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Caring for civilians caught up in war – the story of an ambulanceman in Sderot

22-09-2009 Feature

Avraham is an ambulanceman with the Magen David Adom in Sderot, an Israeli town near the Gaza Strip. He sometimes transports seriously ill Palestinians to hospital who cannot obtain the necessary treatment in Gaza. He believes that hoping is not enough; he says you have to act, because that is what gives life meaning.

  ©Magen David Adom    
Avraham Tiger    
  ©ICRC /A. Gutman / il-e-00442    
Sderot, May 2007. Ambulances of the Magen David Adom evacuating victims of a bombing.    

Avraham Tiger is the chief paramedic at an ambulance station of the Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of a National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society) in Sderot, a town of about 30,000 people situated only a few kilometres from Gaza. The people of Sderot have had to endure rocket attacks almost daily for a number of years. During the Gaza crisis last winter, up to 80 rockets sometimes fell on the town in a single day. Alarms and sirens went off at every hour of the day and night, prompting people to run for cover. There are bomb shelters everywhere – even at bus stops. The situation is much quieter now, although rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has not completely stopped.

After nine years on the job, Avraham has seen a bit of everything – including all the horror that war can inflict on civilians. " One of the worst days was when we were called out to a place that had just been struck by mortar shells, " said Avraham. " As it turned out, it was a friend of mine who had been hit. But there was nothing I could do to help him – he was killed instantly. "

A special concern of his is how children – his own and others – cope with the stress and trauma of war. " There is a lot of violence in this town. As a result of the tense situation, some kids skip school. Lots of them feel that their parents cannot protect them. The fear is palpable. My own children still sleep on mattresses in the room that I think is the safest in the house. They prefer to sleep there, even though it is very quiet now – and I prefer it, too. " One time, a rocket landed near the porch of his house – afterwards he and his four children planted a bougainvillea where it struck. " I try to give the childr en a sense of being safe. They should be able to feel that they have a normal life. "

As the attacks have abated, ambulance work has become more or less routine again, with the usual calls to respond to car accidents, heart attacks and the like. There is, however, one special task that Avraham still carries out whenever necessary: picking up seriously ill patients from Gaza who require specialized medical care available only outside the Strip. " We often help transfer newborn babies, children with cancer or patients from intensive care units to hospitals outside Gaza – it is a job like any other for me, " he said. The so-called " back-to-back " ambulance operations, in which Palestinian ambulance crews from Gaza cooperate with their Israeli counterparts, are needed because ambulances from inside Gaza are not allowed to enter Israel. Patients are transferred from one ambulance to another at the Erez crossing. "

Preparing for any possible future escalation of the conflict is also part of the job. Magen David Adom is giving out first-aid kits and providing training for teachers in schools and kindergartens and for other people in various neighbourhoods. " Being able to stop bleeding from shrapnel wounds or torn-off limbs is crucial in order to save lives, " explained Avraham. " It is really the first six or seven minutes that are critical – the time it takes us to arrive with an ambulance. "

" I am optimistic about the future, but optimism is just a word, " said Avraham. " It is not enough just to hope for the best and for peaceful times; I believe that it is necessary to actually do something practical to help others. I need meaning in my life – bigger things than just myself – and the work that I do here amid so much danger has given me what I need. "