Where Israeli soldiers go to heal

Kfar Izun, a retreat on the Mediterranean, helps veterans traumatized by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Childhood in Israel is short.

The golden days of adolescence that North Americans celebrate - the fun, the dates, the new freedoms - barely exist. By 18, most Israelis are struggling through basic army training, then shouldering a gun in a bitter conflict with Palestinians that, after two years, shows no sign of slowing - but is increasingly leaving its mark on those who fight it.

Reserve officer and social worker Omri Frish is trying to help young army veterans who are, as he puts it, "completely fried, totally indifferent, and without a grasp of reality." In March 2001 he started Kfar Izun, or "Balance Village," to help restore them to emotional and psychological equilibrium.

The response, particularly from parents seeking help for their children, has been overwhelming. "We've received over 900 [calls] from parents with terrible stories," Mr. Frish told the Israeli paper Ma'ariv. These days, he tells the Monitor, "we're trying to rent more buildings. More and more people are trying to come, but we don't have the space."

With funding also limited, a maximum of 24 patients at a time can stay for up to four months at the two- to three-acre compound, where clusters of bungalows border a white-sand beach and the lapis-blue Mediterranean.

As a fat puppy trips over himself to join in, a small group of patients sways through the motions of a judo practice, part of their treatment.

Sixty percent of the patients here are male. Former soldiers talk about having to kill, watching comrades die, and the fear of their own deaths. Those who didn't deal with death firsthand speak of encounters with Palestinians.

"We'd go into houses. We'd see children and old people crying. We shot their televisions. At first you don't pity, you do the job. But when you sit at home later, you begin to understand that you've done things that have hurt you emotionally," one patient told Ma'ariv.

A female patient named Jade huddles in a chair, hidden under a hat and a hooded, pumpkin-colored sweatshirt. "You meet [Palestinian] people just like us," she says. "It can be traumatic."

As Jade speaks, she slowly pulls off her hat and peels away the layers of insulation. Birdlike in a tank top and pants, she has sheared her brown hair close to the scalp. Soldiers sometimes pay a heavy emotional price for violent encounters with civilians, she says. "When they look in the mirror after it's over, they say 'What did I do? What have I done?' "

Thirty counselors work with the patients, who have been evaluated at a Tel Aviv psychiatric institute. The young veterans garden, drum, and draw as part of their therapy, which also includes more conventional forms of healing.

"The idea is to help people develop an inner control, to give the patients the responsibility and power to heal themselves," says Frish, who hopes to expand using donations from private citizens and the government. Treatment costs just over $2,000 a month. Sponsors cover about $600, families must make up the rest.

Once treatment is over, counselors keep in touch with alumni to see how they're doing. Those in need can come back for a month or two. "Our team keeps an eye on them," says Frish. "We remind former patients of what they were like. We want them to remember."

Frish says he initially founded Kfar Izun to help young Israelis who had "lost their way while traveling." Backpacking around Asia is a common rite of passage for those fresh out of the army and eager for more benign adventures.

"Young people making a transition from the stiff, demanding, intrusive institution of the army to a very open, unconventional, enabling situation like traveling can have problems, especially if there are previously existing vulnerabilities," Frish says. Many of these travelers run into trouble with drugs, and some attempt suicide. Frish's group works with wayward travelers' friends and family to bring them back to Israel.

Frish eventually started taking in other young Israelis, after realizing that soldiers - particularly those with drug problems - had few places to go for help.

Counselors at Kfar Izun say the use of drugs like LSD and Ecstasy contributes to the emotional problems some young Israelis face, but they also point to the simple stress of being young here.

"The level of vulnerability is higher here than many places," Frish says. "Young people are exposed to terrorist attacks, they go through army service."

And then there is the intifada. This latest incarnation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed 211 soldiers, according to the army spokesperson's office. Army desertions have risen to the point that the military is no longer pursuing soldiers who go AWOL - there is no space left for them in military jails.

As Israel has reoccupied most Palestinian areas, soldiers come into increasingly close contact with the communities they keep under closure. "People are in fighting situations, they face death, and when that becomes something you do daily and you're physically stressed - you lack sleep and food - it begins to wear you down," says a counselor named Tomer. "You witness and participate in things you can't share with others and have to bottle this up inside you."

Many soldiers at Kfar Izun have come from elite units. "They aren't trained to deal with failure. They have high standards, and there is no emotional flexibility, so they are very prone to emotional crises when something goes wrong," says Tomer, a lean man whose baggy Thai-style pants and shaved head are reminiscent of his backpacking clients' style.

Patients have arrived at the village believing they are the messiah, that they caused the intifada, and that they are being watched and followed by the secret services.

Jade says she began to unravel psychologically after an extended trip to India, finding that everything seemed "wrong" when she got back here.

But her brown eyes light up when she talks about Kfar Izun, where patients' days are rigorously structured with gardening, cooking, and cleaning work punctuated by the occasional drug test.

"It's a very listening, empathetic place," she says. "They don't just see problems or see you as a pathology, they see all of you."

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