The war came in high summer. Paul Randawa was living in Florentin. War was the last thing on his or his friends’ minds. The beach and the bars, and late night parties and clubs were what everything was revolving around. On the day of the mobilisation, he had spent the afternoon by the sea. Afterwards, he had called into a small bar on Yair Stern Street where a friend of his was waitressing. He and fair-haired Ya’ara had exchanged arch and flirtatious remarks as he sat at a table drinking Corona. Then he had walked home as the evening was coming on. It was still light. He had collapsed on his bed in his small room. They had no air conditioning but a light breeze was coming though the window and this, combined with the effects of the sea and the beer enabled him to sleep.
He was awoken by his phone buzzing next to the bed. He had placed it on the wooden chair that served him as a makeshift bedside table. Ya’ara had mentioned the possibility of meeting later on after she finished working. He assumed it was her. It was not. It was another young woman’s voice speaking in cool and matter of fact Hebrew. A recorded message. Telling him that he had been mobilized, and that he should make his way to a neighboring school. From there, buses would be coming to take them north.
For a minute or so, he had lain still, staring up at the ceiling, becoming awake. Nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the cars outside on Yair Stern Street. Then, cursing in Arabic he had raised himself up. His head was still swimming with the alcohol, but there was a green holdall in the corner of the room quiet and waiting and ready to go. He had packed it some days earlier as the news from the north worsened. He took a shower in the tiny bathroom of the apartment. There was no need for a mad rush. As long as he was at the mobilizing point within the next few hours. He dressed in his olive green army trousers and shirt, and black sneakers (his boots were in the holdall). The apartment was empty. One of his room mates, a combat engineer in the reserves, was already in the north. The other two had gone to their respective families in Jerusalem and in Yeruham for the weekend. He left the apartment, locked the door and swiftly trotted down the two flights of stairs and into the street below. The heat was still stifling. He arrived at the border three hours later.
All was chaos and confusion. They had a training exercise at a base near the Golan Heights over the next two days. Then they were deployed on the border. The following night they crossed into Lebanon.
In the next days, they conducted patrols across the countryside. They had little idea of the bigger picture in the war. The war was a place of constant noise, shells or Katyusha missiles falling near and far. The sound of small arms and light machine gun fire. But in the midst of all that, oddly, one could move across the desolate landscape close to the border, and not run into any active opposition for a while. That was how it seemed, anyway. Their main concern was to ensure they had sufficient food and water. The villages they moved through were mostly deserted. The shops were locked up, but on occasion they would break in to take water and juice. The summer sun had left the landscape yellow and toasted.
Randawa’s section had taken up a position in a house on the edge of a village east of Ait a Shaab when the firefight began. There were seven men in the section. Randawa knew three of them well, having served with them during his regular service. These were Yaron Cohen, the kibbutznik Eitan Ben-Artzi and the section commander, Avi Azoulay. These men were an exercise in contrasts. Azoulay was from Beersheva, a building contractor in civilian life. He was a big, handsome, confident man then in his late twenties with slicked back black hair. Solid, calm Eitan was studying agricultural engineeering at the Technion. Yaron Cohen was a student of design. He lived with his wife in Tel Aviv. They had a new young son. Yaron had an arch and dry sense of humor that Randawa liked. Since his demobilization, he had grown a long mane of brown hair, and to go with it, a rakish little pointed beard.
Like many in the unit, Yaron had little enthusiasm for the war. ‘It makes less and less sense to me,’ he had said, talking to Randawa the morning after their mobilization. He meant that as a parent, the business no longer held any attraction for him. But there were other aspects. The static security operations of the Second Intifada had been their education as soldiers. They had not expected to find themselves operating against Hizballah. The chaos and confusion of the war on every level from the purpose of their mission to the sketchy provision of food, water and equipment had not improved the mood.
