War brought home to hospital in Israel

July 27, 2006|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

SAFED, Israel -- In Sieff Government Hospital, in the orthopedic ward, Room 105, Shimon Zarada was looking yesterday at the bandage wrapped around his grossly swollen right hand. The bandage was leaking something yellow.

He works as a garbage collector in Kiryat Shmona, on Israel's border with Lebanon and is one of the civilian casualties of the latest fighting, albeit a lucky one.

Used to the thunder of an Israeli artillery battery on the outskirts of town firing around the clock, he didn't hear a rocket being fired from Lebanon. The blast threw him hard against his truck.

Marsin Suleiman, in Room 109, heard the loud explosion when another rocket fell near her family's home in Gush Halev. She and her mother screamed, about the time the windows shattered and shrapnel tore into her right foot.

Safed is eight miles south of Lebanon, making this the country's most northern hospital and, in the current fighting, the most exposed.

Earlier this week, a rocket landed on the edge of the hospital grounds, setting the sun-baked scrub on fire. A few days earlier, shortly before midnight, a rocket that landed near the hospital laundry shattered the glass wall of the main entrance. Hot breezes pass through the empty window frames. Not all the shards have been swept up.

"Having to move patients in the middle of the night from one place to another - which we did - I think it changed the feeling of everyone here," said Lotty Mehler, head of the physical therapy department. "You usually feel secure when you're working in a hospital. But that's not the situation now."

When the air raid sirens sounded yesterday, Mehler along with several nurses walked briskly into a short windowless corridor. Rocket fire has so far destroyed seven buildings in town, according to the municipality.

No one in the windowless corridor pretended to study the charts in their hands. The sirens give a warning time of 20 to 30 seconds, authorities say.

After perhaps a minute, the nurses returned to work.

The hospital has set aside a room in the children's ward for nurses and doctors to talk about their anxieties. A nurse commutes from even closer to the border, leaving her infant there.

The chief emergency room physician commutes from Haifa, wondering about the safety of his home. Another doctor has a 32-year-old son flying fighter jets over Lebanon, a second son in the infantry - "but in the south."

A staff psychologist remembers being told by her father, when she was 12, that by the time she served in the army, there would be no more wars. She appears now to be in her late 40s.

They are supposed to be used to this. The government opened the hospital's main building in 1973 before construction was complete, to take in casualties during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

"We have rockets all around," Mehler said evenly. "The hospital is in danger. Also, people in the city are in danger. It's different this time. The general feeling is different."

When the most recent fighting began, the hospital discharged every patient except those needing emergency care. Doctors and nurses moved the neonatal clinic to a lower floor, to protect it from rockets. Workers cleared a basement storage room, installed oxygen lines and electrical connections, in case of an overflow of patients.

Moshe Hemo was in Room 258, surgery department. A radioman and gun loader in an Israeli army tank, he had arrived Monday by ambulance from the worst fighting to date, in the Lebanese hilltop town of Bint Jbail.

At least nine Israeli soldiers were killed there yesterday in house-to-house fighting that is said to involve thousands of Israeli troops, and at least 22 were wounded, according to Israeli reports.

Doctors and nurses were half-expecting, half-dreading the arrival of the wounded. Most of the injured were taken by helicopter to a medical center in Haifa.

Hemo's tank crew, on Monday, when the battle began, had just rescued three wounded soldiers, pulling them inside to join the crew of five. The tank turned and began driving south. As it climbed an incline, a mortar round struck, and an anti-tank missile penetrated the armor, he said.

"I can't find the words to describe it," Hemo said. "It was absolutely crazy. There were mortar rounds from all directions, rockets."

The 21-year-old radioman depended on orders from the tank commander - "short words, exactly what to do, very technical," Hemo said - but the commander was killed.

Hemo was wounded by shrapnel in the face, abdomen and legs, and was slightly burned. "The minute the tank was hit, all the systems stopped. We couldn't broadcast," he said.

Other tank crews understood what had happened.

"They came within minutes," Hemo said. One of the wounded infantrymen was lifted out; the other infantrymen, he said, clambered out with help and the surviving four tank crew members followed.

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