Heritage Group meeting of April 20, 2017.
by Leslie Walsh
Israel had occupied the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez Crisis of 1953. By 1973, Egypt had deployed some 100,000 soldiers, over 1,000 tanks, and 2,000 guns, in preparation for an assault to retake the Suez Canal. Facing them were some 500 Israeli soldiers, spread across 16 strongholds along the length of the canal. The Arab–Israeli War (variously known as the Yom Kippur War, Ramadan War, or October War) began when Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights respectively, on October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur. The holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur that year also fell within the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
It is estimated that Egyptian forces killed some 200 Israeli soldiers who had surrendered during the 1973 war, and that dozens of others were tortured or mistreated as prisoners. It is also widely accepted that Syria was in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions during the same period. One report noted that, “the vast majority of (Israeli) prisoners were exposed during their imprisonment to severe physical and mental torture. The usual methods of torture were beatings aimed at various parts of the body, electric shocks, wounds deliberately inflicted on the ears, burns on the legs, suspension in painful positions and other methods”.
Today, Arie Lavy is the owner of RequestNetworks.com, an independent Information Technology consulting company in Winnipeg. For two months in 1973, however, he was a prisoner of war. The resulting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), untreated for over 30 years, is a burden he carries to this day. Arie now volunteers as a speaker in MILE5, a Mental Illness Literacy Education program in which he shares his experiences with young people. This Heritage Group session was another opportunity for him to bring this issue out into the open so that others should not suffer as he did. Despite his traumatic experiences, Arie maintained a sense of humour throughout his vivid description of what led up to his PTSD.
Arie was a member of a three-man Israeli army explosives unit in 1971, and by 1973, the Sinai was once again an arena of conflict.
Israeli commanders had relied on an old WWI-style deception to keep Israeli soldiers on the border feeling safe and the Egyptians afraid of crossing. Plastic boxes had been installed at strong-points along the canal, each with a red button and a hammer to break the plastic. Soldiers could then simply break the plastic when ordered and press the red button to set the canal alight. Consequently, Egypt spent millions between 1967 and 1973 to prepare for such an eventuality, investing heavily in firefighting equipment.
Then, in 1973, fearing that an invasion was imminent, Arie’s team was deployed to the Suez to reveal that the red buttons were a hoax and that the Israeli soldiers needed to make other preparations. When the Egyptians launched a massive surprise assault on Yom Kippur, the Israelis were caught completely off guard.
Arie’s three-man team was rescued by an Israeli carrier that managed to get them to a bunker at one of two nearby strong-points. After three days of fighting, with all communications cut, surrounded by Egyptian soldiers and out of ammunition, they tried to slip out through one of the strong-point’s two remaining tunnels. Surprisingly, despite the killing of all the Israelis at the other nearby strong-point, the waiting Egyptians did not shoot Arie’s team as it emerged.
The three of them were stripped, beaten, and urinated on. At the same time, fearing the Israeli air force was coming, Arie worried that they would all get bombed. The team had also booby trapped the area and were lucky that nothing exploded. Claiming to be officers (“animal instinct takes over and you want everyone to think you are valuable so everyone becomes an officer)”, the three were separated, put onto a truck and beaten, then transferred to a boat and beaten again by their “welcoming committee”.
“You don’t understand anything; you can’t think. It is pure survival. You are not you anymore, and you have to remove yourself from yourself and your family”.
Eventually bused to Cairo, each was given a “private room”. Left naked with a black sack over his head, Arie could no longer tell if it was day or night. He came to associate hearing the five-times daily Islamic call to prayer with daytime, and quiet with nighttime. His other senses became developed as well. And you would never find him on the floor. He would stand in a corner protected by two sides. “They couldn’t kick you as well if you weren’t on the floor.”
There were highs and lows in prison, and the Egyptians played games. You would hear doors opening and know when they were coming to you. You were surrounded by screaming and you were constantly urinated on. You would be lined up against a wall and your black hood removed to reveal a firing squad. There were blanks in some of the guns. Still, we were told we were lucky that we hadn’t been captured by the Syrians.
“We were not humans, were were numbers.” Arie was #152. Arie and his crew all fed the same lies to the Egyptians about the fictional fire on the Suez when interrogated. The Russians grilled them regularly as well, giving them injections. “You felt like you were burning from the inside, but this was nice compared to the beatings”. Eventually, Arie decided to go crazy whenever his interrogators came in. His beatings went down after that.
”Everything but your soul is gone. You don’t know what will happen. You hear everything, have no future…thinking, thinking, hearing Israeli screams, unable to think about your family, survival your only hope”.
After 46 plus days he was hosed off, given Egyptian clothes and sent back to Israel. There, he was DDT’ed, given new clothes, and put back into the army. Arie was home a single day before having to report to a fancy hotel where he became a prisoner in his own country. His parents had just found out that he was alive and couldn’t even come to see him. His security clearance went to zero as he underwent more interrogation, hypnosis and pills. Released after six months, he continued to be repeatedly interviewed by a committee for another six years. They did not make it easy.
In 1995, the Israeli government enlisted sociologists to research PTSD in relation to disabled POW’s. Some of the findings: the longer the time from the event the harder it is to recover; PTSD also affects the next generation. Then, in 1997, the Israeli government gave every POW 1,000 Shekels (about $300). His own government made him feel unimportant.
In 2000, Arie couldn’t take it any longer. He was abusive with his own staff and he wasn’t a very nice person. Arie finally went to his family physician who told him that she had been waiting for him to come forward. Arie was referred to a psychiatrist and is now on “happy pills”.
Arie’s present wife was his girlfriend when he went missing in action. They never talk about what he went through. “In fact”, he said, “she doesn’t know I am here (talking to the Heritage Group)”.
Arie still cannot not go directly from point A to B, even if it takes longer to arrive at point B. He pretends to sleep. Since he is a computer consultant, he can hide in the basement. Arie says he doesn’t think about the little things anymore. He likes to help people and volunteers a lot.
The Heritage group was riveted to Arie’s every word. There were often gasps and tears. Arie responded to questions at the end of his presentation, adding:
- There was no survival training in the Israeli camp
- Though the Israeli government offered no help, survivors support each other through a group called “Awake at Night”
- He would have been recognized if he had come home in a body bag. If you lose limbs you are treated like a hero.
- Ironically, Arie was charged at one of his Israeli tribunals with not setting fire to the Suez. Thus the lie became the truth to some people.
- 99.5% of the Israeli army did not know his small group existed.
- Arie does not blame or hate anyone
- There is no value in torture; you say what they want to hear
- You cannot train for this