Hizballah had been closer than they thought. As they were brewing coffee on the floor of the main room, an RPG 7 charge ripped into the lower section of the house. It was followed by rifle fire, very close by. They scrambled to take up positions in the lower and upper rooms of the house. The RPG-7 on the house closed any hopes that they might avoid the worst of the action. The section was cut off from the rest of the platoon. Azoulay immediately radio’ed to the platoon commander that they were taking fire. The section took positions at either side of the house to prevent the possibility of a surprise assault. The small arms fire was coming from one direction only. But there was a possibility that this was a diversion, intended to attract their attention while an attack was mounted from the side. So Randawa, with Yaron Cohen, deployed at the back entrance. They waited, tense. The rifle fire continued. Then there was a crash and a rifle firing on automatic, in the house, very loud. Did it mean that the assault had begun. ‘Stay here,’ Randawa said to Yaron., and he ran to the entrance room. The door was open. The body of a Hizballah man, wearing the camouflage uniform of the movement, was stretched out, freshly killed, by the entrance. There was a smell of cordite.
The door was still open. Dror Yemini, another member of the section, was standing by the corpse, shaking slightly and with eyes blazing. ‘He just came in the door,’ he was saying. ‘So I let him have it.’ ‘Are there more of them?’ asked Randawa. ‘He came in alone, there are others further back. The problem is that there’s a straight stretch of ground between us and the platoon. So we’re going to have to hold on here til they can maybe get round the back of where the Hizb are.’
‘Paul, get back and watch the other side,’ shouted Azoulay the section commander, and Randawa quickly made his way back to Yaron, explaining to him what had happened after he had done so. ‘Fuck,’ said Yaron, ‘so are we trapped here?’ ‘Looks like, it. for the moment.’
The two Hizballah men killed had clearly been part of an attempt to take the house. The man in the front room had been meant to be the first of the party to enter. Or at least, that had been the plan. The returning fire from the Israelis had evidently panicked the Hizballah men, causing them to break formation, with some holding back and the two who had died continuing to move forward til they were neutralised.
Outside of Randawa and Yaron’s field of vision, a drama was taking place. Azoulay the commander had noticed that the second Hizballah man to be killed, whose body was around twenty meters from the house on the open ground, had been carrying a mobile communications device. The device was continuing to broadcast the comms of the Hizballah unit. If the Israeli force could get hold of the device, it might solve the tactical issue, enabling them to get a sense of how many and where the enemy force was located and of its plans. The problem was that the corpse was located in the field of fire of the Hizballah force. Azoulay chose to risk it. Directing Yemini to lay down automatic fire on the structure to their right, he sprinted forward, reached the corpse of the Hizballah man and managed to detach the comms device from it. Then, zig-zagging, he made it back to the house.
The last member of the section, Qassem Nasr-al Din, was a Druze from Dalyat al-Carmel, and a fluent Arabic speaker. Back in the house, he immediately got to work on the comms device. He was able to ascertain that the Hizballah force was not part of a general attack. Rather, it was, like themselves, a section size force which had become separated from the main part of its unit. Its attack on them was part of an attempt at a break out, and it was in communication with Hizballah in Ait a Shaab to send a force to extricate it.
Azoulay relayed this to the platoon command. Then, heading for the back entrance where Randawa and Yaron were deployed, he said ‘The platoon’s located them. They are only an isolated force. They are going to mortar them and then take the house. This’ll be in the next few minutes. There’s an APC heading here to extract us in the meantime. It should be here soon.’
‘Good, then we can get the fuck out of here,’ said Yaron, and Azoulay laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, ‘Well done, guys,’ he said. Azoulay’s quick thinking and the lucky coincidence of Qassem’s presence in the section had clarified the situation and enabled them to come through it so far with no losses. The APC would be able to get them back to the main body of the platoon.
‘I hope we can get back across the border soon, anyway,’ said Yaron as they waited. ‘Enough of this bullshit.’ ‘Hopefully soon,’ Randawa replied.
About five minutes later, there was a series of explosions close by. These were mortar shells hitting the structure in which the Hizballah men were located. Then a machine gun opened up and there was rapid rifle fire. Evidently, the other two sections of the platoon were storming the building.
