The empty space an IDF commando soldier left behind

Killed while on duty, Sgt. Nabuani was the first Druze to serve in the elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, his family and fellow soldiers still grieving his loss

Date: 25/04/2012, 4:22 PM     Author: Rotem Pesso

The Nabuani house looked like any other ordinary house against the unique landscape of the Julis village. The warm hospitality and colors decorating the way did not betray the slightest hint of the grief and loss lurking in the house.

The Julis community is home to approximately 6,000 Druze residents. The enlistment rates at the village are exceptionally high, acquiring the nickname “The Zionist Druze” for the inhabitants of the village. 25 of the families in the village have lost loved ones in defending the State of Israel recently joined by the Nabuani family, among many others.

The late Staff Sgt. Nabuani Tamir, who was the first Druze combat soldier to serve in elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, died on January 1st 2008. Tamir’s father, Nawaf Nabuani, and the extended Nabuani family have lost several members since the Sinai Campaign. “Four graves carry the family name Nabuani, including the late Sgt. Imad Nabuani, who died in 1985 in Lebanon and was the first Druze to join the Paratroopers,” he said with a hint of both pride and sadness. Since that day in 2008, when the Nabuani family suddenly received the tragic news, Nawaf has been no stranger to grief. Tamir’s loss still resonates inside the house with his reflection lingering in the two pictures overlooking the living room.

The empty space an IDF commando soldier left behind

Never giving up

Since basic training with the Paratrooper Brigade and the commando trials which opened the door to Sayeret Matkal, Tamir struggled to keep his new role a secret. At one point during his son’s long training, Nawaf discovered that he was the first Druze to join the unit’s storied ranks. “In September 2007, Tamir invited the commander of his squad and fellow soldiers to stay with us the night before a navigation exercise. Only that night at dinner I found out he was in Sayeret Matkal,” said Nawaf his eyes filled with pride.

The pioneering and ambitious Sgt. Tamir Nabuani became a symbol. One night, within minutes, he perished in the dark of the desert. As he navigated on his own, contact was lost with him and his body was found in a nearby river early in the morning, at the foot of a cliff.

The moment that changed everything

On the night of December 29th, 2007 Nawaf heard Tamir’s voice one last time. “I knew he was navigating, sleeping by day and travelling at night. He told me he was preparing to go out into the field,” recalled Nawaf of the last moment he spent with his son. In the early hours of the morning, around three o’clock, Tamir lost contact with his officer. “One of his friends told me that he spoke with him on the radio and ask him where he was, and the conversation between them revealed they were a five minute walk apart,” said Nawaf, revealing the tragic circumstances that lead to his son’s death. “They were supposed to meet during the navigation but Tamir did not answer him time and time again and he fired a flare into the air, and the commander of the team went looking for them himself,” said Nawaf. Desperate attempts to communicate with Tamir in the heart of the darkness failed. The late Sgt. Nabuani tripped and fell off a high cliff and struck his head on the rocks below. “His body was found at dawn. His squad commander found him in broad daylight and attempted CPR, but saw no response and realized he was no longer alive. So he called in the rescue unit,” said Nawaf, his eyes moist from the memory. Unit 669, the extraction unit of the Air Force is the unit that rescued Tamir’s body.

On the morning that changed the course of his life forever, Nawaf was in school where he taught. “During the third lesson I got a call from relatives in the village who asked me where Tamir was. I did not understand the conversation and told them he was doing navigations,” said Nawaf. “I decided to call his officer make sure everything is ok. I urgently called the officer and he didn’t respond. I left a message and asked him to update me about Tamir,” said Nawaf. Today, the officer admitted that he simply couldn’t answer the phone and give him the news. Five minutes after the call, the secretary came to class and called Nawaf to the principal. “I already sensed something,” he said.

“It was the hardest news I’ve ever received. I managed to control it, but I immediately thought about my wife at home. Two of my sons were in the army, one on a trip abroad and a fourth at school,” said Nawaf as the moments of the awful picture began to come together. According to him, by the time he got home, many people from the village had already gathered at his house.

