IDF celebrates two decades of rescue missions around the world

As the Home Front Command celebrates 20 years of operation, IDF (Zahal) Website features the National Rescue Unit with a special interview with one of its commanders

Date: 20/08/2012, 10:08 PM     Author: Daniella Bokor

For over 25 years, whenever a disaster strikes, the National Search and Rescue Unit is always ready to leave everything behind and save lives. Since its first mission to the earthquake in Mexico in 1984, the unit has participated in countless complex rescue operations, both in Israel and abroad. As the Home Front Command celebrates 20 years of operation, a company commander in the National Search and Rescue Unit, Lt. Col. (res.) Zohar Moshe, shares his experiences serving in the unique unit.

Rescuing overseas

Earthquakes in Mexico (1985), Armenia (1988), Greece (1999) and Turkey (1999), a building explosion in Barcelona, an explosion at the U.S embassy in Kenya, and an explosive car detonated at the Hilton Hotel in Sinai, are just a few examples of the National Search and Rescue Unit’s missions. More recently, the unit participated in aid delegations to disaster-stricken Haiti after the earthquake, and to Japan after the devastating tsunami.

For IDF (Zahal) rescuers, reserve duty means a rescue mission, and they may be called unexpectedly for unknown periods of time. There are approximately 40 women serving in the unit as rescuers, instructors, and more. Having each participated in several rescue missions, the soldiers are extremely experienced and professional.

Lt. Col. Moshe has been serving in the unit for the past 16 years, and participated in aid delegations sent to Kenya, Turkey, Greece, India and Haiti.  He was involved in some of the most moving rescues, including the 17-hour-rescue of a Turkish girl and the rescue of Shiran Franco, the Israeli girl remembered for asking for a can of soda after she was rescued from the rubble.

The mission: Saving lives

Just three days after an earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, an IDF (Zahal) emergency aid delegation departed for the disaster site, taking on one of its most intense missions to date. The delegation was composed of representatives from the IDF (Zahal) Medical Corps and the Home Front Command. During its stay in Haiti, the delegation members treated more than 1,110 patients, conducted 319 successful surgeries, delivered 16 babies, including three in caesarian sections, and rescued survivors from the collapsed buildings.

“The experiences I remember from Haiti mostly include rescuing people from the rubble,” said Lt. Col. Moshe. “These are difficult both physically and mentally. I specifically remember the destroyed university. When we arrived at the site, we knew there were at least 1,000 students buried in the rubble.” According to Lt. Col. Moshe, decomposing bodies were scattered at the site and in the wreckage. “The most difficult task is to gather the strength and overcome the sights,” he explained, “to understand the magnitude and continue working with no interruptions.”

Lt. Col. Moshe explained that while operating at a site, “the only thing running through your head is the mission. There are people waiting for you to save them. The importance of the mission – saving lives – spawns mental strength that enables you to overcome anything.”
With a look to the future, Lt. Col. Moshe hopes that the National Search and Rescue Unit will meet only during routine training exercises and social gatherings. “And if we are called to a mission,” he added, “let’s hope we all return home after completing our mission as best as possible.”