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In an ICU on the Israel-Syria border, ‘we’re seeing war on these kids’

In ways no one wants to talk about, child victims have been extricated from Syria’s combat zone and transported to Israeli emergency rooms.

NAHARIYA, Israel — On Thursday, four out of six beds in the pediatric intensive care unit at the Western Galilee Hospital were filled.

In one bed was an 8-year-old Ethiopian boy who’d been mauled by a hyena, half his head caught in the animal’s jaws. After languishing for five months in an Addis Ababa facility with his skull exposed, an American volunteer with a Jewish philanthropy secured the boy’s transfer to Israel.

Nearby, a 12-year-old girl lay almost unresponsive. She was gaunt and gray beneath the thin sheet that covered her. To help her cope with postoperative pain — her back and torso had been mangled by an explosion — she was attached to a morphine drip.

On the other side of the room an elevated crib enclosed a 3-year-old girl who wailed and whimpered for her mother. A nurse ran her hands through the girl’s hair to try to soothe her, but there was no quieting.

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Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama.

It may sound like this ward belongs in Dante’s Purgatorio, but in fact, a half-hour south of Israel’s northern border, it is part of a battlefield that’s destroying Syria.

“We are seeing shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds, burns. We’re seeing war on these kids,” said Dr. Zeev Zonis, the tall, bear-like man who heads the ward. The Red Cross regularly visits the patients, who are considered “protected persons.”

Near the unit’s fourth bed, a cheerful 13-year-old girl dressed entirely in pink and sporting a long braid sat in a wheelchair. Her face was deeply scarred and her legs extended fully before her, a spindly metal structure emerging from her right thigh.

After 45 days of treatment and over a dozen surgical interventions, Thursday was the first time she’d been allowed to leave the closed ward and go to the hospital’s classroom. She was ecstatic; she spent her first day in class playing computer games.

Asked when she last attended school, the girl answered that where she lives, “we haven’t had school in a long time.”

The three girls here are all victims of the Syrian civil war. In ways no one wants to talk about, they were extricated from the combat zone and transported to Israeli emergency rooms.

The Israeli army locates critically wounded victims in Syria, carries them to Israeli hospitals and, at the end of treatment, takes them back. More than 100 Syrians have been treated in Israel, 41 of them at this hospital in the beachside town of Nahariya.

Syria’s renowned in the Middle East for the excellence of its doctors and its hospitals. But the civil war has disrupted the normal routes for medical supplies, and doctors are risking their lives to provide what limited care they can.

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“The problem is not just along the border,” said Alexis Heeb, a Red Cross spokesman in Geneva. “We are seeing hospitals severely lacking supplies, empty medical stocks, and conditions of extreme danger for the travel of doctors from one place to the other.”

It may not seem unlikely for neighboring nations to help one another in an hour of need, but Israel and Syria have been in a formal state of war since 1948. Syrian citizens are not permitted entry into Israel, and Israelis are not allowed to enter Syria. Four months ago,GlobalPost revealed that Israeli military personnel were operating on Syrian territory. 

The army, which guards Syrian patients in adult wards, does not allow media coverage of Syrian citizens being treated at Israeli hospitals. Last week, GlobalPost was allowed an exclusive hour-long visit to the pediatric ICU by hospital staff, on the condition that none of the children’s names or hometowns would be identified.

The 3-year-old, B., a pale pink wound crossing her face, had been crying out and calling for her mother continuously since her arrival five days earlier. Zonis reported that she’d been crying when he arrived at the unit at 6:45 Thursday morning; at a quarter to 12, she was still calling for her mother.

“She came here with severe burns,” Zonis said. “She was totally black, as if a Molotov cocktail had exploded and burnt her and stuck to her face. She lost consciousness and arrived ventilated and sedated.”

B.’s mother and aunt were wounded in the same incident that scorched the toddler’s face. Her mother is being treated at another Israeli hospital, closer to the border but lacking a pediatric ICU. Her aunt was blinded by the blast — no one knows for sure what happened — and suffered a brain hemorrhage, according to hospital officialsShe lay in the same hospital as her niece, immobilized.

When B. arrived at the ICU, no one knew her name. The first time she spoke any words — while being fed soup, she asked for some bread — the hospital’s director, Dr. Masad Barhoum, finally exhaled. “No one here could rest while she just cried,” Haggai Einav, the hospital’s spokesman, said.

The 12-year-old, G., whose left leg may never move again, also arrived alone, after having undergone initial surgery in Syria.

“Think of the trauma for a kid, like when there’s a car crash,” Zonis said. “There’s the shock, the pain, the fear, being in a place they don’t know — it all causes terrible anxiety. For these kids, it is immeasurably worse. It’s immeasurable. Different country, different language. Who knows.”

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The last thing A., the 13-year-old, remembers from Syria is going to the supermarket with her father and her brother. “We went shopping for food and then this happened,” she said in a wisp of a voice. “Dad was OK, and my brother was wounded in his arm.”

The next thing she remembers is waking up from surgery, when her aunt told her she was in Israel.

Was she afraid? “No.”

Almost recovered, A. can’t wait to get back home. Dr. Yoav Hoffman, another doctor on the ward, predicts she “will absolutely be able to walk again. No doubt!”

Her aunt, who accompanied A. to Israel, is being taught how to remove the rods and screws that currently stick out of her niece’s immobilized leg. “We know what conditions are like in the battlefield hospitals,” Hoffman said. “They could take care of this. But the aunt will manage fine.”

A’s aunt has not been off the hospital grounds since her arrival. “I’ve been outside of the ward once or twice,” she said. Zonis explained that “she’s become part of our team,” helping out with the two Syrian girls who are alone, too.

“I didn’t care where I was going,” A.’s aunt said. “I just wanted to be with my niece. That was the only thing I could think of.

“I wish I could take pictures of this,” she said, waving her arm around the ward, “but no one outside the immediate family can know. Only my brother knows where we are.” As a Syrian, it’s a grave risk for A.’s aunt simply to have been in the country.

Did she ever in her life think she’d find herself in Israel? A cascade of laughter answers the question.

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A.’s aunt is busy preparing for their return home, “inshallah  (God willing) next week. She asks a nurse for some scissors. The nurse hands her surgical cutters and points quizzically at an overstuffed plastic bag. The two women chuckle. A.’s aunt empties the bag of clothes and methodically snips away the tags that might betray their Israeli origins.

Three-year-old B. was reunited with her mother and repatriated Thursday evening.

GlobalPost in-depth: Inside Syria