Monday, May 12, 2014

12-May-14: Opting for humanity in an ocean of savagery

Syrian impact on Syrians: The Juret al-Shayah district
in Homs, Syria - April 2012 [Image Source]
As wars tend to do, the ongoing carnage in Syria provides insights into the nature of the combatants, of their friends and allies, of the news reporting industry, of the multilateral institutions that struggle to do something positive in the face of such hideously negative events.

As many (the estimates vary) as 150,000 human lives have been violently ended since the Syrian kill-frenzy began in early 2011, and many times that number have been severely impacted. More than 9 million Syrians (out of a total of 23 million) have been displaced, many of them fleeing their country for refuge elsewhere.

It's strongly arguable (though denied by the fighting parties themselves) that this is a war with a strongly religious foundation to it. It overwhelmingly involves Moslems: Shia groups side by side with mainly-Alawite government forces, backed by (Shia) Iranian technical, logistical and military support and with the involvement of (Shia) Hezbollah forces - all fighting to save the (Alawiteal-Assad dynasty's stranglehold on power. Against them, a variety of mainly Sunni rebel groups trying to destroy it and end Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Israeli impact on Syrians: Syrian girl receives life-saving
treatment in Safed's Rebecca Sieff Hospital [Image Source: Reuters]
We have no particular argument with the many Moslems who argue that their faith is "the Religion of Peace". It's a commendable aspiration. If it's true, even better.

Nor would we want to disagree with the way a prominent Moslem political figure put it in a 2002 speech:
Islam... is a religion of peace. However through the centuries, deviations from the true teachings of Islam take place. And so Muslims kill despite the injunction of their religion against killing especially of innocent people.
So if it's helpful, let's follow his lead and think of the savagery unfolding daily in the killing fields of Syria as the work of deviants. But then where does that leave the rest of us? What decent and good things can be done by decent and good people?

Michael Harari, whom we know from Australia as well as from his work as a doctor who treated one of our briefly-hospitalized children here in Jerusalem, is an intensive care paediatrician at the the Rebecca Sieff Hospital (Israelis call it Ziv) in the small northern Israeli city of Safed (Tzefat in Hebrew).

Israeli impact on Syrians: Syrian mother and daughter
receive life-saving treatment in Safed's Rebecca Sieff Hospital
[Image Source: China Radio International]
Australia's ABC broadcast an interview with Michael earlier today on its "The World Today" radio program.

Here's a transcript of what we think is a very moving look at what individuals can do in the face of colossal evil though it's clear Michael does not work alone and could not possibly do what he does without a system around him and people in positions of power saying 'yes'. The interviewer is Eleanor Hall (and the full audio recording can be heard here.)

ELEANOR HALL: The three-year civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced more than 9 million. One Australian doctor treating severely injured children has witnessed the toll from an unusual perspective. Dr Michael Harari is an intensive care paediatrician who works in a hospital in northern Israel. He has treated hundreds of Syrians who've made their way to the centre over the last year and a half. Dr Harari is back in Australia this week and he joined me in the studio earlier.

MICHAEL HARARI: I've seen lots of trauma in motor vehicle accidents and even bullet wounds and stab wounds. I lived in Papua New Guinea for many years. But I've never actually seen war trauma or blast injuries. And they don't just damage one organ of your body, they're multi-system injuries and for me that's something new and shocking. And it's also the first time I've seen in such a systematic fashion the human agency behind trauma. You know, it's always accidents or illness, but this time people have done it deliberately. And for me that's also something that's a revelation in the most unpleasant way.

Israeli impact on Syrians: Syrian man
receives life-saving treatment in Safed's Rebecca Sieff Hospital
[Image Source: Deutsche Welle]
INTERVIEWER: So tell us about this medical centre in northern Israel where you work, and how do these Syrian patients actually come to be in your care?

MICHAEL HARARI: I work in a place called Ziv Hospital in the town of Tzfat in the far north of Israel, in the Upper Galilee. The Syrian border is about 30 kilometres away as the crow flies. And throughout the last year and a half a steady trickle of wounded have been coming across the border. Exactly how they get there we don't know.

INTERVIEWER: You have no idea how they get to you?

MICHAEL HARARI: Absolutely none. I mean, often the combatants bring one another to the border. There's a gate in the fence near a town called Quneitra. The Israeli army has set up a field hospital near that gate. We think about 900 have come across the border, of which 450 have reached civilian hospitals in the country. So I work in a civilian hospital and I deal with children only. So we've had about 50 children come across the border, all of them really severely wounded, many with amputations. Some are double or triple amputees.

INTERVIEWER: I imagine dealing with children must be particularly confronting?

Israeli impact on Syrians: Syrian girl (R), with Israeli girl
and Israeli medical clown in Safed's Rebecca Sieff Hospital
[Image Source: New York Times]
MICHAEL HARARI: I've almost stopped... It's confronting no matter which age group you deal with. I think the brutality of war is still something that's quite shocking to me. People doing this to one another deliberately is really hard to stomach.

INTERVIEWER: Is there any particular case that you found really difficult?

MICHAEL HARARI: There was one 8-year-old girl who to this day is both awful and uplifting because the outcome was a good one. But she for a month was mute and refused to eat and wouldn't emerge from under her blanket. I think post-traumatic stress but she was so severely traumatised. We cut our teeth on her: she taught us many things including the importance of keeping a parent alongside. So her mother came across the border as well.

INTERVIEWER: What was wrong with her?

MICHAEL HARARI: She had both legs shattered and had some abdominal wounds. The mother had both legs shattered and the father had been killed.

INTERVIEWER: How did they get there?

MICHAEL HARARI: We don't know. They're dumped on the border by somebody and the Israeli army brings them across. We realised very quickly that she needed her mother alongside her, even though the mother was severely injured herself. It was far preferable to keep a severely injured parent alongside the severely injured child. The importance of keeping the child pain-free in order to allow the psychologic healing became self-evident. And she also taught us the importance of getting them back to school early. So we've got a school inside our children's ward in this hospital. It's like a small country hospital, Ziv Hospital. We've got a school, an Arab teacher and a Jewish teacher. And she hadn't been to school in two and a half years and so we got her back to school.
She also taught us the importance of using clowns. Clowns have become central to the management of these children. So we eventually worded up the clown that took her on. Every day we told him what we were going to do with her. And very soon she began to think that the clown was the one who was running the show and that was brilliant. That really changed her whole attitude and she emerged from - and good nutrition, because nearly all of them arrive undernourished.

INTERVIEWER: So where is she now?

MICHAEL HARARI: She's gone back to Syria but she's been back twice already. Her injuries are quite complicated and she's got this scaffolding holding her bones together and it has to be tweaked and changed from time to time. So I don't know how this is done but she's gone back to Syria and she's come back across the border twice already for ongoing follow-up.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know if she is able to go to school when she's back in Syria?

MICHAEL HARARI: Oh, no. Most infrastructure has been - they're from Daraa province - and the health infrastructure, the education infrastructure's been decimated.

INTERVIEWER: So what happens to most of these patients when they leave your care?

MICHAEL HARARI: We initially thought most of them were going to refugee camps in Jordan but, at least lately, we're pretty sure that they're going back to Syria. There's a sort of cloud of secrecy, of necessity I think, so as not to torpedo the whole system. We know that one family has been targeted for having come across to Israel. So the child is...

INTERVIEWER: By whom? In what way?

Australian impact on Israel:
Dr Michael Harari [Image Source: Jwire]
MICHAEL HARARI: We don't know. All we heard was, through other people that came back, that another family that had also gone back had been targeted because they'd been across to us, treated in Israel. They come from across the border that was never porous and suddenly there's a little crack in the border. And people who have been taught to be your sworn enemies come across and they realise that we don't have horns. Within a few weeks we're sitting, having coffee together. And this is a drop in the ocean compared to the carnage on the other side, but something about the paradigm of the Middle East has changed for me just by playing a very small part of it in a small hospital.
For some follow-on reading, including a little background on Israeli hospitals and how they deploy medical clowns, see "23-Apr-12: Does a people really get the leadership it deserves? Ask the Palestinian ruling class as they make their way to Israeli medical centers". More about Michael's marvellous work in The Australian  (November 2013).

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