ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 287

  • Amnon Sharon painting some of his clay sculptures depicting the torture he underwent as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy of Israel Disabled Veterans Organization)
    Amnon Sharon painting some of his clay sculptures depicting the torture he underwent as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy of Israel Disabled Veterans Organization)
  • Clay sculpture by Amnon Sharon depicting the moment he was captured by the Syrians in a tank battle on the Golan Heights. Sharon was a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. A full display of Sharon's work about his captivity is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv.(Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
    Clay sculpture by Amnon Sharon depicting the moment he was captured by the Syrians in a tank battle on the Golan Heights. Sharon was a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. A full display of Sharon's work about his captivity is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv.(Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
  • Amnon Sharon as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy)
    Amnon Sharon as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy)
  • Part of Amnon Sharon's 'Sane in Damascus' display of his clay sculptures depicting torture he endured as a  prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. The display is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
    Part of Amnon Sharon's 'Sane in Damascus' display of his clay sculptures depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. The display is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
  • Clay sculpture by Amnon Sharon of Shiri Bibas and her young sons Ariel and Kfir, who were taken hostage to Gaza on October 7, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
    Clay sculpture by Amnon Sharon of Shiri Bibas and her young sons Ariel and Kfir, who were taken hostage to Gaza on October 7, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
Interview'Life is strong. People discover they can survive'

Israeli survivor of captivity and torture in Syria exorcises his demons by sculpting clay

Former Yom Kippur War prisoner of war Amnon Sharon shares his experiences living ‘alongside PTSD,’ criticizes public activism for release of hostages in Gaza

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Amnon Sharon can still feel the barrel of the gun that a Syrian soldier pressed to his temple as he was taken captive during a fierce tank battle on the Golan Heights on October 6, 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War.

Sharon captured that moment in a small clay sculpture as a way of trying to cope with the first of countless horrors he endured as a prisoner of war in Damascus for eight months until his release in early June 1974.

A look at the full collection of figures Sharon, 76, has made about his captivity makes one marvel at how he managed to survive the constant torture and depravation. The collection titled “Sane in Damascus” is on view in Tel Aviv at Beit Halochem, one of four comprehensive rehabilitation, sports, and recreation centers around the country exclusively for Israel’s disabled veterans.

One of Sharon’s sculptures shows him stretched on a rack for two days without reprieve, his head and arms trapped in a pillory. In another, he lies on his back with his head covered by a sack and hands bound, as a Syrian captor beats the sensitive nerves in the bottoms of his feet with a heavy stick. Others show him in contorted positions as he is shackled and hung from various torture contraptions.

Already badly injured when he was captured on the Golan, his physical condition worsened as he was held in total darkness in a solitary confinement cell smaller than the length of his body for five months before being moved to a cell holding a group of captured Israeli pilots.

“They tore up my body, but they did not break my soul,” said Sharon, who was designated by the IDF as disabled and still suffers physically and psychologically 50 years later.

Amnon Sharon (foreground in military uniform), his wife Bella, and others celebrate Sharon’s release from Syrian captivity in June 1974. (Courtesy)

He was able to go on to have a decades-long career as an IDF officer, retiring as a colonel. He said he hopes that the hostages held by Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza since October 7 will be able to return to daily life similarly well.

“It is different this time with women, children, babies, and the elderly in captivity, but life is strong. People discover they can survive,” he said.

An instinct for visualizing survival

Sharon’s parents were Hungarian Holocaust survivors who met and married in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Born in 1947 in a British detainment camp in Cyprus for illegal immigrants caught trying to enter Palestine, Sharon and his parents were allowed to make aliyah on November 29 of that year — the day the UN Partition Plan was passed.

Clay sculpture by disabled Yom Kippur War veteran Amnon Sharon depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy of Israel Disabled Veterans Organization)

“Maybe being born to survivor parents and having been raised as a tiny baby behind barbed wire predisposed me to be tough,” Sharon suggested.

The family settled in Givatayim, where Sharon grew up and met his wife Bella when they were both still teenagers. Now living in Kiryat Ono, he and his wife have three children and nine grandchildren.

The couple’s second child, a son, was born while Sharon was in captivity. He finally got to meet the baby when he was two months old.

“Bella named him Dror, which means freedom in Hebrew, at the brit milah [circumcision ceremony], which I did not attend. Coincidentally, when I was informed in captivity that my wife had had the baby, I had thought about calling him Dror,” Sharon said.

Sharon explained that he used active imagination, or visualization, to survive the captivity and torture.

“Of course, I didn’t know at the time that this was an actual psychological technique in which you imagine things to make them happen or to cope. I just did it naturally,” he said.

One example of this involved repeatedly imagining from early in his captivity that an International Committee of the Red Cross representative would visit him and tell him he would be released on June 8. Indeed, the prisoner swap between Israel and Syria did take place in early June.

Amnon Sharon next to the ‘Sane in Damascus’ display of his clay sculptures depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. The display is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Sharon also imagined that his captors’ stomping on his back were dancers and his screams were music.

His interrogators repeatedly tortured him when he did not answer their questions about Israel’s then-newly developed Merkava tank.

