Sometime in the middle of this past week I was taken on a little trip to the holy city of Jerusalem. The objective of the trip was one of honour, to attend the memorial of a fallen soldier. This soldier, by the surname of Avner (I am reluctant to divulge his full name without permission from the family), was a truck driver from my Logistics base, Tirah (“Northern Knights” 6910 battalion). A reservist returning for duty during the First Lebanon War, Sergeant Avner left Tirah base driving a “Safari” truck. For those who know their history, there was an “incident” known as the “Safari Disaster” where twelve soldiers were killed and fourteen were injured. The story, featuring our Sgt. Avner as the truck’s driver, goes as follows.
It was Sunday afternoon, March 10, 1985, and Sgt. Avner began his day at the Tirah Logistics base, as his older brother told me before the memorial service. His mission was driving his “Safari” troop carrier truck, loaded with combat soldiers dressed for battle, from the border town of Metula to the Lebanese village of Marjayoun. Already over the border, the convoy he was in encountered a red Chevrolet pickup. The driver of the pickup waited as the convoy passed, looking mighty friendly until he blew his car up – just as Sgt. Avner’s “Safari” was driving by. The huge explosion sent the seated soldiers flying through the air, and even windows back in Metula were shattered from the shock wave. As mentioned above, the death toll was severe. Speaking of explosions, an aquaintance of mine who served in the Combat Engineering Corps, related to me stories about the unassuming force of an explosion’s shock wave. With plenty of experience with explosives, this particular soldier would be an authoritative figure, as would anyone after blowing up piles of old mines – after removing them cautiously from the ground.
Oddly enough, I had never heard of the “Safari Disaster” and was thereby quite intrigued when hearing a brief overview of the story during the ride. Being a representative of the IDF, to pay respects to our fallen heroes, is an experience that should be cherished – in fact, my CO knew I’d be interested and thus sent me along. After the pleasant drive from the base to Jerusalem, we – a handful of soldiers and an officer – drove through neighbourhoods that I recognised yet, despite my frantic crowd-scanning, I did not see anyone I knew. At last we arrived at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery and disembarked from the vehicle. We buffed our boots to a mild gleam and put on our berets, waiting patiently for the family and friends to amass.
At last we entered the cemetery and headed for the plot belonging to Sergeant Avner. Standing a bit off to the side, the small group of us stood respectful and silent as the service began. A military man led the memorial, his deep voice lending to the somberness of the situation. As I looked around me, at the people – of wildly different appearances, at the gravestones, and at the peaceful surroundings, I wished I could whip out my camera and capture, somewhat, some of the experience. However, as a representative of the IDF, and, in particular, of my battalion, the photography would be breaking rank, and unprofessional. A few people said a few short words, a slightly choked kaddish was said and before long we were departing. But I had not had my fill. I happened to have noticed one of the attendees speaking Hebrew with an American accent (oh, how we stick out!) and so I approached her. After offering her a tissue, which she refused, I asked her about her connection to the family. She, as it turns out, is a sister-in-law of Sgt. Avner. I asked her about him and she told me that he was killed shortly after her wedding…
One thing that I found very interesting, and in fact took the time to mention it to a friend, is the sameness of the graves in a military cemetery. Soldiers, officers and even chiefs-of-staff are all buried in the same manner, all with the same headstone. Just a few plots over from Sgt. Avner was a Lieutenant Colonel – the rank of a battalion commander. We suggested that the ranks were only considered “important” for the living, because beneath the rank, beneath the uniform, lies an human – and a Jewish soul. Who’s to say who deserves more honour when all is said and done?
In the various sections of the cemetery, there were all sorts of memorials and such which I would have loved to have looked at. Who can resist such a intense glimpse into the past, into the blood-soaked history of modern-day Israel? Alas, such is the way of the free man – to gaze around at ease – however, I was on a “mission” and had to be on my way. Hopefully one day I shall return, on shall we say, a happier occasion.