Photo: IDF (Zahal) Spokesperson
Ori Shahak tells the story of his eight months in Syrian captivity following the Yom Kippur War (1973-1974)
Date: 31/05/2010, 4:13 PM Author: Rotem Caro Weizman
It was 1973. The State of Israel was still in euphoria over the Six Day War in 1967, a feeling that vanished on a Saturday, Yom Kippur [Jewish Day of Atonement], October 6th. Combat pilot Ori Shahak lived in the family complex of the Hatzor Air Force Base with his wife Hava and their five year old son. Ori was on the base, while his squadron commander and most of the other commanders were on leave for the holiday. There was no worry, no fear, everything was quiet. During the afternoon of this Yom Kippur, everything would change.
On the morning of October 6th 1973, a siren broke the silence on the military base. Ori and the other personnel staying on the base arrived at the 201 F-4 Phantom II Squadron. The Deputy Squadron Commander, a young man named Ron Huldai, announced that Syria was about to start a war, and that in order to disrupt its intentions, Israel would attack Syrian airports. Ori, an experienced pilot, was not nervous, and the soldiers began to equip the aircrafts and prepare for the attack. Just before the scheduled takeoff, things changed: The State of Israel had decided to wait for its opponent’s attack, which meant that the aircrafts had to be reequipped and Ori’s squadron had to prepare to defend Israeli skies.
Suddenly a siren sounded and the pilots received the order to board their aircrafts. Ori, who was speaking with his wife on the phone at that moment, calmed her down and told her that it was just another routine tension. He entered the war room, and the difficult reality unraveled before his eyes – air battles were taking place in Israeli skies. The situation was not clear yet, the Israeli army was sure of its strength, it had won in the past and it believed it would do so again.
One after another the aircrafts departed from the base. Ori was sent to the Budapest Outpost, North of Sinai, next to Port Said. He noticed a line of Egyptian APCs approaching the outpost, and attacked it. Then the penny dropped and he understood that this was a real war. During the night between October 6th and October 7th, the Egyptian military began to build and cross bridges over the Suez Canal. The Israeli Air Force planned to attack the bridges and the forces crossing them. Everyone focused on the Egyptian forces, but Ori did not fly there because his aircraft broke down. At this stage, he did not know yet that this very technical issue would change his life.
Ori and his comrades were sent to destroy mobile surface-to-air missile batteries in the Golan Heights. Those batteries were protecting the Syrian forces that had invaded the Golan Heights and were advancing on the Petroleum Road. How far the forces had already advanced and where the missile batteries were located was not yet known. Despite the lack of certainty, Ori felt very secure when he saw the great amount of aircrafts on their way to the Golan Heights. He did not know that the intelligence information was incorrect, and that the electronic defensive means that were meant to shield the aircrafts from Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were still in Sinai. At this point, Ori’s story took a sharp turn and his life was changed forever. “I still don’t believe that it happened to me,” he says.
“I was like a sack of potatoes”
In the smoke-covered Golan Heights, while missiles were flying through the air, Ori started to rise into the sky in order to attack. “I couldn’t see the target, but I assumed that the airplane in front of me had identified something and started to fire, so I did the same thing,” remembers Ori. Already planning his return, Ori saw that someone was parachuting from the aircraft in front of him: “It was strange because there are two people in the Phantom. I understood that the airplane had been hit and that the navigator had left the airplane. Later it turned out that the late pilot Gadi Samok, who was killed later in Egypt, managed to land the damaged plane in the Golan Heights, and also received a Citation of Excellence for that.”
Ori decided to stay in the area in order to help the navigator who had parachuted from the aircraft, and suddenly he felt his aircraft being hit. “Gilad [the navigator] yelled ‘Let’s leave, we’re hit!’”, recalls Ori. He noticed that one of the two engines was on fire, turned it off and dropped the detachable gas tanks. “I told Gilad to check if there was fire, and there was. The plane was on fire from the wings to the back like a torch, and then the second engine stopped working.” The two of them abandoned the aircraft in the area of Tel Hara in Syria. Ori found himself suspended on his parachute with Gilad not far from him. He focused on what he had to do in order to land safely, but he had no time for emotions. All he remembers is that, “We were shot at from the ground. The Syrians ran towards me with their rifles, and I simply fell into their hands, they closed in on me. My feet were barely touching the ground, and they started to hit me.”