Then an APC rolled up to the area by the back entrance of the house. Randawa and Cohen were the first to see it. ‘APC arrived,’ Cohen shouted and Azoulay called back, ‘OK guys, get on board. We’re getting out of here. The rest of us will be along in a second.’
They exited the house and headed toward the APC. The engine was running and Yaron knocked twice on the frame of the thing before climbing up and easily lowering himself in.
Randawa climbed after him. He looked down into the hold of the vehicle. Yaron had seated himself easily in the corner. For no particular reason, Randawa decided to jump straight down onto the floor of the APC, rather than lowering himself in carefully. As he hit the surface of the vehicle, there was a loud bang as the round he had chambered into his short barrelled M16 went off.
Yaron Cohen’s first response was a sort of sharp, shocked exhalation. The blood immediately began to spread on the back of his shirt. Then he began to let out a series of rapid, shocked, sob-like sounds. Randawa heard the clang as Azoulay and Eitan the medic leapt onto the APC and then Azoulay’s furious shout ‘Paul! Fuck! He’s let out a bullet.’
It was so. Randawa had failed to clear his rifle of the round he had chambered while waiting at the house. The safety catch of the weapon had been on, which ought to have prevented any unexpected discharge of a round. But somehow the catch had switched itself to the single shot mode, and then the impact of his landing on the floor of the APC had caused the rifle to fire. The bullet had ricocheted off the side of the APC and had then embedded itself in Yaron Cohen’s spine. In a way, he had been lucky. Had he received it directly, it would have caused catastrophic damage, leading to near certain and swift death. As it was, he was very badly injured, but there was a chance of saving him. The initial shock had worn off, and now Yaron began to scream. Very loudly. And continuously.
For an insane moment, Randawa considered shooting himself in the head. He realised in an instant that everything had utterly changed. And he had an urge to escape what he knew would be coming, which would be the anger and furious contempt of his comrades. He had committed a beginner’s error, more suited to a man in basic training than to the seasoned infantry soldier which he allegedly was. Yes, so the temptation to simply turn the rifle on himself was very great. And he might have done it had Azoulay not given him a kick and shouted at him to get out of the APC. Then it was too late. The next phase had already begun. Azoulay wanted him out of the APC so he could run it with Yaron to the platoon as quickly as possible, where the stricken man could receive the medical attention he needed. His screams could be heard still as the little tracked vehicle began to make its way across the ground to the road and then to the place where the platoon commander and the medics and doctor were located.
The news spread rapidly. By the time the APC returned to bring them to where the rest of the platoon was located, everyone already seemed to know what had happened. To his face, no one said anything. Everything changed, nevertheless. People who he had known for four or five years were henceforth not willing to exchange anything other than a sort of strained irony.
They held the village and there were no further contacts with Hizballah over the next 48 hours. Yaron was taken immediately south and across the border, then helicoptered to one of the hospitals in Israel’s north. They heard the next day that he had been operated on and would survive. But that he would most probably be paralysed for life. The bullet had ripped into his spinal cord. He would probably lose use of all four of his limbs.
They were still in Lebanon and there was little time for conversation. But the atmosphere in the platoon was sullen and angry. The attitude towards operational errors of this disastrous kind was not forgiving. Randawa had generally been regarded as a trustworthy and effective soldier. What could possibly have led to such carelessness, and such catastrophic results? He, of course, thought of nothing else. How and why had he not cleared the rifle before entering the APC, as was the drill. In Lebanon they would remain with the magazine in, but no round chambered. But he had chambered the round, in accordance with procedure, when a Hizballah attack on the house had seemed imminent. How could he have forgotten to have cleared it? Excitement and emotion because of the events of the previous minutes. But that wasn’t an excuse.
They were pulled back from Lebanon the next day. The battalion had suffered two dead and a number of others wounded. When they were demobilized a week later, Eitan the kibbutznik came to Randawa and said, ‘listen, someone has to see to Yaron’s car. To drive it back down to Tel Aviv. They’ve asked me to do it. But I was wondering if youd like to come with me.’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘Look, the fact is that I was speaking with Yaron’s parents yesterday and theyve said theyd like to speak with you. So I thought maybe you could come with me now. I cleared it with the company commander.’ Randawa shrugged and murmured his agreement.
