“The Jewish people, who endured the most bitter experience of the Nazi holocaust and their country - the State of Israel - cannot stand idly by in the face of the horror in Rwanda.”
Between July 14-18, 1994 approximately 800,000 refugees fled into Goma, the capital city of North Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The refugees were living in the city and in three camps around it. The only government hospital was overcrowded and could not cope with the number of local and refugee patients. In the midst of chaos, exhaustion, and dehydration a deadly cholera outbreak devastated the refugee camps claiming thousands of lives.
The sights would shock even experienced military physicians. The highest crude mortality rate recorded exceeded the famine of Ethiopia in 1985 and Somalia in 1992.
Following an appeal to member states by the UN secretary-general, On July 15 1994, a Friday evening, Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin of Israel asked the Surgeon General of the IDF medical corps, Brigadier General Dr. Michael Wiener to launch “Operation Interns for Hope”, and join in the international aid effort. In announcing its action, the Cabinet noted that “the Jewish people, who endured the most bitter experience of the Nazi holocaust and their country - the State of Israel - cannot stand idly by in the face of the horror in Rwanda.”
The first step in preparing the mission for departure was to divide the staff into different task forces each specializing in a particular regimen. The second step was to organize the necessary medical supplies and equipment, which were collected from various military depots. Medical supplies and equipment for children, however, had to be purchase ad hoc. A special task force was put in charge of assembling tents, electric generators, food, water, and similar necessities.
All materials were sent to the air force base, where eight C-130 military transport planes were ready to take off for Zaire. On Sunday at 21:00 hours, less than thirty-six hours after the mission team had first been recruited by the SG, the first eight C-130 airplanes took off, it touched down in Goma early on Monday, morning, July 25.
By daylight - the morning following its arrival the pharmacy was in place, the laboratories ready with teams; the x-ray facility, kitchen, communication room, and other facilities operational. In short, by Tuesday morning the idea that had begun to take shape the previous Friday night in Tel Aviv had become a reality in Zaire.
The workday extended fourteen hours, during which time the medical teams treated an average of two hundred patients. A small team was on duty during the night, and emergency cases were admitted twenty-four hours a day.
The other medical teams worked in the refugee camps but resided in the city. They could not treat inpatients or perform surgery, since the staff was not available during the night. The French military was operating a small field hospital, but it could not accommodate all the patients or even a majority of them.
The Israeli mission operated two regular supply flights per week from Israel to Goma. Every two weeks the whole hospital team was replaced. During these two weeks the replacement team was being organized in Israel. The overlapping time was four days, during which the new team was briefed on procedures, regulations, routines, and protocols. They flew eighty thousand doses of measles vaccine from Israel to help UNICEF immunize all the children.
In mid-August, during the second team’s tour of duty, a Dutch military medical team arrived and asked to join the Israeli mission. Their request was warmly accepted: The mission added a recovery department and increased its capacity by about 20 percent. Special medical cooperation and warm personal relationships developed between the Israeli mission and the French field hospital. When there was a need, Israeli and French physicians alternately used each other’s operating rooms. The Israelis’ laboratories and x-ray facility provided services to all the medical teams, while the hospital also served as a main trauma center. Most of the physicians on the team were pediatricians because the mission’s highest priority was to treat the children.
Approximately four weeks after the Israeli hospital had begun treating patients, the cholera outbreak subsided.
The Israeli operation lasted six weeks. Three teams rotated in Goma, treating a total of about three thousand people.