Former POW recalls Syrian captivity

"I know what he is feeling," says Sharon, a tank commander of the 7th Brigade during the Six Day War.

POW sharon 298 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
POW sharon 298
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
For Amnon Sharon, a retired IDF major, the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit brings back painful memories of his own experiences as a prisoner of war in a Syrian prison during the Yom Kippur war. "I know what he is feeling, I know what he is thinking," says Sharon, a tank commander of the 7th Brigade during the Six Day War in Sinai who led his company up to the Golan Heights at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. As they reached the Tapline Road, in the Nafah region, however, Sharon and his men were ambushed. Most of his comrades were killed in the ensuing battle. Sharon was captured and taken to a detention center in Syria. "I visited Shalit's family last week," Sharon told The Jerusalem Post. "They were very distraught. My wife said that perhaps it was too early for me to go and see them. She told me that while I was away she did not want to speak to anyone and wanted to be by herself. My experiences are probably too disturbing for them to hear yet." Sharon describes his disturbing experiences in his memoir Sane in Damascus (Gefen Publishing), which was published in Hebrew last October and has since undergone two reprints. The book was recently translated into English by Jessica Setbon. In the book, Sharon details how during his eight months in prison, he underwent extreme physical and mental torture. He describes his five months in solitary confinement, first in a detention center and later in Al-Mazeh prison near Damascus. He describes the unbearable torture, which included random beatings in his tiny cell and daily interrogations in which he would simply pass out from the pain. "Each time the door opened, my body shook in fear, for I did not know in what condition I would return to my cell," writes Sharon, as he recalls being whipped on the soles of his feet because that is where many nerve endings are located, electric shocks and spinnings, where he was put in a tire and beaten from all angles by the prison guards. "The beating continued, and I felt as if my body were dripping downwards. It boiled from the blows while the contact with the cold floor gave me chills," he describes in the book. "They cut me like a steak before it goes on the grill, and I felt my body ripping." The Syrian interrogators also tried to break his spirit mentally, by telling him that Israel had been captured or that his mother, Esther, had died. In the book, Sharon said he managed to stay sane by trying to exercising his brain with math problems and recalling the names of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball players. He would also imagine being with his wife, Bella, who was pregnant with his second child, and his son, Raviv and he would daydream about the day of his release. "Sometimes, now, I wonder how I managed to survive," said Sharon. "I wonder where the power came from. I don't know, I just did what my mind and body told me to do. I believe that the power of life, the desire to live gives you power and if you believe in that then you can do it." Sharon was later moved to a cell with some 20 other Israeli POWs, mostly air force pilots. "Compared to the pilots I did not get any training on how to deal with such a situation," said Sharon. "I had to develop these systems by myself in order to survive." He said that since the publication of his book, some of the high-ranking officers in the army have raised the question of training all troops on how to deal with POW situations. He also said that he lectures regularly to army troops about his experiences, which he believes could help someone in such a situation. After returning to Israel on June 6, 1974, Sharon said he underwent physical and mental rehabilitation in a special clinic in Zichron Ya'acov. He added that a large factor that helped him deal with the trauma of his experiences was to sign on as a professional soldier for a further five years. During that time, he was assigned to test Merkava tanks and had his rank raised to major. Now a grandfather and the owner of a successful bed and mattress factory, Sharon said that while he has gone on to have a relatively successful life, his experiences at the hands of the Syrians were always with him. "I can never escape from that prison in my mind," said Sharon, adding that he never regained feeling in his fingertips and still suffers pain on the soles of his feet. "Every noise I hear, every knock on the door makes me jump," he said. "Everything reminds me of that place."