Woman on a mission
At a remote Russian army checkpoint in Georgia last month, soldiers came upon a piece of paper with a surprising piece of text in Georgian. "If you leave and do not return - a hero you shall be. If you leave and do return - you will be tried. If you sit and do nothing - you will sit in judgment. Yet this nation will continue to exist if there are always people who will say: Who will go if not I?" This poem, which was written by an Israeli, Yoel Palgi, and read aloud a few years ago at a memorial ceremony for fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers, was translated into Georgian by Gal Lusky. She arrived in Georgia nearly a month and a half ago to assist the local population with food distribution. For every food kit she and her staff prepared for the hungry, she made sure to adjoin a piece of paper bearing the words of that short poem.
"In those first days when we tried to enter the occupied zone with food and aid convoys, we did not receive authorization," Lusky says. "Inside, in the buffer zone, the area of Georgia under Russian occupation, there were many in need of aid. Obviously we did not wait for Russian permission and we found a way to get inside, but at the same time, every day I got to a checkpoint and asked for official permission to enter. One day, I met a Russian officer who brandished the translated page in front of me and said threateningly, 'I understand that despite the fact that we forbade you from entering the territory, you did not wait for our permission.' And I replied to him that I understood that if this piece of paper reached him, it is a sign that the food kits got to him and his people instead of those who are in need. Then he said that as an army officer, he denounced our illegal activities, but as a civilian, he salutes us," Lusky recalls with pride.
After two weeks in Georgia, from which she recently returned, she managed to reach the target goal she set for herself - providing 3,000 hungry civilians with hot meals every day and distributing food to those living in remote areas.
She did not receive official authorization to enter the occupied territory up to the end of her stay. "But we found a way to infiltrate the area," she says. "With the help of others, we combed the available routes prior to our entry, and then we simply prayed hard and went on our way, knowing that they were likely to shoot at us," she explains matter of factly.
At times, it is difficult to find the words to accurately describe the extraordinary efforts of Lusky, 40, a mother to a 10-year-old boy and a member of Kibbutz Hokuk in the north. For years, she has devoted her life to humanitarian missions around the world. In recent years, she has organized a staff of 250 volunteers who are willing to follow her, come high or high water, in any disaster-ridden area on the face of the planet.
Following her return from her latest mission in Georgia, she does not know where she will be in another week or another month, or where she will need to put up the makeshift food and medicine distribution centers that she carries along with her. "This is a question that we do not know the answer to. Wherever the next disaster strikes and wherever the civilians need us, this is where we will be," she says with a smile.
First stop: Rwanda
Lusky, who is the head of the Israeli Flying Aid humanitarian organization, has been undertaking aid missions for the last 15 years. She decided to devote her life to humanitarian causes after her brother was seriously wounded in the First Lebanon War. "I made a vow that if he would survive his injuries, I would change my priorities and I would enlist in aiding others who were wounded in conflicts, which they chose not to be a part of," she says. "Until that time, I was in the thick of pursuing education and money. I left the kibbutz and started work as a flight attendant, but when my brother recovered from his wounds in the early 1990s, I embarked on my first mission, in Rwanda," she recalls.
Ever since that first encounter in Rwanda with a bloody nationalist conflict, Lusky has managed to reach many other conflict zones around the world. She arrived in post-war Darfur, earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, tsunami-hit Sri Lanka, cyclone-devastated Myanmar, flooded Chechnya, the ruins left behind by Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., and many other places whose names are not permitted to be published. In the summer of 2006, the residents of the north and Israel Defense Forces soldiers got to know her intimately thanks to the aid she and her staff provided in the bombed-out home front.
"Our organization is obligated to civilians who need us, period," she says. "No militia and no government will get in our way. We operate in countries where there is usually a total ban on bringing in aid, in countries where the regime is hostile to its citizenry, places where aid packages sent from around the world do not get past the ruling government and never get to those who are really in need. As a result, we often operate in areas where the United Nations can't get to, or reaches but at the latest possible time. I want to be there immediately, when they need me," Lusky says.
The adventurous, hair-raising stories, which she has amassed over the years, could fill several books. Her phonebook is exploding with contacts. Whenever she wants to reach a head of state or other important figure, she does so with ease. Even outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows her well. Their good relationship took root against the backdrop of the Second Lebanon War, though they had met previously through Olmert's wife, Aliza. Both women were active in aiding Darfur refugees in Israel.
The facts on the ground
"I have visited Darfur three times in recent years," Lusky says. "The way I work is I first arrive to a disaster area and see with my own eyes what the local population needs. This way, we know what type of aid to administer."
Such was how Lusky discovered that the main problem faced by those languishing in refugee camps was the lack of wood for heating and cooking purposes.