Yaron Cohen’s car was very obviously that of two rather sentimental young parents. There were pictures of smiling elves and cartoon characters and animals along the doors, and there was a child’s seat at the back. They said nothing as they saw it, but Eitan glanced at Paul. Once they were on their way, there was silence for a couple of minutes. Then Eitan said ‘God has mercy on kindergarten children.’ It was a line from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry they both loved. Randawa responded, ‘on schoolchildren he has less mercy, and on grownups he has no mercy at all.’
‘He leaves them alone,’ continued Eitan. ‘and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand, to reach the first aid station, covered in blood.’
They reached the home of Yaron Cohen’s parents in Ramat Aviv in silence. Randawa remembered the bland sunlight on the pavement and the thunk of the car door closing as they exited the car and walked toward the entrance of the house. Yaron’s parents were both professors at Tel Aviv University. His father opened the door, tall and thin and grey, wearing an open necked blue shirt. His eyes were very red. He shook hands with them both, a little grave smile on his face. He motioned them into a neat front room. The house was one of the old, red topped bungalows of the first settlers in Ramat Aviv. It was exactly as he would have imagined the home in which Yaron had grown up. The old, secular, Ashkenazi Israel. The university, the Habima theater, the center left. A remembered past of tragedy in Europe. Pictures of various relatives on the walls, one or two in black and white, Central European. And one of Yaron’s father in the Sinai during the war of 1973, looking tired and determined in a black and white snapshot with General Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan, in whose division he had served, and another, un-named officer.
‘Will you drink something?’ he asked in a firm, matter-of-fact voice as they seated themselves, but Yaron’s mother had already entered carrying a tray with a full cafetier and four cups. She was darker than the father, with remnants of black in her gray curly hair, fuller of figure and smaller.
Looking at Randawa with clear blue eyes as they sat and drank the coffee, the father said ‘I’m David, by the way. This is my wife Alona. Yaron is in the hospital and is still being kept sedated. It looks like it’s going to be a long road for all of us.’ The father spoke quietly and without emotion. Then Alona began, speaking directly to Randawa, ‘We heard what happened. And we heard that you are absolutely torn apart by it, as we are. We want you to know that we don’t think it was your fault and that youre not to go destroying yourself over it.’
‘This can happen in combat. No question of that,’ said the father.
‘All of you have suffered,’ continued Alona. ‘I can’t believe the nonsense of this whole business. The mess of it. Its a disgrace. This filthy corruption at the top, and sending you in as they did. That’s what makes us angry. Thats who is responsible for this. We wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you this. Because Eitan told us how you have been shattered by this, just as we have been.’
This outpouring was, Randawa realized, something for which he should be thankful. He felt nothing, all the same. It was as though he were separated from these people by a thick pane of glass, through which sound hardly penetrated. He realised that he had hardly spoken in the last days. All had seemed numb. A sort of collapse from the inside. He had thought it invisible to the outside observer. A disembodied consciousness, in some other place, operating a puppet that was his body and his physical self. This was how he had felt when entering Lebanon, also. His body expressing a mute protest, a desire not to go forward. A sort of species-level warning that to do so was risking their mutual and conclusive destruction.. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Is there any news about what will be with Yaron?’
‘We have heard that the bullet went into his spinal cord, and the prospects are to our regret not good. He was out of danger to his life once they got him to the hospital and stemmed the flow of blood. But he will need to have a lot more surgery, it seems. At the moment, they are keeping him in a coma. But thank God, anyway, we know that his mind wont be affected. And the main thing is that he is alive.’
‘And is there any indication as to the future?’ Randawa asked.
The father replied; ‘They say that he will almost certainly have lost the use of his legs, and permanently. But as to the rest, it’s not possible to say. That is, he may be quadruplegic, without use of his hands also. Or he may have some use, or else its possible that he will have no use of the upper body at all. That’s what they’ve told us. We are hoping, you know. We know that we are at the beginning of a long journey.’
