Azzam is in the Ziv Medical Center in Safed. When he was three years old and walked out of a mosque in his home village near Quneitra, a rocket exploded and blinded him in both eyes. It was just after the Syrian civil war began, and he has been blind ever since. "There are a lot of airplanes and explosions, and I'm in darkness all the time," he says. "I'm always scared." Azzam is 10 years old now, and this is the sixth time that he has come to Israel for treatment. Seven year-old Ruba, who was born in the village of Shams, suffers from a chronic disease. It is her first visit to Israel. "I'm not scared of the airplanes," she says, "but I am scared of the explosions. It's the scariest thing in the world. And I'm scared of the dark."
12 year-old Islam arrived in Israel today for the first time for medical treatment. "The scenery here is beautiful," she says. I ask what children do in the war, whether there is school, and where they play in the afternoon. They say that sometimes there is school, but most of the time not. There are no air-conditioners, computers, gymnasiums, or laboratories in the schools. It's frightening to play outside in the afternoon - some children go outside and never come back - so they stay home. None of them has ever been to a movie theater, play, or amusement park. They have almost never been out of their village. "We have nothing," says Azzam, "We're Syrians."
A few hours earlier, 4:30 AM on the Golan Heights, just before sunrise. The sky is full of stars, and the air is so crisp and tasty that I don't breathe it; I take bites of it. The many-sided civil war in Syria is about to enter its eighth year, with no end in sight. Every week is worse than the one before, with half a million dead and 12 million homeless and refugees, over a quarter of them children, to date. No one even bothers counting the wounded anymore, but about 5,000 of them have been treated in Israel in the past five years. I attended one of the days of treatment.
Israel never wanted to intervene, but after two years of warfare, the wounded just started coming to the border. Some of them were treated on the spot. At some point, a field hospital was set up and then closed down, with the wounded being sent to hospitals in northern Israel. Over the years, a change occurred in the kind of wounded who came. At first, first aid was given to people wounded in the fighting, but time, the collapse of the Syrian health system, and the changes in the state of the fighting and control over southern Syria have made Israel and its three northern-most hospitals - the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, and the Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias - responsible, or at least accessible, for medical treatment for 200,000 Syrians living on the other side of the border in a 40-kilometer strip of land between Quneitra and the triple border, who are completely cut off from Damascus. The IDF calls these Syrians "the locals."
"We're all getting sadder"
I attach myself to a force of paratroopers somewhere on the Golan Heights. Major Dr. Sergey Kotikov, head of the medical section, is commanding the operation today. Mauda is the commander of the force. We stand around for a short briefing and start walking in formation towards the Syrian border, between mine fields. Every so often, we stop for a minute or crouch down behind a boulder, talk on the radio, move from here to there, and take up a better position. I am wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, and to tell the truth, am enjoying myself. I know that it is not funny, that not far from here, there is a war, Iranians, and Hezbollah, but I can't help myself. Jackals howl at the rapidly disappearing moon. The skies are clearing up, and the sun is rising over this quarrelsome land. Everything here will soon be yellow and dried up, but for the next week or two, the Golan Heights will be green and stunning, and certainly now, when it is covered by the morning mist.
We are waiting right next to the border. The noise of a motor on the other side comes near. The Syrians come in pairs, mother and child, about 40 people. They come one by one to a small gate in the fence, and follow the instructions: turn around, bend down, undergo a check, and wait. It takes about 40 embarrassing minutes. They stand in the improvised checking area and look at each other. We are on one side, and they are on the other. They all cough loudly. Some of the mothers here are children themselves; they look 15 years old. There are several really small babies. Everyone is quiet and terrified. The children are more silent than any more fortunate Israeli child has ever been.
A report published two weeks ago by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) states that 2017 was the worst year for Syrian children, with over 5,000 killed. Over 1,000 children were injured in just the first two months of the year. UNICEF Middle East and North Africa regional office director Geert Cappelaere writes, "There are scars on children that will never be erased. The protection of children in all circumstances that was once universally embraced - at no moment has any of the parties accepted.”
After all of them have been checked, they go back to the bus and travel to a secured section of the Ziv Medical Center that has been evacuated for us. Breakfast is served to the stunned Syrians, and they eat it quietly. A man in his forties enters the section. He enters a room with a large bag and closes the door behind him. A few minutes later, medical clown Kukuriku emerges from the room. Red nose, striped pants, large shoes, all the trimmings.
At first, I admit, I was a little dismissive, but I watched while this clown, Johnny Havis, 44, worked miracles in the room. I watch while, with infinite patience, he gets them on their feet, induces them to applaud, or just wave, with gentleness and determination extracts a smile from those children, and doesn't stop until they are all laughing and dancing. Children just want to laugh and play. Before our eyes, he simply mines the joy out of the depths of the souls of these children, who never harmed anyone; they were simply born in the wrong place at the worst possible time.
This is truly one of the most impressive human things I have ever seen. It was a little harder with the mothers, whose eyes showed infinite suffering. These women have seen too much, but Havis did everything possible. Later, when he took a time out, I approached him. He has been working with the Syrian children for five years, and appears in almost every story about the subject. "It will only get worse as the war continues," he says. "We're all getting sadder."