"The problem was not obtaining food necessarily, but finding wood for heating and cooking. When the men went out of the camps looking for wood, they were killed, and when the women were sent in their place, they were raped, and from the moment they were raped they sullied the family honor and were banished from their homes. This was how camps full of women banished by their husbands and separated from their children came about. In essence, the difficulties and the violence in the camps revolved around this matter, and, as a result, our goal was simply to help them obtain wood and survival materials located outside of the camp," she recalls.
Israeli Flying Aid is comprised of some 250 volunteers, most between the ages of 35-45 and employed, "but who, when needed, can leave everything and show up. They are also infected with the same bug that got me, and whenever disaster strikes in some area, their stomachs also turn and they know they must get there," Lusky says, smiling. She works on a regular basis with volunteer doctors from Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. Some of the volunteers are former army commandos while others hail from Bedouin and Arab villages.
"Our goals when we get to a disaster area are usually defined," she says. "If we are talking about a place where I can be in one place, and there is no clear and present danger to my safety, we erect a center to distribute food, a camp for medical aid, and we also provide post-traumatic treatment. But in dangerous areas, much like our mission in Myanmar after the cyclone, the goal is to move around from place to place so we can distribute food and medicine."
Lusky says she almost never leaves Israel with food and medicine in tow. "Everything is usually waiting in the country itself," she says. "The trick is to know where to buy it and to get it into the right hands." She and her staff depart Israel armed with cash from donors. Israeli Flying Aid is supported by a number of donors, most of whom prefer to remain anonymous though some are leading businessmen. One of the more prominent backers is Ilan Ben-Dov, who provided Lusky with an office inside his company's headquarters in Petah Tikva. Lusky offers a sheepish smile when she speaks of her fund-raising capabilities.
"I don't always know how to raise money, but I do what is right and then people who have heard about us and who wish to help, find us," she says. The organization's work is often lost in the media fog, partly because it is at times carried out in countries hostile to Israel. Thus, the media is forbidden from mentioning what goes on there.
"I feel as if I'm on a mission whenever I work in places where people are taught that Jews and Israelis have sharp ears and teeth and are evil," she says. "The organization's logo does indeed bear a red star of David, but we also have shirts with a picture of a globe in place of the star of David. When we operate in hostile territory, like in Muslim Kashmir, we come with a cover story. I see huge importance in our work for Israeli public relations. At the end of a mission we undertook under false pretenses in Indonesia, I gathered all the people in our camp and told them who we were. I said we were from Israel and that I hope that they learned who Israelis really are rather than what they heard from the mullahs. The adults were in shock, and they could not look us in the eyes but the children burst out in screams and embraced us. Of course, immediately after we revealed our identities we quickly left for the airport and left the country," she says.
Helping at home
As mentioned before, IDF soldiers as well as residents of the north got to know Lusky during the Second Lebanon War. Alongside providing furniture and equipment for bomb shelters as well as humanitarian aid, including post-traumatic treatment, Lusky also stuck her beak into internal IDF matters related to its conduct on the battlefield. It is in this space where we can report for the first time on Lusky's involvement in providing special medical assistance to wounded soldiers during the war. "I knew that we needed to do everything to give our army as much of an advantage over the enemy as possible," she says. "When my brother was wounded in the previous war, he almost lost his life due to a serious loss of blood. On the second day of the war, we realized that one of the main problems was getting the wounded off the battlefield, and I understood that there were soldiers who were likely to die while waiting to receive treatment because they were losing blood."
Lusky decided it was time to act. "We quickly discovered a certain method, the 'Hamkon' style bandage that enabled us to quickly stay the flow of blood in a specified area. To our surprise, we found that there is an Israeli importer who plans to introduce the method in Israel."
Lusky claimed, though, that the IDF refused to authorize the technique despite the fact it is common practice in the American, British, and Canadian armies. Lusky even managed to gather a group of donors prepared to finance the new method.
"Since I took this patent directly to the brigade commanders and I told them that the lives of the soldiers were in their hands, I asked that they do everything to save them," Lusky says. "I was happy to see that three of the six brigade commanders agreed to use the method, despite the fact there was no official IDF authorization. The others were concerned. I can say with certainty that, according to the medical reports prepared, the use of this method unequivocally saved soldiers' lives. I'm happy to say that I'm in contact with the current chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and I know that he is working to introduce this method into the IDF," Lusky says.
When she is not being summoned to provide assistance in disaster zones, Lusky spends her time helping the National Emergency Authority and Home Front Command launch an online system for real-time status reports on the home front during times of crisis. In her free time, Lusky also assists Israelis sitting in foreign jails around the world. In the time that's left, she enjoys life on the kibbutz with her son, Bar, whom she is raising as a single parent.
"Bar knows that his mother does not hold down a normal job, and he is sad whenever I head out," Lusky says. "But he understands that this is me, and he is smart enough to know that if there is a child in some part of the world who needs me more than he does at that moment, then he agrees to let me go."