The mother sighed. ‘Anyway, it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite a time yet.’
‘And what’s happening with your grandson?’ asked Eitan.
‘Roni, thats Yaron’s wife, and Tom their son are staying with her parents now. As for what happens next, well again, we’ll see. A long journey ahead. We know that you had two others killed in there. So we’re also lucky, in a way.’
They sat there for another half hour. Alona and David asked Randawa about himself, what he would do. Was he studying? His hopes for the future. They mentioned that they had cousins in London, whom they often visited.
As they were leaving, Alona said again, ‘Dont take this on yourself and let it eat you alive. We know that can happen. What was here was an accident. The ones to blame are the fools who sent you and our son and all your friends to there.’
‘And Adon (Mr). Hassan Nasrallah, also.’ said the father drily, as he and Eitan shook hands.
‘You should go and see Yaron, also, once he’s conscious,’ Eitan remarked as they headed back to the north.
‘If he wants to see me, of course I will. If I was them, I’d be angrier, tho. How can they not be?’
‘They’re trying to keep themselves sane, I guess,’ Eitan replied.
That night, in the tent and late at night, Randawa wept, for the first and last time since the incident. It was around two in the morning and he did not make a sound. He was using his military anorak as a pillow and he buried his face in it and managed to avoid sobbing. Indeed, his facial expression remained blank and inscrutable. Only the tears poured from his eyes and made his cheeks wet. He thought about the pictures for the child on the inside of Yaron Cohen’s car.
They were demobilized a few days later. The ceasefire came and after a couple of days holding a village before the UN forces arrived, they were pulled back to the border. The divisional commander turned up and made a speech about the vital role they had played in ensuring the security of the inhabitants of the north. Then they sang ‘Hatikvah.’
Once the Katyusha bombardments had ceased on the border, a variety of visitors began to arrive. Elderly religious American Jews appeared at the tent once and gave out t shirts and clean underwear. For the most part, they knew no Hebrew and appeared mainly to be conducting a conversation among themselves. Randawa did not attempt to speak to them in English. ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ he heard one of them say to another as they handed out the t-shirts.
The foreign media came by. The soldiers tried to flirt with the young female Italian and Scandinavian and German correspondents. An Italian correspondent, a man of about 40, handed out cigarettes and talked in a dramatic and tragic style about football and war, and his experiences of both.
The Ultra-Orthodox Habad Lubavitch sect also sent representatives. One of them tried to hold a seminar on the concept of ‘Kiddush HaShem’ (martyrdom) in Judaism. There was some mild interest among the soldiers, and the lone Lubavitch Hassid who had come to deliver the lesson was treated with respect and politeness. Only Eitan from Kibbutz Gonen remarked that if the young man was that keen on Jews and martyrdom he should have come into Lebanon with them, as he would have had a chance to witness quite a lot of the combination of both close up and for real in recent days. The young Hassid blinked behind his glasses and looked at Eitan and did not answer. But some others turned round to glance at Eitan with pained expressions and then motioned to the young man to continue.
On the last night, a famous chef came up from Tel Aviv to cook barbecued meats with pitta and salad for the whole battalion. Afterwards, someone had set up a sound system and the music continued until late in the night. Randawa lay in his sleeping bag in the tent and in the darkness reflected that one of the great compensations or consolations of military life was often held to be the deep comradeship and brotherhood that is to be found among soldiers. This thought, and the fact of his utter solitude struck him as amusing. He had never felt more alone.
When he arrived home, Tel Aviv seemed indifferent. In the pubs and bars he frequented it was not the done thing to make too much of one’s military service, though overt hostility to the army or the state was also not praised. He changed out of his dusty uniform and left his holdall again on his bedroom floor and he walked down to the sea. At the beach just by the entrance to Jaffa he floated in the warm Mediterranean water, staring at the emptiness of the blue sky. Then he returned to the apartment. It was a Thursday and only one of his room- mates was there. This was Tsahi, who was a student of cinema. ‘Jesus, man, you look shellshocked,’ Tsahi said. ‘and thin too. Didnt they feed you in the army?’
