'For the POWs who return, captivity is never ending'

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 3, 2009
Israeli soldiers taken captive by the Egyptians in the 1973 war support each other on their way to prison

Israeli soldiers taken captive by the Egyptians in the 1973 war support each other on their way to prison

Israel is experienced in treating its prisoners of war when they return home, but may still find it hard to help Gilad Shalit adjust to freedom.

“We don’t have experience of quite these conditions that Gilad Shalit is going through,” explains Dr David Senesh, a clinical psychologist who was a POW for 40 days in Egypt following the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

While it is still unclear whether the talks currently going on in Cairo will result in a prisoner deal, Dr Senesh is urging the Israeli authorities to start preparing now for the difficult process of beginning life after captivity.

“What people have to understand is that for POWs, the war continues also after their release.

“Egypt and Syria might be problematic countries but at least we were in an organised prison,” he recalls of his own experience. “There was a daily schedule and there was a clear idea of who does what, even who gives the beatings and who interrogates.

“I don’t know what conditions Shalit is being held in but it certainly is much less organised. We came back from some form of civilisation to civilisation. In Gilad’s case, coming back from an unclear environment will be much more difficult.”

Soldiers taken prisoner by the Palestinian organisations in the Lebanon War in 1982 were not held in regular prisons but, unlike Shalit, they at least were not alone in their ordeal for so long. Most of them were held together with other Israeli soldiers.

“I was in a solitary cell for 40 days,” says Dr Senesh, “but the presence of others was very clear to me. I caught glimpses, heard them shouting, and occasionally met someone in a corridor. When you see others in the same condition it is a totally different story, you know that you have not been forgotten or disappeared. It is a collective ordeal.”

But not only do the conditions of captivity differ in Gilad Shalit’s case. The Israel he will be coming back to is like nothing any previous POW experienced, a country in which his name and picture are instantly recognisable and feature on almost every wall, computer screen and car bumper.

“The moment he returns, he will instantly be transformed from a non-being to a cultural and social icon. The media will have to be cut off from him and together with his parents and close family, he will have to have a period of restarting normal life where his privacy will be strictly protected.”

Ex-prisoner David Senesh, today

Ex-prisoner David Senesh, today

A crucial stage in his recovery, according to Dr Senesh, is an “opportunity to give testimony. For a man who has been in solitary confinement for so long, just being allowed to talk and be listened to in a correct and emphatic way can have enormous benefits.”

But at the same time, he should not be questioned by the IDF for intelligence purposes.

“Whatever he can tell the army is superfluous, they didn’t need any of that to launch Operation Cast Lead.”

Dr Senesh warns that that kind of questioning carries the risk of “reactivation” that can make him relive his experiences in a bad way.

“When I returned from 40 days in captivity, it was relatively simple for me to resume my life. After a month’s rest I returned to the army and later became an officer. But it’s almost impossible to imagine how Gilad Shalit’s life will be after he returns.”

Dr Senesh afterwards went on to be an education officer and a military psychologist but within himself he still had many open issues.

“I felt guilty for being taken captive and I was grateful for the efforts made to release me. It took me decades to explain to myself that I had nothing to be ashamed of and that what had happened was mainly a result of the IDF and the leadership not taking the enemy seriously.

“Gilad Shalit will have to come to terms with the fact that his captivity caused pain to his family and to normal citizens, that politicians used his plight for other issues and that many mistakes were made.

He will have to understand the limits of his responsibility.”

Dr Senesh is active in Eirim Balayla (Awake at Night), the organisation for Israeli POWs.

“The Israeli public still believes in the collective myth that a soldier should never be taken captive and that myth also affects the treatment of POWs for years after they return.

“There is a need for a greater understanding that being taken captive is a possibility and that for those who come back, it never ends.”

Last updated: 5:08pm, July 6 2010