For the last three years, the civil war raging in Syria has thrown the country and its citizens in turmoil. According to the United Nations, at least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting between the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Syrian rebels attempting to overthrow Assad’s government. Israel has kept a watchful eye on the border it shares with Syria, making sure that none of the fighting spreads into Israeli territory.
As a result of the civil war, the largest calamity to emerge from Syria is the humanitarian crisis affecting innocent Syrian civilians thrown unwittingly into the brutal conflict. Last year, under classified orders, the IDF set up a secret field hospital near the Israeli-Syrian border to treat wounded Syrian civilians. This is the same unit that responds to disasters around the world such as in Haiti, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Tariff Bader, a Druze officer, heads the Israeli field hospital near the border. Col. Bader joined the IDF in 1993 and after completing his medical studies, he eventually became a senior medical officer in the IDF’s Northern Command.
One of the main mottos of the IDF is a fundamental Jewish value that can be summed up in one saying: “He who saves one life, saves the whole of humanity.” On February 16, 2013, seven wounded Syrians civilians approached the Israeli border in urgent need of medical care. “They arrived on Shabbat and were treated by the same people who treat IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights,” Col. Bader explained.
When reports leaked that the IDF was helping Syrian civilians, vocal opponents of Israel charged the state with helping the enemy. Col. Bader refuted the criticism by saying “The ethical code of the IDF Medical Corps clearly states that soldiers must assist anyone who is sick or wounded – whether they are associated with the enemy or not.”
Since the day the seven injured Syrian’s asked Israel to literally save their lives, the IDF began an extraordinary humanitarian mission to assist Syrian civilians in need.
The IDF Field Hospital unit is one of the most advanced in the world. Dr. Ofer Merin, Commander of the Field Hospital unit, said that the whole purpose of the unit is “to come to an area in need and function as a multi-discipline hospital.” Once set up, the field hospitals have surgery, orthopedic, pediatric, and radiology divisions. IDF doctors work hand in hand with nurses and orderlies and are in constant contact with Israeli civilian medical services for more serious cases that need advanced treatment.
Explaining the reasoning as to why the IDF set up a field hospital in the north, Col. Bader explained that many of the injured Syrians had life threatening injuries. Time was not on their side. By the time many of the injured were to be transferred to civilian hospitals in Israel, they would have died from their wounds. “We we realized we would be receiving many patients, we decided to build a field hospital so that we could treat people with serious injuries who require immediate care,” Col. Bader said.
The doctors of the field hospital noticed that at first, many Syrians were hesitant to come to Israel to receive care since this would require interaction with Israeli soldiers. Col. Bader explained that “the Syrian people trust us now” and that the connection between those injured and medical personnel of the unit strengthens each day. The IDF takes intense measures to make sure that all traces of any indication that a Syrian received care in Israel are removed. Should a Syrian return to Syria and evidence shows they were treated in Israel, their lives would be put in great risk.
Dr. Merin shared a personal story from his experience treating wounded Syrians in the field hospital. One morning, a Syrian mother came into the field hospital with her sons body in her arms. Her child had been severely wounded by a battle that took place in the family’s village and was clinging to life. As a last effort to save the life of her son, the mother crossed the border into Israel and gave the life of her child into the hands of the IDF doctors. Dr. Merin noticed that the mother was hesitant to have her son treated by Israelis. He explained that all medical personnel of the fields wear IDF uniforms and the flag of Israel hangs on the walls of the hospital. What was most striking, Dr. Merin mentioned, was the look of animosity in the mother’s eyes towards the Israelis but having no choice to save her son, she had to forfeit any of her emotions towards Israelis to bring her child back to her.
Dr. Merin understood this look. Here was a woman who was probably raised to think her whole life that Israel was the enemy. And here she was, walking right into the enemies lair. What makes the story remarkable is that, over the next several days, Dr. Merin noticed a change in the mothers eyes. No longer did she look at the soldiers and doctors as enemies. Rather, her eyes began to shine with happiness, gratitude, and most importantly, trust. Her body no linger rigid with tension, the mother began to interact with the doctors, talking with them not as enemies but rather on a more personal level. As Dr. Merin explained, “She had realized that the IDF was there to assist them as human beings.” Her son made it through a terrible crisis and would live to see another day thanks to the humanitarian efforts of the IDF Field Hospital unit.
The field hospital, which is located in very close proximity to the Syrian border, is under constant threat of attack. Mortar fire from Syria has, in the past, wounded IDF soldiers near the border. The medical personnel treating the injured Syrian civilians are risking their lives each day to save the lives of others. On the ground treatment forces doctors many times to treat Syrian patients without any prior knowledge of medical history or health conditions. Some patients arrive with notes from Syrian doctors describing recommended care for the Israeli doctors. These notes, usually written in Arabic or English, are the only form of communication between doctors from the two countries.
Libi, an organization that supports soldiers of the IDF, is working with the IDF Field Hospital Unit to help raise humanitarian assistance. The organization is working to help support medical personnel carry out their humanitarian missions. The IDF Field hospital unit is, in essence, meant to treat soldiers on the front lines. When asked what kind of equipment the unit need, Dr. Merin stated “that money raised could be used to buy medical equipment not needed in war zones.” Equipment such as baby incubators or sonogram machines used to treat pregnant women is sorely needed on the front lines of a humanitarian crisis.
“I myself am a father,” Col. Bader said. “The injuries of children leave the greatest impact on me. I remember a girl whose femur was completely shattered. Had our forces not been there to help her, she would have died or been disabled for the rest of her life. This work makes me proud, both as a physician and a citizen of Israel. Some patients who arrived unconscious were shocked to find themselves in Israel when they woke up. Fortunately, other Syrians in the hospital helped us calm them down.”
The doctors of the IDF Field Hospital unit not only treat physical injuries. They also treat the deep, traumatic, psychological injuries of the civil war as well. To ease some of the emotional trauma of children, clowns regularly visit the hospital. To hear the laughter of small children fill the air and see their giant smiles of happiness is a breath of fresh air in such a fragile situation.