Shalom Life | January 04, 2016

Three Years Since IDF Aid Mission to Haiti

Delegation played active role in the rescue effort

By: Yair Barzilai

Published: January 22nd, 2013 in News » Israel

On January 15, 2010, an IDF aid delegation landed in disaster-stricken Haiti.

Three days earlier, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake had shaken the nation. In the following weeks, the initial 60-second quake, which produced the principal damage and chaos, was followed by a multitude of aftershocks, causing heavy civilian losses and creating a devastating humanitarian crisis. The numbers were frightening: over 300,000 dead – the second-deadliest earthquake in history – another 300,000 injured and over a million left homeless.

In response to the disaster, the IDF sprung into action, volunteering to aid in the search and rescue efforts and to provide medical care. It quickly carried out an initial assessment and assembled a team of search, rescue and medical emergency personnel to travel to Haiti, equipped with the necessary tools.

"I was called up shortly after the news broke and was asked if I would like to be part of the delegation," recalled Maj. Galit Bidner, head of medical preparedness for the Home Front Command. "I didn't have to think about it. This was an easy decision; I agreed immediately."

After uncertainties in airport accessibility and delays in flight schedules, the team landed at Port-au-Prince's airport. Nothing could prepare them for what they were about to witness.

"On the way there, imagination and facts competed one against the other in painting a catastrophic picture in my head – information we received about what had happened there, the high death toll, along with the imagination of what I would see," recalled Lt. Col. Golan Vach, a rescue battalion commander in the Home Front Command and a member of the delegation. "I knew we were going to an awful place, and so it was."

Maj. Zohar Moshe, the head of the IDF delegation's search and rescue team, recounted that the reality was even more horrific than he had imagined. "I had been part of several rescue delegations, so I thought I was ready for the sights we were about to witness," he said. "And yet once we arrived there, I was shocked. It was a level of damage that is hard to describe in words."

Following its arrival, the 220-person IDF delegation was split into two: a search and rescue team and a medical team. While the former worked around the clock to save lives from within the ruins, the latter set up a state-of-the-art field hospital within a few hours and then began treating injured and sick citizens. The medical team treated 1,100 patients, performed over 300 critical surgeries and delivered 16 babies.

While the language barrier posed a challenge to the delegation, explained Maj. Bidner, its members managed to communicate through universal body language and finger gestures. They also distributed toys and balloons to the children as a way to increase their morale and to bridge the cultural and linguistic differences.

The IDF delegation to Haiti continued a long tradition of participation in aid efforts abroad. In the past, the IDF's Search and Rescue Unit has taken part in life-saving efforts following natural disasters in Mexico (1985), Armenia (1988), Greece (1999), Turkey (1999), Egypt (2004), Kenya (2006), and Japan (2011).

"The State of Israel and the IDF stand ready to assist everywhere around the globe when called upon – regardless of race, religion or gender," concluded Maj. Zohar Moshe.

The IDF delegation's ceaseless efforts in aiding the Haitian community received widespread international acclaim. ""I want to express my admiration for you," Adm. (****) Michael Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, told members of the delegation after their return to Israel. "You represent the hope within the heavy tragedy the residents of Haiti had to live through. You created hope and a future for those people, and humanity is proud of you."
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