Despite tensions, Israeli doctors cooperate with MSF in Congo


Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo – Having never visited Africa, Israeli burn specialist Dr. Eyal Winkler was apprehensive about dealing with Congolese authorities on the aid mission of four experts, which he led this week to South Kivu. The locals turned out to be good hosts – but working with other Western volunteers proved more complicated.

By Cnaan Liphshiz

I came to save lives, but also because its important to me to show that Israel is not the Flotilla Country that it is painted out to be, said Winkler, deputy director of the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Sheba Medical Center.

On Tuesday Winkler arrived at the city of Uvira to treat 50 people who were severely burnt in a fire which claimed more than 230 lives in the nearby village of Sange, where an oil truck had overturned and caught fire. He was accompanied by Drs. Shmuel Kalazkin, Gil Gra and Ariel Tessone, and nurse Noa Anastasia Ouchakova. They were the first team of specialists to treat the injured.

Accompanied by Daniel Saada, Israels ambassador to Congo, and operating as an official delegation of the Israeli foreign ministries Mashav aid agency, the team crossed remote border crossings with ease and was visited by South Kivus governor, Jean-Claude Kibala. The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, telephoned the delegation to thank them.

But the relationship with the volunteers of Medecins Sans Frontieres Netherlands, who arrived at Uvira the previous week, began with a sour note, according to Winkler and the other Israeli specialists.

Winkler said he got the impression that some volunteers for MSF – which has frequently accused Israel of war crimes and obstructing medical care for Palestinians – did not want to be around the Israelis.

This is the reality today: Doctors from international aid organizations treat a delegation of volunteer Israeli doctors to Congo as though we were occupiers, Winkler told Nati Harush, the foreign ministries deputy chief security officer who accompanied the delegation.

Inevitably, perhaps, this lead the eight Israelis seated around the breakfast table to engage in one of the favorite national pastimes in their homeland: Arguing loudly about politics. Some of the participants in this political discussion surprisingly, the first to break out since the group left for Africa 72 hours earlier blamed the occupation for the perceived situation. Others said it was unrelated.

This is an emotional time, and there are obvious political sensitivities, Dr. Geert Morren, a doctor from Belgium who arrived at Uvira with MSF Netherlands, said after meeting the Israeli delegation. MSF has accused Israel of devastating disregard for civilians during its 2009 Gaza invasion.

"Unfortunately, it’s true. Some people from international aid organizations here are not too friendly to Israelis," said Gila Garaway, an American training specialist who made aliyah to Israel in 1993 before leaving for Congo. She has worked in cooperation with the Israeli foreign minister on various aid projects in the past.

Morren and the other MSF team members refused to be interviewed about their cooperation with the Israelis, explaining they needed authorization from the main office. Morren said he thought it was not alright for journalists who came to see the Israeli delegation at Uvira to be asking questions in such a way.

When the Israeli doctors told him that they felt as though an MSF anesthesiologist from Canada would not stay in the same room with them, he explained she had not been feeling well.

Despite the initial tense atmosphere, The Israeli doctors forged a partnership with one of the 10-odd MSF volunteers working in Uvira and Sange.

Morren, a surgeon, stayed with the Israeli team the first and second day. Together they completed a total of five complicated operations requiring extensive skin grafting. The Israeli team was wearing heavy protective gear for fear of contracting HIV and other diseases in the stifling heat of a makeshift operation tent. After consulting with the local Congolese doctors, they took off some layers, realizing risk was lower than they initially assessed.

Politics is only politics, and you have to know how to make it melt away, Winkler said. Geert helped us a lot at the hospital – he took over communicating with patients and with hospital authorities and did stuff for us that we could never have done ourselves.