Lessons of war

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Instead of taking a gap year, 18-year-old Valerie Zenatti joined the Israeli army. Rising at 4.30am and learning to kill, she was not carefree, but she did acquire a zest for life. Hilary Wilce meets her 15 years on

Summer term. The end of school is in sight. And for many school leavers the prospect of a Thai beach or an Australian adventure beckons. But not for Israeli 18-year-olds, who instead of embarking on a gap year are decanted straight from school into the army.

For Valerie Zenatti the transition from exams, friends and movies to rising at 4.30am and learning to shoot to kill is such a shock she can hardly get her head round it. One minute she is living at home with her parents in Beersheva, nursing a broken heart over her former boyfriend Jean-David and grumbling about her part-time job at Extrapharm, the local drugstore. The next she's a highly trained corporal in the secret service, eavesdropping on Jordanian pilots from a hidden bunker.

Now her vivid and engaging book about her two-year military service - When I Was A Soldier: one girl's real story - has been translated from French and published here, so that English-speaking teenagers can take this journey with her. It would make a great addition to any gap-year rucksack: a riveting and thought-provoking read (but not too bulky to carry).

"Did it change me? Fundamentally, no, because we are built before we are 18," she says on a recent visit to London from Paris, where she now lives.

"But it did teach me about time. At 18 you don't know what time is, you think you are going to live forever, but those two years taught me you don't have all the time in the world. It made me want to live."

Zenatti moved from France to Israel when she was 13. It was so traumatic, she says, that she can remember nothing about her first year in high school, when she spoke no Hebrew and was grappling with a strange country.

By 18, though, she was completely at home, and happy to go into the army.

It was, she points out, the normal way to pass from teenagehood to adulthood. "My mother was afraid for me, of course. But most people in Israel are immigrants. They come from Russia, Argentina, everywhere. They weren't born Israelis, and this is a way to give something back.

"You can say, 'I've given two years of my life to my country. Now I feel part of it.' And as a girl I wasn't in a combative unit. It was hard, but I wasn't afraid, except for the first time I made a patrol. I had an Uzi and a little training, but I didn't really know how to use it. I thought if I saw someone coming I would just drop it."

Since the book was published, Valerie Zenatti has talked to 10,000 teenagers about it - she was in London to talk to students at the Lycee Francais - and she has been struck by how easy life seems for young Europeans. "Many of them seem naive. Being an Israeli teenager is very different. In one way, you have exactly the same life as here, you go to the pub with your friends, you go shopping, you go to clubs, you go to the cinema.

"But at the same time you are never carefree. And when you go in the army, you are not free. You are not free to wear your own clothes, to see your parents when you want, or to go where you want to go. It is very hard to respond to this at 18. At first when you wear your uniform, and you have your weapon, it feels like you are in a movie, a game, but you have to learn this is not a game."

At the same time, she feels, there is an intensity to life in Israel that is lacking here. "There is a longing for life. Everyone feels being in life is a miracle because everyone knows it can be stopped, physically, at any time."

However, not all Israelis are the same, she points out, and in the book it is clear she struggled deeply with the Palestinian issue, even as she served in the military, and clearly saw the need to compromise for peace.

When she left the army at 20, she was frightened she had lost the ability to study. "I thought something in me was broken. All my life I had been in school, studying. And then suddenly it was stopped. Afterwards I was frightened I wouldn't be able to sit on a chair again, wouldn't be able to listen."

But within a month she was at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying international relations, and soon afterwards had moved back to France to continue her studies, this time studying Hebrew. "I was tired. Life was hard. It was the time of the first Gulf War and it was all war, no war, war. I wanted, just for one year, to live in a normal place again."

Now 35, she is married with two young children. She has worked as a radio journalist - "I went to Sarajevo and spent time talking to soldiers. It was very hard to understand why the UN soldiers would not intervene to help people. For me, as a soldier, it would not have been possible" - but now she works as a writer, and has published nine books, mainly for children.

"I have a very, very good memory. I can press one button and be back at eight, or at any age. If I were to put my army headphones on again, even though it was 15 years ago, I could still remember everything. As a writer I have no message, but I want to share the feeling that life is a gift, and to tell people they don't have to be passive, they can do something with it."

When I was A Soldier: one girl's real story by Valerie Zenatti is published by Bloomsbury pound;5.99

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