How the ‘Angel of Mostar' came to the aid of Gaza's children

British humanitarian worker Sally Becker recently spearheaded the evacuation of 21 Gazans, including injured children and their mothers

16:27 - 17/05/2024 Friday
File photo
File photo

In the early 1990s, amid the chaos and devastation of war in the Balkans, a British woman emerged as an unlikely hero.

Sally Becker, then 30, became known as the “Angel of Mostar” for her daring efforts to deliver aid and evacuate wounded children and their mothers from the besieged city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Now, decades on, she has done the same in conflict zones around the world – her latest mission being in Gaza, where Israel has been waging a devastating war since last October.

She recently spearheaded the evacuation of nine children from Gaza, who were airlifted to Italy on a private jet, including Ahmed Shabbat, a three-year-old double amputee, and Yousef Hatab, who lost his lower leg in a missile strike.

The mission, coordinated with the help of Gaza Kinder Relief and funded by Project Pure Hope, faced numerous bureaucratic obstacles.

The initial step involved extensive negotiations with Palestinian and Israeli authorities to secure passage to Egypt.

In Cairo, Becker and her team of doctors met the children at a military base before flying them to Italy, where they were taken to a hospital in the northeastern city of Trieste.

“I had around 40 cases referred to me by Gaza Kinder Relief, an amazing organization of 35 women based in various countries who have been coordinating everything remotely,” Becker told Anadolu.

When initial attempts to bring the children to the UK were thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles, Becker found support from hospitals in Germany, Italy and Jordan.

She coordinated with Project Pure Hope and Direct Relief, a US-based charity, to fund the flights.

The journey was fraught with last-minute obstacles, such as securing visas from the Italian Embassy in Cairo, which extended its hours to ensure all children received clearance from the Egyptian Health Ministry the night before they were due to fly out.

“It wasn't until 2 a.m. that we finally got clearance for the flight, and the next morning at 9 a.m. we set off,” Becker said.

The group, consisting of 21 Palestinians including the children, their mothers and some siblings, arrived safely at their destination later that night on May 2.

- ‘These children are so resilient'

For Becker, the mission was a bittersweet success, as many critically injured children still remain in Gaza awaiting permission to leave.

“Some of our patients are still in Gaza … and have permission to leave, but on the night they were actually ready to depart, the border closed,” she said.

The British aid worker expressed particular concern for Kareem, a 14-year-old at high risk of losing his leg, and Zayna, a two-year-old girl with severe burns.

“These children are victims of a conflict, not of their making and beyond their understanding, and we have to do everything we can to help them,” she said.

“These children are so resilient. It's unbelievable … Obviously, we can't go back. We can't prevent what has already happened. But let's at least try our best to stop things getting worse by helping to save these children's limbs and possibly their lives.”

- Decades of dedication

It has been more than three decades since Becker entered the field of humanitarian work, where she has now left an indelible mark.

Speaking about how it all began, Becker said she went to Bosnia in May 1993 with one simple objective: to volunteer for a few weeks.

With no official support or specialized training, she faced many hurdles, but persevered through them all.

“I contacted a lot of organizations offering my help, but they didn't want me because I had no relevant experience. I wasn't a nurse or an engineer. So really, none of the major organizations could offer me a position,” she said.

Undaunted by the disappointment, she made her way into the heart of the raging conflict.

At that time, Mostar was under siege, with the eastern part completely blockaded, similar to the current situation in Gaza, she said.

Essential supplies could not reach those trapped inside, leading to a dire humanitarian crisis, and Becker began by bringing aid to the western side of the city.

Her breakthrough moment came when she was approached by Leo Sorensen, a UN Civil Affairs officer.

“He said, ‘You're one of the only international aid workers allowed to go in and out of Mostar. Can you get permission to evacuate a child from the east side?'” she recalled.

She did manage to get permission and took on the perilous task of crossing the frontlines in an old ambulance, eventually evacuating hundreds of people, including injured children and their mothers.

For Becker, her life's work has been driven by a sense of compassion and impartiality, with the suffering of innocent children transcending the boundaries of nationalities or politics of conflicts.

“To me, there's no difference between a child suffering in Mostar, or a child suffering in Lebanon, or a child suffering in Israel, or in Kosovo, or any number of countries,” she said.

“I never look at who they are or what their background is because it doesn't matter. What matters is that these are innocent children who've been harmed because we haven't yet found a way to settle our differences – a way to avoid hurting the innocent each time we go to war with one another.”​​​​​​​

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