"It's our duty and privilege to help"
I go around with the children - up and down from the cardiology department to ear, nose and throat, orthopedics, and ophthalmology. A soldier stands on guard outside every door behind which a child is being examined. I call Lieutenant Colonel A, the commander, who tells me about another clinic that has been operated by a US organization on the other side of the border under Israeli protection since last August in which 4,000 more patients have been treated. A says that 90% of the humanitarian activity comes from donations. NIS 270 million has been raised to date, mostly for medical equipment and medicine.
A explains, "No treaty is being signed here, but bridges are being built, one by one with the medicine, doctors' visits, and equipment being transferred, in the hope that it will make them trust us. The more we help, the more effective it will be in keeping terrorism away from the border. It's our duty and our privilege to help."
"I'll tell you about the first lesson I learned," says Dr. Michael Harari, a pediatrician at Ziv Medical Center. "I used to work in intensive care, but I've never seen such frequent and severe war wounds. I remember that at the beginning a mother and her daughter came when they were both wounded. The child wouldn't come out from under the blanket, and wouldn't eat or drink anything. We learned something from her about how to overcome post trauma: first of all, put the mother and the girl together. The girl preferred seeing her mother wounded to imagining the worse of all. First of all, unite the families. And the most import thing is to reduce pain. You can't overcome mental trauma if you have a physical trauma. Get rid of the pain, even if it means anesthetizing the child in order to change bandages.
"The second most important thing I learned is about the meaning of home. Even if your home has been bombarded, even if it no longer exists, home is the most important thing. Everyone wants a home. Five years ago, I thought that after treatment, we'd send them to a refugee camp - but everyone wanted to go back to Syria. In the early years, we saw starved children, but that's not happening any more. We haven't seen starving children for quite a while. Another change I see is that at the beginning, they were afraid when they came. They expected to see people with horns. That has completely vanished.
"Something else that is important is normality. A child needs to play and learn - these things help a lot. I thought I'd seen everything - I didn't believe how much it could help, all the clowns. They're really part of the treatment. We go into the morning meetings, and the child thinks that the clown is in charge."
"Treating Syrians is one of Israel's decisions that I appreciate the most," says Galilee Medical Center general director Dr. Masad Barhoum. "Obviously first of all for humanitarian reasons, but that's not the only thing." Like Harari, Barhoum dwells on the medical aspect and the experience he gained. "It taught me a lot," he says. "It has reinvented and shaped us as a hospital. We may be the only Western hospital in the world with experience in accepting and treating such serious wounds, and at this pace. We've made progress. Today, we reconstruct wounded people's faces, implant jaws, and print everything on a 3D printer. It brings the hospital to a higher level. We have become a leading hospital in trauma. This experience will be at the disposal of Israelis in the Third Lebanon War or a war in the north, which I think will come. We have become the frontline of medicine, and we're prepared for the worst scenario."
30-40 Syrians are currently hospitalized in Nahariya. "Putin doubled the number," Barhoum says. "We had already gone down to 20. In general, 2015 and 2016 were very tough. The injuries slowed in 2017. There are still severe injuries, but more light injuries are starting to arrive."
"We have nowhere to run"
We are at Ziv Medical Center after breakfast time, and the doctors are arriving. Some of them are examining the children in the hall we're standing in, and some are taking children for examinations in wards. I take the opportunity to talk with some of the mothers. Obviously, none of them give their names, and none of them will agree to be photographed.
Aisha came with her five year-old grandson, who became completely deaf four years ago, following an air bombardment when he was one year old. This is her fifth time in Israel. "I feel more comfortable coming to a hospital in Israel than a clinic in Syria," she says. "The treatment there is much worse. It's better to stay home. I don't tell anyone that I was in Israel. I don't tell what I did, and no one asks. There's no government where I live - there's nothing. Only to my family do I talk about Israel and how well we're treated."
She is from a village near Daraa. "There are Russian planes above the village every day," she says. "The Russians brought no peace with them, and no ceasefire. The Russians bomb people for no reason."
"Globes": Seven years ago, did you believe this would happen?
Aisha: "We didn't believe it would be like this. Never."
Do you see any end in sight?
"It just gets worse and worse," she cries. "Now they're killing people for no reason. The children aren't studying; everyone lives in fear. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Israel. Everyone is bombarding in Syria. Everyone stays home all day, and everything's very expensive. Before the war, eight pitot cost 15 Syrian liras, and now they cost 100 liras (100 Syrian liras is worth NIS 0.70). Milk used to cost 100 liras; now it costs 4,000 liras, and there are no jobs at all. Anyone without land has nothing."
The second mother is from Quneitra. "It's calm there now," she says with a bitter smile. "But that's it; we've lost hope. I no longer think things will get better in Syria. There's no hope."
How can you live without hope?
"Like this - from day to day. We have nowhere to run. It's too expensive to run. What can we do? Nothing. We're home with the children every day."
When the children ask what will happen in Syria, what do you tell them?
"That there's no hope."
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on March 26, 2018
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018