Courage under fire
by Roland Huguenin
Why would anyone want to become an ambulance driver in a potentially
violent situation? Why would young people risk their lives to
save a wounded person? As violence sweeps the Palestinian territories,
the story of Khaldun and Boaz exemplifies the spirit of total
commitment to a humanitarian ideal.
people in Jerusalem will remember Friday, 29 September 2000
as a dramatic setback to the Middle East peace process embarked
on seven years ago. But young ambulance drivers Khaldun and
Boaz will probably come to think of it as the day when their
belief in the fundamental principles of humanity and neutrality
were tested under fire.
On that day, violent clashes in old Jerusalem claimed the lives
of six Palestinian youths and left another 150 injured. It took
45 minutes for the ambulances to gain access to the site because
the gates were blocked by the security forces. In this highly
volatile atmosphere, ambulances and medical teams started to
treat the wounded and to organize their transfer to hospitals.
Khaldun, head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) emergency
medical services, was active on the spot along with many volunteers
evacuating and assisting the wounded. At around 2p.m., he noticed
that angry Palestinian youths were about to throw stones at
an ambulance of the Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David -
MDA) at the intersection leading to the Mount of Olives. His
instinctive reaction was to rush to protect his Israeli counterparts
sitting in the back of the vehicle. To do so, he had to throw
himself physically in front of them, at risk of being hit by
the stones himself.
A particularly worrying feature of the violence was the extent
to which the humanitarian emblems were ignored or even targeted
on both sides. The list of casualties among ambulance staff
and the number of ambulances damaged or destroyed is testament
to this. Between 29 September and 19 November 2000, 217 Palestinians
were killed and 8,784 wounded. Eleven PRCS mobile first-aid
posts were deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. Among the dead
was PRCS ambulance driver, Mr. Bassam Balbeisi, father of
12 children, who was shot in the Gaza Strip while trying to
perform a medical evacuation. A further 64 emergency medical
technicians were injured and 42 PRCS ambulances damaged by
On the Israeli side, during the same period, 15 people died
and several hundred were wounded. Eleven regional MDA stations
were involved in evacuating the wounded. As with the PRCS,
the MDA encountered difficulties in carrying out its humanitarian
tasks. In the thick of the fighting, 36 MDA ambulances were
burned, vandalized or stoned; 5 ambulance staff sustained
||Boaz, a member of
the MDA, who was behind the steering wheel of the ambulance,
was slightly hurt on the hand. "There was nothing I could do,"
he says. "Suddenly my ambulance was surrounded by an angry crowd
wielding stones." The young volunteers eventually got away safely,
although they had to abandon the ambulance, which was later
torched by the crowd. The incident severely tested Boaz's humanitarianidealism:
"I thought the ambulance was untouchable, a sort of sacred symbol
that all people would respect."
The burnt-out shell of the ambulance still full of stones was
a stark reminder that this was not the case, as were the many
other casualties amongst the dozens of ambulance staff and ambulances
of the PRCS and the MDA (see box), both of which were targeted
by bullets or stones in the ensuing weeks of clashes. Khaldun
and Boaz come from "opposite sides of the fence", but they had
both been attending special training courses for ambulance drivers
organized jointly by the MDA and the PRCS. They had got to know
each other and found that they shared the same ideals and dedication.
They both know that, whatever the circumstances, there is nothing
to gain by destroying an ambulance. For the person who fires
the bullet or throws the stone may one day find that his or
her own life depends on one.
On the spot
During the violent clashes between Palestinian protesters
and Israeli security forces in Jerusalem, the West Bank and
Gaza in September and October 2000, PRCS volunteers had to
deal with a record number of injuries. Were it not for the
new methods of disaster preparedness and emergency response
developed by the PRCS in collaboration with the ICRC and the
Federation following the first intifada (uprising), local
hospitals would have been completely overwhelmed.
It was Martin Hahn, a paramedic with the ICRC, who in 1996
suggested introducing the PRCS's emergency medical services
to a system used in his home country, Germany. The system
involves mobile first-aid posts, which are packed into two
large aluminium containers and transported in a regular ambulance.
The larger container holds such basic equipment as a tent,
stretchers, mattresses, blankets, a collapsible water container,
a foldable table, loudspeakers, an emergency light system,
an electrical generator, reflecting vests, and splints to
fix broken limbs. The smaller container has a selection of
basic first-aid materials, including medicines, disposable
syringes and needles, minor surgery kits, examination kits,
bandages and gauze, and infusion sets, able to meet the needs
of a regular flow of patients for six hours before having
to be replenished.
The first-aid posts are designed to be set up under cover,
if available, or in a tent, at a safe distance but within
easy reach of the emergency area where the injuries are most
likely to occur. Their purpose is to enable injuries to be
treated on the spot, thus avoiding prolonged transportation
by road and, most importantly, to prevent hospital emergency
wards from becoming swamped with casualties all arriving at
the same time. Trained volunteers are able to assess the severity
of the injuries, apply the appropriate first aid and provide
immediate relief to the wounded.
From 1996, a PRCS programme for the training of volunteers
and first-aiders in life-saving techniques has been supported
by the ICRC; hundreds of young volunteers have completed the
course. Clearly, the number of fatalities would have been
even higher, were it not for the efficient and dedicated action
of these young volunteers.
Roland Huguenin is head of the ICRC's regional
promotion office in Cairo.
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