Helping hand - GulfToday

Helping hand

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Sally Becker

British aid worker Sally Becker, who began a 32-year career rescuing wounded children from war zones, helped evacuate nine injured and ailing Palestinian children and a dozen family members from Israeli besieged Gaza before Israel’s May 6th Rafah offensive shut the border with Egypt. This was the first group of 100 Palestinian children for whom arrangements have been made. They await the reopening of the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah.

The initial extraction took weeks of planning with Gaza Kinder Relief, which brought out the children, and Project Hope, which financed the flight, and negotiations by Becker with the Egyptian and Israeli authorities. “Some of our patients are still in Gaza… and have permission [for them] to leave, but on the night they were actually ready to depart, the border closed,” she said.

She told Britain’s Daily Mail that the situation in Gaza is unlike others she has encountered. “It’s basically blocked on all sides. I [couldn’t] just cross the border and evacuate the children myself.”

Two of the rescued children had amputations, three had wounds and four suffered from chronic ailments. Once they crossed into Egypt, they were met by a team of doctors and flown in a private jet to a hospital in Trieste in Italy for treatment.

Her original idea was to take the children to Britain but when this did not work, German, Jordanian and Italian hospitals offered treatment. She praised the Italian embassy in Cairo for staying late in the day to issue visas for the children, parents, and siblings. Saving children can involve entire families.

In 2022, Becker helped to bring a group of 40 refugees from Ukraine’s war to safety in the UK. This operation, which meant getting them out of a hot zone to Poland before their transfer to England and Wales, lasted three months.

Born in the seaside city of Brighton in 1963, Becker dropped out of school at 16 and wandered aimlessly around Europe taking random jobs. She had no purpose in life until she saw a television news bulletin about the war in Bosnia. This showed a woman and her son escaping besieged Sarajevo by crossing “snipers’ alley” on foot while hiding behind a moving UN armoured vehicle.

Without medical training, experience in humanitarian work, or official backing, she went to the Balkan war front in 1993 to volunteer with relief agencies for a few weeks. After repeated rejections, she made her way to the Bosnian- Herzegovinian city of Mostar which was under siege and blockade and became a global symbol of the Balkan war because of its history as a largely peaceful 15th century town on the frontier between the Ottoman and Austrian empires.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mostar was famous for its elegant Ottoman houses and the high arched iconic bridge connecting the two sides of the city which was home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. During the 1990s conflict, the bridge, the watchtowers which stood on either end, and the surrounding area were destroyed and its residents besieged by the extremist Serb militia. It is hardly surprising that Becker should be drawn to Mostar.

After negotiating with the warring sides, she began to ferry food and medicine to the Croat-controlled western sector of the city. As she was the only person to gain access to the city, a UN official asked her to evacuate a child from the Muslim eastern sector. After securing permission she crossed the frontlines in an ambulance to bring out 300 injured children with their mothers and arranged their passage to hospitals through the UN. Once the press took up the story, she became known as the “Angel of Mostar” since she called her effort “Operation Angel.”

After the Balkan war engulfed Kosovo, Becker wrote on her website that she and her volunteers delivered aid to both sides until the borders closed. They took a convoy to northern Albania to supply refugees who had fled the conflict. There she was asked to transport medical supplies to a children’s hospital in Junik, a small town in western Kosovo. She put the parcels of medicines on the back of a mule and crossed the border where she was tasked with evacuating two dozen women and children to Junik. Those who were too ill or injured to walk were carried on mules. When they crossed the Albanian border, Becker was arrested and jailed for 30 days for entering without a visa. After two weeks, she was freed. She eventually managed to gather the refugees she had brought out and arrange for the wounded and ill to be treated abroad.

In 2016, Becker established Road to Peace, a British charity dedicated to helping children caught up in conflict and continued intervening where children are endangered. In mid-2017, Road to Peace helped to evacuate women and children from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul during the battle against Daesh and transfer them to hospitals outside the city. Back at home, Becker pressed for UK asylum for 1,400 Yezidis who had been rescued from Daesh which had kidnapped them from Sinjar in northern Iraq. In 2018, Becker and her team provided medical treatment for children fleeing Daesh and established an emergency medical centre for Yezidi children.

She is also the founder and director of Save a Child Global Paediatric Network, a British charity which brings medical “expertise from around the world to meet the needs of communities affected by conflict or natural disaster [which] will endure beyond the administering of emergency aid and assistance.” This low-budget organisation depends on volunteers and works in England and Wales, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iraq.

In 2020, Becker was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Bosnia and other countries and in 2012 she carried the Olympic flag for Peace and Justice at the opening of the London Olympic Games.

Photo: X

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