“I honestly did not know about this new tank because I wasn’t involved in working on it and never used it, but they of course would not believe me,” he recounted.

Following these interrogations, Sharon said he would imagine the Merkava tank as a matchbox with a cigarette as its turret.

“In my mind, I saw huge numbers of these tanks moving all over and conquering all of the Middle East. I am not a religious man, but I devised my own prayer — which I still say regularly — and recited it three times a day. It made me feel warm although I was lying on the bare floor of a tiny cell wearing nothing but underwear in the middle of winter,” he said.

Dealing with ever-present demons from the past

Although he has been back in Israel for half a century, he can only fall asleep in the fetal position, because that is the only way he could lie down in solitary confinement. He wakes up every day at 3 a.m. because that was when his captors would wake him. The bottom of his feet always hurt from the beatings and he can’t handle bright lights because his interrogators shone lamps at his face.

Clay sculpture by disabled Yom Kippur War veteran Amnon Sharon depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy of Israel Disabled Veterans Organization)

Sculpture is just one way in which Sharon copes with his PTSD. He said knows he cannot be cured of it, but he can live alongside it.

He makes his clay figures in a sculpture workshop offered at Beit Halochem.

“Things started coming back to me and my teacher told me to take the images out of my head and sculpt them. It was better for me to turn my memories into clay than to have them stuck in my head,” Sharon said as he recently showed his exhibition to The Times of Israel.

His instructor, artist, and trauma therapist is Shai Avidan whose father was a prisoner of war in Egypt between December 1969 and October 1973. Avidan praised Sharon’s ability to depict the ugliness and horror of what he experienced.

“He is able to unload what is weighing on his body and soul. Not everyone can do that,” Avidan said.

Sharon pointed to a figure and said it was the cruel interrogator he nicknamed “Eagle Eyes.”

Clay sculpture by disabled Yom Kippur War veteran Amnon Sharon depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. (Courtesy of Israel Disabled Veterans Organization)

“He was coming back to me in my dreams and I planned to sculpt him and then break it, but the instructor recommended that I add it to the exhibition. As soon as I did that, he disappeared from my dreams,” Sharon said.

He and the pilots he was held with had the opportunity to confront a former captor in real life in 2012. He was an Israeli Arab who had run away to Syria as a teenager and served for years as a top Hebrew-Arabic translator for interrogators, eluding Israeli security services for years.

“From the moment I saw him in Syria, I could tell something was different about him. He smiled a lot and looked like a Yemeni Jew, so I nicknamed him ‘The Yemeni,'” Sharon recalled.

Helping others build self-confidence and face challenges

In addition to sculpting and painting, Sharon speaks about his experiences and offers advice for facing challenges to a variety of civilian and military groups.

“I didn’t speak about what I had gone through for 14 years after my return. I didn’t even really answer my wife when she asked about a stab wound on my back or my young son who asked why I came back from Syria without fingernails,” Sharon said.

“But then I finally spoke in general terms when I was invited to speak to my son’s 12th-grade class. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. After that I was able to start sharing in more detail,” he said.

Part of Amnon Sharon’s ‘Sane in Damascus’ display of his clay sculptures depicting torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Syria, October 1973-June 1974. The display is on view at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Sharon recounted his full story in a memoir, also titled “Sane in Damascus,” published in 2005. The book is available in both Hebrew and English.

“Unlike others with PTSD who choose not to talk to avoid hurting themselves or others, it is very important to Amnon to tell and show how he handled a very difficult time,” said art therapist Avidan.

After rehabilitation specialists noted Sharon’s talents for active imagination, they encouraged him to become a certified coach. Now he volunteers with people in rehabilitation hospitals and at Beit Halochem and also offers private sessions.

Criticism of public activism for hostages’ release

Sharon said that soon after the hostages were taken to Gaza, he went to Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, approached relatives of hostages, identified himself as a former POW, and offered his support.

“They weren’t interested. But I understand that. When I was in Syria, Bella didn’t want people approaching her,” he said.

Sharon said that he wakes up every morning hoping to hear that all the hostages have been freed. With many red-headed grandchildren, he feels a special connection to Shiri Bibas and her red-headed babies Ariel and Kfir. A sculpture he made of them is on display next to his other figurines.

Clay sculpture by Amnon Sharon of Shiri Bibas and her young sons Ariel and Kfir, who were taken hostage to Gaza on October 7, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“Although I am worried about the hostages, I think that the [Hostages and Missing Families] Forum is going about things the wrong way. Their activism and the noise they and others are making is not the way to go,” Sharon said.

“I understand them, but I don’t agree with them. When I was in captivity, the families only spoke with the IDF and official channels. Now the families are just letting Sinwar play with us. He knows we are afraid for the safety and life of the hostages. Even with all the pain, they should be working behind the scenes and they and the media should not be revealing details publicly,” he said.

When asked whether he considered the fact that the hostage families may be so active because they don’t trust the government to make freeing the hostages the priority, Sharon said he didn’t think that there was anything that he and other citizens could do to effectively influence the situation.

“I can influence things [when I vote] in the next elections,” he said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
image
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure: example@domain.com
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.