Randawa didnt answer. And Tsahi didnt labor the point. Instead, he rolled a fat joint, lighting it and passing it to him as they sat in the small kitchen. That was how the Second Lebanon War ended for Paul Randawa.
Months passed before he saw Yaron Cohen again. Randawa arranged a transfer to another company for future reserve service. He did not stay in contact with David and Alona Cohen, regarding it as beyond his strength. But six months after the war, he wrote to Yaron on Facebook, and asked how he was doing, adding that if Yaron preferred not to be in contact, he would understand. Yaron replied immediately that he would be happy to meet.
They met in a cafe in the mall at Ramat Aviv. He remembered the moment that Yaron came in, his sister pushing the wheelchair. Yaron’s head was supported by a plastic structure attached to the arm of the wheelchair. His head seemed slightly tilted back at an un-natural angle. His hands were resting on the arms of the wheelchair. Randawa saw that on the left arm, there was a raised semi-sphere on which his hand rested, which he assumed was a means to steer the wheelchair. Yaron had evidently divined his thoughts,
‘Hello, brother. Yes, I have some movement in my arms, tho its not total. But I can operate the chair over shorter distances. Its also a little better than it was when I first left the hospital.’
Yaron did not, however, appear able to lift the orange juice which he ordered to his lips. His sister Na’ama performed this, while speaking little. Still, the fact that he was able to eat and drink in the normal way in terms of swallowing was also something. Randawa remembered a young man he had known wounded in Jerusalem in the years of the Second Intifada who lost also this ability and who took his own life a few years after the incident. Yaron, by contrast, appeared stable, and serene. ‘I’m managing to finish my degree. The university have been ok about it. And we had some issues with the Ministry of Defense about my disability payments but it all has worked out. Touch wood.’
‘And what about the family?’
‘Its tough but we’re managing. Mine and Roni’s parents help a lot, so its fucked up, but it is what it is, you know.’ And he managed to smile. ‘And what about you? how have you been? What are you doing with yourself?’
‘Just keeping on like before, bro. Pictures, trying to get some stuff done. nothing too dramatic.’
‘I know you went to see my parents after the ceasefire. I appreciate it, Paul. This has been hard for them too.’
There was a silence. Then Randawa tried to speak again. ‘Listen, Cohen, I’m..I dont really know what to say. I’m more sorry than I can begin to express. I dont..’
Yaron made a murmur to indicate that he should not continue. ‘We arent going to kill ourselves with regrets, are we? I dont have any time nor desire to be angry with you or with anyone else. Tom needs his dad. And you need to get on ahead too. And we’re the lucky ones, in a way. Harel and Alon had families too. But they’ve nothing to carry on with. Right?’
Randawa bowed his head. After a while, Na’ama said ‘We’re all helping. And we all live quite nearby. So,I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, after you were stuck in that house. Its impossible even to imagine.’ Randawa thought he detected a momentary venom in her eyes, that incongruously accompanied these words. A little communication just between him and her, and not for her brother to see.
‘It wasnt so bad,’ said Yaron. ‘Actually we’ve been in worse shit than that. But the idiocy of it still offends my intelligence. Maybe you can explain what exactly we were trying to achieve with those pointless raids across the border? Conquering an area and then leaving it and then going back in the next day?’
‘Its a mystery to me, brother,’ said Randawa. ‘I think about it a lot and I can’t make any sense of it at all.’ They talked more about the war, various mutual friends, Yaron’s problems with the Defense Ministry which had now been largely sorted out. ‘You know you can get free psychological counselling, bro?’ Yaron said to him. ‘You should use it. I mean it. I went to it. It can help. and it doesnt cost anything.’
‘Maybe I’ll look into it,’ said Randawa, who had a peasant suspicion and dislike of all such things.
They parted shortly afterwards. He remembered seeing them exiting the cafe, the other patrons making room for them to leave. Yaron’s long brown hair. The gentleness of the man. He hadn’t much stayed in touch after that.