“The next image I remember is me being in a rocky field, my pilot’s uniform is being taken off and I am being handcuffed and blindfolded,” he remembers. Ori and Gilad were pushed into a vehicle, their hands and feet bound and their eyes covered. They passed villages and heard cries of joy over the capture of the two pilots. While he was lying there powerlessly, Ori came to a decision that would give him strength for what was about to become the eight most difficult months of his life. “I decided that I would return home in physical and mental health. I did not yet know how, but it was clear to me that it would happen,” he says. “I told myself ‘Ori, now you are a captured, the rules are different, you are not the pilot, the heroic combat soldier, you are a sack of potatoes that they will do whatever they want with’.” He decided to overcome this powerlessness: “I didn’t think about anything apart from how to survive what was going to happen to me.”
Through the walls
Solitude is the word best describing Ori’s first four months in captivity. He spent most of his time confined to the Al-Maze prison, and part of his time at the Syrian Air Force headquarters. All of that time was spent in solitary confinement. “It was exactly like you see in the movies. I was wearing underwear and sat bound on cold concrete flooring. When they called me up for an investigation or even to go to the bathroom, they immediately put a black bag on top of my face. I remember how I was trembling with cold while the Syrian guards were having a snowball fight outside,” he recalls.
The beatings, the torture, the whippings and the investigations, even the electric shocks were not what broke Ori. The most difficult aspects for him were the loneliness and the lack of certainty. “The powerlessness is terrible. You are not in control over your own life, there is nothing more difficult than that,” he explains. Following the decision he had made in the beginning of his journey inside the Syrian car, Ori began carrying out various actions in order to maintain his sanity, including physical exercises. But Ori’s solutions required a creativity that one probably can only develop in captivity: “I took a pocket from an old checkered pajama, prepared chess tokens from orange peels, and played with the white side against the orange side.”
Ori slowly deciphered the behavioral patterns of his captors. He understood that the questionings mainly took place during the day. “I made an effort to sleep during the day, and during the night I was awake and at home,” he says and explains, “in my mind and my thoughts.” So Ori departed on journeys in his imagination, he thought about small things like errands to the bank, painting the house, what his wife and his son were doing, and a trip abroad he had taken with his wife just before the war. “I don’t know how I did it,” says Ori about the means of survival he developed. “It turns out that in such difficult situations the human being develops strengths that he wasn’t aware of having beforehand.”
The questionings were among the most threatening aspects of captivity. “It is impossible to not say anything during the questionings, and whoever claims that apparently hasn’t been in captivity. You simply try to embellish things so that they won’t be relevant, you tell parts of information or lie,” he explains. “After every questioning I reviewed in my head everything I had said, so that I could tell people back at home what I had revealed and so that I could expand upon the same things during the next questioning.” Despite the difficulties during the questionings, the pain he felt for his friends was larger: “The most difficult thing was to hear my friends scream during the questionings. My friends’ screams of pain sometimes accompany me in my nightmares even today.”
“Of course I was scared that they would kill me,” he answers the question quickly, “I thought about death, it was something on my mind, but in my opinion it’s very easy to die, the challenge is to survive the captivity and decide to live.” There was one thing Ori never doubted, the fact that he would return home in the end: “I was very sure of what was happening at home. The question of whether they would try to free me is something that regrettably comes up today, back then I did not have any doubt that they would. The question was only when,” he explains.
While he was imprisoned in solitude, Ori communicated with the other captives through knocks on the walls or shouts. In order not to lose sense of time, Ori made scratches in the wall every day. “When Hanukkah [Jewish festival of lights] came, which was also mine and my brother’s birthday, and a holiday that was very important to the family at home, I began whistling Hanukkah songs, and someone in the cell next to me joined me, we performed a whistling duet.” This small moment shared between the two captives made the cell door open very fast, and Ori was beaten by the Syrian guards. “It was worth it!” he says resolutely. “Every little thing I did that the Syrians didn’t have control over was a victory for me.”
These victories, he says, helped him to maintain his sanity. “I used to split the pita bread I received in the morning in four and eat it throughout the day. They might have controlled the amount of food I got, but I controlled the meal times. I also said that I wasn’t feeling well, so I got all sorts of medicine, which I kept and took when I needed- so I wasn’t dependent on them. Also, in order not to ask for water, every time I went to the toilet, which was a small hole, I drank from a hose that was attached to the toilet and meant for cleaning it, all so that I wouldn’t have to ask the Syrians for something. They did not control my thoughts, the nights that I spent at home.”
