IDF paramedic honored for saving Syrians’ lives

Soldier treating victims of civil war wins president’s award, says she hopes history books will remember her work

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF paramedic St.-Sgt. Noga Erez, who treats Syrians wounded in the country's civil war in an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (IDF YouTube channel)
IDF paramedic St.-Sgt. Noga Erez, who treats Syrians wounded in the country's civil war in an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (IDF YouTube channel)

A young IDF paramedic was honored this week for her work in the Israeli field hospital in the Golan Heights, where Syrians wounded in the country’s brutal civil war are brought for treatment.

The paramedic, St.-Sgt. Noga Erez, was given the President’s Award for Excellence by President Shimon Peres at an event held in honor of outstanding soldiers on Tuesday, Israel’s 66th Independence Day.

In a video produced by the IDF for the occasion, Erez, an amateur seamstress when off-duty and a medical worker responsible for saving lives when on base, can be seen telling her story — and that of the wounded Syrians she treated at the hospital.

“His name was Tariq. He was 25 years old, and they shot him in both legs,” she said of one of her patients, with whom she developed a tentative friendship. “He came to Israel leaving behind his wife and a four-month-old daughter.”

Erez described how, on the way to the field hospital, she held Tariq’s hand “to support him” after giving him painkillers, “the way you hold the hand of a woman giving birth.”

He wouldn’t stop apologizing for squeezing her fingers, the young paramedic said.

Then, when he had calmed down a bit, he told her his story.

“He began to cry and said how happy he was that we were treating him,” Erez recalled.

After his injuries were treated by the Israeli medical team, Tariq was transported back to the border. Before returning to his home country, where he had left his family behind, he told Erez that he hoped they would meet again.

“He invited me to drink coffee with him, and he said that we would sit and talk about our experiences,” Erez said, adding that while it wasn’t easy to let go, it was necessary for the rescue work to go on.

“We don’t think about what may happen to them when they return,” she admitted. “Because if I were to think about what may happen to every person after we treat them, I wouldn’t be able to continue. But what can I say? That I won’t treat someone because when he returns home he may die? You can’t allow yourself to think ‘What if?’.”

Communicating with the patients also wasn’t easy, Erez said.

“In the first few months, there was a language barrier, because I didn’t know Arabic,” she said.

But some of the patients — three English teachers, she said — knew enough English to communicate with the Israeli soldiers who were treating them. Erez learned some Arabic from them, scrupulously writing down words and phrases phonetically.

Now, she said, she can hold a basic conversation in Arabic — sometimes with the help of hand gestures.

“In the end, we work it out and understand each other,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the experience “shows that we are all human.” She added that the hospital, where soldiers like her feel they are “making history,” should also serve as an example for future generations.

“Maybe our grandchildren will learn in school that the Israel Defense Forces treated the wounded in the Syrian civil war,” she said. “And then my grandchildren will boast that I was there.”

The IDF built a field hospital in the Golan Heights last year, after more and more Syrians injured in the conflict to the north began heading to the Israeli border in search of treatment for their wounds. Dozens were evacuated by Israeli security forces to Safed’s nearby Sieff Hospital, but the influx of victims led to the creation of a dedicated military facility equipped to treat a variety of injuries.

When it was first built, the existence of the hospital was kept secret, even as it treated hundreds of Syrian citizens.

Erez said that during her first four months in the hospital, “everything was secret.”

“The only thing I remember them telling me was, ‘You don’t know where you’ve arrived, you don’t know what experiences you’re going to have here.”

For Erez, serving in the hospital turned out to be an opportunity to do things she’d never dreamed she’d do.

“When you say ‘Syria,’ you think of war,” she said. “Sometimes there are reports of fighting in the villages, so we prepare to receive the injured. It’s very dynamic, everything can change from one moment to the next.”

Erez said she not only treats patients in the hospital itself, but also helps to transport them from the border to the facility by ambulance.

“When I’m in the ambulance, I’m the senior medical authority,” she said. “I can’t panic.”

Then, in February, the IDF allowed civilian cameras into the facility, exposing it to the public.

The hospital, staffed by soldiers in uniform, includes an emergency room, an intensive care unit, an operating theater, a mobile laboratory, a pharmacy and an x-ray facility. It treats Syrian patients who cross the border regardless of creed — or of where their loyalties lie. IDF medical teams deployed in the Golan Heights give them preliminary treatment. Those who are well enough are sent back across the border, and those who require further treatment are evacuated to the military hospital, a field commander at the facility told Channel 2 earlier this year. In this way, the hospital treats about a hundred Syrians per month.

Political analyst Ehud Ya’ari said in February that this hospital is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at the many connections Israel has forged across the border and the efforts it has made to prevent clashes in which al-Qaeda-linked forces are involved — clashes that have been taking place just over the border from the field hospital — from spilling over into Israel.

The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful calls for reform in March 2011 and escalated into armed conflict in response to a military crackdown. It has since transformed into a regional proxy war with Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting opposing sides, and has claimed the lives of over 130,000 people so far.

Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have infiltrated the opposition rebels, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion against Assad and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis brought on by the conflict.

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