,
is a former paratrooper who was captured by Egyptian forces in the southern
Sinai during the start of the Yom Kippur war and released two-and-a-half months
later. Ehrenfeld, who underwent repeated torture, interrogation and solitary
confinement, describes the return to the life of a free man as a challenging
“He’ll need quiet, need people to get away from him, let him
relax. It’s a very difficult transition to go from being in a dungeon all by
yourself to suddenly in a free society.”
Ehrenfeld said that while each
person’s tale of trauma and captivity is unique, Schalit can expect his return
to Israel to be “a sudden 180 degree shift in his life,” which in extreme cases,
can see the soldier hospitalized to deal with the trauma.
name comes from one of the symptoms commonly experienced by former POWs,
sleepless nights, Ehrenfeld said. This was not the result of nightmares, rather
that in captivity you had to be ready to stand at attention if the jailers came
to your cell, and the fear of being caught asleep and subjected to a beating
remains difficult to shake even years later.
The most difficult aspect of
his captivity was the solitary confinement, the feeling of being completely
alone in the world, Ehrenfeld said. For Schalit it will be important that he
receives treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), treatment that was
not readily available for POWs of earlier generations, such as
“There are symptoms that stay but you put the experience aside
and then suddenly it would come back because you hadn’t gotten the support over
the years... You have to deal with the symptoms and deal with the PTSD and not
ignore it until it starts to push back,” he said.