Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo - Having never visited Africa before, Israeli burn specialist Dr. Eyal Winkler was apprehensive about what was in store for the delegation of five medical specialists which he led this week to Congo. The locals turned out to be good hosts - but working with Western volunteers proved more complicated.
“I came to save lives, but also because it’s important to me to show that Israel is not the Flotilla Country that it is painted out to be,” said Winkler, deputy director of the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Sheba Medical Center.
On Tuesday Winkler arrived at the city of Uvira to treat 50 Congolese who were severely burnt in a fire that claimed more than 230 lives in the nearby village of Sange, where an oil truck had overturned and caught fire. Winkler’s five-man squad was the first team of specialists to arrive in the district of South Kivu to treat the injured.
They were there with Daniel Saada, Israel’s ambassador to Congo, as an official delegation of the Israeli foreign ministries Mashav aid agency. The team crossed remote border crossings with ease under the supervision of South Kivu’s governor, Jean-Claude Kibala. The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, telephoned the delegation to thank them.
But the relationship with the volunteers of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Netherlands, who arrived at Uvira the previous week, began on a sour note, according to Winkler and the other Israeli specialists.
Winkler said he got the impression that some volunteers for MSF - which has accused Israel of war crimes and obstructing medical care for Palestinians - did not want to be around him or the other team members, Drs. Shmuel Kalazkin, Gil Gragov Nardini and Ariel Tessone, and nurse Noa Anastasia Ouchakova.
“This is the reality today: Doctors from international aid organizations treat a delegation of volunteer Israeli doctors to Congo as though we were occupiers”, Winkler told Nati Harush, the foreign ministries deputy chief security officer who accompanied the delegation.
Inevitably, perhaps, this lead the eight Israelis seated around the breakfast table at a hotel situated on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to engage in that popular Israeli pastime: Arguing loudly about politics. Some of the participants in this political discussion - surprisingly, the first to break out since the group left for Africa 72 hours earlier - blamed the occupation for the perceived situation. Others said it was unrelated.
“This is an emotional time, and there are obvious political sensitivities,” Dr. Geert Morren, a doctor from Belgium who arrived at Uvira with MSF Netherlands, said after meeting the Israeli delegation. MSF has accused Israel of "devastating disregard" for civilians during its 2009 Gaza invasion.
"Unfortunately, it's true. International aid organizations here are very pro-Palestinian and not too friendly to Israelis," said Gila Garaway, an American training specialist who immigrated to Israel in 1983 before leaving for Congo in 1997. She has worked in cooperation with the Israeli foreign minister on various aid projects over the past 15 years.
Morren and the other MSF team members declined to be interviewed about their cooperation with the Israelis, explaining they needed authorization from the main office.
When the Israeli doctors told Morren that they felt as though an MSF anesthesiologist from Canada would not stay in the same room with them, he explained she had not been feeling well.
Despite the initial tense atmosphere, the Israeli doctors forged a partnership with Morren, one of the 10-odd MSF volunteers working in Uvira and Sange.
Morren, a surgeon, stayed with the Israeli team the first and second day. Together they completed a total of five complicated operations requiring extensive skin grafting. The Israeli team was wearing heavy protective gear for fear of contracting HIV and other diseases in the stifling heat of a makeshift operation tent. After consulting with the local Congolese doctors, they took off some layers, realizing risk was lower than they initially assessed.
“Politics is only politics, and you have to know how to make it melt away,” Winkler said. “Our mission is a humanitarian operation through and through, as part of the vision of Sheba and its director general, Professor Ze'ev Rothstein.”
He said that Dr. Morren “helped us a lot at the hospital - he took over communicating with patients and with hospital authorities and did stuff for us that we could never have done ourselves.”
Still, some MSF volunteers were not too pleased about the musical selection that the Israeli team brought with them, to play on their iPod during the operation. Asked what she though about the Israeli singer Gidi Gov, Julie, an MSF anesthesiologist from Canada, said: “I’d rather have some quiet so I can hear myself think.”
The Israeli team members were not moved. “The anesthesiologists at Sheba aren’t always pleased with the musical selection either,” said Winkler. “But it helps us cope with the intense pressure that we experience during these complicated, messy and life-saving operations.”
During their stay, the Israeli medical staff trained Congolese doctors in performing skin grafts. They will leave behind approximately one ton of medical equipment.
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