His frail frame covered by a gown and his arm in a sling, the wounded Free Syrian Army fighter is being treated in the most unlikely of settings — a publicly funded hospital in Israel.
The 22-year-old fighter, who does not want to be identified, says he was hurt when militants from Daesh, or the Islamic State (IS), overran his village in Daraa, one of the 14 governorates of Syria. He refuses to give details of exactly how he got to the Israeli border and was brought to Ziv Medical Center in the mountain city of Safed.
“I wasn’t ready for the Daesh when they came to my village and started killing people. Some of the Daesh fighters were Syrians, others were foreigners,” he says.
The fighter acknowledges he never saw Israelis as friends but his views changed after he was taken care of at the hospital. “While growing up, I saw the Israelis as devils. But I changed my mind after they treated me,” he says.
Will he return to Syria to continue fighting the IS? “Inshallah [god willing],” says the fighter. “They were shooting young people and women. I will go back.”
Fares, an Arabic-speaking social worker who has been helping the Israeli and foreign staff of Ziv Medical Center to interact with Syrian patients for the past three years, says many Syrians with serious injuries have been treated in Safed.
“Some have lost hands and legs, others need psychiatric care for trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I copy their life to my life, I especially think about my own children and my old mother, and their problems make me very sad,” he says.
Since Ziv Medical Center first opened its doors to seven injured Syrians on February 16, 2013, it has treated more than 600 people from the war-torn country. Almost 70% of Syria’s medical community have fled and most healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed since the fighting began in 2011.
“You must be pretty desperate to come to Israel for medical help when you’ve grown up thinking of Israel as the enemy,” says a doctor of Asian origin who oversees the treatment of Syrian patients.
Once Syrians learnt of the medical facilities at the 350-bed hospital in Safed — located west of the Golan Heights, 11 km from the border with Lebanon and 30 km from the Syrian frontier — more and more of them began making the journey to Israel.
The doctors reel off the cases they have handled — the seven-year-old boy whose parents were told he would never walk again even after 17 surgeries in Syria but regained the use of one leg after one operation in Safed and 12-year-old Ahmed, who lost both eyes and a hand and was brought to the border on a donkey led by his brother.
In some cases, patients arrived in Safed with bloodstained notes pinned to their clothes giving details of the treatment they’d received in Syria. In other cases, Israeli doctors had to resort to guesswork to ascertain the nature of injuries and the treatment.
Officials at the medical centre are reluctant to go into details but acknowledge that the Israel Defense Forces transport the injured Syrians to Safed after providing them basic medical aid at the border. They are also reluctant to give details of how many fighters have been treated at the hospital.
Of the 610 Syrians treated at the hospital, 90% were men and 17% were children. All but one child will have some form of permanent disability.
“We try to save arms, legs, hands and feet because we think of the future of the patients. We want to give them the best chance of getting back to a normal life,” says the doctor.
“Many have dirty wounds that are infected. Most are malnourished. Some, like a 12-year-old girl who had been operated on for abdominal cancer and had gauge stuck to her intestines, couldn’t even speak and tell us about their problems.”
With the IS-linked Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) active in Syria less than 35 km from the Israeli border, Israeli officials and the staff of Ziv Medical Center believe there won’t be let up in the number of Syrians making their way to the hospital.
(The writer was in Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange)