Soaring above the sea of green and white canvas tents in the dusty, wind-swept Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia are a handful of Israeli flags. It is a jarring sight whose incongruity is compounded by the fact that just a stone’s throw away are the Germans.
Approximately 700,000 Albanians from Kosovo are said to have been uprooted in the past month — and Israel filled a critical void in neighboring Macedonia by setting up an army field hospital for refugees. A second medical facility followed within a week, operated by the German Red Cross.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the two nations most familiar with ethnic cleansing have felt the greatest moral obligation to act. But that they are doing it in tandem has struck an emotional chord in at least one German team member.
“This is so touching for me, as a German, to be working so closely with the Israelis,” said Joachim Gardemann, dean of the nursing school at the University of Munster in Germany. “There are so many historical, diplomatic and ethical linkages here — the Israelis as victims, the Germans as murderers — that it makes me happy for us to cooperate to help a population in danger because of ethnic conflict.”
Indeed, for many Jews, the gut reaction to Kosovo has been one of horror that the world is witnessing yet another attempt at genocide. But Israelis on the ground say they see the situation more clearly.
“That this is happening in Europe, in 1999, is unbelievable,” said Dan Engelhard, a pediatrician and army reservist who also served in Israeli field hospitals in Cambodia and Rwanda. “But you can’t compare this with the Holocaust. No way. The Nazis tried to kill every Jew. However, when we see these pictures of Albanians forced out of their homes and into trains, it certainly reminds us of the Holocaust.”
Imbued with such memories, Israeli rapid reaction to crisis has become a niche of sorts.
In addition to setting up hospitals in Cambodia in 1979 and Rwanda in 1994, Israel sent a rescue team to Kenya after the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last year.
Gardemann, who proudly displays a red Star of David pin given him by his Israeli colleagues, touts them as “world champions” of army field hospitals.
But that is a dubious distinction, indeed. It is a specialty borne out of necessity, say the Israelis, what with so many wars and grisly terrorist acts in the Jewish state’s 51 years of existence.
“One of the greatest things about Israeli society is our ability to improvise and be creative,” said Ron Maor, a 14-year army surgeon who also served in Nairobi. “If something urgent needs to be done, we don’t need a lot of bureaucracy to do it. For a country almost continuously at war, we can’t afford the luxury of being surprised or caught unprepared for any mission.”
By any yardstick, the Israeli reaction to Kosovo was lightning quick. On March 24, NATO launched its bombardment of Yugoslavia — a federation of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. It was aimed at curbing the repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province. In response, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accelerated the emptying of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants had been Albanian. The vast majority of them are Moslem, in contrast with the mostly Orthodox Serbs.
Within days of the air assault, Albanians were on the move en masse, heading mostly south and southwest into the impoverished countries of Macedonia and Albania.
Macedonia, a nation of 2 million, now wheezes under the strain of more than 200,000 refugees, while Albania’s more than 3 million citizens, the poorest in Europe, cope with 400,000 refugees.
It wasn’t long before the flow overwhelmed local authorities and international relief agencies. They appealed for help.
On April 4, the Israeli Cabinet made a snap decision to contribute a field hospital for two weeks, at a cost of roughly $1.3 million.
Two officials from the Israeli Embassy in Athens were dispatched north to Macedonia to lay the groundwork. The next day, the Macedonian officials advised them to set up shop at Stenkovec — 10 miles north of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, but within sight of Kosovo’s snow-capped Shara Mountain range, located 20 miles farther north.
At that time, however, the camp housed only 2,000 refugees. So the Israelis were a bit mystified.
“They assured us that within a week, there would be 30,000 refugees,” said Jacob Dayan, one of the two Israeli coordinators and the No. 2 at the Athens embassy. “But just two or three days later, we were already up to 30,000.”
With a site secured, Dayan gave the thumbs-up to the Israeli Defense Forces. Six IDF cargo airplanes were soon airborne, laden with pieces of the hospital, plus blankets and tents. It arrived on April 6, and the entire Israeli contingent of 80 — including doctors, nurses and medics; some of them army staff, others reserves — worked feverishly through the night, erecting the hospital.
By 2 p.m. the next day, they were open for business.
Working round-the-clock, the Israelis treat about 200 patients a day, including refugees bused in from the 10 refugee camps scattered around Macedonia.
And while the Stenkovec camp itself is wracked with commotion, sunrise to sunset, the hospital compound, set on the camp’s western edge, is almost surreal in its order and tranquillity. Under its drab-green tents, the setting is straight out of the television series “M*A*S*H.”
There is room for 100 beds, and each tent serves a special purpose — emergency room, surgery, X-rays, laboratory, etc. What they lack, the Israelis say, is medicine and facilities to treat chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, epilepsy and diabetes.
But the tent drawing the most attention — including a steady stream of journalists from around the world — is the pediatric ward. As of Sunday, the Israeli team had already delivered 11 babies. Among them is 1-week-old Sara Berisha, whose Albanian Moslem mother gave her a Jewish name out of gratitude to her Israeli doctors.
But that celebration was fleeting. On April 15, twin 3-month-old boys arrived in the camp, suffering severe malnutrition and respiratory infection. Serb forces had flushed them from their homes two weeks earlier, leaving their parents no choice but to hide in Kosovo’s hills. Lacking milk, they were fed only tea and cookies.
They now lie in an Israeli army incubator in critical condition. But they weigh less than when they were born, and their tiny chests heave uncontrollably.
Monitoring their condition is Yael Goldman, a 20-year-old army medic. She also delivered Sara Berisha.
“In Israel, we feel helpless watching this on television,” said Goldman, who is on her first mission abroad. “Jews have been through so much hatred, it’s difficult to watch it happening to others. So when I was given an opportunity to help, I felt I had to do something.”
But there’s just so much she and her colleagues can do. At the Stenkovec camp, busloads of hungry, traumatized Albanians arrive daily. The food line is never less than hundreds deep. Scores of refugees crowd the various message boards, desperate for information on missing relatives.
Making matters worse, there are no portable toilets, only holed-out wood planks across large pits; the scent of human waste pervades the camp. In a murky stream nearby, men bathe, kids swim and women wash clothes.
For now, the weather is still cool, with intermittent rain and sunshine. But as the temperature warms, there will likely be epidemics such as measles, polio and dysentery, said pediatrician Engelhard, a professor at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.
Macedonian officials and relief agencies have been slow to provide good sanitation and immunization; without it, children in particular are vulnerable to diarrhea, vomiting, and skin infections, he said.
But the Israelis won’t be around to see it. Their two-week mandate expires soon, and they were expected to ship out Thursday.
However, they leave knowing the Kosovo refugees are in good hands — the Germans and a newly arrived team
from Taiwan will take over hospital care.
“These refugees are luckier than my grandparents were in Poland and Hungary during the war,” said Maor, the army surgeon. “When they were thrown into ghettoes, no one cared. At least for the Albanians, there’s an international effort to help them.”