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A first-hand account of an Israeli rescue mission in Turkey

A couple of weeks ago Gerry Posner forwarded us a fascinating email which contained a first-hand account written by an Israeli by the name of Omry Avny about his experience as a part of the Israeli rescue operation in Turkey. I told Gerry that I would publish it – not only because it’s a riveting account of the typical expertise and bravery that Israelis have long been famous for bringing to bear in disaster scenes anywhere they may happen, but because the results of the most recent Israeli election in November have left so many of us in despair over the direction in which Israel is headed that I thought it might remind us that Israelis are still capable of extraordinary exemplary behaviour – even if the current government there demonstrates exactly the opposite.
So, reading how Israelis continue to display the kind of unparalleled excellence in so many areas that continues to amaze us serves as a reminder that, while Israel may be headed toward becoming a right-wing theocracy, if we can put aside our collective disgust at that thought, we will continue to look upon so much of Israel with the deepest admiration.
Here then, is the account of the Israeli rescue team that Gerry Posner had sent me:
Last Monday, my friend Omry Avny, had left his 9-month-pregnant wife and his 1.5yo girl to join the Israeli rescue team to Turkey to save as many lives as they can after the earthquake. Yesterday, just before he left Turkey to go back to his family, he sent this message to his family and friends-
It’s the first time, since Monday when we joined the delegation, that I have had time to process a little and write something that is a little beyond “everything is fine”.
Our team just got back from a shift helping the locals with restoration and rehabilitation (ASR5), dismantling the remains of buildings with heavy equipment and sending bodies for burial.
I stayed behind at the camp to pack up, as well as to take a small opportunity for self care and some time de-stress.
I’ll start by saying, that I mainly wanted to update and strengthen you, that you can be proud of our country.
In general, I don’t tend to make such statements, I don’t believe in them. But I do want you to know that the Israeli delegation is undoubtedly, the best rescue expedition in the world.
The aid that Israel provides to Turkey is the essence of who we are as Israelis.
So, how do I define “best” in such a complex and un-measurable situation?
I met teams from all over the world here – Turks of course (commando, rescue, etc.), French, South Americans, Azerbaijanis (who sent the largest delegation; we are the second largest), Russians, Dutch, Hungarians (who traveled here in vehicles from Hungary) and many more. All of them consist of amazing people, hardworking and with very professional knowledge and equipment.
We, as Israelis, bring with us a holistic-creative, critical and calculated thinking that, combined with being so mission oriented, leads to amazing results in the field. Results, for me, are not the numbers (19 people rescued alive so far), but mainly the strength we give to the locals, who were here before us and will remain here after us.
We are working on rescuing a live person we found, in tunnels we dug, after hours of hard work. As soon as we feel we are about to finally get the person out, almost without words, we pass the baton and the final rescue efforts to the local teams. We want them to go out with the rescued person and we want the applause and press photos to reach them. At this time we stand aside, dusty, and with eyes teary from emotion. We stand quietly monitoring that everything is really all right, fully aware of the safety of the local teams, without them even noticing. This is an example of holistic thinking – here, we have a way to give strength to a community that is just beginning its journey in dealing with such a horrific crisis and loss. We jump at this opportunity, and do so with great sensitivity.
We see how, as time goes by, the IDF uniforms on the streets have become like a symbol of light and hope in the eyes of the community and the local teams. The rumors about the “miracles” that the Israelis perform make waves in the city, and little by little, we turn from “suspects” in their eyes, to their “brothers”. When we run to bring equipment to rescue a person we hear from under the rubble, the roads are immediately cleared for us by hundreds of people, and every request is answered in no time.
I will dwell on this point a little. Imagine you are a local rescuer. Let’s say any senior firefighters, men or women of a rescue unit or other professional unit. You identify a living person trapped under the ruins, and it is clear to everyone that it is a race against the clock. Then someone foreign arrives, with no equipment, at least at first, and with an IDF uniform (Add to that, that this is a Muslim population and I don’t need to expand on public opinion here regarding Israel), and this stranger asks if you need help or even asks you to move a little so he can see what’s going on.
What would you do? I’ll leave you with that thought for a moment.
My job as a “population person”, is to reliably extract and summarize huge amounts of information as quickly as possible and pass the information to the rescue teams in order for them to make intelligence-based decisions regarding possible rescue action plans. Any seemingly insignificant detail can suddenly have critical importance.
The first team that arrives at the site is a team leader, an engineer, a doctor and a local resident. So I usually stand with my back to the team that starts formulating a rescue plan, and I have to find out how many and who are potentially trapped, what the structure looked like before the collapse, where exactly we stand in relation to the structure before the collapse and dozens of other possible questions that can help the rescue. For example: Who lives in the apartment next door? Where is the stairwell? What did the apartment look like? Did anyone successfully rescue themselves immediately after the earthquake? What information do we have from them? At the same time, I need to connect the local team with us and our team with them as well. We are here to help in whatever way we can, but the locals are the “owners of this place”.
In every rescue here, about 200 people stand over us – locals, families, policemen and others, standing in relative silence and watching. Someone or rather several people, know the answers to all of our questions. You just need to know how to get the information out of them.
I might write later with some rescue stories to explain how it all works.
We have reached the point where the local teams from each site also want an Israeli team to work alongside them and we have even gained the trust of the local community.
Even then we come very modestly with a clear message that we are their helpers and not there in their place.
We finished working for more than 48 hours straight, in shifts, on building number 19, where we rescued 4 people alive from the same family.
We didn’t make it in time for Layla, the mother of 9-year-old Rotaban who was rescued. Although we usually focus our efforts on living people, we decided to save her body because we felt it would be the right thing for them and for us to have a closure and save the whole family.
While the local team finished the rescue process, the family’s relatives and the local team asked us to return to the site and asked us to line up. At this point the whole family passed in front of us one by one, shook our hands with a warm look in their eyes that said it all.
Families who lost their dearest wanted to hug us with gratitude, saying that they will remember us for the rest of their lives. Turkish citizens walked around the streets wrapped in Israeli flags. On media reviews on local networks, I came across sentences like: “We were raised to hate Israel, but now you are our brothers”.
For us, success, beyond saving people’s lives, who each of them is like a whole world, is the little light we have shone in the apocalypse here in Turkey.
That’s it, tonight we start packing, tomorrow the rescue teams will start to head back home. The logistic teams and the Israeli hospital will come later.
So with all the complexities in Israel, and out of the chaos here, we are sending back some light and one more reason for Israeli pride.
See you soon,


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