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On the Road to Beirut -- A Story by Elisha Porat

Share On the Road to Beirut
By Elisha Porat

Translated by Alan Sacks


I met a buddy not long ago, a young guy who can't forget what he went through during the war in Lebanon. Seven years have gone by but he remembers everything as if it all happened yesterday. Here is his story:

What I remember most is the ride on the convoy of armored personnel carriers on the road to Beirut. I was a grunt in the armored infantry when our unit went into Lebanon. I got along just fine with the other guys. The hardships of army life bound us together. We were a team, each of us knew how to live with the other. I remember that we were all so angry with an unconscious, shared rage that we just started ahead all the time.

We sat in the APC, never letting go of our guns. We had already seen how you could get taken by surprise if you weren't ready.

The villages and towns we passed through were riddled with signs of destruction, pictures of religious leaders covered the walls. From cellars and hiding spots, terrified villagers watched us but didn't dare show themselves. Fear of our column had driven them into hiding. Eventually, though, outside Beirut, we stopped going through the villages. Our commanders were afraid to take the risk.

The sloping, yellow hills crept down right to the water's edge. And then the heat sapped our strength and the flies swarmed us, but we kept on going. Moving ahead was now the main thing. To keep going, moving faster and never stopping. If we stopped, we would become an easy target for the enemy. Hour after hour we gazed at the route, studying the pitted shoulder of the scorched summer earth.

I had plenty of time to think, to worry and regrets. Between bursts of fire and quick mop-up missions, I blamed myself endlessly. How had I got stuck here? What an idiot I was. Right now I could have been in the rear, in a cool, shaded spot beside flowing brooks and clear springs. Instead, I was rocking hard in my reeking, broiling APC, a perfect target for anti-tank ambushes on the main road to Beirut.

From time to time, a plume of smoke or a swirl of dust would appear below some deceptive ridge. Our CO barked at us and we fired like robots. But we knew that behind the ridge lay another masking yet another beyond it and another after that. Each ridge was crowned with a dark copse of pines like a green cockscomb concealing an enemy lying in wait for our APC. We knew, but still we went on because it was so damned important to rush to Beirut. The sounds of gunfire were the only ones we heard. Our ears were deafened by the din and the explosions. We couldn't even hear the rumble of the engine. Sometimes I wondered how the APC could keep going with an engine that couldn't be heard. With earnest, tired looks, the officers gave us our orders. They were at least as exhausted as we were from the days of battle.

Each time the convoy slowed down, fast, light jeeps passed it by. Big-shot officers sat in the jeeps, fear on their faces as though they were pursued by terrible premonitions. Watching them as they passed, we thought about the generals and the Minister of Defense himself. We were a bit dazed but their vibrant image calmed us and made us feel a little better. Suddenly, we wanted them to pass by our convoy, by our very own APC. If only they would stop for a moment, jump into our vehicle and lift our spirits. But they didn't come and we continued on our way.

That's when the memories got me, memories of the good times before the war. They gnawed my heart, awakening awful yearnings for my Kibbutz so far away, for the shady orange groves on soft hills of loam and heavenly night-time milkings in the old milking shed. I would hear the cows lowing after they were milked and smell the acrid odor of their fodder mixed with rotting orange peels. I went mad with yearnings.

But around me galloped the convoys to Beirut. For now, the men in the APC were my whole world. They were my past and my future. I couldn't long for anything else. The sight of a burning house or corpses sprawled in the road no longer astonished us. We weren't even surprised to see horses dead in their stables along the road. Even the wounded among our own troops didn't stir us. We glanced apathetically at the evac teams tending the wounded and at the helicopters hurrying to pick them up and carry them to hospitals in Israel.

Then, completely by surprise, one of the helicopters landed beside our convoy. Out popped the Minister of Defense surrounded by a bustling routine of officers and adjutants. It was afternoon, when the sun began to sink into the sea to the left of the road. He smiled at us, the convoy troops, stopped the APC's and talked with the weary men. Here and there, excited soldiers leaped from their armored vehicles, crowded around him in awe and tried to shake his hand. But his entourage quickly pushed them back.

He climbed on one of the APC's and called out in a voice so loud that the whole convoy and all his adjutants could hear, "Boys, listen up. We're almost at the end. Now we're on the road to Beirut."

I should have been happy and filled with pride. Instead, I felt numb. I just sat silent in my turret and didn't answer when they called to me. I felt I was just a small screw in a vast machine careening unstoppably to Beirut, as if I had never been a man, as if I had no parents, no relatives, no fragrant piece of our land back in the plain of Sharon. I felt as if military discipline shackled me to the vehicle, as if patience had sucked me dry, as if the weight of fatigue had emptied me of everything that had been in me. That is what war does to simple soldiers. I had become a sealed, hollow lump. I didn't curse my life because I felt it had been cursed long before. I didn't hurt my body because I felt it had long since turned to stone. And I didn't smile at the Minister's entourage passing below my turret. I just sat on my APC, planted in it, a traveler on an eternal, endless journey on the road to Beirut.

"It's been seven years," my friend told me, "but I haven't forgotten anything. How many more years have to go by before I can forget what I saw?"

COPYRIGHT © 1995 ELISHA PORAT


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