The funeral for Sgt. Nabuani was set for the same day, and thousands of people arrived to accompany him on his last journey, including the uniformed paratrooper officers that trained him. “The commander of Sayeret Matkal and all of the unit’s soldiers came to the funeral, along with the spiritual leaders of the Druze community,” said Nawaf. That moment the father of six became a bereaved father of five. “During the week of mourning, there was not a minister or a member of the Knesset who did not come to pay their respects. Israeli President Shimon Peres even called to convey his condolences. I also met with Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the army headquarters,” said Nawaf describing the comfort his family received.

Former head of the Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, ordered an investigation to be conducted by a Colonel. Findings by the Military Police’s investigation revealed there was no negligence or wrongdoings in the conduct of the officers, but did recommend to refine the preparations for embarking on such navigations. “For me, I believe in the army. I know what navigating alone is like and I believe that Tamir just tripped and fell. Conclusions reached said similar things. The mistake was not the commanders’ but one of human error,” said Nawaf honestly, “I’m not angry at the IDF (Zahal).”

Two weeks after the incident that shocked the Nabuani family, Nawaf was the first to see where his son had fallen. “I was accompanied by around 200 people in 30 jeeps. I saw the terrain, and heard that he was walking on a night that was especially dark. He probably fell because of the weather, Tamir was stuck, slipped, and stumbled,” said Nawaf as he described the terrain that robbed him of his son.

Setting an example for future generations

On Israeli Memorial Day, the Nabuani family is at Tamir’s grave. “The first year, the commander of the unit arrived, along with the members of Tamir’s squad along with their parents- some from far off part’s of the country. They come to my house every year, including his friends who learned with him at school,” Nawaf said, telling a story familiar to hundreds of families in Israel. The late Staff Sergeant Tamir Nabuani is buried in Julis and immortalized by a monument located where he fell. “I am honored that he has become a personal example, because of the connections he made, his personal strength and the status he achieved,” said Nawaf of his son, the first to serve in Sayeret Matkal, an accomplishment which lives beyond his son.

“To this day, people from the unit call us, visit us, and come to happier family events. Our connection with his unit commander is also going strong, as well as a connection with the current unit commander, despite the fact that they can only visit once every few months,” said Nawaf of the connections that arose from the tragic loss.

Remembering Tamir

The Nabuani family home has become a memorial site for Tamir. “We renovated the house and transferred the contests of Tamir’s room to a larger room,” said Nawaf. The room is filled with pictures of Tamir from many different periods, with letters from his friends, and with his personal belongings: clothes, shoes, and the uniform he wore during his last navigation along with his personal weapon. “We receive large groups of people, Druze and non-Druze alike, who want to hear Tamir’s story,” said Nawaf.

A brave step, Nawaf has given his son Salman his blessing to try to follow in his brother’s footsteps. “He wanted to join Sayeret Matkal, and his mother and I confirmed his request and signed the papers,” said Nawaf without concern. In the end, Salaman arrived at another elite unit: Duvdevan. Even though it would be easy to oppose his decision, his family supports him based on the beliefs of the Druze community on life and death. “We are great believers in fate, and everyone has to leave this world at some time,” says Nawaf, his eyes still filled with a grief for which there is no cure. “The pain lessens with time, but his memory has not disappeared. His memory will remain forever,” Nawaf admitted with an expressionless face.

Ultimately, the loss works its way into the corners of the room, into the space between the walls of the house. It even manages to leave the house and accompany the family to every event and family gathering. “Every major event and every trip, we feel that he is missing. We feel that someone is missing, especially because he was so close to me,” said Nawaf about his relationship with his son. “He is missed the most on Saturdays, at dinners, at weddings. Tears still fall at these occasions,” said Nawaf, painting a painful picture of a grief that has not subsided, of an eternal memory that gives birth to sharp stabs of pain and longing.

The late Sergeant Tamir Nabuani was groundbreaking. He aspired to the highest achievements, and overcame many obstacles in his way. Everything he did with his typical modesty, without bias. On the monument erected in his memory is written the phrase “to go alone, we all go together.” This statement captures Tamir’s character- he gave every part of himself for others.

That fateful path through the dark desert is paved with something new, the look of courage, memory, and loss. God blessed Tamir with a bright smile, big eyes to see the world, and a big heart to take it all in. Although his life was cut short, his memory is carried in his father’s heart and with his family forever. That smiling boy will follow them forever.