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Secretary-General Ban ki-moon (r.) and Bill Clinton, his special envoy to Haiti, brief the media on the situation there. Photo by George Baumgarten.

Touching Scenes as Hospital Saves Lives in Haiti; U.N. Officials Praise Israeli Effort

By George Baumgarten, United Nation's Correspondent for the Winnipeg Jewish Review, May 16, 2010

The great tremor (later rated at 7.0 on the Richter Scale) hit Port-au-Prince at 4:53 PM on January 12. Within days, aid missions from around the world, and whole flotillas of ships and planes were headed toward the stricken city. But few could match the speed and scope of the effort mounted by Israel. And few have garnered the praise…most rare at the U.N. for an Israeli effort, especially from its very highest officials.

By Thursday evening, January 14, Israel time, the Israel medical mission for Haiti was ready to depart. It consisted of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets and 220 medical personnel, to fly directly to the stricken Haitian capital and operate a field hospital built by the Norwegians.

We journalists began to get reports and briefings, the very next day, a scant 15 hours or so after the earthquake struck. The Secretary-General spoke to us in the Secretariat lobby, briefing us on the situation. There were scores of U.N. personnel missing, especially in the collapse of their headquarters at the Roi Christophe Hotel. The final tally would be 101 lost, the greatest single day’s loss of personnel in the U.N.’s history. They included one staffer well known to this correspondent. A strikingly beautiful woman of just 31 from Quebec City, she had accepted a two-year assignment as spokesperson for MINUSTAH (the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti).  

A few days after the earthquake, we began to get live reports from the temporary U.N. headquarters (located at the airport), by videophone. It was revealed that Port-au-Prince was a city of some 2,000,000 people, on or near a known fault line, with absolutely no building codes whatsoever. But already then there were reports of the incredible work and often-miraculous surgeries done by Israeli doctors in their temporary field hospital, and of surgeons, nurses and their efforts working around the clock to save lives, many, many of them young children.

Needless to say, there were frightful numbers of amputations, crush wounds and other heartbreaking cases. But there were occasional miracles—children’s legs saved from amputation, adults kept alive despite horrible chest injuries, and other stories far too numerous to retell.

Two weeks later, just as the Israeli medical team was about to depart for home, Secretary-General Ban made a lightning visit to Port-au-Prince, to see for himself the suffering, heartbreak and salvation. I asked Ban what he thought of--or had heard about—the Israeli hospital operation. He told me, movingly, that

“It is quite unique that the Israeli government had dispatched this medical team to the disaster area—that we very much appreciate. This is a demonstration of their commitment to humanity”.

Such praise has been rare from the U.N., which often seems bent on accusing the Jewish state of deeds ranging from oppression to war crimes (Although there are various Jewish senior officials—of all nationalities. And former Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman was elected a few years ago as a Vice-President of the General Assembly—the first Israeli so elected since Abba Eban in 1952.).

The now-renowned Israeli field hospital operation in Port-au-Prince lasted a scant two weeks. At the end of that period, the Israeli medical team departed, leaving the operation of the facility to others. They did, however, take with them several “guests”:   six Haitian children were reported to have been taken back to Israel, for highly-specialized treatment by the organization “Save A Child’s Heart”, based at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, outside Tel Aviv.

Fully three months after the disaster, Ban ki-moon’s deputy, Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania, went to see for herself the scope of the damage, and the extent of the recovery so far. Migiro, a highly experienced and articulate former Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs, had been picked by Mr. Ban to be his second-in-command. She said of the Israeli hospital

“…the existence of this hospital was really, really highly appreciated. And I think we saw that maybe a kid or two were named after…you know, recognizing the role of this hospital. I think that one of the babies was called “Israel’, in recognition of this”.

The U.N.’s Department of Public Information (DPI, whose first chief was a Chilean Jew, Benjamin Cohen) even featured the Israeli medical team, in a Haiti program on its television station (UNTV), noting that “…five patients died in the hospital, but—as a sign of hope—three new babies were born”.

GEORGE BAUMGARTEN has been an accredited correspondent at the United Nations for over ten years, and has served as Treasurer of the U.N. Correspondents’ Association. A former travel agent, he has visited 133 countries outside the United States, and has personally survived—among other “episodes”—police riots in Chicago, an earthquake in Pago Pago, and a terrorist bombing in Manila. He lives in New York City.

© 2010 George Alan Baumgarten

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