My father disappeared.
Ron Arad is my father. He is not a furniture designer or a scientist in genetic engineering as he wanted to be. Nor is he a father of four as he promised my mother. He never got the chance to be. On 16 October 1986 a technical malfunction in a phantom jet which he was flying caused the plane to explode and my father abandoned it in the skies above Lebanon before falling into captivity. He was 28 years old and I was one year and three months old.
I grew up with a father in a photo album but in the clear knowledge that one day he would come out of the album and become a real father. For years I would receive presents from him which I would collect from the post office with my mother on the Ramat David Airbase. There, in family housing, we waited for him to return. With the passage of the years I realized that the presents were my mother’s trick. The trick was, if you will, a metaphor of unfulfilled love between a father and his daughter. With the passage of time I understood what my mother had been praying for years would not happen. I realized my father would remain a memory.
No one has ever said conclusively that my father is no longer alive and I have learned to live with the fact that he has disappeared. It is an enigma of a kind that cannot be cracked. I learned that great efforts were undertaken to secure his release while at the same time realizing that opportunities had been missed, especially in the first years after his abduction.
When I grew up I read the letters that he wrote in captivity to my mother and to his family. I could see he was a wise and loving man who was considerate and who missed his family. At a certain point, he seemed to understand that there was a possibility that he would not return and that we as a family would not be reunited again. But most of the time, he tried to maintain his optimism. In one of the letters to my mother he wrote:
“I sometimes dream about you but I try not to think during the day so as not to be depressed … My hand is slowly improving but it will be ok the day I return to full activity (if God and our leaders want this to happen). I pray every day for hours and hope that you do as I do … I hope that you and everyone else are ok. Don’t give up. There will be better days. "I try not to give up, and hold my breath, fingers crossed. I love you, Ron."
Today I am a mother of two and can only imagine the suffering he experienced when he was deprived of any contact with us. I struggle to imagine how a parent copes with the longing for his one-year-old baby who he would normally feed, make a bath for, tell stories to every night before bed. But he sent letters, some of which arrived 20 years later and my mother sent him letters that we will never know if he received them.
As a girl I thought I had a heroic father, a soldier who carried out his mission. I was raised in the complexity of the situation of a mission that began with an attack on terrorists in Lebanon and which continued with the impossible return home of my father. I grew up with the notion known as “price”, and not the kind that is paid in a supermarket. My father was a price tag. The tag that was placed on him was as if he was an expensive collectible. It was too expensive for decision makers at the time. In other words, he was too expensive for the state. I realized that later on they were prepared to pay almost any price for him, but it was too late since it was during a stage when there was no one to pay. It was too late. My father had disappeared.
My personal history makes it difficult to cope with the issue of prices attached to human beings in what is often referred to as prisoner swaps. The notion of buying and selling people is belongs to the dark period of the slave trade.
In the enlightened world is difficult to say that every man is equal but the value of life is not acceptable as a negotiating or bargaining chip. In this way of thinking, soldiers in war or civilians in confrontations get caught up in situations in which they become objects sold by the two sides. And this is where the state comes in. Every country has its own rules. For us, young 18 year olds are obligated to enlist except those who receive exemptions, and they are many and are growing in number.
In my view, there is a contract between the soldier, the state and the IDF, especially in combat units. In an case in which someone falls into captivity, the contract says that the soldier cannot be put up for auction. The state must do everything within its abilities in order to bring him home. My father believed in that. Things, during the 70 years of our existence here, have turned out differently. Families of kidnapped soldiers realize that if they do not act themselves, if they do not campaign and rally the public behind them, their sons will not return home.
I assume that my father was not aware of this side of the missions when he was sitting in the cockpit. My mother was exposed to her mission the day after the world came crashing down on her. The entire family went about their efforts and throughout the years the public showed support for my father. The campaign was successful. The public voted for my father, but my father did not return.
It was too late. My grandmother—Ron’s mother—believed that there is no price for life but she was realistic and courageous. Before she passed away, she asked that if my father turns out not to be alive that he be left to rest where he is, that no price is paid in order to bring back his body. She said that whoever harms my father should not be awarded a prize. She died and we as his family feel committed to her will.
People in captivity are considered heroes if they choose to end their lives rather than give up state secrets. People who are alive in captivity who return home pay a high price. The state “pays” for them as if there were any other choice. The moral obligation of the state to captives is being eroded with the years. I see a danger here. A state that sends its soldiers on missions which pose a threat to their lives and which does not commit to returning them whether they have fallen on the battlefield or fallen into enemy hands is a state that sends them to their suicide mission.
I do not know if my father answers all the criteria of being a hero. He paid with his life for the "privatization" of prisoners, for the fact that prisoner swaps is now a part of the public discourse and not just a national mission in the hands of those entrusted with such tasks.
The campaign for the release of those who fell captive, followed by the deal known as the "Jibril Agreement," in which thousands of terrorists were released, sealed my father’s fate.
My father was meant to come back home. He was captured alive, and from that point no one knows what had happened to him but there are a lot of theories of what might have. What we have left of our father are a few pictures and letters. What he wrote to us has been accompanying me all throughout my life.
"To my dearest Tami and Yuval, I am trying to forget you because the memory of you makes me choke up but know that I love you and that is probably the only reason that prevents me from thinking about the worst possible scenario. I want you to be healthy and happy so that I when I’ll come back, I’ll know that I’m coming back to a healthy and happy family … Yuval, just do not forget me ... Show her my pictures and tell her about me and how much I love her.”
Unfortunately, I did not know the father who loved me with all his heart. What I have left is my commitment to him, not to give up looking for him. Not to let him disappear from the world without knowing where he is. Dead or alive, I want to know.