Premature death declarations
During his last four months in captivity, Ori was no longer alone, but instead kept together with other officers. They organized group life, which included a food committee, communal morning exercise, an English class, bridge games with cards made out of yellow cheese wrappings, and they even had “movies”, which meant that everyone in turn told the story of a movie they had seen at home before the war. They also celebrated Passover and Israel’s Independence Day together.
Ori still owns the Israeli flag the soldiers made in captivity. He pulls out the simple, slightly dirty flag, which tells an entire story of courage and heroism. A Star of David is drawn on it in pen. “Haim Ram made the flag out of t-shirt, with threads that he unraveled from bandages, and sowing needles that he made out of chicken bones. Thus, in Syrian captivity in Damascus, we flew the flag on a crutch from one of the injured men.” And thus the flag became a true miracle.
Throughout the whole time that Ori was in captivity, his wife Hava was at home. When he was captured, she was pregnant with his second child. “I decided that I would be present at the birth. When I sent letters home, I already came up with ideas for names,” recalls Ori. But the situation was a little more complicated. When Ori’s aircraft was seen lighting up and crashing, no one saw the two passengers parachute, and Hava was told that it was impossible to survive such an accident. The Ministry of Interior even sent her a letter of condolence over her husband’s death.
“When I received the letter, I knew that the navigator was alive, because he was on Jordanian television ten days after he had been captured. I was told that it didn’t mean anything, but I knew that it meant something. I knew that if it had been possible to get out of that plane, he got out,” says Hava. “Of course I had thoughts that he might be dead or wounded, and there were also people who suggested I have an abortion so as not to raise two orphans. In the end I was informed that he was alive and all I could do was to wait for him to return.”
On the way home
The captives gradually began sensing signs of improvement in their situation. Ori, for example, was interviewed by a French journalist. “We felt that we were about to be returned to Israel when the Syrians gave prosthetics to the wounded. We were given new uniforms and a tailor adjusted them for us. We understood that they wanted us to look like we had been kept under good conditions.” Regarding the video recently released of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Ori says: “Because of what they did to us towards the end, when I saw the video of Gilad Shalit I told people not to believe in it, I also looked good in the pictures that the journalist took of me.”
One morning a guard entered, read a number of captives’ names and told them to put on uniforms and go outside. “We thought that he would return and call the others as well, but that didn’t happen. We understood that only the wounded were being returned to Israel. We were happy that our friends were returning, but we feared that we would have to stay in captivity for a lot longer.” A week later, Ori and his comrades were also called. This was the first time that he went outside without a blindfold, and he was excited like never before.
“We got on the bus, but it was difficult to believe that we were returning home, maybe we didn’t want to get our hopes up. Suddenly we were in a large bus, we drove through the streets of Damascus to the airport, where some extremely stressed Red Cross staff members who were working in cooperation with Israel were waiting for us.” Ori’s eight months in captivity ended when the airplane with the Israeli captives took off from Damascus. When they were above the sea on the way South, the captain addressed them. “He told us to look outside and we saw the plane with the Syrian captives crossing next to us from the other side.” After landing, everyone was pushed to get outside. Multitudes were waiting for the plane at the airport, and a large number of military policemen was keeping the crowd from approaching. “The wife of one of the captives broke through the line of policemen, and after her everyone followed,” he remembers. Among them, Ori saw his wife Hava: “I saw her and shouted ‘Wow, she still has a baby belly!’” he laughs. “I don’t know if something went through my head, apparently it only goes through the heart.” Six days later, Ori’s daughter Sivan was born.
Ori remembers the first days back in Israel like photographs. Today, he seems like a free person, but he explains that the time in captivity will never leave him. “I feel that I did what I could, and I am proud of that. Those were months of personal battle, and they continue until this day. It comes back mainly at night, when I hear my comrades scream. Once, I walked in a park and I heard the steps of Syrians running behind me to catch me. I stopped and told myself ‘Ori, you are not in Syria’, and then I saw that it was just someone running in the park. I want to get rid of it, but it’s not up to me, there are voices and smells that come back to me and remind me of the captivity.”
His time in captivity gave new proportions to Ori’s life: “My life values are different, money has lost its importance, and sometimes when I hear someone complaining, it seems stupid to me,” he says.
Ori is the living proof that the land of Israel has absorbed not only the blood of its fighters, but also the difficult memories that cannot be erased by those who survive. The true difficulty rests in the daily struggle, with small things, memories, and injuries that leave scars not only on the body but also on the soul. Or, in the words of Ori, “Everything passes through the heart,”