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  • Writer's pictureAmir Freimann

From Beirut to Burma

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Some years ago I created a short (5 minute) video clip, about my experience as a soldier in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, after which I vowed not to touch a weapon again. Below is the narrative:

I did my mandatory army service as a paratrooper, and the truth is I quite enjoyed it. This is a photo of me with my girlfriends after the first parachuting, and that's me in a military position on the Lebanese border. You can tell I loved it.

When the First Lebanon War started, in 1982, I'm a 24-year-old medical student and a combat medic, so they put me in a medical battalion. I'm excited – finally my first war! At the border crossing we receive a briefing: the Israeli army reached the outskirts of Beirut and is preparing to enter it. Our battalion will set up a field hospital near the Beirut International Airport and treat wounded civilians.

The sights on the way are horrible. When our convoy gets close to Beirut we are stopped on the road and warned, that we are entering a town that was taken over only the day before. There are still snipers hiding in the houses, and a few hours earlier someone dropped a hand grenade from one of the balconies into an army jeep. We are instructed to turn off the safety on our guns and not to hesitate shooting at any suspicious movement from windows or balconies.

We drive through the narrow main road, with balconies hanging over our heads. I sit in the back of an open command-car, my finger on the trigger, pointing my gun barrel at the windows and balconies above. I'm scared to death.

After we safely pass through the town I start shaking all over. I realize that, if a child looked through a window or raised his head from a balcony, I would have shot them.

A few weeks later, it's night, I'm a medic on duty. Around midnight – several bursts of gunfire from the main road, a few hundred yards from us. A quarter of an hour later an army vehicle arrives with a few soldiers and two Lebanese men, one of them badly injured with two bullet holes in his chest, hardly breathing. I wake up the surgical team and try to resuscitate him, but his lungs are full of blood and before the surgery room is ready he stops breathing. Everybody goes back to sleep. I stay with the body and the other Lebanese man, who turns out to be his brother. In broken English he tells me that they are carpenters and that they worked till late building a reception desk in one of the hotels in the area. On the way back they realized that they forgot their toolbox in the hotel and stopped the car to turn around and go back. Unfortunately, they stopped the car right at the entrance to an army camp, where yesterday a passing car stopped and fired a long volley into the camp. The guard at the gate saw again a car stopping and without thinking twice opened fire on it. I sit with him next to his brother's body until sunrise, mainly listening to him crying, mourning his brother, cursing the war. He keeps asking me: What will I say to our parents? What will I say to our parents?

After the war is over and we are discharged, I take a vow never to touch a weapon again. I am not a pacifist, because I think that some wars are justified and someone should be willing to fight them. But it's clear to me that in war, innocent civilians are injured and killed, and I'm not willing to take part in that.

Three years after the war I go to a movie called "The Burmese Harp" at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The movie is about a Japanese regiment in Burma at the end of WWII which, as the war ends, surrenders to the British forces and starts a long journey to a POW camp, from which they will go by boat back to Japan. During the journey one of the soldiers, a sensitive and gifted musician, is separated from the unit and makes his own way to the POW camp. During that solo journey he sees hundreds of bodies of soldiers killed in the war, undergoes a spiritual conversion and becomes a monk. When he finally arrives at the camp, where his comrades are waiting, he is torn between his desire to join them and return to his homeland, and his calling to remain in Burma as a monk. Then comes a scene in which he stands outside the camp barbed-wire fence, his comrades try to convince him to join them, and he plays a farewell song to them, turns around and walks into the fog, never to return.

When the soldier-monk starts playing his farewell song to his comrades I am flooded with the pain of the war, the difficult decision not to touch a weapon again, the aloneness. I start weeping and cannot stop for a long time.

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